Existential Road Trip, 1993

Behind “The Bank” in Detroit. Photo: Dennis Nyback.

In 1993 I was running the Pike St. Cinema in Seattle. I decided to drive from Seattle to Cleveland to see a baseball game. I made arrangements to show films in Detroit to help defray expenses. It also made the trip tax deductible. I had other reasons to take a long drive. I had gotten divorced, would be turning 40, and I had a car that got good mileage. A solo existential road trip seemed like the perfect idea. Why Cleveland, home of the hapless (last World Championship in 1948) Indians? They would be moving out of venerable Cleveland Municipal Stadium into a new home. It would be my last chance to see a game in the baseball park called “The Mistake by the Lake.”

Cleveland Municipal Stadium had opened in 1931. Why a mistake? It was commonly thought that Cleveland Municipal had been built in hopes that it would help lure the 1932 Summer Olympics to Cleveland. That was not true. That didn’t stop people from believing it. In fact, LA was awarded the Summer games in 1932. The public bond to fund the building of the stadium was passed by voters in 1928. The Twenties were still roaring. Later came the crash. By 1932 Cleveland faced the Great Depression and the Indians had a very large home. First called Lakefront Stadium it could hold over 78,000 fans. To hit one out to center was a task. Dimensions were 463 feet to center and 322 down the lines. A lot of the Kingdome in Seattle, home of the Mariners, could have fit onto those dimensions.

I had been introduced to the idea of driving around the country with 16mm projectors and reels of films by Jack Stevenson. He had called me out of the blue in 1990 telling me he had films with him that he would like to show. I had a gig regularly showing films in the Jewel Box Theater. He had driven to Seattle from Boston in a huge 1974 Mercury sedan that had been given to him by an aunt. It came with an AARP bumper sticker. In Seattle we arranged for three nights of films at the Jewel Box. In the three weeks I had to promote the shows Jack drove to San Francisco and back, via Portland, showing films along the way.

During his second drive to Seattle in 1991 his “Merc” covered four-fifths of the journey from Boston uneventfully. It broke down in Missoula, Montana, which could have been much worse. While the car was being repaired Jack had the opportunity to hang out at the Chapel of the Dove, probably the weirdest movie theater in America. The theater was right out of a Nicola Tesla dream. Year round, which included the standard three months of snow, windows were kept open so birds could come in. During screenings pigeons flying in front of the screen were often the best part of show. No one ever saw a dove there. With the Merc made roadworthy he made it again to Seattle, showed films at the Jewel Box, and again back home to Boston.

Jack and the Merc moved to San Francisco a couple of years later. Shortly before he was to drive to Seattle in 1993 the transmission failed. He barely made it to a repair shop. The repair would take his last $1,000. Jack told me he couldn’t redeem the car and afford the trip expenses. I told him that putting one grand into his beater car was ridiculous and that he should abandon it to the repair shop. Then, if he could make it to Seattle, I would give him a perfectly good, or darn close to it, car to drive back with: a Dodge with a stick shift. I was getting rid of the car because of the divorce. My ex-wife didn’t know how to drive. The least I could do before our parting was to teach her to drive. A $600 Honda Accord with an auto transmission made that possible. It would also get much better gas mileage than the station wagon on the drive to Cleveland.

Lobby of the Fisher Building. Photo: Dennis Nyback.

Jack made it to Seattle by bus for his shows. The Dodge got him back to SF. The Dodge was named Arlene. From thirty feet she didn’t look bad. She had the standard fake wood siding of her ilk. She also had a big spiderweb crack in the windshield on the passenger side. That had happened when she was once parked in front of my cinema. The crack was caused by an aluminum cooking pot. The pot, still with remains of spaghetti in it, had been tossed out of the window of one the upstairs apartment. It was lucky that it was the dirty pot that hit her. The cast iron frying pan, the waffle iron, other cooking stuff, various items of clothes,and apparently everything else in the flop, had been tossed out with it. The frying pan alone would have done real damage, not to mention the waffle iron. Luckily, the big crack did not leak water. It was an annoyance to any front seat passenger. It wasn’t a safety concern. After Jack moved to Denmark in 1994 Arlene passed from hand to hand. It was hard to kill one those old slant six engines. The last Jack heard Arlene had attracted too many parking tickets to be licensed without the owner paying up. She was abandoned . I hope someone claimed her. Years later a friend of Jack’s told me about riding around in Arlene, mentioning her by name. I asked him how he knew her name was Arlene. He said “The name was written on the dashboard.”

Jack also told me about Tim Caldwell in Detroit and gave me his phone number. He said Tim was an artist, a Detroit historian, a sort of urban archaeologist, and possibly Detroit’s greatest preservationist. Tim had learned Detroit history by entering abandoned buildings looking for artifacts, grabbing things before the arsonist’s torch, the wrecking ball, or benign neglect destroyed them forever. Jack also gave me a number for Darren in Detroit who had a club where I could show films. It turned out Darren was happy to have me. I would bring Stag Party Special, The Mormon Church Explains It All To You, and Bad Bugs Bunny. All three were guaranteed to bring in crowds. I would also bring projectors.

In order to get out town I made an arrangement with Johannes Schoenherr in New York City to come to Seattle and run my theater for a month. Jack Stevenson had seen him in New York and told him I wanted to take some time off. I had met Johannes a couple of years earlier when he visited Seattle and looked me up. Johannes was a film nut who grew up in Leipzig in East Germany. He first tried to escape to the West at the age of 16 and was jailed. Working as a gravedigger toughened his muscles and his resolve. He was expelled from the country as “nonredeemable” when he was 22. In 1985 he joined the Kino im KOMM cinema collective in Nuremberg and fell in love with cinema. At the KOMM he arranged Europe film tours for film makers Richard Kern, Mike Kuchar, Marion Eaton and others. He then came to New York to attend the Tisch School of the Arts and major in Cinema Studies. After completing school he lived semi-legally in a mean apartment in the East Village.

He got right back to me with a list of the films that he wanted to run. I looked it over and told him to whip up a schedule, call it “The Alternative Seattle International Film Festival,” and come out soon. He had arranged to show films made by film makers that he knew. They included Todd Phillips’ Hated: G.G. Allin and The Murder Junkies, Subway Riders with John Lurie and directed by Amos Poe, Jim Van Bebber’s Deadbeat at Dawn, and Thundercrack by Curt McDowell, featuring George Kuchar and Marion Eaton.

Johannes bought an early 70’s Dodge Dart from Jeri Rossi, which had belonged previously to Karen Finley, and also Joe Coleman, called the Jesus car. I have no idea if Ms. Finley did anything artistic with it that Jesse Helms might have objected to. Coleman had painted Jesus faces onto the headlights. Johannes’ plan was to drive to Seattle, meet me, then drive to San Francisco to bring George and Marion up for Thundercrack. Mike Kuchar would also ride up with them. The Kuchar Brothers weekend would feature both 8mm and 16mm stuff including Lust For Ecstasy, Sins of the Fleshapoids, and Hold Me While I’m Naked.

KPRK, Livingston MT. Photo: Dennis Nyback.

When he pulled up in front of the theater my first thought was that it would have trouble getting out of the parking spot, much less to San Francisco. Although it was a cool day, all of the windows were down. The back seat was filled with numerous copies of the Yellow Pages. The engine didn’t sound good. Johannes explained that the windows were down because of a major exhaust leak. I hoped that was the worst of it, and an explanation for the loud noise. He never explained about the Yellow Pages. He stayed at my place for several days while I took him around to all of the newspapers in hopes of getting him interviewed. He was ecstatic about the theater, the stacks of fliers for his show that I had distributed, and my apartment, which he felt was big enough to put up George, Mike and Marion. Those guys in the Bay area, hearing of the car’s dubious future, scotched the idea of being driven to Seattle. They bought plane tickets. My deal with Johannes would be that he was four-walling the theater. He would pay the rent, various bills, all film rentals, and twenty five bucks a day to me, and he could pocket the rest.

