July 7 1998, Tuesday
n today's docket was a trip into Detroit. Matt Rogers wanted to show me the Heidelberg Project in the heart of the city's urban decay. The Heidelberg Project is a large art project built on a neighborhood-size scale. Its media is the abandoned houses, decaying streets and disgarded possessions of Detroit's Heidelberg Street, which cuts through one of the poorest, most neglected residental areas in the city. The Heidelberg Project is the work of artist Tyree Guyton, though he obviously had lots of assistance. According to Matt, the City of Detroit, in the typical infuriatingly brutish manner of American cities, is scheduled to bulldoze the entire thing in a month's time. The city claims the project is an eyesore and a danger, evidently unwilling to consider the crack houses, crime, and squalour it replaced.
So off we drove down I-94 towards Detroit. The air was hot and grey, tinged slightly with yellow, smog. Once Matt pointed this out, I could feel the air biting my lungs with every inhale. "People actually live here," I thought.
Along the edge of the much-broken, much-patched interstate, shreds of blown tires had accumulated to a surprising density. They looked like black alligator roadkill. There were also a few scattered paper cups and plastic bottles, but no glass and no aluminum cans, since such things are worth 10 cents each in this state. Many of the cars driving alongside us were huge, ancient, rusted-out American cars. I later learned that such beasts are common in Michigan because there are no inspections or emissions standards here, where the automotive industry is king and the air pays the price. I'm gradually coming to the conclusion that Michigan is a very different state from the others; it's culture seems completely alien but also (at least to me) intriguing.
Off the crumbling Interstate and down Gatiot Street, the neighborhoods and businesses looked increasingly depleted of vitality. Nothing had been painted in a very long time, and the cracks forming in all the structures seemed to grow unchecked. When we turned down Heidelberg Street and the abandoned houses along it pressed closer, I found it difficult to picture a more neglected scene. Many of the houses were simply gone, replaced with grassy lots that looked almost rural. One of the few residents had built himself a rather large garden, complete with corn, though we wondered about the wisdom of eating anything grown on such lived-in soil.
owards the south end of Heidelberg Street, we could see the colours and textures of the project itself, which seemed to grow like a spectacular fungus over the crumbling ruins of the Heidelberg neighborhood. Matt parked the car and we got out and walked.
There was only one house on the rest of the street that appeared to be occupied, and it was crowded with people, all of them black. They were talking and laughing and having a good old time there among the colourful paint and hanging objects.
As we drew near, I could see that the houses, trees, telephone poles, sidewalks, and vacant lots had been densely decorated with all kinds of found objects: shopping carts, old television sets, ironing boards, shoes, bits of wood, and toys of all descriptions. They had also been painted, mostly with quickly-executed faces with huge creepy toothy grins. The word "GOD" had been painted repeatedly. It was organic, funky, thorough and energetic like the swirling chaos of layered graffiti, but it was more sculptural and somewhat more composed. It demonstrated an inspiring manic intensity, fondly bringing back memories of my old Punch Buggy Green, which I'd decorated in a similar way back in the mid 90s.
The sheer volume of things: thrift store rejects, stuffed animals, shoes and bicycles, was impressive, but so was the obvious labour involved in putting it all up.
As we walked around amongst it all, patterns emerged. The artist had carefully grouped things that were similar: a huge pile of shoes, a picnic of baby dolls sitting around a picnic table eating smaller fire-damaged baby dolls, a tree festooned with stuffed animals and a beached Noah's Ark of yet more artificial creatures.
The decorations continued right to the sidewalk, forming a woven wall of textures. Some elements of the decoration were even parked in the street, which had itself been painted with coloured circles.
From my description, you can imagine that to a person such as myself, or to my like-minded friends (say, Matt Rogers, David Sickmen, Jessika, Wacky Jen, Nancy Firedrake and Deya), this place would seem beautiful and worthy of National Park status. I've talked about my social circle's fondness for the æsthetic values of the creepy and disturbing before. But to most people: the great majority of Americans completely unfamilar with the concept of art and obsessed with tidyness, order, predictablity, and comfort, the Heidelberg Project must be rather frightening, perhaps even more so than the crack houses it replaces. I'm sure that the political decision to bulldoze the Heidelberg Project is a very popular one.
And I wonder what the people in the neighborhood of the Heidelberg Project really think about it? Is it really very likely that poor black people struggling to survive in urban decay understand art better than comfort-obsessed sport-utility-vehicle-driving suburban white people? I suppose anything that gives notoriety besides the usual crime, drugs and poverty is regarded as a long overdue blessing.
