Authors: Bill Morris
NEW YORKÂ Â LONDON
For Marianne, with my love.
Oh, the Motor City's burnin',
It ain't no thing in the world that I can do.
Don't ya know, don't ya know, the Big D is burnin',
Ain't no thing in the world that Johnny can do.
My hometown is burnin' down to the ground,
Worster than Vietnam.
âfrom “The Motor City Is Burning”
by John Lee Hooker
Our interest's on the dangerous edge of things.
The honest thief, the tender murderer, the superstitious atheist.
Can't miss it, he'd said of the hippie house on Plum Street where it would be safe for Willie to park his baby, his immaculate classic Buick. And there it was now, right side, halfway down the block, painted up like a bad acid tripâorange walls, purple trim, some of the windows missing and others cracked and milky, the front door covered by an American flag with a peace symbol on the blue field where the fifty stars were supposed to be. A kid with stringy blond hair halfway down his back was waving cars onto the back yard. Music poured from an upstairs window, jangling electric guitars and a woman wailing,
“Go ask Alice when she's ten feet taaaaaaaaall. . . .”
The driveway was pocked and cracked so Willie took it slow. He had the Sonomatic radio tuned to the pre-game show on WJRâUncle Bob told him he absolutely must not miss itâand a guy with a folksy southern drawl was reciting some kind of poem:
For, lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth,
The time of the singing birds is come
And the voice of the turtle is heard on the land . . .
Voice of the
? Man, that cracker must've been smoking something good, Willie thought as he switched off the radio, parked and locked the car.
He paid two dollars to a chubby girl wearing bell-bottom jeans and a tight sweater, no shoes, no brassiere. She flashed him a smile and the peace sign and said, “That's a pretty far-out car you got there. What is it?”
“It's a '54 Buick Century.”
“Wow, looks brand new. I love that trippy pink-and-black paintjob.”
“Thanks. So do I.”
“Looks like something Elvis would drive.” She noticed the license plate. “You really from Alabama?”
“Ma'am!” She laughed so hard her breasts jiggled under the nubby sweater. It was the sort of thing he would not have dared to notice back homeâuntil the day he did dare to notice, and then proceeded to learn the high price of noticing. The girl said, “You don't gotta call me ma'am. My name's Sunshine.”
“And I'm Willie.” He shook the offered hand. Her fingernails were painted turquoise and they were gnawed down to the quicks. Weren't her feet cold?
“How come you're way up north here, Willie?”
“That's a long story . . .” He caught himself before he called her ma'am again. “Got some family up here. Thought I might find a better job.”
“So did you?”
“Not really.” He managed a chuckle. It was a reflex. He knew how important it was not to let white people see his pain, not to even let them suspect that he might be in pain.
“Um, Willie . . . ?” She touched his arm and looked into his eyes. He noticed for the first time that her eyes were glassy and pink. Must be nice, smoking reefer before noon. “Listen, I'm . . . we're . . . everyone here in the house, we're, like, all real sorry about what happened to Dr. King.”
He stiffened. “You're very kind to say so, Sunshine, but there's no need to be sorry.”
“There's not?” She looked confused. “How come?”
“Cause you didn't kill him.”
not, but. . . .”
“Sides, there's a lot of us brothers think the man was a sell-out.”
“Dr. King? A
?” Satisfied when Sunshine's jaw droppedâhe loved to fuck with white people, especially the ones who believed their hearts were full of good intentionsâhe turned and left without another word.
The neighborhood was shabbyâglass glittering on the sidewalks, houses in need of paint, black bruises on the street where cars had leaked their vital fluids. In the shadows between houses there were still gray slag heaps of unmelted snow. In
. Surviving his first Detroit winter was not something Willie was going to forget anytime soon. One day he was sitting in buttery sunshine in Palmer Park reading
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
, watching swans glide across the pond, marveling at the palette of the trees, the bloody reds, the juicy oranges, the richest colors he'd ever seen. The next morning he awoke to a blizzard, the first of his life, a storm that had come howling down out of Canada in the night and dumped a foot of snow on the city.
