Red Wings 2017, or In Defense of Suicide by Cal Freeman

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blighted business and home in detroit with old car in front

Near closing time on the morning of May 10, 2015, bartender and punk rock singer Tom Mazur took a picture of a length of empty bar inside Donovan’s, a relative shithole in Southwest Detroit where he had just started working, and posted the pic to Facebook and Instagram with the caption: “What a waste of time!” Someone on the Facebook thread advised him to get a job near Midtown, where business was booming.

“It’s my last day,” Tom replied. “They just don’t know it yet.”

He closed the bar and went home to his apartment in the Cass Corridor, took his 9mm pistol from the waistband of his cargo shorts (there are very few bartenders in Detroit, Michigan, who do not carry guns), sat down on the couch, put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. His girlfriend found his body later that morning.

* * *

On the morning of April 2, 2014, Detroit City Council voted 5-4 to approve a deal to build a $600 million arena for the Detroit Red Wings, and Michigan taxpayers would cover 58 percent of the cost. There were some questions as to why, during the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history, the state would allocate hundreds of millions in tax dollars to help the billionaire team owner Mike Ilitch build a hockey arena, but these were summarily brushed aside with promises of blight elimination and “ancillary development.” The entire region would benefit, argued the lawyers for Olympia Development, the real estate wing of the Ilitch empire.

The stadium is currently slated to be ready for action at the start of the 2017 NHL season. The arena and entertainment complex will be built on a 45-block plot northwest of the Woodward/I-75 intersection in the South Cass Corridor neighborhood, a neighborhood that like Midtown, its sister neighborhood to the north, is sure to be rebranded and renamed once the development is underway. Nothing along that stretch from Wayne State University to Comerica Park will be called the Cass Corridor anymore, not by anyone outside of a handful of diehards who remember the alcoholic splendor that existed in those cozy, seedy dives before the chains moved in.

* * *

The Comet Bar, a dirty, punk rock, drunken karaoke joint that long served as a mainstay for skinheads and malcontents, country crooners, and off-duty hookers, shut its doors on Wednesday October 15, 2014, about six months after the announcement for the arena plans. The building that housed the Comet was owned by Detroit Cab Company, whose garage and lot were directly across the road. Olympia Development reportedly bought the cab company’s real estate holdings in the South Cass for upwards of $7 million.

* * *

I didn’t know Tom Mazur well. I knew him well enough to say hello and chat if we were in the same place. He tended bar at the Comet for years, and the first time I met him must have been 2010. I had gone there for a songwriters’ night hosted by our mutual friend. After ordering a few beers from Tom and listening to tunes for awhile, we got to talking, and it became clear that Tom was the guy my friends Pat Laramie and Alex Maynard had always affectionately called “Dogfucker.” Tom had roomed with the two of them in a small house in Dearborn years ago and was the subject of several outlandish drunken anecdotes the two of them liked to tell. Tom said he loved Pat Laramie and his younger brother, Tim, but that he didn’t trust their oldest brother because there’s something wrong about an Irishman who doesn’t drink.

* * *

For years Comet sat in the shadow of Motown Records, a ten-story Albert Kahn-designed building that served as the corporate headquarters of that world-famous record company until its move to Los Angeles in 1972. In a less dysfunctional municipality such a site would be turned into something, maybe a museum or gift shop, but Motown sat unoccupied, its windows busted out, exposed to the elements for decades until rehabbing it became a cost-prohibitive prospect. In 2006, then-Detroit-mayor Kwame Kilpatrick pressured Cherrylawn Realty, the owners of the building, to fund the building’s demolition in the lead-up to Superbowl XL, hosted at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. It was an eyesore, he argued, and the space could be more prudently used for football parking.

In the weeks leading up to that game, some local activists hung banners from the I-75 overpasses that read, “Sports won’t save our city.”

* * *

Bar life in Detroit is in many ways a fatalistic cult. People structure their lives around favorite watering holes, especially in the Cass. I try my damnedest to stop short of this, but I do feel the pull. There is nothing better than grabbing a sack of Telway burgers and taking it to Jumbo’s on a spring afternoon, eating and drinking beer while Ilitch’s Tigers play on the TV and breaking off a few scraps for Jordan, the bar owner’s resident Rottweiler. See, all the old-school Detroit bars allow dogs and smoking. Even after the Michigan smoking ban went into effect in 2010, places like the Comet and Jumbo’s were filled with blue-grey clouds of nicotine. One of the few benefits of a city where the public services are stretched so thin (and this is only a benefit if you’re of a certain proclivity) is that health inspectors have far more urgent things to worry about than kicking dogs out of bars or keeping those bars smoke-free.

Before it changed ownership, Corktown Tavern used to be jokingly referred to as “Coketown Tavern.” Everyone seems to play in a band, and some of the songwriters in town are great; their music stands up to anyone’s. There’s something about Detroit that squelches the soul though, and there’s a bitter resignation encircling everything like a nimbus. Nobody’s getting out, but very few want out anyway. It is this odd blend of fatalism and vanity that gives Detroit its character.

When the Red Wings deal goes through, Olympia Development pledges $200 million in what is termed “ancillary development.” This means the construction of bars and restaurants adjacent to the stadium, essentially. It’s not likely that these will be bars like The Comet or Jumbo’s though, and as Detroit Metro Times columnist Jack Lessenberry has pointed out, there is no mechanism in place to hold Olympia accountable if the development never materializes. And it should probably go without saying that in a city that is 82 percent black, a professional sports team associated with a league that is 3 percent black has very little fan base in the city itself, so the central audience for the complex is relatively affluent white suburbia.

