Welcome to Detroit

Robert Richter

� Copyright 2020 by Robert Richter

Photo of young Robert.
At age 15, my folks moved us from an idyllic St. Louis suburb with a new Freshman -Senior high school, to a rusty Detroit suburb with a dreary 6th to 9th grade junior high. My first day at school couldn’t have been more disastrous in “Welcome to Detroit.”

It was the late 1950s. I was fifteen. Elvis was new. Rock and roll was here to stay. We had a 1955 red, white and red Buick with whitewall tires and red and white interior. My folks bought their first house in the northern suburbs of St. Louis. My father worked as traffic manager of a bleach and detergent plant. He hired trucks to transport goods. In the new neighborhood, everyone was from somewhere else. The neighbors on one side were from Canada. The dad was an electrical engineer. Neighbors on the other side were from south St. Louis. The dad was a milkman. Neighbors bonded, borrowed eggs, barbecued and babysat for each other’s kids, as happens when roots are newly planted. There was no war of note in the world at that time, except the cold one. We had A-Bomb drills in classes, which nobody took seriously. For me, it was an opportunity to drop under your desk, cover and sneak peaks up girl’s dresses. Life was good in America and the future looked bright.

Every house on the block had the same floor plan, three bedrooms, one bath, one car garage, on a concrete slab. Exterior paint and front door treatments distinguished our house from our neighbors. The kids played hide-and-seek at night in the cemetery across the street. I had gone to the local elementary school and progressed through the junior high to my freshman year in high school. It was a new school on a sprawling campus. I had the lead in the freshman play, was elected to student council, had been a wide receiver on the freshman football team, a forward on the basketball team and planned on going out for baseball. I had a girlfriend, a record player that played the latest 45s and took drum lessons. Life was sweet.

My dad came home one night, sat down to dinner and announced that we were moving to Detroit in a month. He left a job he’d worked his way up for 23 years to join a friend who’d bought a trucking company in Detroit. This was a big decision and an opportunity for him. For my mom it was a loss of family, friends and home. For my little brother and me, it was no discussion, no questions. Just Detroit.

And so, we headed northeast on a bleak November day to the dreary, dirty city where cars were built. Steel was trucked, parts were trucked, even trucks were trucked. My dad was entering truck heaven. He rented a house close to his work. My brother, six years younger, and I were to share a converted attic room. No friends, no family, no girlfriend. My girlfriend in St. Louis and I vowed to stay in touch forever. It was my first realization that life moves on when you move away. And Detroit was away. Time shifted an hour earlier. The news people on TV were strange. They had a funny accent. Soda was called pop. I was raised on the Cardinals in the National League. Detroit had an American League baseball team, the Tigers. They even liked hockey. There was no Steak & Shake. No Ted Drewes Frozen Custard. No toasted ravioli. As if all this wasn’t bad enough, I found out that high school there in the rust belt started in sophomore year. I was going back to junior high. My trail through misery led to degradation. How bad could a place get? I was soon to find out. We passed our first weekend in the rain and cold, stocking our new home with groceries, unloading boxes and hating everything about it.

Monday morning my father and I found the junior high school in a cold, grey rain. It was a dirty, ancient, red brick fortress, dripping with gloom. We entered the principal’s office, which looked like something out the old black and white movie “Blackboard Jungle.” This was Detroit in the 50s. Boys styled their hair with grease in waterfalls over their foreheads. Black pointed shoes with high heels and metal taps clicked down halls. Collars were flipped up. I was from the crew cut Midwest where penny loafers with dimes stuffed into the coin space was considered cool. Girls there wore ponytails. There in the principal’s office were girls in teased, hair-sprayed beehives, above eyes in mascara overload. Even their shoes were pointed. Welcomed to Hoodville.

I was loaded down with a huge pile of textbooks. Leaving the principal’s office, I was told the secretary would get me a locker. She consulted a large three-ring binder and said there were no lockers available just then, but to stop back before lunch. And so, sweating in my winter coat, I carried my gym bag and abundance of books to my first class. The secretary opened the door to the class in progress. Advance Placement English. All eyes turned to the sweaty new guy in the coat with the gym bag and heap of books. I was given a seat at the rear and ignored for the duration. I had no idea what they were talking about. Who was Geoffrey Chaucer anyway? The teacher assigned homework and announced a test tomorrow. More good news. At the bell, I consulted my printed schedule, hoisted my stack and proceeded to get lost on the way to my next class. At this point, I wondered how things could possibly get any worse. Time was to reveal just how much.