This neighborhood, the shabbiness of it, reminded Willie of something he picked up from a Chicago brother named Clifford Jenks who'd shared a cell with him at Parchman Farm in Mississippi back in '61, during Snick's “jail, no bail” phase. Unlike the other Freedom Riders, Clifford and Willie weren't big on singing or Scripture. They spent most of that long night talking about sports and girls. They were still wet from the hosing they'd been given, shivering from the chill breath of the fans the guards had trained on them.
What Clifford said was: “Must be some kinda unwritten law that all stadiums is in shitty neighborhoods. Look at my hometown. Comiskey Park's on the South Side, in a black ghetto. Look at Yankee Stadium, South Bronx, a Puerto Rican ghetto. And look at D-troit. Tiger Stadium, in a white ghettoâwhich is the worst kind a ghetto they is.” Clifford Jenks was something, a man who could make you laugh inside a cage in Parchman Farm.
As Willie joined the river of fans flowing toward the ballpark, he felt the familiar tingling. He'd always loved crowds, their anonymity, their electricity, their animal warmth. This mostly white crowd was in high spirits, like they hadn't heard the news about Martin Luther Kingâor didn't care. For the past week there'd been riots in Washington, D.C., San Francisco and dozens of cities in between, but Detroit had remained almost eerily quiet. Just one death, two cops wounded, a few student walkouts and assembly line shutdowns. Nothing like last summer, when a routine police raid on an illegal after-hours liquor house set the city off, a week of burning and looting and shooting that Willie and a lot of other people had spent the past nine months trying to forget.
And now, just after Willie's riot nightmares had finally stopped, Martin Luther King Jr. gets himself killed by a white man in Memphis. At least, everyone said it was a white man did it. Almost a week after the shooting they still hadn't found the gunman, and Willie was convinced they never would. He didn't think he was being cynical, just realistic. When it was announced that the funeral would be held in Atlanta on April 9, President Johnson, that lame white duck, decreed that the opening day of baseball season would be postponed from the 8th to the 10th, and he ordered all flags flown at half-mast. The Academy Awards show was also postponed by two days. Willie greeted these tokens with a shrug.
Though he had given up on King years ago, the details about the assassination fascinated him. For days he devoured newspapers and magazines and lived in front of his television set. He learned that the embalmers had to spend long hours working on King's corpse because the whole right side of his face was shot away, the jaw barely dangling. They had to rebuild the face with plaster. In Atlanta the coffin was placed on a crude farm wagon that was pulled through the throngs of mourners by two Georgia mules. This attempt to dress the patrician King in the trappings of the common man struck Willie as calculated and deeply dishonest, downright shameful. But hardly surprising. That, after all, was what mythmakers did. Given some of the things he'd heard King say, Willie even believed the man had pursued martyrdom.
Willie devoured such news not because he was shocked or even particularly dismayed by the killing, but because all the images of King had reawakened something in him. Hard as he'd tried to forget what happened during the riot, now he felt a need to remember something that happened long before the riot. Something he thought he'd buried forever. Something he would need to rememberâand confrontâif he ever hoped to escape from the purgatory he was living in.
All he had to go on was two little words:
His memory, clouded by the poisons he'd ingested during the past year, could tell him only that he first heard those words somewhere in Alabama and that they were uttered by a girl with a voice as soft as satin. He could still hear her voice but could no longer picture her face or remember her name. He had forgotten so much. The one other thing he knew about the girl's words was that they were dripping with acid and they were directed at King. Hearing a sister deride King as
had made the floor fall out of Willie's world, like a trap door had opened beneath him. Everything in his carefully constructed life fell through that trap doorâall his beliefs, his ideals, his idols, his faith that the world could be made to change and that he could play some small part in changing itâeverything started falling that day. And on the day after King's funeral, years after he heard those two killing little words, Willie could see with fresh eyes that he was still falling and he wanted to stop.
Watching those ridiculous Georgia mules pull King's coffin through the wailing mob in Atlanta, Willie understood that if he could recapture the moment when he first heard those two wordsâif he could relive that momentâhe might be able to reassemble the life that fell through that trap door. Then he might be able to tell the story of that life. For the first time in years, thanks to Martin Luther King's murder, that was what he wanted to do.