The other morning I woke up in the middle of an unusually vivid dream in which I’d somehow found myself trapped on the rotting hulk of the Bob-Lo boat.
The Bob-Lo boat (there were actually two of them, the Ste. Claire and the Columbia) was a magical, wondrous craft that ferried people from downtown Detroit to the magical, wondrous place known as Bob-Lo Island. Well, as magical and wondrous a place as you were likely to encounter at the mouth of the virulently polluted Detroit River where it dumped its waste into the similarly polluted Lake Erie, anyway.
The ride downriver lasted about half an hour, taking us past a dreary succession of chemical plants and steel mills that freely spewed their effluent into the water and the skies. But in those days that seemed perfectly normal. Sure, it stunk, and sometimes it even hurt a little to breathe, but the thick air cast a hazy glow over everything, especially when the blood red sun was disappearing into the miasma and the Bob-Lo boat was making its languid way back upriver, carrying a load of weary but happy Detroiters home from their day of merry-go-rounds, picnics and roller coaster rides. The band played, the teenagers and young adults danced, and the dwarflike Captain Bob-Lo made his way through the crowds, sometimes amusing, sometimes terrorizing the children who caromed around the deck like so many pinballs on a Force Ten sugar rush.
There were four decks, and I used to migrate from the top, with its glorious open-air views of the Ontario and Michigan riverfront, to the bottom, where I could peer right down into the deafeningly loud and stiflingly hot engine room, savoring the smells of the superheated oil coating the enormous piston as it thrust in and out with an almost alarming clank and thump. But the true heartbeat of the ship was on and around the dance floor, and it was there that the serpent of sorrow crept for the first time into my Bob-Lo childhood Eden.
Most families, at least most families of modest means like my own, got at best one trip a year to Bob-Lo. If you were lucky, you might get an extra visit or two by being invited along with a friend’s family, or maybe if your dad was in the Knights of Columbus or the Lions Club (mine wasn’t), there’d be a group outing in addition to your annual family trip. In my case, I was used to going once a year and making the most of it.
But when you got to sixth grade, everything changed. Beginning that year, and continuing in seventh and eighth, you got to go on a end-of-school Bob-Lo excursion, with, apart from a few token chaperones, no annoying parents to interfere with your fun. As much as I was looking forward to this, I dreaded the other part of the tradition: the sixth grade trip was the first time boys were not only allowed, but actually expected to ask girls to be their date for the day.
Naturally there was no end of talk and excitement over this prospect, to the point where schoolwork became little more than an afterthought during the last couple weeks before B-Day. Having in the past always had a perfectly good time at Bob-Lo without dragging a girl along, I saw no reason to change things now, but the peer pressure was terrific, to the point where I was being asked a dozen times a day who I was going with, and being warned that I’d better choose someone soon “before all the cool girls are taken.”
My trouble was twofold: not only did I not particularly want to go with a girl, but worse, I couldn’t even imagine why some girl would want to go with me. Finally, though, not wanting to be left even further out of the social mainstream than I already was, I made a list of three girls I didn’t actively dislike and who seemed nice enough that they might not want to hurt my feelings by rejecting me. Having had no experience in asking girls for dates, and not much, for that matter, in talking to them at all, I approached the first girl on my list with the enthusiasm of a condemned man mounting the gallows and mumbled, “Um, you probably don’t want to go to Bob-Lo with me, do you?”
To their credit, none of the girls laughed in my face, were in fact very polite with their prettied-up versions of “Thanks but no thanks,” but at the end of the day, I was left to accept what I’d expected all along: nobody in her right mind would want to go on a date with me, probably ever. I still had a pretty good time, riding the usual rides, stuffing myself to the point of near-nausea on cupcakes, green grapes, and Vernor’s Ginger Ale. As twilight neared I boarded the boat for home with the satisfied sense that when it came to enjoying the sublime pleasures of boat rides and amusement parks, girls were entirely dispensable.
But that comfortable bubble abruptly burst when I discovered that nearly all of my classmates were on or around the dance floor, and that some of them were actually dancing. With girls, no less, with the girls they’d asked to come to Bob-Lo with them, and who, for reasons that continued to elude me, had said, yes, they’d love to.
The band – I can’t see them in my mind’s eye, can’t tell you how many musicians there were or what instruments they played, but I can still hear them, even today – played slightly jazzed-up versions of the current Top 40 hits. The only one I can remember – and it seemed as though they played it all the way home, was Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover,” with its plaintive refrain:
Because I want (yeah yeah)
A girl (yeah yeah)
To call my own
I want a dream lover
So I won’t have to dream alone
And in that moment a thick fog of hopelessness settled over me. The song was telling my story: all my life I would dream alone, never even knowing for sure who or what it was I wanted, let alone having a prayer of getting it. Hadn’t my failure with the three girls I’d asked been proof enough? Why would I want to humiliate myself further? I was 11 years old, and doomed.
