The first theft is the easiest. I go back in after months of thinking about it and walk out with several boxes of things that do not belong to me. A man fixing his roof stops hammering to watch me. As I try to make my getaway, the car gets stuck in the snow. I am a lousy criminal.

After I finally dig the car out, I drive away from the middle school in which I have just been trespassing. Built in the 1960s in the international style, none of the floor-to-ceiling windows are intact. Earlier I'd walked through one of those windows right into the principal's office, where four decades' worth of report cards lay scattered on the floor. There was a stack of yearbooks on the secretary's desk: 2007, the last year of classes before everyone just walked away. I flipped through the faces of the kids whose presence once made this building a school. I found a banker's box and began gathering what it was I was there to collect.

A few months later and I find myself stealing again. I am in what must have been a records room for a K-6 elementary school built in the 1920s. The floor is covered in paperwork that dates back to the 1940s. My flashlight on the attendance records highlights a name "Kermit Nowicki" [last name changed] born in 1946. A baby boomer. I flip through the rest of the names and wonder where these people are today, old now and off in some suburban life so far from the 1950s city they once knew with backyards and alleys full of neighborly noise and activity and white kids in all the streets, milk bottles on the porches. Kermit missed a few weeks in January for the mumps. Would he find it strange to know I was sitting in the dark with the history of his body pressed against one of these chairs, the history of his warmth missing from these rooms?

I find a box filled with copies of checks written out to suppliers in some ancient calligraphic splendor; $7 checks written to the power company in 1958 and $12 checks written by the principal to pay for a month's worth of milk. I stuff a few checks in my pocket. Later, on the floor: a colored pencil sketch of Martin Luther King Jr. I take that too.

The bathrooms still have their marble stalls. The copper has been ripped from the walls behind each fixture, sledgehammered fissures in the brickwork. The scrappers have left notes to each other on the walls, gloating over what's already been taken. "$5,000 strong copper bitch." Just a few weeks before this trespass, a principal at an operating school in this same district sent home a letter with her students pleading for their parents to send toilet paper and light bulbs to school with their children. The school I'm in was closed so recently that only now are the smoke detectors running low on batteries. The devices are chirping birds in the hallways and classrooms, with songs like cooling embers.

The library is completely intact, with books dating back to the 1930s:

The picture book section is filled with the kinds of books I love to read to my daughter. I have seen what happens to books in these school libraries.

I grab and take as many picture books with me as can fit in my arms. I am a thief. But that all started months ago.

* * * * *

After my first visit to the shattered middle school, I am haunted by what I found in one office: hundreds of file folders containing student psychological examinations complete with social security numbers, addresses, and parent information. I sat and thumbed through them. Many contained detailed histories of physical and sexual abuse, stories of home lives so horrifying I still can't get them out of my head: sibling rape, torture, neglect that defies belief. The detailed reports explained emotional impairments, learning disabilities. There was another box full of IEPs. The dates revealed that many of these students are still in the school system somewhere. I found several of their faces in the 2007 yearbook.

I spend the next few months trying to track down someone who cares. I send e-mails to the school's former principal, offering to go back and collect these records for her or destroy them. She never responds. I call my mom, a retired special education teacher and erstwhile administrator to determine the extent of malfeasance. Then I call the school district's legal department and leave voice mails warning them of the liability of this gross violation of student privacy. I never receive a response. I track down the school psychologist to some address in Troy. Nothing. It turns out a daily newspaper reported abandoned records like these within many of the 33 schools closed in 2007 and the district did nothing. No one is responsible. Someone else was supposed to destroy them. The company that had been paid to secure the school never did its job.

So I did it. I went back in to destroy them so they would no longer be just sitting there on the floor for anyone to find.

* * * * *

I have read a stolen book to my daughter every night for the past few weeks. Last night, I pulled out the charging card from the first page of a book called The Boy and the Forest, and scanned through the names of the children who'd checked it out all the way back to 1964. Steven. Suzy. Kelvin. Natinia. Here was the history of a school, of a neighborhood, of a city. I write posts like this and the e-mails start coming: I went to that school. Let me tell you about the neighborhood back in the 1950s; and, Why don't you do something about it other than take pictures?

This time I did do something else: I stole stories. Some I hope will never get told. Others I hope to tell time and time again.

I have been documenting the waste at recently-vacated, unsecured Detroit Public Schools for Vice Magazine for the past year or so. This month a seven-page spread appears in the U.K. print edition and some of the photos are online. The photos may get picked up by some of the international editions but for now the print version is only available in the U.K. I have been holding on to a lot of these photos all year and I will probably share a few more in the next few weeks.

