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Winter Fiction Issue No. 3

Detroit

A story by Kashana Cauley from her novel in progress The Breakup Album.

photo collage for Detroit by Kashana Cauley
Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban

Detroit’s assault on me started at the airport, where two unreasonably cheerful airline employees said my suitcase was lost. By the time they found it, I’d overdosed on their accent. My old accent. The nasal honk I ditched the second I arrived in New York City and spent seven years pretending I never had. I called myself the man from nowhere, and if pressed on my birthplace, I’d say “a small town,” which always worked. New Yorkers don’t give a shit about your small town.

Whenever someone got me to name the fucking state — the state that reluctantly tolerated my birth and stood by in its silently judgmental way the walls of my parents' house were filled with holes — they’d ask why I lacked the accent, which is famous for sounding backward, with vowels the speaker had to pinch their nose to say or risk being hit with the stink of rotting lettuce. I’d say the Internet told me accents are partly formed by how much you want to resemble the people around you, so I’d picked people to imitate who weren’t the fucks I’d grown up with.

But you’re never supposed to admit you hate where you’re from — not if it’s a small town. Oh, you’re allowed to have a mild distaste for your suburb. You can admit to liking big-box houses and identically square backyards and streets people never appear on if they’re not getting into or out of their cars, but it’s also OK to say a lifestyle based on buying shit to stockpile in a house among empty porches and quiet yards is a form of death. If you need to turn people against a city, mention crime, and people’s heads will fill with rape and murder, whether those acts occur in large numbers in the city you named or not. The city can be demonized any way you want. It can be the blackness to the suburban white; a devil, even if your city stories are full of warmth and light.

But small towns form the backbone of a romanticized America. Abandoned factory towns like the one I grew up in, which had traded self-love for an ever-expanding hate against whomever we blamed for taking the factories away. If I closed my eyes, I could see my native dose of small-town hate as a training regimen and pretended that shit had turned me tough, like an experimental medicine too rough for the general market; but really, I blamed my hometown for wrecking my family. If we’d lived someplace bigger, we would have had something more entertaining to do than resent one another.

I accepted my suitcase and told the airline people that our whole band was from New York before anyone could volunteer a Midwestern hometown that would draw questions about the origins of the only half-faded Midwestern accents that Wesley and Ethan and Natal had, but the fucking airline employees wrecked the moment by saying NYC was “very nice,” with the tone they’d use to praise a rice pilaf. Wesley knew to drag me outside before I could argue them from rice pilaf to bloody steak. His gentle hand clutched my shirt hem and dropped me into the backseat of his dad’s gold, ’70s Cadillac, a car large enough to masquerade as a boat in a pinch.

We left the airport and took a highway lined with polite billboards for plumbing and locksmithery. I missed Williamsburg already, where people had ditched politeness for silence or a generously offered warmth, where small talk might become a story about a building super who had saved enough money to buy a burger chain in New Mexico or a quest to drink out the night together. I hated the Midwest, but I’d loved it once, too, at seventeen, as a tan guy who felt like talking to Natal, the other tan guy at school. I had zero idea that we’d talk our way into our first band in his parents’ basement, where I lived when living at home proved impossible; the band was a rap-rock hybrid that deserved to die, just like all other unholy combinations of two genres of music that sounded less tragic on their own. But we couldn’t live without our take on the sound: harsh, fake drums and the lyrics that slashed across them until our ears rang. For a while, our sound satisfied us for being new. I believed in our mistakes because they taught us how to come up with lyrics and mix them with music, so later, when we wrote better songs, we knew how to perform and record them.

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Signs of my piece-of-shit hometown sprung up on the drive, especially in the other drivers, who aimed a hostility at us that I remembered from growing up in Wisconsin: the cold sideways glance, the mild grimace that meant Why the fuck are you driving next to me, as if interstates were meant to hold only one car at a time.

I understood Midwestern hostility. What was there to like about the Midwest? The people, who only inched through small talk with you until life ordered them to dash off and purchase mildly discounted ground beef at the grocery store? The blankness of the land left behind when manufacturing turned its tail? The truck-sized portions of meat and potatoes that kept you exhausted and on edge? The casual racism dumber white bigots assumed they and I shared? Smarter Midwesterners protected themselves with an extra beat of unfriendly eye contact to keep others at a distance, and a house with a fence that physically blocked them from their enemies.

If I had to sink our next album, Detroit was the place to do it. Failure felt more attainable in a city where the preeminent vibe was death. We passed a hipster coffee shop, the kind people thought proved a city had gotten back on its feet because a handful of white people with enough money for half-sleeve tattoos could afford to open a shop with clean glass and five-dollar coffee that no one who lived near the shop could afford. Unless the coffee shop attracted another coffee shop, like two magnets snapping together, and enough new neighbors who’d shell out eight bucks for coffee if you spelled out each detail of the brewing machines, and the bean fields, and the farmer’s background, because knowing that he’d taken in his sister’s kids made coffee taste better.