The rest of my Detroit years would rush away in a wave of adolescent sturm und drang. I didn’t bother asking any girls on the Bob-Lo trips in seventh and eighth grade, and then there were no more trips, because we were in high school. I guess some of the kids went on their own – with dates, of course – but the school was no longer involved, and of course I was too old to go with my parents. So sometime in the early 1960s Bob-Lo became little more than a bittersweet memory, and why I still think and dream about it all these years later, I don’t know.
I’ve always been quick to leave places – and to some extent people as well – and slow to let them go. Even now, 45 years after officially moving away from Detroit, I still haven’t completely shaken its dust from my heels, and though I know it will almost certainly never happen, I sometimes catch myself speculating about what it would be like to move back there. It would be so much cheaper than New York, I argue; I could live like a king. I already know the accent; people there would be less pretentious and status-conscious (I don’t know where I got the latter idea; everywhere I’ve lived, from rural wilderness to great metropolis, people have been status-conscious, and as for pretentious? Well, they all pretended that they weren’t).
Of course the Detroit I knew – and didn’t particularly like in the first place – is no longer there, vanished with the Bob-Lo boats, the steel mills and auto plants, the Motown hit factory, and over a million of its people. Oh, how we used to complain about what a lousy home town we’d been stuck with, dirty, smelly, ugly, with nowhere to go and nothing to do, and of course in the rear view mirror of history that sounds crazy. Who wouldn’t trade the post-apocalyptic ruin of today’s Detroit for the brash, brawling, cocky, thriving and sprawling Motor City of yesteryear?
Well, quite a few people, possibly; while Detroit of the 1950s and 60s was rolling in money and rich with opportunity, it was also rigidly segregated and un-self-consciously racist. Its prosperity was also founded on a grand delusion: that America and the world could continue to consume ever greater volumes of fossil fuels and dump the detritus willy-nilly into the environment without ever suffering any consequences.
We learned otherwise, and I imagine we’ve still got more to learn. The riots, the gas lines, the crime wave, the collapse of the city’s infrastructure, the exodus of more than half its citizens, all left their painful imprint on this staggering, punch-drunk shell of a city.
Then what should pop on my iPod this morning but the Marvelettes, letting girls everywhere know they’d better watch out for that playboy, and for a moment it was 1963 again, baking in the summer sun as we gunned the engines on our 8mpg Chevy hotrods and rolled down the Dix-Toledo Highway en route to a dip in the old stone quarry and maybe a lightning run across the state line for some firecrackers and 3.2 beer.
That was Detroit, too, the cars, the music, the exhilarating sense of freedom and possibility that, to be sure, mostly revolved around the idea that some day we’d make enough money or discover some kind of angle that would enable us to move away. Crossing the Fort Street Bridge past the smudgepot forest of natural gas flares whose overpowering stink let you know you well and truly in the heart of the city, cruising up Jefferson past the abandon all hope, ye who enter here gates of Zug Island, or Fort Wayne, where newly minted 18 year olds with scarcely a clue about what awaited them were processed and packed off to Vietnam.
In the midst of the haze and the smoke and the random brutality there’d be oases like Bob-Lo or Belle Isle, or the Detroit Institute of the Arts, its cathedral-like entrance hall covered by a Diego Rivera mural that I one day dubbed the Sistine Chapel of the working classes, the Detroit Historical Museum, with its haunting re-creations of city streets and storefronts from the mid-19th century, the free summer concerts by the world-class Detroit Symphony Orchestra or our real hometown heroes, the Supremes. Ted Williams bouncing a home run off but not over the roof of Briggs Stadium, Mickey Mantle lashing one off the face of the upper deck (but the Tigers still came from behind to win it), the lights of the Ambassador Bridge twinkling in the night as though they lit the path to Oz rather than the pleasantly mundane town of Windsor, Ontario.
Downtown was a phantasmagoria of commerce, industry and vice: three vast department stores that rivaled, some dared to whisper, even Macy’s or Gimbel’s in faraway New York. Why, a fellow could get just about anything he needed somewhere in the vicinity of Woodward Avenue and its environs, be it a perfectly respectable suit of clothes set of furniture, or a thoroughly shady visit to a burlesque show or dirty book store. It’s all gone now, some of it replaced or rebuilt elsewhere, much of it vanished forever like so many of 20th century America’s certitudes and certainties. Gone, and as my generation fades away, most likely forgotten as well, but all this was Detroit, and I dream of it still.