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The dog has been in a permanent diarrheal squat in the backyard for two days and it's all my fault. I just knocked a butt-gravy icicle off his tail before letting him back into the house. Seriously.

Let me back up. A few weeks ago I went out to dinner with some old college friends at a strip mall Vietnamese place out in the suburbs. The persistent vegetarians among us planned to order tofu-instead-of-meat dishes; one of the guys ordered fried rice; so of course I had to go all Anthony Bourdain and scan the menu for the most authentic-sounding dish, in this case something called Bún bò Huế (described cryptically as "vermicelli pork leg, pork blood cake, beef slices" and marked *spicy*). "Mmmmm," I said to my disgusted companions. "Pork blood cake!"

Now I will eat almost anything. Eyeballs? Depending on the species, I will eat eyeballs. Brains? Fried or stewed, either way. Ferret pancreas? Ocelot spleen? Why not! If I have paid money for something, I am going to eat it, damn the gastrointestinal consequences. So here I was, really excited for a big bowl of pork blood cake with noodles. I was the last to order, and when the no-nonsense waitress heard me, she shook her head disapprovingly. "No no no," she said. "You want #37." I looked at #37's description. All it had was beef slices. "No, I want the one with pork blood cake." The elderly waitress insisted that, in fact, I didn't know what I wanted. She knew what I wanted: #37. I asked her if she could bring me a little pork blood cake on the side, and she just rolled her eyes and grabbed my menu.

I'm not sure if she wouldn't let me order it because I'm white or because I looked like a wiseacre. Either way, we've started getting our Vietnamese takeout from a different place, where my wife usually stops on her way back from the fabric store. This past weekend, though, I placed the order and noticed "Bún bò Huế" scrawled among the other heavily-accented words on the daily special board. I ordered it quietly and slipped out of the restaurant with my pork blood cake soup. When I got home I assembled it in a bowl: steaming lemongrass-scented broth, soba noodles, pork knuckles, oxtail, sinewy beef slices, fresh onions, bean sprouts, cilantro, and a squeeze of lime.

Then I saw the pork blood cakes.

They were each about a square inch in size. They jiggled on the spoon, a maroon gelatin made from congealed blood. I think the dark spots were clots. Now I am accustomed to blood-flavored food being a bit saltier, but it wasn't the taste that troubled me as much as the texture. They were very, very squishy. And cold. I ate two of them but fished the others out and threw them to the dog. Then I gave him the oxtail and pig's feet, too, because after consuming congealed-blood Jello I wasn't about to reward myself by gnawing on tail meat and pork tendons. While I slurped down broth and noodles, under the table the tail of only true gastronomical adventurer in the house batted against my feet while he crunched on bones. And somewhere up in Madison Heights that old crone was rightfully laughing her ass off.

For the last several days, though, the dog has squatted around giving me a pained look I knew all too well having spent many high school dinners at a friend's house sucking the marrow out of lamb bones and eating South Indian curries far spicier than anything my lily-white intestines had ever before encountered. As the dog turned our backyard into the world's largest shit-flavored snow cone, I thought sadly, "There but for the grace of God go I."

"It wouldn't be a Danny Boyle movie without someone voluntarily leaping into a pit of human excrement."

"I didn't know Mumbai has a swamp full of chicken tikka masala!"

"Wow, Indian Oliver Twist has way better production values than Indian Superman."

"George Michael took a job as the host of the Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire? Good for him."

"I liked the part where the little Indian children turned Italian."

"This film finally answers the question: what if Rudyard Kipling and Horatio Alger had co-written that screenplay about a television gameshow?"

Like all great college stories, this coloring book tells the story of a band of outcasts, a set of heroic misfits who discover the importance of friendship while overcoming the odds and exploring newfound freedoms. And, like all 1980s coloring books I find at the thrift store, it contains a homoerotic shower scene:

To view the rest of the pages, click here. And remember kids, stay in school.*

*In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that I freakin' LOVED the California Raisins when I was 10. I may have even owned a large collection of the plastic figurines. I may have even made a plush California Raisin out of felt. I may have even owned the cassette of The California Raisins Sing the Hit Songs, and I may have even shed a tear to the California Raisins' version of "When a Man Loves a Woman" (but not because it reminded me of when Kevin Arnold finally kissed Winnie Cooper or anything).