On the fine summer day of July 23 I handed Johannes the keys to the theater and got in my car and drove east. In the trunk I had one suitcase, two 16mm Projectors, and three film shows. Leaving the city limits I felt great. The engine purred as I climbed the Cascade range mountains. Before the Snoqualmie pass summit I noticed two bicyclists slowly peddling up hill. One of them was towing a trailer. It was Hunter Mann. He was another film freak nut case. He called his quixotic business Heartland Cinema. He had read that many small towns in mid-America no longer had a single movie theater. TV and video had put them out of business. He decided to ride his bike to those towns and bring them movies. The trailer held a 16mm projector and films. I met him when he had pedaled up to the Pike St. Cinema a year earlier with the Harrod Blank film Wild Wheels. I showed it for a week. I had then given Hunter a couple of 16mm cartoons and he had pedaled off to destinations unknown.

I pulled over in front of him. Although we barely knew each other it was like two soldiers from separate troops from WW I meeting in a dust bowl bar room with the feeling they were practically brothers. The second rider was a film maker who was accompanying Hunter on the trip in order to document it in Super-8. We talked for a while. Then we re-staged my driving along and my finding them for the filmmaker. They rode ahead and stopped. I then drove up and stopped while the camera rolled. I was also filmed driving away. I have no idea what became of the film.

I pushed on and made Missoula by dinner time. I ate at Great Pies Over Montana, an exemplary pizza joint. I decided to look for a motel. It had been a big day. A quiet evening watching ESPN baseball highlights seemed like the perfect ending. All of the main strip motels had “No Vacancy” signs. Using the Yellow Pages I called around and found that it was the start of hunting season and all motels were full. I was told there probably wasn’t a vacant motel room in that part of the state. It was eight o’clock. I headed for Butte. I was able to find the tail end of the Seattle Mariners game in Cleveland on the radio, broadcasting from Great Falls. The Mariners got beat 9 to 3. I got to Butte at a quarter to ten and found the same hopeless situation. It was midnight by the time I got to Bozeman. I drove past the full motels and onto a neighborhood side street. I found a dark spot with no street light, pulled over and went to sleep.

A car starting nearby woke me in the morning. It was just getting light. Momentary confusion gave way to the memory of just where I was. I wasn’t completely awake until I was on the interstate and pointed toward Billings. On the west side of town on the truck route was the Muzzle Loader Cafe. It had a terrific neon sign of a smoking gun. Inside was more NRA-approved decor. I stopped there, drank coffee, read the local news, and hit the road. I tried to find NPR and gave up. For a while I settled for country & western Music, which I did not appreciate. I turned off the radio and stared at the never-ending highway ahead. I watched it disappear into the horizon. I thought about my future and tried to figure out where I was. The day wore on with a few concrete thoughts, flashes of memory, dead friends, unrequited aspirations. Alone in the universe at 70 miles per hour. At three hundred miles I stopped for gas and didn’t eat. I drove on into the darkening sky. I disobeyed every dictum in the road atlas about stopping for breaks in the interest of safety. I was doomed. I was immortal. I was lost. I didn’t care.

I thought of a friend who had ridden his bicycle from Seattle to Los Angeles in 1974 to attend the funeral of his sister. His name was Rick and he was the ace projectionist at the Movie House in Seattle when I first started working there. On the way back he stopped at a view point on Highway 101 and stared at the beach two hundred feet below. He considered jumping. He considered it for quite a while. He then got back on his bicycle and pedaled away.

The last I heard he had a house in the suburbs, a wife, a mortgage and two kids. He had a job and seamless future. What did I have? A highway under me and a car eating up the miles. I stopped in Spearfish, South Dakota, and ate dinner. I drove on to Rapid City and stayed at a Motel 6 that I had stayed at once before; when I wasn’t alone.

General Motors at dusk. Photo: Dennis Nyback.

The next day I tried to take it easy. I lingered over coffee and stopped in a couple of towns to check the antique malls for 16mm films. I ate a nondescript dinner in Sioux City. I Searched for ball games on the radio. When you find one you know it immediately, even if the announcer is silent. There is an unmistakeable sound produced by a stadium full of fans. It is a sort of low pitched hum, and there is nothing else that sounds like it. The Midwest is perfect for night baseball on the radio. With no mountains to block the signals you can catch broadcasts from KC, St. Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Denver, Cleveland. Occasionally you can even find minor league, or even a high school game. Baseball is the perfect game for radio. Football is the perfect game for television. That’s why baseball fell from popular grace in the 1960’s. Listening to a game, I could have been my father driving a Pontiac right after the war. I could have been one of millions of other fans who had driven the same stretch of road over the last sixty years using a broadcast from miles away to feel less alone. With the sun setting behind me I heard snatches of Kansas City playing Detroit, St. Louis playing Colorado and the Mariners playing in Cleveland. I spent the night in Omaha.

On the 26th I could have made it to Detroit but it would have had me arriving late at night. Instead I pushed on past Chicago with the goal being Battle Creek, Michigan. That meant I could arrive in Detroit the next morning. It was wonderful driving after dark with more baseball games to find and lose and then find again and lose again to be replaced by others and others. It was after ten when I reached Battle Creek. I took the truck route through town and found a cheap motel with a good neon sign.

I hit the outskirts of Detroit around eleven in the morning on July 27. It was a beautiful day. The first amazing thing I saw was the Big Tire. It was on the south side of the road and it looked as big as an apartment building. Big White letters told me it was a Uniroyal. It was the best roadside attraction I’d seen since leaving South Dakota. The next amazing thing I saw was the Book-Cadillac Hotel. It was thirty one stories of art deco opulence and had been closed and empty for years. When it opened in 1924 it was the tallest building in Detroit and the tallest hotel in the world. From a mile away I could the word CADILLAC in letters across the roof. The closer I got, the shoddier it seemed. It was the emblem of a city left to decay.

In Detroit the date of October 30 is now called “Angel’s Night.” That started in 1995. Before that it was “Devil’s Night.” In the forties Devil’s Night consisted of youngsters committing petty acts of vandalism that didn’t result in property destruction. That including toilet papering trees, soaping windows and egging houses. After the riots of the sixties it took on a more violent and destructive aspect. It reached a peak in the 80’s. In 1984 over 800 fires were set, with the arson occurring during the three nights before Halloween. In other years the average was between 500 and 800 fires. Most of the targets were empty houses. Much of that was blamed on rampaging teens. In truth most of the burning was done by various slumlords, insurance scammers and vigilantes targeting crack houses and other abandoned structures the city did nothing about. As property values plummeted homeowners torched their own houses for the insurance money. For some it was ad hoc nuisance abatement. For others it was grassroots urban renewal. The opening scene in the film The Crow is set in Detroit on Devil’s Night. Brandon Lee looks out over a scene of fires burning as far as the eye can see. It looks like Berlin in 1945.

As I came closer to downtown I noticed apartment buildings of both sides of the freeway with broken glass indicating years of vacancy. During the Reagan administration it was found that during a presidential visit the mayor came up with a trompe l’oeil plan to hide this urban blight. The presidential motorcade would pass through these same miles of abandoned apartment buildings. The mayor had glass repaired and curtains put up in the windows of abandoned buildings along the parade route. It sort of made the buildings look lived in. It was rumored he even put department store mannequins in some of the flats.

The Bank. Photo: Dennis Nyback

I got off the freeway at noon and drove to the Bank. It was in a desolate section of town on Michigan Avenue. I saw immediately why it was called “The Bank.” That was just what it had been. It was a free-standing building, the same as hundreds like it, that were built as banks in the 1920’s. It was a small, squat, building resembling a mausoleum. A burial place for money. A hoarding place for the reward of a lifetime of toil. A place that John Dillinger would have recognized as an easy mark. A place that Arthur Penn would have recognized as a good site for a scene in Bonnie and Clyde. There was no sign to indicate its present use. It looked abandoned. There was a graveled parking lot around the back. I pulled in and gave the engine a rest. All of the doors were locked. Most of the windows were boarded over. I found a pay phone and called Darren, the owner of the club.