We walked to the end of the street and back, and I took several digital camera pictures. When we saw several scary-looking pedestrians slowly coming towards us, we didn't verbally acknowledge our fear, but we walked back to the car, maximizing quickness without overly-compromising casualness. It's a creepy neighborhood, and we didn't want to get a gun stuck in our ribs.
ack at Matt's House, Matt was wondering how next to spend our time. Since my arrival, he's seemed overly-concerned with my having a rich experience while in his presence. Evidently he fears I'll get bored if he doesn't come up with constant excitement. But I'm not really that way at all. I like to socialize, but I occasionally need an opportunity to withdraw. So that's what I did. I fired up the laptop and worked on my July 4th entry for several hours. Since Windows 3.11 has proved very unreliable on that machine, I was forced to work entirely within DOS. Ah, the joys of stone-tablet web page design.
n the evening, Matt did some telephone tag and finally tracked down this girl he knows named Vanessa, arranging dinner at a Ypsilanti Mexican restaurant. Matt has told me about some sort of vaguely semi-unrequited quasi-romantic thing with this girl, adding that it's all doomed by the fact that she's a lesbian.
When Vanessa arrived and started talking to Matt about whatever it was she was talking about, I found myself thinking, "Oh, it's one of these kind of girls." I have a pile of personality templates in my head, and she seemed to fit one of these perfectly. She was short, buxom, had long hair and talked a lot with a very loud, fast voice. She was extremely enthusiastic about everything, gesticulating wildly and pacing back and forth. Her interactions with Matt always seemed to contain a flirtative undertone, and he responded to this in kind, though his usual overbearing enthusiasm seemed to be tempered in response to the vaguely cloying energy with which she filled the room. It came as no surprise that this girl was heavily into computers, online chatting and the Internet. Oberlin College had quite a few girls just like this, and they all lived in Keep Co-op (the "nerd co-op"), and Matt always seemed to have some sort of fucked-up relationship with one or the other of them. Evidently they are the kind he's attracted to, though I definitely don't get it.
But I decided to give Vanessa chance. If Matt liked her, it chances seemed good that I'd find something to like about her too. I had faith. Sometimes the only way to burrow through an energy barrier is with the catalyst of faith.
We went to the Downtown Ypsilanti Mexican place and ordered up some grub. The staff all looked to be genuine Mexicans, including this really beautiful small dark girl running the cash register who looked to be about fourteen years old.
The food came out in record time. Only when food was in mouths did the conversation die down.
As we were walking back to the Vanessa's van from the restaurant, we passed a pile of trash on the side of the street. We immediately began to root around through it, looking for treasure. There wasn't all that much except for a few interesting arts and craft supplies and a bag of empty film cannisters. Some girls who Matt knew came out of the nearby house and, knowing nothing about the source of the trash, joined us with our search for loot. At this point I discovered that a rubber bulb from a turkey baster could be used to launch film cannisters several dozen feet with a loud popping noise.
It seemed just a little creepy for Matt to introduce me to these random girls with the line "he has a website read by millions of people every day." I generally prefer my accomplishments (exaggerated or not) to be completely left out of introductions.
n a whim, Matt and I decided to get tussin. He has, you see, been reading all about my tussin experiences and has wanted to try it for some time. So Vanessa drove us to a big Ypsilanti drug store and we went in to have a look at the dextromethorpham-containing substances. After examining lots of unsuitable products, we finally decided to get a form of gel-cap tussin. A single three dollar package contained 12 gel-caps with 360 milligrams of dextromethorphan total (along with ephedrine and guaffinessin), equivalent to just under five ounces of conventional liquid tussin. I shoplifted my box capsules, but Matt wimped out and bought his (with money he had to borrow from me). Unlike in Charlottesville, where the gutterpunks have looted the tussin on numerous occasions, there was no special security around this particular "tussin aisle."
We went back to Vanessa's place to actually eat the gel-caps. I hadn't prepared myself for what I was to see there. It was full of things, completely out in the open and mostly intermingled: clothes, books, bags, computer equipment, you name it. There was no floor space at all, just tracts of accumulated possessions, most of them looking to be of marginal value. Vanessa didn't say anything like "forgive the mess"; she was utterly unabashed. Matt made sure I had a look inside the toilet. It actually had algæ growing in it!
The house itself belongs to a guy named Marcus; Vanessa is his housemate and they have some sort of complex relationship about which I felt it inappropriate to pry. Evidently Marcus is some sort of computer genius, and among his many accomplishments is the conferencing system used, among other places, on the Well.
