Taxi was booked to take me to LaGuardia Airport. The driver, a New Yorker, was amusing, enlightening and communicative, he cracked me up. Talking in that inimitable yankee way about the American Health Service he stated; “You got plenty of money, you got the best chance of the doctor saving your ass!” It reaffirmed my desire to stay fit while I was over here!
I asked him of his whereabouts during the 9/11 crisis. His story of helplessness, witnessed from a distance, was chilling. He told of a friend who was right there, close to the towers, but escaped the carnage. ‘He just ran and ran like hell to get away from there. Ran all the way home, took him about four hours. He’s never been the same since, haunted, reclusive, traumatised beyond belief’. I can believe it. Reminded me of a poster I saw at the Staten Island Ferry station informing people who were affected by 9/11 that they could still be due compensation. 17 years on and that terrible day remains a haunting memory. A hundred years from now it will still be a haunting memory.
LaGuardia deals with internal flights and so I wasn’t expecting much hassle, how wrong can you be! Turned away at the gate because I hadn’t printed a boarding pass from a machine. Four machines nearby weren’t working! Two wouldn’t accept my credit card, needed to pay for my baggage. Two wouldn’t read my passport when I inserted it! Maybe I wasn’t doing something right but eventually after watching a fellow passenger struggle with the same problem and finally achieving some success I followed her before the machine kicked back into action. Through to the departure lounge which was less than adequate for the numbers milling around I found a table away from the main area and perched myself there for over an hour. Soon it was time to find my gate for the flight to Detroit. Sitting around where I could find a space, which was on the floor, watching the travellers and officials go about their business was fascinating. Some were even turning up with their dogs! I couldn’t believe it. Surely they hadn’t bought a ticket for Fido? The guy checking people in and out was a right card. He immediately caught my attention with his patter. Talk about full of bullshit! Sat there laughing to myself which I think he noticed and only encouraged him to ramp it up. ‘Morning marm. How long you been with this guy?’ ’40 years?’ ‘Awesome!’ ‘Fifi! Welcome to New York.. great name Fifi.. have a great weekend!’ This continued non stop. He was a right character. Clearly enjoyed his job.
The flight was under an hour but when we landed in Detroit it took me another hour to get out! The airport is a sprawling place. When asking where the baggage reclaiming hall was I seemed to be walking forever. I was getting exasperated but others were as bemused as me. After about five miles (sic.) I arrived fully expecting to see my suitcase going round and round on the belt. Well surprise surprise, it wasn’t! I was on the verge of giving up hope when it duly appeared much to my relief. Aching to get out of the airport there was then a pantomime trying to find and then engage a taxi. Back and for, through doors and up and down elevators. Finally I was pointed in a direction where cabs were lining up, and a queue of about twenty people waiting patiently. This was going to drag out until a driver shouted down the line, ‘anyone else going to the centre?’ Five of us dived in and away we went. At last!
The Courtyard Hotel was right on the front, by the Detroit River. Fantastic hotel! Spacious, huge room, great view, for a change! I couldn’t wait to get settled in and then to get out. Temperature was still in the 80s as I strolled in a direction that looked like it was taking me towards some a activity. Not far from the hotel a ‘beach party’ was in full swing with a reggae band entertaining the punters in the heat. Basically it was a big kind of swing park with imported sand, deck chairs and lounges. A good crowd cheered the band on enthusiastically. I got myself a beer and found myself a pew. Stayed for around three quarters of an hour before deciding I needed a meal. My first impressions of Detroit were good. At least where I was at the moment, appeared a tidy and clean place. No litter to be seen. Not like back home. The city has had a gloomy past what with race riots in the 60s, shootings, the gradual demise of the motor industry which gave rise to it’s nickname Motor City. All that is left, as far as I could see and would gather during my stay here was office buildings, skyscrapers still bearing the name Ford, rusty derelict factory sites. Staring up into the sky you can get the sense of what it must have been like back in the days when the city was alive, bustling, assembly lines pumping out vehicles by the thousands every week. A 24 hour town. Bit like Corby with its steelworks during the 50s and 60s I mused. Pondering this I hooked into a Mexican restaurant which was alive and bustling, assembly lines pumping out Fajitas and Burritos. Lots of people, lots of noise, music trying to break through the din. A celebration party adding to the mayhem. Women, all dressed in black, screeching and screaming. Didn’t think it was a funeral wake but you never know in this part of the world. I was too tired to look for anywhere else to eat so I sat on a stool at the bar, ordered some Burritos and a beer. Even though I was starving, I still wasn’t prepared for the size of the meal when it arrived! God almighty! Delicious it was! But just too much. One time, long time ago, I would have scoffed these meals no bother, not any more, but I gave it a good go.