In forty five minutes he showed up. He was a heavy set with no fat muscular man of average height. I guessed him to be around thirty years of age. He had a moon face with side burns and a goatee. His crew cut brown hair was thinning on top. We exchanged greetings and walked inside. Although it was a hot day, the interior was cool. The interior was a wreck. One big open room. Sunlight sneaked in around the edges of the boarded up windows. There was a makeshift bar where the tellers had probably stood. I imagined the tellers who had worked all of their lives there and had retired when it was closed. I imagined that occasionally an old man would walk by and think of the portion of his life he had spent inside. I didn’t want to imagine how that person felt looking at the wreck it had become.

Darren told me that I could sleep there. He showed me a camp cot with a dirty sleeping bag on it. He gave me a key to the back door and left. I waited for him to drive off and then walked outside. I left the car in the lot and walked up Michigan a mile or so to Trumbell. There stood Tiger Stadium, the oldest baseball park in the Major Leagues. Baseball was first played on the site in 1895. A more substantial stadium, seating 23,000, Navin Field, was built in 1911. It opened for baseball on April 20, 1912, the same day as Boston’s Fenway Park. In 1938 owner Frank Briggs convinced the city to move Cherry Street so he could enlarge the stadium. That increased the seating to 53,000. In 1961 the name was changed from Briggs Stadium to Tiger Stadium.

That night the Tigers were playing the Yankees. I bought a box seat ticket and walked to a nearby diner for dinner. Back at the park I bought a program and kept score. It had been a hot day and it was a perfect night for baseball. The pitching matchup was Jim Abbott for the Yankees and Bill Gullickson for the Tigers. Abbott had been named to the 1991 Sporting News American League All-Star team as the left handed pitcher. He had been born without a right hand. Gullickson had been rookie pitcher of the year for Montreal in 1980 and had won twenty games for the Tigers in 1991.

The Yankees won 5-2. It wasn’t a particularly memorable game. Abbott pitched eight innings. Gullickson never made it out of the second. Big Cecil Fielder hit three doubles. Much more memorable was the ball park. Beautiful green grass surrounded by a stadium that looked like it been made from some giant’s Erector Set. The grandstand and bleacher roofs were supported by girders that would block the view of anyone who was unlucky enough to sit behind them. Those tickets were sold with the phrase “view obstructed” with no decrease in price. The right field second deck was cantilevered and hung out over the field a few feet. It was famous for turning tremendous pop flies, that should have ended innings by settling lazily into a fielder’s mitt, into three run homers. In 1968 Denny MacLaine became the first pitcher to win thirty games in a season, pitching in that notoriously hitter friendly park, since Dizzy Dean in 1934. No one has done it since. Ty Cobb roamed the outfield there for twenty four years, compiling the highest lifetime batting average of all time. Al Kaline became the youngest player to win a batting title there. In 1989 it was added to the National Register of Historic Places. I knew as I left the game that plans were already being made to tear it down.

Fisher Building. Photo: Dennis Nyback

I left Tiger Stadium at 11:00 and walked back to the Bank. It was a lonely walk along the wide thoroughfare. A few cars passed by. An occasional dog barked. I didn’t see another soul in the half hour it took. I entered the Bank through the back door. Moonlight crept through the few uncovered windows. My eyes gradually became accustomed to the gloom. Shadows were everywhere. I found the cot. I didn’t find a light switch. I found a staircase that led up to a loft. I didn’t walk up it. I found the door to the rest room.

I went out to my car and got toiletries. Again inside I found the restroom door again and entered. It was pitch black. I groped my way to the toilet and pissed in the dark. I probably hit the toilet. If I’d missed, it wouldn’t have made the room smell any worse. I groped my way to the sink. No hot water. I washed my face and brushed my teeth. Back in the lobby I found the cot, undressed, and crawled in the sleeping bag. There was no pillow. I got out and rolled up my coat to rest my head on. I lay on the cot and tried to sleep. I imagined that I was sleeping in a large sepulcher. I opened my eyes and looked around the room. It didn’t reassure me. I was near the wall toward the back of the room. I could see light seeping in from the front doors. Shadows loomed everywhere, cast by hanging sheets and decorations of punk rock events past. I had never been in a lonelier place before. Not when camping alone on Mount Rainier. Not when sleeping in a shed in a rail yard in the Midwest after getting off a freight train. Not when sitting under a tree the night I learned that my friend Steve had killed himself.

We were in the same class in high school. Steve, the brother of my girlfriend and accepted as the smartest kid in my class. His great love was astronomy. He had built his own telescope, including hand-grinding the lens, and had built an observatory out of two by fours and plywood in a field behind their house. The last time I saw him alive was in his parents home. I was sitting on the sofa with my girlfriend. He walked in from the bedroom wing and stopped in the the shadow of the archway. I alone noticed and made eye contact with him. He looked troubled. He started to say something and stopped. He walked back to the bedroom. The next day while most of us were putting up decorations for the spring dance he took a shotgun out of closet, walked in the dusk out to his observatory, and shot himself.

I lay on the camp cot and remembered a dream I had a year or two later. In the dream I was camped out on the shore of Battle Ground Lake with a group of high school friends. We were drinking beer around a campfire. The cold beer was stored in Steve’s open casket resting on the dirt a few feet from the fire. He was in it with most of his face missing. He arose from the casket and walked toward the campfire. We talked. I asked him what he had wanted to say to me. He said it didn’t matter and it was ok.

I awoke early and left the building as soon as I could. I decided not to spend another night there. I’d look for a cheap motel later. I was in luck that the Tigers were playing a day game against the Yankees before going on the road. I had breakfast in a diner and was at the ball park when it opened for batting practice. It was already a hot day but it seemed cooler in the ballpark. I sat in the right field bleachers under the overhang and cursed myself for not bringing a baseball mitt on the trip. It didn’t really matter. Most of the batting practice dingers hit to right sailed into the upper deck. I let kids chase the ones that rattled among the bleachers around me.

The game was fun. The Yankees responded to the daylight by banging out eighteen hits. By the end of the third they were leading 8 to 3. Travis Fryman did his best to rally the Tigers by hitting for the cycle, completing it with a triple to center in the 6th inning. Fielder knocked him in with a double as the Tigers closed to within three runs at 10 to 7. They ended up losing 12 to 7.

It was time to go the Bank and set up the projectors for my show that evening at 10:00. I was opening with Stag Party Special, subtitled “A delightful Evening of Vintage Smut.” It contained both hard core stag films and what I called “risque rarities.” The risque films included “nudie cuties”, “tease films” and Soundies. Soundies were three minute music films made in the Forties to be shown in a jukebox sort of device that had a coin-operated 16mm projector inside. The machines were in bars and restaurants mostly. The films for the boxes were available through a catalog. In the back of the catalog was a section for films that couldn’t be shown legally in certain municipalities. Those were very popular in the places they were shown. The Nudie Cuties, Tease Films, and the like, were mostly legal but only seen in shady theaters in rougher parts of towns. Stag Films were completely pornographic and illegal just about everyplace in America. They were normally seen at men’s clubs such as Elks and Masons, and at brothels. A program made only of Stags is tedious. A few really good ones interspersed with the funny and risque made a great program.

The back door was open and Darren was inside. He was loading beer bottles into the refrigerator. A young blonde woman with a Rubenesque figure and pretty face was setting up chairs. She was wearing a full skirt and a peasant blouse. The effect was faux German Fräulein. I got my projectors out of the car and brought them in. Darren stopped what he was doing and showed me the platform where I would project from. The blonde girl approached and he introduced her. She was his wife Katie. She went back to setting up chairs. I asked Darren about the sound outputs and other technical stuff. What looked like a parachute hung at the opposite end of the room. That was the screen. I got everything set up and went over to talk to Darren. I asked him how he had became the owner of the Bank. He told me that he had saved his money from working as a press operator for the Detroit Free Press and had bought the building free and clear for ten thousand dollars. When he said it, he didn’t look like he thought it was a good investment. I hoped a big crowd would show up. One of the earliest to arrive was Tim Caldwell. He was about my size and dressed all in black. He sort of reminded me of Mickey Rourke. He told me he could show me around Detroit the day after next.