At home, once in a great while, I allowed myself to be mystified by the view into a cup of five-dollar coffee, since I sure as hell wasn’t ever going to sock away enough money to buy a house. But expensive coffee couldn’t stave off the city’s death. The gaps between coffee shops commanded more attention than the shops themselves. The empty lots were filled with overgrown dead grass that lay lumped under snow like a bad haircut.

Everyone else in the car talked about things too unexciting to distract me from my album-sinking plan: the acoustics of Wesley’s parents’ basement, no doubt deficient despite Wesley’s assurances that his parents had money and sound-assessment skill too; the cheap recording studio we had booked in case the basement sucked, a wooden-walled, dimly lit upper-midwestern hellhole more suited for guys who needed to grunt after an ice-fishing trip than record an album. Everyone else spoke of Detroit food, as if we’d come here to eat, and our flight, because people are legally required to explain every minute of being up in the air upon landing. You need to relive minute 37 of my flight, all recently landed people said to their hostages, the minute where someone almost kicked me.

We arrived at Wesley’s parents’ estate: two floors of tan-colored money with Greek columns that would look awfully showy had the house not been located in Detroit, the showiest of Midwestern cities, the city that fatalist residents said had been allowed to fail because of the scale of its ambition.

If Detroiters hadn’t built a sweeping colossus of a city complete with car plants the aliens might have landed in, there’d be 2 million Detroiters instead of 700,000. It was stupid to expect a city’s worth of black people to live on top of one another in tiny-ass neighborhoods next to white ones as they had before the ’67 riots, the match-up against the powder keg of all that black confinement, the explosion still detonating decades later, because god forbid the two sides of me live together in a city, much less a single person.

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“Welcome,” Wesley’s mother said from the porch.

She was a lawyer, and she shook my hand like one, deadly and clean, one yank down, one up, leaving me hypnotized, like she’d flipped a switch and my arm now operated according to her instructions. Their maid stepped outside, too, a younger black woman in a starched blue uniform. I wondered for the millionth time how Wesley’s family had gotten fucked up enough to employ a uniformed maid and entertained the question that always followed any encounter with Wesley’s family: Was this real blackness?

I grew up in a white town as a member of a culture everyone there claimed to understand better than me. I’d heard so many opinions on black people by the time I left that my head spun whenever I remembered them. The stereotypes. The generalizations that seemed only a little less vicious: Your people don’t play hockey. You don’t swim. The Cosby Show era, when people asked if my black side had a doctor and a lawyer in it, as if black families were entirely composed of money.

But since I’d left my hometown and entered a world where I could define myself by who I was instead of what kind of fights white people picked with me, I’d become convinced I wasn’t doing blackness right. So many black people in New York had an ease I associated with having grown up with black friends in their lives. An idea of how long to extend a handshake, a comfort with dropping the word “nigga” into everyday conversation, a sense of exactly how woke to be, a mental database of bougie shit, Jack and Jill and the black fraternities and college-football allegiances that gave them a more respectable kind of blackness than mine. I remained obsessed with people who’d grown up with a broader relationship to blackness. Since Wesley was my first black friend, my obsession started with him and spun outward into his Detroit.

Wesley grew up within a pure, unadulterated version of blackness. His high school and college friends were black, and his family’s friends were too — all soft-spoken and moneyed in a way that made their blackness utopian to me, in that whatever problems they faced seemed to be cushioned by cash. White people eyed them with suspicion, but they lived in peaceful houses where college tuitions got paid by check and spoke in the gentle tones I associated with safety.

They had their shit, too: divorces and discrimination and alcoholics they hid from view. And I always needed to remind myself to chill before I hit the mental level that made the upscaleness of their words feel like ants crawling up the sleeves of my shirts. Wesley’s family seemed to have replaced their blood with money and starched polos and updates on professions that made them rich enough to permanently milden their voices. They should have made enough money to outwardly appear comfortable but not so much that I couldn’t picture myself as their fifth member.

Wesley’s parents led us down to the basement with its spotless white tile and pure-white shag rug. Rich people’s shit quietly demands to be kept pristine enough to stick in a museum. The fucking rug gave off ten times as much of that vibe by being the only white rug I’d spotted on a floor in years. Its whiteness demanded that we never track a dirty toe across it.

Kashana Cauley is a contributing opinion writer at The New York Times and former staff writer for The Daily Show with Trevor Noah whose writing has also appeared in The Atlantic, Buzzfeed, Esquire, The New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Rolling Stone.