I had a couple of days to spend in Detroit and was looking forward to discovering the place but tonight I was weary. I decided to walk down to the riverfront, get some clean air in my lungs, take in the landscape before heading back to the hotel and a nice cool Blue Moon beer to polish the day off. Thoughts of New Orleans came back to me, where I had first encountered this ale. Tomorrow was Saturday, and a trip to find the building they call Hitsville, the Tamla Motown Studios, was on my agenda.
The sun was shining through the huge window when I woke up. 17 floors up this was a view to die for. The Detroit River to my left. A Riverboat steamer moored up on the right, a huge tanker ponderously making its way up towards the Ambassador Bridge that crosses over into Canada. I tried to figure out where the tanker was coming from, where it was heading to. How did it find itself here? Seemed to me that here in the heartland of the Great Lakes it was a maze. Detroit is surrounded by Lake Erie, Lake St Clair, Lake Huron, Lake Superior, Lake Michigan, Lake Ontario. The sea is miles away. Got to be a labyrinth of connecting canals I guessed.
There was a music festival in Detroit this weekend. Celebrating the city’s musical heritage. Headlining were The Jacksons, minus the absent Michael of course. Wasn’t a fan of them but nonetheless it was free.
First was a trip on the river, scheduled in my mind for Sunday so I took a walk down to the Steamboat to suss out the situation regarding bookings, times etc. A black guy sat on the gantry, the only person around so I asked him if he knew anything. ‘Sure’ he said, ‘just come down half hour before you want to go, 12 o’clock or 4 o’clock. Pay when you board.’ Well that sounded easy enough. Mission accomplished I headed into town for something to eat before heading for ‘Hitsville’. A restaurant on a corner looked inviting, as did an apple and ice cream dish along with a mug of coffee. Chatting to the owner/ waitress gave me an insight into Detroit. She asked me where I was from, where I was heading for. She was very friendly, informative, very proud of her city, despite its past and reputation. On her advice I hailed a taxi to take me to the Tamla studio. Where the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and the rest recorded so many great hits of the 60s. Took a good half hour to get there and when I arrived I was surprised to find how small it appeared. There was a good crowd hanging around as I made my way to the shop at the front of the building to look for the ticket office. To my dismay the woman told me; ’Sorry Sir, next tour is two thirty’. That was four hours away. There was little else to do so I decided my next move was to go in search of Rosa Parks Boulevard (12th Street) which was the scene of the race riots in 1967.
Rosa’s story reads..
‘A key figure in the Civil Rights Movement and the Montgomery Alabama bus boycott of 1955. Rosa Parks had refused to give up her seat to a white man on a city bus, was ordered off and then arrested by the police. Found guilty of violating segregation laws she was given a suspended sentence and fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. Leaders of the black community led by Dr Martin Luther King organised the bus boycott which lasted for over a year. Harassment and threats to Rosa, her husband and mother eventually saw them move to Detroit, where her brother resided.
Rosa later became an administrative aide in the Detroit office of Congressman John Conyers in 1965, a post she held until her 1988 retirement. Her husband, brother and mother all died of cancer between 1977 and 1979. In 1987, she co-founded the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self-Development, to serve Detroit’s youth.
In retirement, she travelled to lend her support to civil rights events and causes and wrote an autobiography, ‘Rosa Parks: My Story.’ She was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1999, the highest honour the United States bestows on a civilian. (Other recipients have included George Washington, Thomas Edison, Betty Ford and Mother Teresa.) When Rosa died on October 24, 2005, aged 92 she became the first woman in the nation’s history to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. She rests in peace in the city cemetery.’
Anyway, as it turned out, the boulevard named in her honour was less than 200 yards from Hitsville. Thinking I could salvage something out of this trip I discovered that the Boulevard seemed to be about ten miles long! Illusions that the scene of the infamous race riots in 67’ was just around the corner were soon dismissed. Enthusiasm evaporated into the hedgerows after about a mile and I turned back, got a taxi into the city to concentrate on the festival that was due to start in mid afternoon.