Vanessa led Matt and me down into the basement to show us the impressive dinosaur computer collection Marcus has amassed over the years. The entire basement was stacked nearly to the ceiling with all kinds of glorious ancient hardware. There were PDP-11s, an old Altaire, a few clunky pre-consumer Commodores from the mid-70s, and all kinds of enormous (physically big) hard drives, none of which could store more than 20 Megabytes. It had a visceral beauty, sort of like visiting a slaughterhouse. I too have a computer-collecting spirit, but unlike Marcus, I have a vague notion of the point where it's meaningless to continue. This basement was evidence of a very real psychological problem.
Upstairs, Vanessa showed us her own computer collection. It was much smaller, and much more focused on useable equipment: 500 Megabyte SCSI drives, a Sun workstation with 12 Megs of RAM, and various 486s and such. Her main machine was based around a 233 AMD K-6 (just like mine), though she had a beautiful 17 inch flat-faced monitor enough to make me envious. Something about her enthusiasm and obvious love for her computers resonated well with me. I found myself thankful I'd given her a chance; she really was pretty cool it seemed.
We ate the gel caps and inhaled some smoke from supposedly mind-altering incense, then Vanessa changed into a little purple dress that, she claimed, made her into a slut.
Matt is familiar with my writings on tussin adventures, so he suggested we go for a walk in the University of Michigan arboretum up in Ann Arbor. That seemed like a good plan, even though it was raining, so Vanessa took us for another ride in the van.
Vanessa evidently has a poor sense of direction, because we kept taking wrong turns on the streets of Ann Arbor as the rain grew in strength and pelted down on the windshield. I was experiencing a pretty solid tussin euphoria by this point, and just wanted to be driven around in circles forever.
But eventually we came to a stop in Ann Arbor's collegiate district. Rain was still falling pretty hard, so we decided to retreat to a coffee shop called Rendez Vouse. Talking the whole time (as we had yesterday) about "livin' on a porch" and "porch dwellin'," we went up to the second floor of Rendez Vous and went out on a porch.
I was still carrying that blue rubber turkey baster bulb, compulsively attaching it to my body in various places and having it stick there like a blue tumour. I jokingly suggested attaching it to my neck, painting it the colour of my skin, and going to various places to test its effect on my ability to get jobs and pick up dates. Matt mentioned that there are now factories where human skin is grown in sheets, suggesting I could get some of that skin to cover my turkey baster bulb neck polyp. But I had an alternate idea for all that skin being made in factories. Perhaps it could be made into lampshades, thus achieving in a kinder-gentler way what the Nazis had done back during the Holocaust.
Vanessa had ordered some sort of supposedly mind-altering bark-based tea, and she'd also taken some extremely mild psycho-active substance, but for the most part she seemed to be jealous that Matt and I were babbling away with such seeming creative abandon.
Since we're all very well acquainted with the web, we kept finding web metaphors for the things we were doing. Tangents or explanations injected into the conversation were "hyperlinks," or, if they were very long, "framed commentary." It was all very dorky and ersatz-intellectual, and I would have been embarrassed to be seen behaving this way, but it was actually rather fun.
The tussin experience wasn't especially profound for me, but it did have the desired effect of making me more social and reducing some of my inhibitions against being weird. For example, when we walked back inside the coffee shop, I looked around at the studious customers and the bright red chairs, and suddenly it all looked like an elementary school classroom. So, rather loudly, I explained this vision to Vanessa, adding that to complete the picture, someone should put up the letters of the alphabet.
The showers eased to a weak drizzle and we decided it was time to head to the arboretum. Is it just me or does it always seem to be raining just a little every time I decide to tuss? We walked through some fratty neighborhoods and eventually ended up in the dark and spooky arboretum. There was a nice gravel path to walk on, so finding our way through the woods down to the Huron ("Urine") River was not difficult. We sat on the bank of the river and talked for a very long time, mostly about art and the things we like therein ("urine"). Vanessa is, like many people these days, an artist, and she has a preference for drawing intricate textures and grungy funkiness. She went on at some length about how she likes to challenge conventional notions of perspective and direction (perhaps with overlapping fields of textures; at least this is how I pictured what she was saying in my mind). This discussion of textures and fucked-up perspectives were very appropriate for my tussin-induced spatial feelings (though these were had almost completely faded away by this point). I realized that there was actually a lot similar between my personal æsthetic and Vanessa's, and this made me happy. But, then again, this could have been the unusually gentle tolerance that seems to overtake me when I'm on tussin.
The rain had quit and the full Moon was shining brightly by the time we began walking back to civilization up from the river. For some odd reason, I seemed to know the way back to the van better than they did. I guess I'm really getting to know Ann Arbor.
t Matt's house after Vanessa dropped us off, Matt and I were both utterly sleepless, perhaps from the ephedrine. We both checked our mail and went our various ways to bed, but all I could do until well into the early light of morning was stare blankly at the living room ceiling.
one year ago
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