* * *

Most of the 20-30 somethings who comprise the Detroit bartending/service industry caste don’t originally come from the city either. This is why a development such as the one the Ilitches are going ahead with will not substantively help or employ many actual Detroiters. In a recent piece for Jacobin, “Revitalization by Gentrification,” Patrick Sheehan traces the racist and classist roots of housing and urban renewal in Detroit, discussing how during the post WWII 50s boom time, federal loans backed by both the FHA and the HOLC were filtered through a preferential ranking system. “Any neighborhood with black or other ‘undesirable’ populations was automatically relegated to the bottom of the four-tier ranking, colored red on the security map (thus the term ‘redlining’), and declared largely ineligible for loans.” In the section of his essay called, “The Latest Assault,” Sheehan finds an analogy between the racist “urban renewal” and “slum clearance” practices of the 1950s and the current revitalization via “blight removal.”

“The latest assault on black homeowners has come via tax foreclosures,” Sheehan writes. The new Detroit that plutocrats like Mike Duggan, Dan Gilbert, and Mike Ilitch envision hungers for visionaries of the creative class, the newly-graduated, credentialed petit-bourgeoisie who might inject some life into the dying, blighted city by way of coffee bars, tech start-ups, and art galleries; they have no use for the working poor. It’s tough to make a go of things in the service industry, and Detroit proper has primarily been a service economy for the last 20 years or so.

* * *

Cocaine, whiskey, and plaintive three-minute songs get under your skin, get into your head when you are broke. Detroit is a soul-sucking place, and there is a romance to every soul-sucking place. Soul-sucking is a requisite aspect of ensoulment, and those who knew him well enough to call him Dogfucker say Tom Mazur was a good soul.

There are interminable questions about what becomes of the soul as it detaches from the body at death. Throughout the philosophy and theology of the West, there is very little agreement as to what constitutes the soul and how the soul comes into being. Most Catholic and Protestant sects buy into some version of the theory of preformation: our souls are spiritually present at conception. The Epicurean brand of preformation insists that the soul is intact at conception but that its character is more physical than spiritual or metaphysical, that it is made up of a small number of atoms. Aristotelian epigenetics posits that the soul in males enters the fetus at around the 40-day mark (for females this process of ensoulment takes a couple months more).

When it comes to eschatology and theories of the afterlife, the problematics worsen, and the theories become riddled with awkward-sounding, unconvincing metaphors of doves and gold-limned clouds. For St. Paul, the afterlife involves an indeterminate period of unconscious sleep followed by an awakening. The wakened Pauline sleeper inhabits a more perfect body to undertake pleasant, but only vaguely-evoked peregrinations over an ideal version of this earth. Detroiters have little patience for these sorts of quandaries. In this they are similar to inhabitants of other industrial places throughout the world where life spans are short and conditions are harsh.

mazur burning image in front of comet bar in detroit

Mazur burning effigy of Ilch in front of Comet bar in Detroit. Image credit: EDMDET.

Get to the fucking point, I can hear Tom Mazur telling me, and the point is that post-industrial scapes like Detroit are most often described in apocalyptic terms, as though they were eschatological harbingers. And rich people like the Ilitches are either spoken of as soulless–as though the embarrassing accumulation of wealth caused a reverse epigenesis–or as messianic–as though by clearing out the undesirables (the poor, the blacks, the mentally ill, the addicted), they are saving the once-proud, once-productive polis from its own worst inclinations.

In an America built upon the Calvinist version of preformation, we have inverted the notion of the messiah. Our messiahs and weak messiahs are lily-white, and they detest the poor for their shiftlessness. They buy real estate low and drive up the value of markets. In this light we attach a special stigma to suicide. For life, even in utero, even under awful physical and emotional circumstances, is a sacred gift; one merely has to pick it up and use it toward some productive end. Suicide is framed as a selfish act that doesn’t take proper score of the feelings of the living left behind.

I can’t claim to know what Tom was thinking the night he offed himself, but I imagine he must’ve felt that his place in the world had been literally and figuratively razed. Who are any of us to tell him that he should have talked to someone? Who am I to tell his ghost, a specter that haunts me far more than I have any right to be haunted by a mere acquaintance, that he should’ve waited it out, that things would have gotten better? I like to think of him as brave. How many of us have contemplated such an act before chickening out? How many have seen their sallow faces in the barroom mirror and fretted over the physiological pain that is sure to come with this kind of life? He took that sober look over the edge and decided it was either going to be better than this mess or it was going to be nothing, and you have to be a bad motherfucker to stare down oblivion and pull the trigger.

cal-freemanCal Freeman, author of Brother of Leaving, was born and raised in Detroit. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in many journals including Passages North, New Orleans Review, One, The Hobart, and Ninth Letter. He is the recipient of The Devine Poetry Fellowship (judged by Terrance Hayes) and has been nominated for Pushcart Prizes in poetry and creative nonfiction. He lives in Dearborn, Mich., and teaches at Oakland University.
STORY IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Bradley Siefert

  1 comment for “Red Wings 2017, or In Defense of Suicide by Cal Freeman

  1. I’ve never lived in Detroit but it is the American city I know best, having visited countless family and friends there over the past five decades. You have captured the humanity of a city constantly under threat of having its humanity rendered irrelevant. It’s Detroit’s people that will ultimately provide the winning formula for its future. Well considered, nicely written and generously shared.

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