I spent a day last week with a writer from Time Magazine showing him around Detroit. He was here to do a story about ways this city might reinvent itself, so a few days before he arrived I put together a tour of the city with that in mind. I was kind of nervous---this was Time Magazine, after all: the storied weekly of Henry Luce and James Agee and the "person of the year." I know no one really reads it anymore unless they're waiting for a root canal or a colonoscopy, but still: Time Magazine. It's a big deal. So I met the writer outside my wife's office and welcomed him into my filthy car. He was surprisingly young and all I could think when I shook his hand was, "Dude, you were born in the EIGHTIES weren't you?" He was only in town for a few hours and the mayor had just stood him up, so I had the enormous responsibility of trying to explain this insanely complicated city before he jetted back to Park Slope. This is how the mainstream media works, I guess: to write a story on the 11th-largest city in the nation they parachute in a guy who's never been there before for a few hours WITHOUT A CAR and let some carpetbagging hipster douchebag show him around town. What pertains to laws and sausages, it seems, applies also to Time Magazine articles when it comes to seeing how they're made.

To be fair, the writer was incredibly aware of how unfair this situation was. He was bright and fully engaged and fascinated by everything I showed him. I can only hope the time I spent with him will make the story something more than if he had been stuck walking around downtown trying to make sense of a 138.8-square-mile city from a few square blocks of vacant storefronts, abandoned skyscrapers, and a Hard Rock Cafe. As I drove him around town telling him all my favorite anecdotes ("That's where my kid and I got attacked by wild dogs!", "I was surrounded by wild dogs there once, too!", "Some wild dogs killed a homeless guy in that alley!") and spelling out my thoughts about why things here are the way they are, he was all, "You know, I appreciate all this information, but I have maybe 1,000 words if I'm lucky. . ." I told him I didn't expect him to write about everything I was showing him; you can't fit a dissertation on the side of a coffee mug. It can be such a challenge to capture the truth of a place; I have been hacking away at it on this blog for years because if there's anything I've learned from reading the great writers, it's that if you can capture the truth of any place you can reach the truth of every place. And if I was successful in showing this guy that Detroit does have some hope of reinventing itself, then maybe there is hope for every other place in these dark times.

But asking me to show you around Detroit is sort of like asking a devout Mormon to show you around Las Vegas: you're not going to see what the convention bureau or the city boosters would prefer. I wanted him to see up close all the different ways Detroiters have reacted to the issues of deteriorating housing stock, lost neighborhoods, drugs, loss of community, crime, abandonment, and abundant green space. I took him to the Heidelberg Project, of course, and then showed him smaller neighborhood projects like the Powerhouse I wrote about a couple weeks ago.

These are people, I told the reporter, who could live anywhere in the world, but they've chosen to settle here and become a part of this community and garden and farm and live a kind of life that would be almost impossible in any other major city. I drove him down the main commercial drag of the old Polish neighborhood that now looks like it never recovered from a nuclear blast. I showed him the operating automobile plant that years ago required a vibrant part of the old Polish neighborhood to be torn down, but also explained that the Chevy Volt---the plug-in electric car that represents much of Detroit's future---would be built there. And then, about a mile away, I showed him the neighborhood that surrounds Jane Cooper School:

This spot marks the far western edge of Georgia Street, one of the most devastated and forlorn parts of the city. I wanted to show him how the city might tear out the infrastructure and let huge tracts of the city return to nature, as other shrinking cities (such as Youngstown, Ohio) have done. I took him into the school and I could tell he had never seen anything like that before. "This is about as bad as it gets," I said, driving a mile or so to the far eastern end of Georgia Street, past shabby houses alone in their blocks and forlorn-looking storefront churches, heading to another community garden.

I heard about this garden from a friend who'd read about it on a local internet message board. She sent me the garden's blog and I arranged to meet the guy behind it that afternoon. When we arrived we found a block that looked like nothing else we'd seen all day: three vacant lots had been transformed into a well-kept garden, and at the center was a huge white movie screen with a motley collection of chairs facing it. Across the street was another vacant lot and the beginning of a small fruit orchard. Waiting for us was Mark Covington, the neighborhood hero who started all this:

He was one of the coolest people I've ever met. Last year, after the 37-year-old Detroiter lost his job cleaning massive oil tanks down in Toledo he noticed the trash-strewn vacant lot a few doors down from the house where he lives with his mother and grandmother and decided to clean it up and turn it into a garden. After negotiating the necessary permits, he recruited some neighborhood kids and even started receiving all kinds of help from people throughout metro Detroit who learned about his project through an online message board. Within a matter of months the garden was flourishing, as were his plans to do more. He started movie nights for kids and movie nights for adults. He gave away school supplies. It was the sort of outreach that patchouli-soaked non-profits requiring boards and grants and employees hope to accomplish, but this was just a guy, his best friend, a few people from the neighborhood, and a bunch of people he met on the internet. For one dollar they bought an abandoned corner store with an attached house that they plan to turn into a community center for the kids and a general store for the neighborhood that sells healthy food to supplement the free produce they get from the garden (they still need to pay a few thousand dollars in back taxes to get the property). "We were sitting here in the garden on the first of the month," he said, "And that path heads right through here towards the only grocery store over a mile away. Who were all these people walking over there at all hours of the day and night? That's when we came up with the idea to open a store here in the neighborhood." As we stood around listening to Mr. Covington, people from the neighborhood walking past greeted him warmly. "I remember when I was a kid this was a real community," he said. "We're bringing that back."