It was not a big crowd that came in after him. Maybe twenty five paid and a dozen freebies for one of the best money making program I had ever come up with. I figured my take of the door to be fifty bucks. Beer sales were going briskly. We waited for a half hour after show time to see if more people would show up. A few trickled in. Beer continued to be sold. I drank three. I gave my introduction and ran the show. The crowd gave me a nice round of applause at the end. Loud, techno, permanent hearing loss, music immediately started up. I stepped outside into the much cooler air. Several of the customers joined me to smoke cigarettes. Some of them asked me questions about my show and about my travels. Tim and Katie joined me. They brought me a beer. Neither of them smoked. Katie asked me where I had stayed the night before. I told that I had spent a horrible night right there on the premises. She gave me a funny look and said “Darren should have told you that we have a guest room, I’ll ask him if you can stay there tonight.” I thanked her and silently gave thanks that I wouldn’t have to spend another night in the depressing, ghost ridden, place.

I stayed outside the club, avoiding the music. I talked with Tim. Katie came back and gave me a key. She had written instructions on a piece of paper. It included driving instructions and a layout of the house with an X to indicate the guest room. I thanked her, said goodbyes, and left. The house was easy to find. It was in a nearby, tidy neighborhood, in the middle of the block. All of the houses looked alike and were all dark. I checked the address twice and walked to the front door. I felt creepy. I wondered if the address had been written down wrong and I was about to disturb total strangers with guns. I wondered what I was doing in this strange place instead of going into my own safe home in Seattle. I didn’t have an answer. I knocked on the door. Waited. Knocked again. Waited. I fit the key in the lock and let myself in. The inside was warm and dark. I found a wall switch. I was in a living room with “early colonial” furniture from the sixties. It all looked like it come in one big truck from a now out of business department store. I followed the house map and found the room. It was up a flight of stairs and underneath the eaves. The slanting ceiling and the short walls were all done in Knotty Pine. There was a bedside lamp and an alarm clock. I wouldn’t have been shocked to find a Gideon Bible in the dresser drawer. When I lay down in the bed I realized how exhausted I was. I still had trouble sleeping. I thought of driving through the monotonous vastness of Iowa. I slept a dreamless sleep.

The next morning I went downstairs and found nobody home. There was a note from Katie telling me to help my self to anything in the fridge. I searched in my pockets for a scrap of paper. I had written the address of one of the only espresso cafes in the Detroit area. A young woman had recommended it to me the night before. It was in the suburb of Hamtramck. I found the area easily enough, but the address did not include the street number, just a general description. I parked where I thought it should be and looked for somebody to ask directions. It was early and there were few pedestrians on the business Street. Most of them were elderly. Old men wearing shiny suits from the sixties with narrow ties. Shapeless women wore clothing that spoke of the old world. None of them looked like they would even acknowledge the existence of an espresso cafe. One of the few businesses open was a beauty and coiffure Shop. An exotic looking young woman with jet black hair was behind the front counter. I asked her if she knew where the coffee shop was. She gave me a lost look and turned away. She turned away and spoke to another young woman in the back of the shop. They spoke Polish. The other woman came forward and in an accented voice asked me what I wanted. I told her. She spoke to the first woman, again in Polish, and finally told me she didn’t have a clue. I thanked them both and left. I went back out onto the sidewalk and walked west. I passed storefronts with signs in Polish. I realized I was in the kind of neighborhood where emigrants would come, and live their lives without ever leaving. Content to live among others like themselves. Raising families and only speaking Polish. I considered it divine intervention when I found the Cafe. Inside it was like any other inner city espresso joint. Young people dressed mostly in black were seated at tables. Mazzy Star played on the music system. There was a magazine rack full of discarded newspapers. I drank coffee and read Detroit news for an hour. I learned intimate information about the Tigers. I read about the prospects of the Detroit Lions football team. I read about action being taken against two white police officers in regard to their beating to death a black motorist the previous year. I realized I was in a foreign land.

I spent the day driving around town and looking at buildings. Detroit is a fascinating city. It is almost like being in a large graveyard where the gravestones are thirty stories high. During the heyday of Henry Ford and General Motors it was a city of wealth. Fabulous downtown buildings and opulent houses were built. The 1950’s brought movement from city to suburb. The 1967 race riot turned the outward trickle into full white flight. They fled to the suburbs of Livonia, Dearborn and Warren. The middle class workers took with them much of the tax base, depriving those who remained of good schools and other benefits once all had once enjoyed. Property values plummeted, further depleting the cities operating funds. Downtown businesses failed en masse. Houses and buildings were abandoned and left to decay, leaving behind ruins that still suggested the glory they once possessed. Streets in the rundown areas were potholed, with hulks of stripped cars abandoned at the curbs.

I drove by the landmarked Motown Records building. It was a modest Twenties two-story house on Grand Boulevard. It was well kept up. Motown headquarters had moved from there to Woodward Avenue in 1968. In 1972 Motown left Detroit for Los Angeles; ostensibly to get into the movie business. A short distance from downtown was the General Motors Building, with the equally beautiful Fisher Building across the street. They were not run down. The recession of the 70’s that had further ravaged the rest of the city had left them untouched. The GM building is huge. It appeared to cover several city blocks. The Fisher Building is a classic skyscraper. They complement each other. They are vestiges of the days of unbridled optimism and gaudy expense. At that, the Fisher Building was planned to be gaudier. What was there was completed in 1928, but it was supposed to be just one of two thirty story towers, with an even taller skyscraper between them. The crash stopped that.

Walking out of the Fisher building you look across the street to the Grecian portico of the GM building. It is where new car models were posed year after year against the the same classic back drop. I parked my shabby car directly in front to take a picture in the same pose. I then spent at least two hours just walking around and gawking at the various opulent public areas.

The show that night was The Mormon Church Explains It All To You. It was comprised of four films made by the Mormon Church in the sixties. I was surprised when it brought in a better crowd than Stag Party. Detroit continued to surprise me. Religion outdrew sex at a punk club. Before the show Tim introduced me to his friend John Lopez. He was about my age and was the owner of a popular restaurant in an up and coming area. His girlfriend was with him, a pretty, younger girl. He told me that there was plenty of room in their house and if I wanted to stay for week it was all right. Well, any port in a storm. I gave the house key back to Katie. When I arrived at John’s house the lights were on. It was a big old house in a better, if mixed, neighborhood. My room that night had high ceilings and an old four-poster bed. I decided to stay for at least a couple of days. It would be nice to sleep in the same bed two nights in a row.

In the morning I found a nearby coffee shop in an ancient wooden building for breakfast. There was a free newspaper. I called Tim Caldwell. I got him on the phone and he gave me directions to his house. It was on a small island under the bridge to Canada. A peculiar, restful place in middle of the city. He occupied an apartment shoe horned into the attic of an old house. He offered to show me Detroit’s old theaters. We started by driving into a parking garage downtown and going up to the top floor. There was the ceiling that once glimmered over the auditorium of the four thousand seat Michigan Theater. The sides of the ceiling curved downward until they were truncated by the concrete floor of the garage. On the lower floors you could see a balcony that still had seats in it. The oddest thing is that the first four floors did not go from wall to wall. Instead they stopped at the edge of the lobby. That gave the lobby its original four story open height. It gave me a clear view to the ornate lobby ceiling from the original perspective of a ticket buyer. The Michigan had been built on the site of Henry Ford’s 1892 garage. It was the garage where he built his first car. It seemed appropriate that the theater had become a cathedral where Henry Ford’s progeny now came to worship their creator.

The Michigan was a movie palace of the very grand type. It was designed by Rapp and Rapp of Chicago and was the largest theater in Michigan. It had a full stage for vaudeville. Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra and Judy Garland, among many many others, appeared there on stage. In the early seventies it became a Rock and Roll venue. Kiss, T-Rex, ZZ Top, Sly and the Family Stone, Iggy and Stooges and many others performed there. The only reason it was still in existence, such as it was, is that it was cheaper to turn it into a car park than to demolish it. To make the irony even more piquant, the Ford garage has also survived. It was moved by Mr. Ford to his Greenfield Village. If you’ve never been there, or to his nearby museum, I suggest you go. Mr. Ford didn’t just move his own garage there. He also moved Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory, the Wright Brother’s cycle shop, the courthouse in Logan, Illinois where Abraham Lincoln practiced law, nearly 100 other historical American buildings, and arranged them all in a village setting. In his nearby museum he has an incredible array of Americana including the assassination car of John F. Kennedy, the assassination chair of Lincoln, the bus in which Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat, and so much more.