Finally, lunch came around and I made my way back to the principal’s office to get my promised locker. The secretary said she was sorry, but there were no lockers available at that time, but to come back after classes and I would get one. Right.

Starving, I’m off to lunch. I followed my nose to the stinky lunchroom where they were serving Detroit’s version of the Sloppy Joes. A mass of coagulate was pressed into a bun, accompanied by the desiccated remains of potato chips. Being late, I’m the last guy through the lunch line. Sweating even more profusely in my winter coat, balancing my various burdens, I paid for my lunch and made an attempt to lift the tray. That tray, my books and gym bag fell into a slop of Sloppy Joe on the floor. The din in the room, quieted by the crash of my lunch, erupted into a wild round of applause for the new sweaty geek in the winter coat with Sloppy Joe all over his funny looking penny loafers. Laughter punctuated the gathering of my possessions. Finally settled, lunchless at a nearby table, my hands stained sloppy orange, I checked my pocket. Just enough bus fare to get home. No lunch for the clumsy new guy.

Slinking through the rest of the day with my burdens, I felt sorry for myself and increasingly pissed off. Finally, the last class of the day. Gym. Late again, I hustled across the gym floor to the locker room, books and gym bag slick with Sloppy Joe grease, winter coat soaked with sweat. From the locker room, three Detroit hoods approached. The front man, bigger than the other two, was combing his hair, pulling the waterfall over his forehead. Taps on the heels of their black points, clicked and scraped in unison across the gym floor. They were coming straight at me. It was apparent that if I didn’t go around them, we were headed for collision. Dweeby Midwestern guy and Detroit hoods locked eyes for the showdown. In my hunger, anger and delirium, logic, judgment and good sense eluded me. I was pissed. There was no justice. In a world not of my choosing, in a place not of my liking and in a culture not of my understanding, I walked on my unchosen path. My burdens, my frustration and my self-pity drove me on the straight track to my destruction. I was not going around these guys. They were not going around me. I knew it and they knew it. Ten feet, five feet, one foot. Boom. My shoulder bashed into the big hood’s. Coat, books and gym bag went flying and we were face to face. At this point, I realized I was in trouble. What was I thinking? I wasn’t. I had simply had enough. And there I was blinking into the eyes of danger. He glared at me, lip curled. I blinked at him, lip quivering. The other two punks closed in at my sides, fists clenched. My Adam’s apple bobbed. My ears roared with the beat of my heart. Then as if from Heaven, an adult voice boomed. “Hey Neely, I saw that. Get out of here.” We all turned to the locker room door, where the coach faced us with crossed arms. Neely, as it turns out was the legendary Lenny Neely, twice failed at eighth grade. The toughest badass in Adams Junior High School. He traveled with his hoodlets; subordinate look-alikes, all of whom practiced badness and mayhem wherever they roamed. Neely nodded, glared into my eyes, turned and tapped on across the gym with his lackeys in lovelock step. Their eyes stayed on me as they left the gym. And so, for the moment, I was saved. Shaking, I gathered my cargo and proceeded to the sanctity of the locker room.

