Adventures close to home: Oh the joy of kicking some red devil ass

(Editor's note: J. Anton Blatz and René Wymer are serializing loosely-connected tales of city life in the form of an illustrated, non-fiction novel. Find Chapters I and II here. Look for Adventures close to home each month in Model D.)

Chapter 3: A Devilish Marche

The crowd was jazzed, and apparently the art of homecoming float construction had infiltrated garages across the city. Two DJs rocking ghettoblasters manned a giant cardboard boombox pulled by double-decker cyclists. A "City in Exile" marched along, a row of people with houses on their heads. A sibling battle for legroom took place between a pirate and a princess in a little red wagon. Every so often, a giant propane torch shot a burst of fire into the air.

First came the Nain Rouge, scampering along down the street. Next came the Detroit Party Marching Band, a renegade coalition dressed in its now famous garb of matching band uniforms acquired from the Tri-County Iowa School District (who knew?). Folks from literally all walks of life then followed, young and old, on bicycle and foot, individuals and couples, students and teachers, from the neighborhood and the city, and the suburbs at large.

We turned right at the American Hotel, emerging onto the square. The crashing tune of the marching band careened off brick and stone and mortar, filling the streets with song. Beer tents stood ahead, under a stand of trees. Food vendors had set up shop, and a booth was set up hawking slick Nain Rouge paraphernalia.

The parade made its way toward a large stage in the center, ready for the banishment. A juggler took a moment to strap his feet onto milk crates. The spirit of Dionysus was loose in Detroit. The Nain called out on the PA, taunting the rowdy congregation.

His teasing had begun back at Third Street Bar, where the march started. The crowd filled the parking lot, listening to Francis Grunow (dressed as Livernois) call out the city's successes of the past year. After mentioning the "Imported from Detroit" ad from Chrysler, Livernois boasted that the Lions had even won six games this year! With that, the Nain Rouge had heard enough. He appeared on the roof of the bar, a fiery devil in a bright red sport coat. "You can't get rid of me," he shouted, "I've been here for 300 years! I make people say bad things about Detroit," he boasted like the wimp that he is, before taking credit for blowing up the historic Hudson's building and the Lafayette Building. Now that's bad. The crowd called for blood.

If you haven't heard the story of the Nain Rouge, then you're in for a treat. Detroit's founding French colonist Antoine de la Mothe, Seur de Cadillac drove a pesky red dwarf back into the woods with a swift rap of his cane. But Le Nain Rouge, so named by the French-American colonists in the first decade of the 18th Century, persevered. He would prove to be rather resilient. Sharp and effective as Cadillac's gesture was that day, the harbinger of doom returned often to wreak havoc on the city. In 1710 a group of citizens gathered at Saint Anne's church to march the spirit into the river.

Over the next 300 years, sightings continued to occur, always before something terrible was about to happen. A sighting occurred in 1763, just before a tribe of natives killed 58 British soldiers in the Battle of Bloody Run. As a branch of the Detroit River ran red with the blood of the soldiers, the red dwarf was seen dancing on the opposite shore. Again the spirit emerged in 1806, just before a catastrophic fire set the city ablaze.

Last year, Grunow and Joe Uhl made up their minds to revive this tradition, on what would be its 300th anniversary. They laid out a parade through the Cass Corridor, hoping to pay homage to a truly unique French tradition and give Detroiters a good excuse to be merry.

Does that last bit sound vaguely familiar? If you've followed the Detroit City Futbol League, chances are you've heard that logic before. League Commissioner Sean Mann hoped that his efforts would lead to residents coming together over something other than politics and problems of city government, simply the joy of sport. A neighborhood-driven league that started last year with 11 teams is set to expand to 20 this summer. Bonds that formed over a single season of play have grown quite strong, witnessed by the bands of teams sharing costume themes today. Players from the Cass Corridor squad had worked together to build the ghetto-blaster float, and several Downtown players had built a fleet of People Mover replicas to pay tribute to the contentious icon of the city's mass transit.

Back at Cass Park, the vibrant scene played out under striking architecture. To the North, the towering Gothic façade of the Masonic Temple loomed large above the trees. The S.S. Kresge Building and the new Cass Tech High School flanked the West and South of the park, respectively. On most days, this park gets little use. But the dramatic setting was abuzz today, a perfect place to revive an old tradition.

The voice of the Nain Rouge was again heard over the PA. "You call this a crowd? This doesn't scare me!" He worked the mob for several minutes, tossing insults between cackling laughter. Detroit radio personality Reggie "Reg" Davis took the stage and the crowd cheered. He called up the heroes of Detroit's past, who rolled up in a powder blue 1970s Cadillac. Out stepped Livernois, Cadillac, The Spirit of Detroit and Coleman A. Young (played by his son, Coleman A. Young, II). Together, the superhero team of Detroit historic figures banished the Nain Rouge, escorting the spirit and his pitiful entourage into the Caddy.

Hazen S. Pingree stepped forward next to collect offerings in the form of red paper dwarf cut outs from the crowd. Hand-written statements filled the effigies with things in need of catharsis. Pingree gathered up the stack and stepped into the Cadillac, joining the superheroes as they drove the dwarf away into the sunset.

Though the main event was over, the festival continued on. DJ Big Time America started playing Motown records, while at the fringes of the party, a shirtless guy with a leopard skirt and cape raged on a sea-green guitar. His muffled sound blared from a six-inch amp. The 40-degree weather had turned his chest bright pink with goose bumps.

I had no intention of eating any pot, but the fates would have otherwise. While I stared at the long line for Slows Bar-B-Q, a friend happened to pull a muffin out of a bag. I thought to myself "Snack Time!" and a friend of his asked if I wanted to split it. Something about the way she asked that question seemed a bit too serious for just a muffin. But I thought she was just really hungry. I said I'd just have a bite and broke off a good chunk. I tasted the herbal buds right away.

A throng of folks split off to the Temple Bar, filling the place to capacity. Inside, a tall man covered in stuffed animals was having a conversation with a tribal bandit toting a staff with deer antlers. Someone was playing Detroit techno on the jukebox and the dance floor was in full swing. Hygienic Dress League and Phil Cooley stood together talking in Canadian tuxedos and sunglasses.

In walked an eight-foot black Joe Louis fist with a megaphone. But the crowd was too much. The fist was pushed back out the door and into the street. But he'll be back. And we'll keep on pushing. Next year and for as long as we need to.

J. Anton Blatz chases down good times in a neighborhood near you every month in Model D.

Illustration by René Wymer.

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