If you put Mr. Covington in a designer suit, from a block away you might mistake his silhouette for that of our former mayor, but make no mistake: in his blue jeans and work gloves he has proven himself to be everything that man was not. His selflessness is evident above all else. Where the former mayor exploited racial and regional divisions, Mr. Covington has exploited our common humanity and inspired black and white people from other neighborhoods and even the suburbs to come help reestablish some hope in this tiny sliver of Detroit.

The Time Reporter didn't get to meet our current mayor but I'm so glad I was able to introduce him to this unemployed man who---in a perfect world---would be the kind of person who leads us. The reporter asked, "Obviously Detroit is going through a lot of hard times right now, how do you see the city reinventing itself?"

Mr. Covington thought for a moment, shrugged, and pointed to the vacant lots he'd turned into gardens that feed the bodies and souls of his neighborhood. "This," he said. "On every vacant lot."

* * * * *

When we got back into the car, the reporter and I were speechless, having traveled from one end of Georgia Street to find Mark Covington at the other, to go from the worst kind of despair to the most inspiring kind of hope in just a short few blocks. "To be honest," he says, "Most of the people I interview are assholes. I don't get many interviews like that."

I had to pick up the kids at my wife's office and said to my daughter, "Say hi to Alex, he writes for TIME MAGAZINE" as though this was something that should have impressed her. She might have done something other than glare at him suspiciously if I had lied and said that he was in charge of feeding Muno on the set of Yo Gabba Gabba ("What's Foofa like in real life?"). Together we visited a school for pregnant teens that houses a working farm and my daughter pitched a fit because she couldn't see the pony. Driving away, I pointed at a nearby daycare center surrounded by barbed wire and covered with misshapen folk art depictions of Dora the Explorer and Mickey Mouse and said, "See that? THAT's where I'm going to send you all day if you keep this up." This is how we roll in Detroit, Time Magazine.

Thinking goats were as good as ponies, I drove straight to my friend's neighbors' goat farm just a few blocks from the casino with LED-light display that resembles Biff's from Back to the Future 2. In the shadow of that building the goats that weren't bashing their brains out totally came up to say hi.

"The casinos are part of how the mayor's office will tell you we are reinventing this city, but these goats are a lot more important," I said while getting my own kids out of the car. A homeless man pushing a baby stroller full of sheet metal ductwork walked down the middle of the road. "It's an interesting place," I said to the reporter here to write a story about it. "That's why we live here."

After we dropped the grateful reporter off at a cab stand and watched him get whisked back to the airport before we could even merge back into traffic, I said to my daughter in the back seat, "I saw a beautiful garden today, Juney. When the weather gets a little nicer, we're going to spend some time over there planting stuff, okay?"

"Okay pops," she said, and we drove home.

Yesterday I took the kids and the dog to Belle Isle to watch the rain melt away the snow along the road that runs past the abandoned zoo. I told my ghost/zombie-obsessed daughter that I'd once heard that there was a ghost in these woods: an Indian maiden dressed all in white who would walk out of the woods and beckon for you to follow her if you turned off your car and honked the horn three times. Then I turned off the car and honked three times.

For once there was silence from the back seat while we watched the quiet woods.

A girl was murdered in these woods not so long ago by her friends in the middle of the night when they were out here hunting this legendary ghost. They sat on her until her lungs filled with mud. I didn't tell my kid that story.

On the way home, we stopped at the city's oldest cemetery and looked for zombies. But only dancing ones.

[new Woodcraft later today tomorrow]

About five minutes before Octuplet Mom got her own show. . .

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, February 10, 2009

[scene: our living room during last night's presidential news conference]

W. Oh Obama, why are you still talking? I'm missing my stories!

J. You just forgot what it's like having a president who actually talks to the American people.

W. Change the channel!

J. What is this?

W. John and Kate Plus 8.

J. Why do they have so many?

W. Shhhh.

J. TLC. This is the same channel that had Mermaid Girl on the other night. And the one with the show about feral children and Octopus Man and Half Man Half Tree.