Our next stop was the Grand Riviera, a huge atmospheric theater designed by John Eberson, a little way out of downtown. It had been built by the Nederlander family. The Nederlanders started in Detroit before becoming the biggest theatrical producers on Broadway. Tim told that the first time he had been in the Grand Riviera he had found Nederlander ephemera strewn across an office floor. There were personal letters, post cards from sons serving in the Second World War, and business correspondence. He also found a program signed by six members of the Baseball Hall of Fame and Jim Thorpe. Both the sentimental and the collectible were equally devalued.

The Grand Riviera. Photo: Dennis Nyback.

From a distance the Grand Riviera looked like it had been casually walked away from, many years before, being allowed to gently fade away rather than suffer the indignity of the wrecking ball. The effect was that of Blanche Du Bois’s faded Southern belle, or Miss Havisham’s wedding cake. None of the windows were boarded up to spoil the effect. The big vertical sign was still there with most of the neon gone. We parked on the street and walked through a vacant lot, over grown with waist high brown grass, around to the back. Tim walked to a weathered piece of plywood leaning against the back wall and pulled it aside. A black hole appeared before us. He then reached into his bag and pulled out two flashlights, a hunting knife and a tire iron. He handed me one of the lights and the iron. He said “Sometimes you disturb a bunch of vagrants when you go into a place like this. You just show them the weapons and they leave you alone.” With that caveat, we crawled through the hole. I thought of soldiers crawling into Viet Cong tunnels in search of the enemy. Once inside he stopped and reached back through the hole pulling the plywood over the opening. “It’s just as well people don’t know we’re in here” He whispered, for no apparent reason. Later I asked about it. He said he whispered just in case there were others already inside who he didn’t want to alert to our presence. Once we were inside we could stand up. We were underneath the stage. Tim walked forward like he knew where he was going. We were on a path between pieces of old theater seats and other debris piled high. The flashlights, thankfully, cut the darkness. We came to a short flight of stairs with a closed door at the top. That took us into the auditorium, beside the orchestra pit.

Atmospheric theaters were designed to give customers the impression of being outdoors in an exotic courtyard. The illusion was created through ornately decorated walls against what stared out as an unadorned ceiling. Through carefully designed artifice the ceiling became a night sky complete with twinkling stars, passing clouds and a moon. The cloud and other effects were created through a special Brenograph “atmospheric projector” made by the Brenkert Company.

We walked down a side aisle between an acre of unoccupied chairs. There was an eerie light in the auditorium. I looked up. Small holes in the ceiling let in tiny shafts of light. There were thousands of them, and together added up to just enough light to see by. Our steps had raised a thin cloud of dust. It hung in the air with the pin pricks of lights refracting through it. The walls were decorated with several Egyptian tomb figures of unsmiling men. They looked forty feet tall. A couple of them had fallen down. They had tumbled forward, broke into several pieces, and lay sprawled across dozens of seats. We walked into the lobby.

Everything of obvious value and easily carried away was gone. It was filled with trash and yet still the walls indicated the glorious beauty it had once had. The lobby ceiling was four stories high. From the middle of the lobby ceiling a long chain hanged down that had once held a huge chandelier. A lot of marble had been used in the decor. We poked around in various store rooms, offices, dressing rooms, and rest rooms. Tim told me that the first time he had come into the place he had forced his way into a narrow room and had found movie posters from the 1920’s. They had been stuffed into a space where two walls joined together. Tim also found another old movie poster by crawling up into a false ceiling. On a later visit he came across huge, three sheet and six sheet, posters for Kitten With a Whip, The Hustler, and other Sixties movies. The only thing I found to take away were two small metal signs, about a foot long and five inches high. They were no smoking notices, with the fire department directors name at the bottom. He had probably served during the Hoover administration.

We walked out of the theater the same way we had come in, at last crawling, through the hole into bright sunlight. I was immediately struck by the heat. It had been cool inside. I’d had been like being in the ruins of a cathedral of a forgotten religion. It had been like being in a another time. We drove back to town through a neighborhood that had deteriorated along with the theater. Many of the storefronts along the four-lane street were boarded up. Others contained businesses of dubious financial means. The only ones that appeared flourishing were the fast food franchises. Popeye’s Fried Chicken, White Castle, McDonald’s — businesses that hadn’t existed when the Grand Riviera hosted thousands of customers a night. We were a long way from Depression glass dish giveaways and Shirley Temple look-a-like contests. People in the neighborhood now stayed home at night, watching TV or Netflix, many of them afraid to walk the consequently deserted streets.

I asked Tim about the danger of creeping into abandoned buildings. He told me that the reason he’d given me the tire iron was that there was always the chance of being jumped by crazed crackheads or scrappers. That was also why he had whispered when we first were inside the theater. The scrappers weren’t looking for artifacts. They were were looking for copper wire and other metal that could sold by the pound. One reason it was felt that the Cadillac Hotel would never be re-opened was that scrappers had taken out miles of copper wire and other needed portions of the infrastructure. He considered the question about danger for a few moments and then said “I’ll drive you by a place”. We got off the thoroughfare and entered side streets. We drove through neighborhoods of old houses. The sort that were built in the 1920’s with large front porches. The porches were to sit on in the hot evenings before air conditioning. On those evenings the people would come outside. They would walk in the neighborhood, or sit on the porches. The walkers would stop and say hello to the porch sitters. Neighbors knew neighbors. It was early evening but the porches were deserted. It was a beautiful and peaceful evening. The neighborhoods seemed to be waiting for families to come back and have children playing in the yards.

We drove to Tim’s destination and we stopped. We were across the street from an abandoned building with terra cotta trim. Tim told me that it was a former funeral home. He said that Houdini’s body had been embalmed there. The escape artist’s last show had been at the Detroit Garrick Theater. He died on October 31, 1926, Halloween. In the Thirties the funeral home became The Art Center Music School. Their mission was to provide affordable music lessons for low income Detroit kids and adults. In the Eighties it became a punk club where seminal Detroit punk bands such as Necros and Negative Approach played. Tim told me he had gone to punk shows there and that back then the embalming sink was still present. That is where Houdini’s blood swirled down the drain.

We then drove to the Haney Funeral Home on Ferry Street. The 70’s Detroit television talk show host Dan Haney had grown up there. The show was called Haney’s People. It was one of the first black TV shows that was produced and broadcast in Detroit. Tim said the funeral home was also the site of his closest brush with death. He had entered the abandoned building one night and looked through various rooms. In one he found a pipe organ. He also found plenty of formaldehyde and body cavity filling fluid. This had to be before the “wet blunt” had become popular. That is a marijuana cigarette laced with PCP and embalming fluid. In one room he found a wooden platform extending from one side of the room to the other. It was no more than four feet above the floor. On the platform were dozens of huge bottles of embalming fluid. The size of bottles that are now left out side of apartment doors to be picked up and replaced by the bottled water man. At least five gallons each. The area underneath had apparently been used for years as a catchall storage place for unwanted things that might someday be of use. Tim crawled under the platform to see what he could find. In certain places the platform was sagging under the weight of the bottles, each probably weighing seven pounds per gallon. Upright four by fours had been placed strategically to keep the platform from collapsing. Tim kept working through the rubble, carefully avoiding the four by fours that were suspending a ton or more of embalming fluid above his body. He carefully looked at old wastepaper baskets, Remington noiseless typewriters from the 1920’s, black telephones from the fifties, and general trash.. Near the far wall he finally found something of interest. A pale green glazed terra cotta standing ashtray. It was a little over two and a half feet tall. It was once a common item in the lobbies of business buildings, hotels and movie theaters. He tried to move it. It didn’t budge. He was in an area with few four by fours.