Gym class was a welcome release. We played dodge ball and I was able to vent my anger and frustration, bouncing stinging balls off my new Detroit classmates. Take this for your miserable rusty town. Take that for no lunch. Here’s one for the lunch tray. This one’s for no locker. Still sweating after my shower, I made my way back to the principal’s office and the promise of a precious locker. I was met with the secretary’s familiar, “Stop back tomorrow morning before class and I promise you a locker.” Promises, promises, promises. Wearily, I trudged back down the hall and out the front door into the welcome cold rain. Below, at the bottom of the long flight of stairs I spied a noisy gathering of hooddom. In its center was Lenny Neely. He pointed his finger at me, curled up his pimply face and shouted, “There’s that son-of-a bitch.” A cluster of greasy waterfalls and spray lacquered beehives turned toward me, as I descend the stairs into Hell. As my feet found step after step, my mind said to me, “You can’t run, you can’t hide, you can’t drop your books and gym bag. If you hold on to them, you may be defenseless, but somehow safe. The laws of battle dictate that you don’t hit a guy with stuff in his arms.” Or, so I imagined in my march to my own demise. My sweat turned cold, my legs to Jello. But, I kept walking into the face of doom. As I took the last step down to his level, Lenny rushed up, gathered my collar in his fist and waved his other in my face. Now on my toes, I managed first to speak. “Look. This is my first day here at this school. I’ve been dragging these books and stuff around all day, because they didn’t give me a locker. I dropped my lunch and I was hungry and tired and pissed off and I didn’t mean to bump into you in the gym. Sorry.” It was silent there in the rain as all ears tuned to the tall, skinny new creep. Eyes shifted to Lenny Neely, awaiting his reply. He pushed his face up into mine and eyes narrowed, he growled for all to hear, “If I ever see you again, I’ll fuckin’ kill you.” The crowd was sufficiently impressed. I was sufficiently convinced. He released me and turned, sufficiently satisfied and smiling at his gum-chewing girlfriend who blinked adoringly into his macho face, then back at me to access the devastation. I was bathed in relief and rain, a baptismal miracle. Born again, so to speak, at least for the time being. Or, as close as I would ever come. It was like being run over by a truck, yet unhurt. Lenny and his devoted chick moved off, his fans trailing praise behind. Grateful at his release, surprised that my pants were still dry, on rubber legs, I hurried off to my bus stop. The crisis miraculously past. For the time being.

I fumbled up the stairs of the over-heated Detroit city bus, deposited the last of my coinage and found a seat where I could drop my arduous burdens. The events of the day passed before my eyes. Welcome to Detroit. I have never seen an uglier place. Never felt an uglier mood. I was alone in a strange land, going home to a strange house. As I rubbed the steam from the bus window, I sensed something amiss. We were passing blocks of boarded up storefronts. Sidewalk traffic was a parade of black faces. It didn’t feel like my swell new neighborhood. A few more blocks confirmed the worst. I was on the wrong bus. Lost. I pulled the cord and stepped down from the bus into an ankle-deep puddle. I scanned the area for a kindly black face who might be inclined to give a clean-cut white kid a handout to make a phone call. Removing my shoe to drain the excess water, my salvation was delivered. A shiny dime, tucked into the coin slot of my unfashionable penny loafer was an offering from the gods. From a dark little grocery store, I made a pay phone call my dad’s office. He pulled up in front, where the only white guy in the neighborhood was juggling a mountain of books and greasy gym bag. I got in and told him the story of my first day at school. He looked sad and said, “I’ll go to school with you tomorrow. Don’t worry.” I nodded, wondering if the Army took recruits at the age of 15.

The next morning, I was stricken with one of those afflictions students often mysteriously get when they haven’t prepared for a big exam, or don’t want to go on the field trip, or have been threatened with death at the hands of the school executioner. I told my mom my throat hurt and I thought I had a fever. She knew. We spent the day listening to records and unpacking boxes in unspoken sympathy with each other’s feelings on our move to Detroit. I slept little that night, wondering how I was going to avoid school, Lenny Neely and impending doom.

The following morning, it was time to face my fate. The rain had passed, the sun was out. At least my last day on earth was to be a pleasant one. My father took me to school. We talked to the principal who tried to assure us that Lenny Neely would be dealt with and posed no real threat. Right. Just like I was promised a locker. And then surprise, I got a locker. I hustled between classes, trying to achieve invisibity. The lunch bell rang and on my way to the cafeteria, there he was walking ahead of me. And alone, to my surprise. Gathering my courage, I hustled up behind and tapped him on the shoulder. He turned and stared into my face. I said, “Hey, I’m really sorry about the other day.” He said, “That’s cool.” Then, as if preoccupied, he walked on. My lungs filled for the first time in two days. The sound of my heartbeat was gone from my ears. I could stand, tall and skinny as the new kid in the funny shoes with a dime in one of them. I was safe. I was alive. And living in Detroit.

Robert Richter started as a writer of ads and commercials. Then films and screenplays. Now, three novels, three volumes of short stories, two kids' books, and a New Dad Handbook, all self-published. He leads a Writers Circle in Los Angeles.

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