W. Don't forget about the Morbidly Obese Mexican. And the Duggars.

J. Bible Belt Brood. The Littlest Family. Two-headed teenager. Coma Mom. What is wrong with this channel? What does TLC stand for, The Lives of Circusfreaks? Too Little Compassion?

W. You're just jealous because Pregnant Dad has a thicker beard than you.

J. True.

Be our travel agent

Posted by jdg | Monday, February 09, 2009 |

Last week I was pretty miserable. The weather was taking a toll and I turned a year older. If the temperature was never going to go above 31, why did I have to? And if I had to be 32, couldn't I at least be 32 for five years like Jennifer Aniston? Even worse than getting older was all the checkwriting I have to do at this time of year: car insurance; car registration; the bill from the liquor store. And my bar dues. Why do I pay $400 every year to the California Bar Association? All they give me is junk mail. And last I checked I don't need to be a member of the bar to change shitty diapers. I guess I could file a nuisance complaint against my daughter for Crayola marker proliferation. But she's already a far better lawyer than I ever was.

Turning 32 and paying all these bills and sitting around in this glass box looking out at the impenetrable winter with two kids hellbent on havoc during the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression wore me down to an uncharacteristic gloom.

But then, my wife gave me my birthday present: three dirt-cheap plane tickets to Puerto Rico this coming March. I've never been to the Caribbean. I am told it's somewhat different from Cincinnati. I haven't even set foot on an airplane since November 2006. I am pretty excited.

When it comes to vacationing with children, though, I don't think I'd enjoy the spontaneity we enjoyed traveling while childless. I actually want to have an itinerary. With reservations. Just as I became overwhelmed with the information on Puerto Rico available online, my wife said, "Why don't you just write about it? The blog has some of the most well-traveled, smart, articulate readers out there, and I'm sure more than a few of them have been to Puerto Rico. Plus: they know you, and the sorts of things you like."

So dear readers, I'm asking if any of you have ever lived in or traveled to Puerto Rico. What do you think we should do? Basically, I'd like to avoid places full of drunk college kids and crowded beaches. Kid-friendly is obviously a plus. Also, I want to avoid places that are difficult to get to logistically (Vieques sounds awesome but challenging to get to). I'd like to stay a few nights in a coffee hacienda somewhere in the mountains. Has anyone out there had a good or bad experience in Puerto Rico they would be willing to share? A great hotel or rented villa? Well-kept secrets? An amazing restaurant? Can anyone feed our goldfish? I'll bring back some cheesy t-shirts from the cheesiest t-shirt shop in San Juan. . . .

Also, new urchin-related Woodcraft up yesterday.

The Roominator

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, February 04, 2009 | , ,

Just when I thought I had a handle on keeping the house in order, along comes this toddling male child whose singular purpose in life seems to be undoing every gesture I make towards household cleanliness. Here is how an average adult person sees one side of our living room:

Here is what I can only assume the room looks like from the perspective of the 30-inch cybernetic organism hurling himself around the archipelagos of furniture in our house:

I know that's hard to read and it doesn't move or anything. This here ain't Industrial Light and Magic, people. Here is a screenshot with all the text (next time I complain about not having enough time to do anything, please remind me that I did this). Seriously, though, that video is about all I can assume is going through his brain when I set him down on the floor. He's an unstoppable messmaking machine. When I put him down for a nap the other day I could have sworn he grunted, "I'll be back."

Maybe when he grows up he can be governor of California.

The other half

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, February 03, 2009 | , ,

This has always been one of my favorite photos:

In this city where two million people once lived, less than a million remain. Half of the people are gone. This beautiful old Tudor Revival duplex sits along what was once one of the finest streets in Detroit, its mansions now ruined, neglected, or turned into nursing facilities or group homes for unwanted kids. One half of this duplex was abandoned, its windows boarded over, its lawn untended. The other half of the duplex recently had a new roof installed, a security fence put up around the maintained front yard. The right half was a little shabby, but it was still obviously lived in and well loved.

This house came to symbolize much more to me than just someone else's home. Above all else, the house seemed to speak to how those still living in this city are bound to what has been left behind, bound even to the ghosts of the other half: those people whose children or grandchildren leave for better schools in the morning and return to safer neighborhoods at night.

A few weeks ago I noticed a yellow paper taped to one of the windows on the occupied side. I hoped it wasn't a shut-off notice or something to do with foreclosure. But then a couple days ago I saw a trailer sitting out in front of the home and men carrying furniture and belongings out of the occupied side. "Moving out?" I asked.

"Gotta go," the guy on the left said. "Just gotta go."