The ashtray was being held by the sagging platform above him. Tim wanted it. He grabbed it with both hands and gave it a better tug. It didn’t budge. He waited a while with sweat coolly drying on his skin. He wrapped an arm completely around it, took a deep breath, and yanked. It came lose. Before he could exult in his triumph, he heard a noise. It was the sound of wood groaning. The groaning continued and was joined by an occasional sharp snapping noise. The platform sagged down, almost touching him. He started scurrying back the way he had come, dragging the ashtray along with him. He had a long way to go. He lost his flashlight. The platform continued to make singing and snapping noises. In his hurry he bumped into a four by four and dislodged it. He kept going, feeling the platform pressing down on him. He finally rolled free and reached back for the prize. He grasped it just as the platform collapsed with the sound of splintering wood and breaking glass. He stood quickly with embalming fluid gushing around his feet. He picked up the ashtray and ran through the darkness for the door. In the hallway he stopped and gasped for breath. Fluid, exuding a sickeningly sweet aroma, ran through the doorway. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind he heard Houdini laughing at his indecorous exit. It was around ten when I dropped Tim at his house.

Photo: Dennis Nyback.

I went to John’s restaurant for a late dinner. The Union Street Station was a busy, tasteful, unassuming, place with moderate prices, and generous portions of good food. He had established it in a questionable downtown area ten years before, and it’s success had led to other independent businesses taking advantage of the low rents and leading to a modest rebirth of the entire area. After dinner I went into the bar and had a drink, hoping that one of my recent acquaintances would wander into the popular spot and join me. It was my fortieth birthday and I was alone. I was working on my second beer when the girlfriend of my host came up to me. Her first words were “Why the glum face?” I told her I was thinking of absent friends far away. She replied “There’s no need to do that here. I’ll take you to a nicer bar and buy you a better drink.” That cheered me up. She drove, in a much nicer car than mine. The bar she took me to was a surprise. It was an older place and had a piano player making music instead of a sound system. The sort of disappearing place where people could meet for conversation and hear, not only each other, but their own thoughts. She was a nice girl, from across the river in Canada, who had come across an international border to sample the charms of a big city. She was a little older than she looked, a college graduate, working as an illustrator for the Detroit Free Press. I drank Old Fashioneds and she drank Sazeracs, a drink that could be found only in that bar in Detroit. We stayed past midnight talking about her aspirations and my plans for showing films. We didn’t talk about baseball. She dropped me off at my car and went into to the restaurant to meet her fella. I went to their place to sleep in my comfortable bed.

I ended up staying at John’s house for five nights. I was waiting for the Cleveland Indians to begin a home stand. Every morning I would walk to the same coffee show I’d found before. I became friendly with a nice waitress. She was too young for me and not very pretty, but I daydreamed about falling in love with her and remaining in Detroit. She had nice eyes. It was a vegetarian cafe and I became fond of breakfasting on a variety of black bean dishes. I considered that she was probably a vegan and my carnivorous habits would stand in the way of our happiness. The relationship, being all in my mind, never developed, but I wondered, after I had left for the last time, if she ever thought of me. My afternoons were spent driving around, looking at old buildings, walking into second hand stores looking for films for sale, and sitting in the summer sun writing letters. A couple of times I went places with Tim Caldwell and explored other vacant buildings. We didn’t turn up anything interesting.

One disappointment was an old, boarded up burlesque theater right downtown. Several years earlier it had been wide open. In it Tim had discovered several trunks full of vintage burlesque costumes that strippers had worn in the 1940’s. He donated most of them to the Strippers museum in LA that is run by Dixie Evans. I had a film of Dixie doing a fabulous strip number in Stag Party Special. It is a clip from a 1950 exploitation feature called Too Hot To Handle. It is the best strip number I have ever seen on film. Dixie was billed as a Marilyn Monroe look-a-like. When Monroe died, it killed her act. My film had come from the storeroom of a closed burlesque theater in Seattle. I made a dupe of the film and sent it Dixie. She sent me a very nice autographed picture. Tim and I went around to the place where he had gotten in before. We found it securely nailed shut. The owners of the building were probably just keeping bums out, but what they were effectively doing, was ensuring that when the Detroit renaissance eventually came, it would be destroyed with its treasures intact.

A happier visit was to the Graystone International Jazz Museum. I was thirteen years too late to see the Graystone Ballroom. It had been the premier venue for jazz in Detroit in the Twenties. It was torn down in 1980. It had been the home base for the band leader Jean Goldkette. He was classical piano player born in France in 1899 who who had come to United States at the age of eleven. In the early Twenties he managed over a dozen different bands. In his own band of 1926/27 he had Bix Beiderbecke, the Dorsey Brothers, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang. It was an incredibly swinging unit. He also helped organize the great McKinney’s Cotton Pickers. They were the hottest black band of the late twenties. In his spare time he also booked bands into the Graystone Ballroom. They included Duke Ellington, Benny Goodman, and others. The Graystone International Jazz Museum was in a modest space downtown at 1521 Broadway. It was the creation of James Jenkins. He had worked to save the Graystone Ballroom and was not stopped by its destruction. He then started the museum where I found him among his eclectic collection of Detroit jazz artifacts and memorabilia. When I walked in it was the only jazz museum in the country. I was not exactly warmly greeted. After establishing that I had actual respect for the Graystone Ballroom things got better. I stayed for a couple of hours looking at stuff and talking with Mr. Jenkins. I was the only visitor during that time. If I had come prepared with specific questions I probably could have learned a lot. As it was it was a pleasant time. Mr. Jenkins died a year later.

I watched one movie while I was in the city. The fabulous Detroit Fox Theater had been bought and restored by Mike Illitch, the pizza magnate and creator of the Little Caesar pizza empire. He also owned the Detroit Tiger Baseball team. I’m not sure just what sort comment this is on American values, but he had bought the team from Tom Monaghan who had got rich with Domino’s Pizza. As the Detroit auto industry collapsed, the pizza industry rose. The Fox was one of a series of movie palaces built by 20th Century Fox Motion Pictures in major cities of the United States. Like many downtown theaters it became a grindhouse in the sixties showing such classic exploitation films as Werewolf in a Girl’s Dormitory and Russ Meyer’s Motor Psycho. In an odd coincidence it also showed exploitation films produced by Herman Cohen, who had worked his way up in the movie business from being an usher in Detroit to being a semi-big shot in Hollywood. Along that path he had once been the assistant manager of the Detroit Fox. Mr. Cohen must have been an interesting guy. His producer credits include I Was a Teenage Werewolf, I Was a Teenage Frankenstein, and not one, but two Joan Crawford flicks, Berserk, and her final film Trog. He wrote the original story and screenplay for Berserk. He also acted in a few films. If you want to find out more about him see It Conquered Hollywood: The Story of American International Pictures. He is interviewed in that.

Most of the downtown movie palaces in America have been torn down. The few that remain have mostly been turned into live venues that show a mix of Broadway roadshows and music events. The Fox was no exception, but did keep its 35mm projection booth. During my visit it was thankfully between road shows and instead was screening Gone With The Wind. The mix of neon and incandescent lights on the outside could be seen for blocks away. I parked and took some pictures of the marquee. I was glad it was not advertising a current movie, a Rock act, or being up for rent. I bought a ticket. I was not really interested in sitting down and watching the film, instead wanting to look at the theater. A lot of pizzas must have been sold to cover the cost of the restoration. There seemed to be miles of new carpeting on the floor and thousands of light bulbs in the ornate fixtures. I imagined what it must have looked like in the 1970’s when it was probably limping along by showing Mandingo, Magnolia, other blaxploitation films, and not generating enough money for light bulbs, much less new rugs. In a way I was sorry it no longer looked that way. At least, if the carpet was threadbare, it probably was close to the original, and the shabby original glory of the place could still be seen by those who cared to look for it. I started climbing stairs, looking for the top of the last balcony. It took a while to get there and I when I looked down, past the thousands of empty seats, the screen looked about as big as a TV set. I tried to picture the theater in the 1930’s, full of people escaping the cares of the Depression for a few hours. I tried to imagine the smell of the place on a night like that, of soft drinks, popcorn, candy and humanity’s odors. I couldn’t do it. Maybe I needed a Jimmy Cagney movie on the screen. I went back down the hundreds of stair steps and took a seat at the back of the main floor. The screen still looked small, maybe fifty yards away. The crowd of a couple of hundred people seemed lost in the place. No one had to sit with somebody’s head in their way. I got up and went back to the lobby. My last stop was the men’s room. I first entered the men’s lounge. It contained sofas and easy chairs. There were no longer smoking stands. It was as big as many auditoriums in modern multiplex theaters. The actual rest room was about as grand as a toilet could be. At least twenty urinals were aligned across one wall. Walking out I felt that just then I had gotten value for my six dollar admission charge. Everything else was a bonus.

