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Dislocated in Detroit

It was a breezy, but balmy spring day. The kind of day that makes you feel glad to be alive and free – even while clocking a 9 to 5 in a still-smells-new corporate park. The temperature had pushed past 70 and I had escaped the desk for a lunchtime break. Seeking grub I found my way to the nearest point of appetite relief. And that’s when it hit me. Standing in the doorway to Fairlane Town Center, blasted by conditioned air with my ID badge flapping in the man-made breeze – that’s when I realized that I had a serious case of Detroit dislocation.

See, until January I’ve spent my entire adult working life in Downtown Detroit. Sure, that’s only a little over 10 years, but that’s a damn good run when you think about the charms, attractions and bona fide noontime personal freedom you can come to take for granted laboring as I did in a no-bones-about-it urban downtown. Oh, the smells of Coney grease as the summer rolled in mingling with the superheated sewer steam.
 
See, I’ve clocked my professional path as much by my relationship with downtown eateries as with my CV. My earliest days interning during college at Detroit's Metro Times were spent nickel and diming my diet on greased tinfoil wrapped around Niki's pizza. I still have the spare tire to prove it.

Idyll days, hideaway nights

Pretty soon, lunch invites from family members who had long ago wandered from the downtown flock – parents and in-laws who used to work in office buildings or who spent idyll days at Hudson's – started to roll in. An excuse to plug them back into the culture. To head to the Small World Café near the College for Creative Studies campus, to Union Street and the Bronx for truly underrated burgers. For my folks, who are in their early ‘60s, it was a chance for them to re-assert their knowledge of downtown which they only-just managed to maintain since the closing of the Detroit Curling Club at Warren Ave. and the Lodge Freeway. But it was an opportunity for a connection that a trip to the local Quizno’s – or even, say, Cheli’s Chili in Dearborn can never re-create.
 
Turns out there’s something to being “our man downtown” for at least your extended family.
 
During my paid tenure as music editor at Metro Times, I came to know the joys of surreptitiously eavesdropping on administration and public works wonks from the city at Jacoby’s. I dished music banter with Rick at the Music Menu, relishing every moment of the joint’s note perfect combination of fish ‘n’ chips, WDET on the hi-fi and cold tap beer.
 
Later, during a brief stint in the PR world, I even grudgingly came to appreciate the old-school joys of the old Epicurean Cafe in the Penobscot. It was as close as it gets to a mall food court and a lunch counter combined and still, even after all, you never knew who you were gonna encounter. And the delights of that joint’s Reuben sandwich were something that should have been discovered by all but probably weren't since it was tucked away in the basement of a grand, museum-piece worthy downtown office building.
 
More recently, I’d come to appreciate the cave-like goodness of Greenwich Time – a joint haunted (until recently at least) by ad industry buggers ducking out for a bit of “brainstorming” over $1.50 drafts and some of the most delectable chicken salad and corned beef you’re likely to find anywhere. It's a cave. A hideaway where the bartenders actually know your name. Where you are trusted to give an accurate account of your drinks and food (and you do!).
 
Sigh.
 
Alas, I cannot dwell on the losses too much. For now I have to get in my car, head down old I-94, find parking and figure out a way to justify the two hours it takes to properly indulge in the city, in the spring and summer.

Lose yourself in the city
 
As trivial as it may sound, there’s a serious conundrum here. Namely, folks who work downtown are lucky to have the chance to step away from the utterly controlled environment of the modern corporate office. The office is supremely mediated, a set of subroutines within the larger 9-hour-day routine. And if you work in an office park, a suburb, anywhere where foot travel is prohibitive, you don’t really get that chance to just get lost anymore. That’s just not so in the city. You can step outside your company’s confines and lose yourself immediately in something larger. Something pulsing whether or not you are there or not. A place that suggests diversion and diversity, and on spring days like the aforementioned, a sort of joie de vivre where street buskers, rising hemlines, the intrusion of bus brakes screeching and hour-long conspiracy sessions over clandestine beers make for an utterly human, plugged-in connectivity that the office park can never hope to match.
 
This sense of escape has never been more palpable. I tortured myself recently and returned to downtown for lunch on a nice-ish day. A cross-section of downtown office toilers – Compuware engineers, Deloitte bean counters, bike messengers and secretaries – were taking those first not-so-timid steps into the sunlight of the gloriously semi-public Campus Martius. It's expanses and centralized Au Bon Pain (aka the Pain – say it with a faux French accent) a magnet for random air conditioning expatriates. Sure, sure ... everyone was still working their blackberries and cell phones like they were about to be shut down any minute.
 
Worse still, I trundled my homemade sandwich and Greenroom salad down to the riverfront – past the street people playing chess, past the day-tripping families, past the hand-holding strollers and the underground railroad statue,
 
Idly ogling from afar our neighbors across the river, I chucked some bread to the seagulls, noticed a handful of carp fishermen down by the Joe and wondered whether I’d have to plan a personal day to take in a championship parade.
 
And even though you may be escaping the class hierarchy of an office environment, when you line up at the Greenroom to hit downtown’s best damn salad bar, you’re just as likely to bump elbows with a boss you didn’t know you had as you are with some friendly stranger who just happens to work for the Wayne County Road Commission. Both of which, by the way, have happened to the rhapsodizing author of this piece.
 
Random discovery abounds when you allow yourself to wander the streets. You contribute to the energy and it contributes to you. And now, nearly six months gone from a decade of taking such pleasures for granted, there’s a hole in my day and more importantly in my sense of place that’s nigh-on impossible to fill.

One sigh, on a journey like this through time and space, on downtown streets that still beckon and call, is never enough.

Freelance writer Christopher Handyside's observations about his life and times in Detroit will appear periodically in Model D.


Photos:

The People Mover Passing One Woodward

Union Street

Au Bon Pain

Crowds at Campus Martius

Enjoying an Ice Cream at Campus Martius



All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger

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