Comeback City, by Nathaniel Mackey

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By Nathaniel Mackey, from Late Arcade, which was published this month by New Directions. The book is the fifth installment in From a Broken Bottle Traces of Perfume Still Emanate, a novel that follows the activities of a jazz group. Mackey is the author of more than a dozen collections of poetry.

We got to Detroit around noon after an early flight from L.A. It was the first time in the city for all of us. After getting settled in the hotel and resting up a while, we went out. We walked around and took the bus for longer distances, anxious to see all we could. It’s hard to say what it all added up to, could it be said to add up to anything. What it was was random vantages, random veils, no such disclosure as we might think a first-time exposure to a city should yield. Detroit was there but not there. Or was it that we were there but not there, vantage indissociable from veil, red-eyed as we were?

I quickly found our expectation to see and say something about Detroit an irritant, any summing-up or desire to sum up an affront. Yes, the monumental architecture seems to cry out for comment, the massive, no-nonsense rectilinearity of the General Motors Building bent on eliciting reverence or ridicule. (One of us went so far as to call it “their new Parthenon.”) The contrast between so blatant a claim on eternity and the auto industry’s recent troubles — not to mention the charred, burned-out neighborhoods, the abandoned houses overtaken by vines and other growth, the naked foundations, the empty lots — makes cultural critics of us all. Yes, that obvious contrast would appear to put words in our mouths, easy words moreover, no matter how stark what they report. Yes, them that’s got, mostly white, mostly keep getting while them that’s not, mostly black, mostly don’t. This is axiomatic American cud we could chew for days.

We strolled up Woodward Avenue over to the Detroit Institute of Arts. It was beautiful, quite the promenade, with lovely buildings on both sides of the street, the institute perhaps the loveliest of them. The contrast between epic, heroic dimension and postindustrial diminution came easily to one’s lips — too easily, I thought. I had the sense there was an opaque Detroit, a recondite Detroit, a secret Detroit such observations don’t even scratch the surface of. I bit my tongue.

After the Detroit Institute of Arts we took a bus down Woodward to Greektown. At one of the stops a man in his mid-sixties got on. He was wearing a rumpled brown suit that had seen better days, a white shirt that could’ve used washing, and dress shoes that were run down at the heels. His hair was an unkempt salt-and-pepper Afro, matted on one side from having been slept on, his chin and jaws were covered with stubble, in need of a shave. He headed for the back of the bus, muttering under his breath and making a point of looking at each passenger he passed. His eyes were bloodshot, and one could smell that he’d been drinking, but he had a kind of elegance all the same, no matter that his legs were a little shaky and he bumped against the edges of the seat backs as he made his way down the aisle. After he and the other new passengers were seated and the bus began to roll again, his muttering slowly gained volume, until we heard him say, loudly and a bit slurred, “None of y’all don’t know nothin’ about this!” He repeated this again and again, pausing between repetitions as if to let it sink in throughout the bus or even, perhaps, to assess and be newly schooled by it himself. “None of y’all don’t know nothin’ about this!” His voice was raspy, gruff, burning like whiskey.

The rest of us turned to look toward the back of the bus, one or two at first and then more and more, all of us eventually staring at him as he continued to announce, “None of y’all don’t know nothin’ about this!” He sat alone on the back seat of the bus, dead center, head up, back surprisingly straight given the wobbliness of his walk down the aisle, feet planted flatly and solidly on the floor, legs a little bit akimbo, hands on his knees. He stared back, panning the bus, intent, it seemed, on making eye contact with each and every one of us — something of a taunt, a challenge, a dare in the look he gave. “None of y’all don’t know nothin’ about this!” he kept insisting, or sometimes, “Don’t none of y’all know nothin’ about this!”

It never became clear what he meant by “this,” whether it referred to his condition in some micro or macro way (his tipsiness or his general disrepair, respectively) or to a more general state of affairs, to life itself or to who knows what, but his vehemence, if nothing else, communicated; his adamance, if nothing else, had a kind of articulateness, the direness or the extremity from which he spoke was affecting and true. It struck me that “this” was nothing if not the entire edifice, possession built on and put in place by dispossession, the disrepair of the socially dead. I thought this and I saw it all in a snap, a flash, but no matter the truth of it, the historical and present-day relevance or resonance of it, I almost immediately lost patience with myself, guilty as I was of a deeper negligence, a deep nonobservance of the hidden-in-plain-sight rite we were being offered, the initiation into not knowing that the man in the rumpled suit offered us. The simple fact was that he was right: we didn’t know. We didn’t know who he was, we didn’t know what “this” was.

I have to admit I found myself a little shaken, no matter that nothing untoward was happening. I felt somehow singled out. The fact that what he said, what he kept insisting, what he kept repeating, agreed so much with the way I’d been thinking — the random vantage being the random veil — is what shook me. It seemed he spoke from some unreachably occult place, a cautionary voice after my own heart, chastening and affirming me at the same time.

From time to time the bus driver glanced up at his rearview mirror, checking out what was going on in back. It had started off with everyone a little on edge, apprehensive as to what this would lead to, but after a while it seemed pretty clear that the man’s mania, if mania was what it was, consisted solely of confronting us verbally and with his bloodshot gaze. He kept to his own space, which was clearly defined as the middle of the back seat of the bus, and his hands never left his knees — no flailing of arms, no gesticulation, not so much as waving a finger. What little violence there was, if it can even be called that, was confined to his face, a grimacing wince it got from time to time as he registered the effort it took to apprise us of our not knowing, a certain exasperation, bordering on exhaustion it seemed, with having to do so, with our not knowing and with our not knowing we didn’t know. Once it was established that he posed no threat, everyone in the bus relaxed. Everyone eventually went back to what they’d been doing before. A group of teenagers covered their mouths and giggled. The man in the brown suit, unfazed by no longer having everyone’s attention, continued his tirade. After a while it simply blended in, background noise, of a piece with the conversations going on in the bus, traffic noise from outside, and whatever else came into earshot. At the fourth stop he stood up, went back to muttering, made his way up the aisle, and got off the bus.

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