The Fox. Photo: Dennis Nyback.

The next day I drove on to Cleveland. I told John I’d back on August 4 for another show at the Bank. He said he’d be sorry to miss it, as he’d be out of town. That meant I’d need to find another place to stay when I got back. I left in the late morning for the four hour drive. Before I was halfway there dark storm clouds blocked out most of the sunlight. It started raining hard. Keeping the little car on the road when it hit small ponds of standing water was a chore. I again wondered exactly where I was and what I was doing. I hoped that the game that night would not be rained out. I would have considered a rain out to be some sort of sign. Since leaving Seattle I had been looking for one. I wondered if I would recognize one if it appeared. I wondered if upon recognizing one, I would chose to ignore it. About an hour out of town the rain stopped and the sun came out. My immediate destination was a motor court on the shore of Lake Erie that I had stayed at before. It was from the 1950s and all brick. It was a place that many people had probably come back to year after year. It was very moderately priced. I easily located it, checked in, and headed for the ball park. I didn’t bother looking for an official ticket window. I looked for somebody selling discarded season tickets at cut-rate prices. Outside of ballparks where losing teams play good tickets can always be found. The closer to game time, the better the price. Halfway from my car to the front gate I came across an old black man selling tickets. We agreed on the price of eight dollars for a twelve dollar ticket. We talked for a while and I asked him if he had seen Rocky Colavito and the other Cleveland sluggers of the 1960s. He told me that he had seen them all, but none could compare with Luke Easter. I had never heard of Luke Easter and I considered my self well-versed on the history of the national pastime. The old man assured me that nobody ever hit them as far as Luke Easter. I later looked up Luke Easter in several reference books. The old man was right. Luke Easter spent the best years of his career in the segregated Negro leagues. He had finally made it to major leagues and at the age of 37, in 1953, he became the first player to hit thirty home runs in a season for the first time at that advanced of an age.

I entered the stadium and asked an usher for directions to my seat. I was in a field level box, just to the left of home plate. As I entered the seating area I stopped and stared. It was so beautiful. I couldn’t imagine why any team would want to leave such a wonderful park. I couldn’t imagine how people could be so short sighted as to label the place a mistake. The field was covered with the greenest possible grass. Over the outfield fence Lake Erie shimmered. Above the horizon the sky was a beautiful shade of dark blue. There was a full moon and the only stars that could compete with its light had to be planets. I felt that there had been a purpose in my 2000 mile trek. I felt that Balboa could not have felt any better when he traversed the isthmus of Panama and first glimpsed the Pacific Ocean.

My seat was in the fourth row of the first upper deck, looking down, just to the left of home plate. An excellent seat. I was seated next to a blonde woman in her thirties. She was with two of her girlfriends. She introduced herself as Glenda. Her friends were Paula and Debra. They all worked in the same office and had been given their tickets by their boss. He had given them four and they had sold the odd ticket to the Luke Easter fan outside the ballpark for five dollars. They didn’t seem to begrudge him his small profit. They didn’t know anything about baseball and I was soon employed as their guide into the finer points of the great game. They seemed especially impressed by my pointing out that the Tigers prodigious slugger Cecil Fielder was my favorite player simply because he was the portliest player in the big leagues. I then told them about other less than svelte players I had been fond of: John Kruk, Rick Reuschel, Mickey Lolich, and the man David Letterman had singled out as the fattest player in the game, Terry Forster, who he called “A big tub of goo”. Mickey Lolich was once questioned by the press about the possibility of his weight affecting his efficacy as a pitcher and he replied “I throw with my arm, not with my belly.” Rick Reuschel also faced the same question and replied “I’m not required to run the ball to the plate.” John Kruk summed up the charm of baseball to the average man, with his reply to a woman who said to him “You don’t look like an athlete.” He returned, “Lady, I’m not an athlete, I’m a ball player.”

One of the great charms of baseball is that there is plenty of time time between innings to chat. For the initiated it can be appreciated for the reverse of the reason that Oscar Wilde liked Wagner. He said the best part of the music was that it was so loud nobody cared if you talked to your neighbor. In 1993 baseball was still a mostly quiet game. Most parks still hired organ players to provide occasional music. It was later when the organ playing was replaced by loud music, between innings and often between at bats.

Cleveland Municipal Stadium. Photo: Dennis Nyback.

Although the game was called as complete after seven innings due to rain, it was a very pleasant time. Cleveland won 9-4. The organist liked old songs. He played “Muskrat Ramble,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy,” and other standards. It seemed the first time I had been able to relax in a week.

I was back in Detroit by noon. It was August 4. My last show at the Bank would be that night. When I arrived that evening at the Bank Darren immediately approached me with a dangerous look in his eyes. His first words were “I don’t want you sleeping at my house”. I didn’t know what to say. I finally came up with “That’s fine. I didn’t know it was a problem.” I really didn’t know where I was going to sleep that night. The one thing I did know, it wasn’t going to be at the Bank. Then he shocked me with “Just because we’re separated doesn’t mean she’s not mine.” It may have been that I was naive, but I was shocked. I had no designs on his wife, unattached, or otherwise. I looked at him for a while and didn’t see any softening of his expression. I realized that he had been very close to slugging me when he had first approached. Finally I said “You don’t have to worry about me. I’ll stay at a Motel.” He turned without comment and stomped away. The rest of the night I avoided talking to Katie. I ran the show for the decent sized crowd and during the second reel she cornered me. She tried to convince me that Darren had no right to keep me out of the house, even if he wasn’t sleeping there. I told her that I’d sleep better in a Motel and that I very much had appreciated her hospitality but felt better declining another night of it. After the show I drove around to till I found a nondescript motel where for twenty five bucks I got four walls and a bed that had no family discord attached.

I was up early the next morning. I drove to Tim’s for my last stop before hitting the road. I paid him $25.00 for a 16mm stag film that he assured me was good. He also gave me several reels of mystery 35mm reels that he had salvaged out of the basement of the Jam Handy Film Production building, maker of industrial shorts, just before the wrecking ball hit it, and two 35mm Mexican feature films from the 1950’s that he wanted me to show at the Pike St. and tell him if they were of any interest. Tim collected 16mm films but had no way to view 35mm. With the car suitably loaded down, I drove away.

On the way home my first destination was Davenport, Iowa. I wanted to get there before the attendant left for the day at the cemetery where Bix Beiderbecke is buried. Bix was a 1920’s jazz cornetist who had drank himself to death by the age of thirty. One of his compositions is the song “Davenport Blues.” It ran through my head as I drove. I passed through Chicago in the early afternoon and still got caught in stop and go traffic caused by road work. I pulled into Davenport at 5:00 PM and headed straight for the burial grounds. The gates were still open but I couldn’t find anybody to give me directions. I slowly drove through the narrow lanes between gravestones looking for a Beiderbecke marker.

Oddly enough, I found one. It was very large and visible from the road, but it wasn’t Bix’s. After an hour I gave up and drove to Bix’s family home at 1931 Grand Avenue. It looked just the same as the last time I had stopped in front of it five years earlier. A tidy house from the turn of the century with chipping paint of yellow, with white trim. I wondered if the family who lived inside appreciated that they were living in the home of one of the major figures in American music. For the first time on the trip I wished my car had a tape player and I could listen to Bix and His Rhythm Jugglers as I drove. I considered spending the night in Davenport so I could visit Bix’s grave in the morning.