Last year Aretha Franklin was the headline act which would have been great. Sadly she has since passed away but today there were a number of acts of varying degree performing on six stages scattered around in marquees. Bars were taking a pile as hundreds maybe more enjoyed the scene. Best of all was a ‘mobile’ bar which was a sort of tandem pedal driven taxi. Don't know how to describe it really. Up to eight revellers perched on stools either side of a bar. To move they all had to pedal simultaneously before wandering off around the streets singing, shouting and drinking. Looked a real hoot have to say. Great fun. I had checked out the rota on the website to find out who was appearing, where and what time. Having entered a few marquees in the afternoon there was nothing really to grab me music wise. Hip-Hop and stuff like that but there was a great atmosphere.
The one that stuck out was a guy named Mark Farner and his band due on the main stage at 6pm. Farner was an original member of Grand Funk Railroad, a 60s band supposedly America’s answer to Led Zeppelin.
Meantime I went to check out some of the bars. One less than salubrious place had the temerity to ask me for ID. Three heavy looking young guys barred my way. I tried to amuse them by saying something corny along the lines of ‘do I look like a troublemaker or under age?’ only to be met with a stone faced scowl and a repeat of the demand for ID. Oh well. I produced a bus pass with my mugshot and they eventually let me in. I had imagined that it must be a real cool and ‘in’ place going by the fuss those guys were making but when I entered I found a sparsely filled dingy long bar. A dump in other words. One beer and I moved on. I resisted saying something to the 'heavies' still standing guard. A downtrodden looking building caught my attention. All around had been demolished bar this establishment with ‘Jacobi’s Bar’ imprinted on the brickwork. Nobody on the door, curiosity took hold and I went in to find another dingy bar, but the ambience was terrific. Good music from a jukebox was being played, nice friendly barmaid, good beer too. This was more like it. My type of bar, rough and ready, nothing fancy about it. I sat at the bar and stayed for a couple of beers, feeling chilled.
A good enthusiastic crowd were already in attendance for the Farner band when I arrived. Obviously a well known and well loved character I figured. He didn’t disappoint. With a superb heavy rock band behind him they ran through a load of numbers, many of which I didn’t know but were reminiscent of George Throrogood and the Destroyers whom I’m a big fan of. The crowd were soon on their feet, singing and swaying along. Farner has a gruff sort of voice, not unlike Rod Stewart, rasping out the vocals. Great stage presence. They were on for a hour and it flew by. Exhilarating, it was all too soon over. With the crowd baying for more, they obliged with an encore. Great stuff.
With two hours to spare before The Jacksons made their appearance at 9 o’clock I made my way back to Jacobi's. A snack and a beer and I headed back to the arena in the hope of getting a good viewpoint for the show, and found the area almost overwhelmed with people. Nearby tenement buildings with the traditional fire escapes overlooked the arena and stage. They too were crammed with people. Excitement was building…9.30. and the Jacksons had failed to show. There was a lot of activity on stage, stagehands fiddling around with cables, climbing up the scaffolding to the overhead lights, re-adjusting guitar stands.. generally to my mind, just farting around! And I wasn’t alone in thinking this. Disgruntlement began to surface. ‘Even Black Sabbath don’t keep you waiting this effin’ long’ I overheard. That made me smirk. Probably thinking the same as me! By ten o’clock The Jacksons had still not turned up. The heat was getting unbearable. The crowd more restless by the minute. Fed up hanging around to watch a group I never liked anyway I walked off in disgust. To my surprise, a good many others were also giving it up, deciding to head off as well. Talk about an anti climax.
The night was finished off with a Blue Moon in the hotel bar before I retired, feeling exhausted.
Next morning, showered, dressed and ready to go I couldn’t resist the smell of bacon and eggs, pancakes, wafting from the dining area by the reception. Can’t recall the name of the concoction I ordered but suffice to say, it was enough to feed three people! Scrambled egg, bacon, fried tomatoes, baked beans, mushrooms in a wrap, apple pie and cream as a side, all washed down with a mug of glorious Americano coffee.
The boat trip was at noon. Sitting on the top deck to take in the views was a nice relaxing way to end this brief stay in Detroit.
Final lap of my tour was Chicago. ‘The Windy City’.
Final lap of my tour was Chicago. ‘The Windy City’.