Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Edifice Wrecks

It’s interesting that I am working on a sketchbook with the theme “Time Travel” while this is happening. My old high school in Detroit is being demolished. I think of Robert Frost’s poem (Good Fences Make Good Neighbors) that has the line in it, “something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.” This is not the case for old Cass Tech. The destruction of this building is going slowly and painfully. Some of the beautiful 96 year old stonework is being salvaged, and I wonder for what purpose (can I have a piece?) while most of the building and its contents is being turned into rubble. Lockers, labs, auditorium seats, chandeliers, books, desks, windows, plumbing.

Don’t get me wrong, in the late 1960s my friends and I would have loved for the school to disappear so we could have that imagined freedom that idealistic (or fogged-by-pot-smoking) 16 year olds at that time foresaw. Time travel has certainly been fascinating since then. Here we are now: parents, grandparents, doctors, professors, therapists, artists, lawyers. We are as surprised as anybody that we have turned out so, well, grown-up.

On my first day at Cass I knew that my home room was on the sixth floor. I ran up the stairs as I would normally run up a single flight, and I made it to the fifth floor before my legs and lungs responded, “say, what now?” I remember feeling like I couldn’t move one more step and yet I had an entire floor ahead of me. Two flights with a landing between runs of wide marble stairs. Yikes. What do I do? Go back down and look for an elevator? I knew that was a ridiculous option. There was nothing for it but to push myself up those two final flights.

I suppose now that could be read as a metaphor for the rest of my high school experience. The teachers I didn’t get along with, and the teachers I loved (Mr. Caudillo, History! Mr. Matsui, Biology!) And the lifelong friends I collected there. They all pushed me toward learning and growth I would otherwise not have had. The richness and deeply felt joy I treasure from our shared histories is beyond description.

So, back to Cass Tech. I went there last weekend with my husband and walked around its half-demolished husk. Completely fenced off as it was, my mission was to capture a brick from the old building if I could. The perimeter is wide and kept scrupulously picked clean. Hard hat warnings are posted. I found a shard and picked it up. It held so much energy I got goose bumps up my arm. First of all, the building was black when we attended. In the intervening years it had been sandblasted to its original buff color. If I doubted the blond brick piece in my hand was authentic, its juju put to rest that notion. My eyes got wet, my scalp and hand tingled. WTF?

When I attended school there I could NOT WAIT to get out so that my real life could begin. Remember the human skeleton in the figure drawing classroom? We named her Mrs. Nelson after the teacher (old and shriveled, we thought) that retired that first year. Todd remembers smoking weed on the roof and a concurrent struggle with math. I don’t remember the weed (and I don’t remember the math), but I DO remember Todd. I remember walking downtown after school and hanging out at Hudson’s, mostly in the book department where there was access to a hidden back stairway. Hudson’s is also long ago demolished. I remember going to Wayne State University after school and eating French fries in the cafeteria. I remember skipping school and spending time at the Detroit Institute of Arts instead. I remember when my best friend had to bring her little brother to school with her because the babysitter didn’t show up and her mother was already at work. What a crew I ran with. I remember Ellen flinging her leg over a banister and sliding down a flight. She had on a long skirt and sneakers. Tres chic. We all wore skirts to school then, there was a dress code. I remember the elevator operator who told me, “Your eyes favor Bette Davis.”

Back to last weekend at Cass Tech. I found a breach in the chain link fence and walked through it. I took about thirty paces toward the broken building, its large edifice appearing to recede as I attempted to draw near. At just that moment a police car drove by and I heard my husband speak with the officers. Although I couldn’t hear their words, I scooted back out of the enclosure. Yes, the last two police officers still employed in the city of Detroit found me breaking the law! My luck remains consistent. As it turns out they weren’t threatening to arrest us for trespassing, they just passed on a warning “tell her to be careful.” But I was too distressed to carry on. I left with a shard of brick and these pictures. Cass Tech is still teaching me things: now it’s about time travel.