I checked the time. It was only 6:30. There was no reason I couldn’t make Des Moines that night and be that much closer to home. One less night on the road would also mean more money in my pocket when I arrived. Without stopping to eat, I drove on. It was the best time to drive in the best spot in America. After sundown radio stations could increase their wattage. For the next four hours I listened to baseball. I would tune in the Chicago White Sox and when they faded out I would find the St. Louis Cardinals. I also found the Minnesota Twins, the Kansas City Royals, The Toronto Blue Jays, and in what I considered a miracle, late at night, the San Diego Padres. It wasn’t really a miracle. They were playing the SF Giants. It was the last game of the night and was some sort of national hook up. As I drove on, the Giants-Padres would fade out, only to be picked up on another station even farther west. I made it to Des Moines, before midnight. I stayed at a modest brick motel on a side street for a mere $20.00. It was even cheaper than Motel 6 and had what could be euphemistically called character. Most of the cars parked in the lot didn’t look much better than mine, and a couple looked even worse. I felt that parking my car in a lot where it didn’t feel inferior would give it the heart to make it the rest of the way home.

My second day on the homeward journey took me through Omaha, Sioux City, Sioux Falls, and Mitchell. By afternoon I was driving through the vast flatlands of South Dakota, home of the best roadside billboards in America. In between trying to find something to listen to on the radio I could read about the joys awaiting the visitor at Al’s Oasis, Murdo (home of world’s biggest outdoor antique auto museum), Rapid City (gateway to the Badlands and Mount Rushmore), Casey’s (lowest beer prices and best burgers), and Wall Drug. Somehow, among the numerous C & W stations and agricultural reports (healthy northern feeder pigs), I found NPR. Teri Gross was interviewing Rick Prelinger, owner of the Prelinger Film Archive. Rick was talking about his upcoming tour of America with films he owned. I almost drove off the road into an Al’s Oasis sign, when I heard him mention that one of his stops would be at The Bank in Detroit. I wondered if he was going to sleep there. I wondered if Darren would slug him for making eyes at his estranged wife. I couldn’t imagine that he would be driving a fourteen year old car and considering Motel 6 a suitable place to sleep. I pushed on for Rapid City, hoping that I could find a ball game to listen to after dark. I felt myself falling into an existential stupor. The concrete rushing toward me at seventy miles per hour. The sun in my eyes was hypnotizing. I surrendered to it and drove on. I felt vaguely glad that the road was straight and my wheel alignment was true. At Murdo I stopped for dinner at a charmless eatery. I didn’t go to the auto museum. Back on the road I found patches of ball games between miles of static. Somehow I made it to Rapid City. The Motel 6 room looked exactly like the others, even with the lights on.

Fisher Building elevator. Photo: Dennis Nyback.

I awoke early and was on the road without doing the morning crossword puzzle. Harley Davidsons passed me, speeding on their way to the big biker get-together in Sturgis. It was a beautiful day to be driving through the forbidding Black Hills. I stopped for gas in Gillette. It was a hot day with a howling wind. Blowing dust stung my eyes when I got out of the car. A young man noticed the Washington plates on my car, which didn’t look like it could have come that far, and struck up a conversation. I mentioned the films and projectors in the car. He assured me that he could arrange a local screening at his college if I could stay a few days. I couldn’t see spending the whole day in Gillette, much less three or four. I felt the sun beating down and the wind stinging my cheeks. I thought about summer in Seattle and drove on. I decided that with my early start I could make Missoula that night. Passing through Sheridan I started the up hill climb into the Rocky Mountains. Radio reception became impossible and I was left alone with my thoughts. I wondered how Johannes was doing. I wondered if the car would make it. I wondered if I was heading in the right direction. I had no answers and surrendered to the hypnotic effect of the rushing highway. Approaching the great divide the air grew chill and I rolled up the windows of the car for the first time since leaving Detroit. I noticed that my left arm was burnt from hanging it out in the sun. My intrepid vehicle passed overheated cars stalled on the side of the road. Around many of them men looked worried. Women looked pissed off. Children looked glad to be out of the car. Attractive woman by themselves always seemed to have a cowboy in a pickup truck pulled up behind. I passed dozens of slow moving semi-trucks in the inside lane. I was passed by modern high powered vehicles. We were all the same. Americans rushing to be somewhere else because we didn’t understand where we were. Going seventy miles per hour to give meaning to life. I made it over the top and the high-pitched whining of the engine calmed down to a contented purr. I decided not to eat until I reached Missoula.

Approaching Bozeman I changed my mind. It was 6:15 and if I stopped for dinner I could spend the rest of the drive listening to the Seattle Mariners broadcast out of Grand Forks. Leaving Bozeman I found out that I had been optimistic. I was still in the Rockies and the radio signal couldn’t find it way around the peaks. Country & western music could. I surrendered and hoped that I would hear an occasional Tammy Wynette oldie. At eight o’clock my luck changed. I found a station out of Livingston that played real country classics. I was soon singing along with Webb Pierce and Ernest Tubb. I felt giddy and wondered if I was losing my mind. I considered getting off the interstate and taking the two lane highway that went through Deer Lodge. It was a straighter shot that attracted little traffic. It had no amenities. At that time of night I would have found myself alone on the road. It was a perfect road to turn off the headlights and drive by the light of the stars. Montana has a non-polluted sky full of them.

I jerked myself back to sanity and tried to find the Mariners on the radio. Passing through Bozeman at seven I saw many “No Vacancy” signs. Could it still be hunting season? In Butte I found no motel rooms available. I was tired and hungry. I pushed on. Dave Niehaus, the radio voice of the Mariners, guided me into Missoula. It was almost 10:00. I ate mediocre diner food at the 3-B’s restaurant, the original of a three restaurant Montana chain. I then drove into a neighborhood and found a dark spot against the curb under an elm tree and curled up in the back seat to sleep.

The next morning, knowing that I could make it to Seattle that night without punishing myself, I went to the Mammyth Cafe for breakfast. It was a hippie-era place with excellent coffee and huge cinnamon rolls. I even found a discarded New York Times and did the crossword before setting out on the final leg of my trek. I was soon heading west with the morning sun at my back. Above me was big sky. It was an incredible shade of blue and there wasn’t cloud in sight. I tried to feel it was symbolic of my future. It almost worked. My mood was good. NPR was on the radio. I was soon on the curvy roadway that follows the big lake into Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. In Spokane I gassed up before I needed to, to avoid the higher prices in the small towns that remained between me and Seattle. It was still more expensive than any I had bought in middle America. My mood darkened when it struck me that I could make Seattle without making another stop. I realized that my trip was ending, and soon the cares of my life would cease to be abstract and become concrete. I wondered if the two weeks and four thousand miles of solitude had brought me wisdom. I couldn’t tell. I passed Ritzville, Soap Lake, Kittitas, and Ellensburg. I kept an eye out for Hunter Mann. I never found him. He was probably on some two-lane road between small towns to the north of me. I stopped in North Bend to eat, and to kill time till the Mariners game started. I was soon climbing the Cascade Range with the soothing sounds of the ballpark as my companion.

Approaching Snoqualmie Pass I encountered moderately heavy traffic for the first time since Chicago. On the downward slope it started to rain. Driving became treacherous. The road way contained several 50 MPH curves, and visibility was terrible. My fingers tightened on the wheel as I peered intently into the night. In some places I could hardly see at all and drove on trusting in blind faith that the road was still straight and there were no stalled cars or large animals to crash into. The ballgame faded out but I couldn’t take my hands off the wheel to search for it on another station. I cursed myself for being there. I felt like giving up and driving into the trees. I willed myself to keep going. I eventually found myself on a straight roadway with dry pavement. I found the ball game. I kept driving until I was in front of my apartment and parked. I let myself in and stood in the darkness. There was the smell of a long shut up place. There was no cat to come rub up against my leg and beg to be petted. There was no wife to open her arms and welcome me. I was home.

Categories History

Dennis Nyback is a legendary independent film archivist and historian. Formerly of Seattle, he now resides in Portland, OR with his 13,000 film collection and a clear conscience.

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