Bomb Detroit!

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, March 31, 2010 |

So I've been working on some fun community projects that have been sucking away some of the free time I have to write blog posts. One thing we're planning is making a thousand (or more) wildflower seed bombs with some kids in a few weeks, but first we wanted to experiment at home before we drag all the materials over to the neighborhood where we're going to set up the seed bomb assembly line. Seed bombs, if you don't already know, are an old hippie guerrilla gardening technique of mixing soil, seed, and compost into a throw-able device in order to "plant" wildflowers in inaccessible lots or just overgrown places on the side of the road. As you've probably noticed from my photos, there are a lot of places in Detroit that look like this:

Illegal dumping is a huge problem here. I went through a pile of dumped belongings a few weeks ago and found wedding albums, tchotchkes, and unopened mail from a house in a suburban community where I presume the owner died and someone was paid to haul the contents away and didn't want to pay the disposal fee at an actual dump. I've also seen suburban rat poison dumped in the city. But many Detroiters are just as guilty of treating their city like a trash heap. I can't tell you how many times we've walked behind someone who just tossed an empty bag of chips or soda bottle on the ground just feet away from a garbage can. The best evidence of this annoying behavior is usually a chain-link fence somewhere near a bus stop on a windy day:

Well, Spring is here and we figure it makes sense to start tossing something into overgrown lots other than garbage. We started by heading up to Busy Bee Hardware for the basic ingredients.

When we brought our native wildflower seed packets, potting soil, and plant fertilizer (don't hate, you hippies) up to the counter and told Sandy what we were doing, she refused to let me pay for any of it. When I threatened to leave a sawbuck on the counter, Roy advised from across the store that it was definitely not in my best interest to do so. I promised to make our huge purchase for the full project at Busy Bee and walked out wondering when the last time a cashier at Home Depot fell so in love with the story of a project that she let the customer walk out without paying for any of the materials. At the store, Sandy and I speculated about how we were going to get the seed balls to stick together. She suggested using emptied eggshells and I told her the old hippies used Christmas ornaments. Clay was the consensus. I didn't want to go to the art store to buy fancy (and expensive) molding clay, and it occurred to me that kitty litter was just clay pellets. I went to the nearest pet store and sure enough, the cheapest kitty litter available listed clay as its only ingredient. 

We waited for the next sunny day and went outside with a bucket of potting soil, a bunch of different wildflower seeds, a big bowl of kitty litter, and a 2-liter of water (in which we mixed some of the miracle grow). The kid poured the water onto some kitty litter until it turned into nice plain clay:

We started with a few seeds, balled them up in the soil, and then surrounded the soil with a layer of clay. The idea is that when thrown, the hardened clay will break and the seeds will flourish in the soil (ideally, the soil would also have some compost rather than fertilizer mixed in). When we used up all the seeds, we'd made 60 or so bombs (each had about five seeds inside):

We lined up the balls to bake in the heat of the afternoon sun, and then went inside to wash our hands. After a few hours, the balls were grayish and hard, and we put them in their secret-seed-bomb satchels. I put mine in the old Freitag messenger back I bought on eBay back in 2003 when everyone was making simple text posters with Helvetica and the Swiss could do no wrong:

The girl put hers in a fanny pack we found at the thrift store. My wife said the only way it could be better would be if it had the Jordache mustang on it:

Soon (right before the next good rain) we'll be off to start seed bombing Detroit. I'll take before/after pictures of the spots we bomb to see if it works. There is, however, a part of me that won't be crushed if somebody tries to steal that tempting Jordache fanny pack out of our car or bike and then finds themselves wondering why we keep a fanny pack filled with tiny balls of poo.

I'm no professional hippie; if anyone wants to POLITELY offer some advice about how we could do this better I'd be glad to hear it. We're going to be getting a lot of little hands dirty making these in a few weeks and I want to make sure we do it right.

Don't Blame the Dwarf!

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, March 24, 2010 | , ,

There's an old legend around these parts about a red dwarf who is seen before or during disasters that have befallen the city of Detroit. He's called the Nain Rouge, a child-sized creature in furry boots with "blazing red eyes and rotten teeth." He's sort of a cross between the Mothman and the Mobile Leprechaun. When I started telling my daughter stories about the Nain Rouge he was a harbinger of doom, but frankly the kid has never really been all that into doom so I had to turn him into a nice 600-year-old Francophone imp who lives in a hole at the base of a tree behind our house, smoking a long Peterson pipe and playing a wee accordion. Soon he was riding around in a chariot pulled by four pheasants and herding rabbits away from wily foxes. Whenever I suggest that he might have something to do with the fire that burned down the city in 1805 or some other calamity, she insists he's innocent. "He's just misunderstood," she tells me, a phrase that has become sort of a catch-all defense of any monster who might ordinarily scare her. Frankenstein, vampires, zombies, hobgoblins, mummies: they're all just "misunderstood." I sense a bleeding-heart liberal in the works here, folks.

Last weekend some 200 local goofballs and hooligans participated in a march to drive the Nain Rouge from the city. There was the promise of a marching band, costumes, dogs, and a good old-fashioned effigy burning. When I told the kid about La Marche du Nain Rouge, she insisted that we not participate in any banishment parade. In this household, we are pretty serious about not crossing the wee folk. Also, I feel fairly strongly that when you're a city hemorrhaging population as quickly as Detroit, you shouldn't be exiling anyone (even impish doom harbingers). So we decided it was the perfect occasion for a protest and busted out the placards.

On Saturday, some friends stopped by our house and stumbled upon our preparations. One of these friends happens to be really, really short and a really, really good sport and when she heard about our counter-demonstration in defense of the red dwarf, they headed straight for the thrift store to get a red outfit for her to wear during the parade. They even went to the craft store to get red face paint and extra placards. At some point she was worried she might make the marchers actually feel guilty but I was all YES, GOOD. Make them feel guilty! LONG LIVE THE RED DWARF! After we made our signs, I wasted no time writing up some literature [link goes to PDF of our flier] to hand out. I had way too much fun writing that (it's not often that I get to write in the slang of a turn-of-the-nineteenth-century foppish dandy). I spent more time trying to ligature that text than writing it.  

The Friends of the Nain Rouge met up along the parade route and prepared some chants and our lovely Nain Rouge practiced glowering while smoking a cigar and drinking from a chalice filled with a fine wine made from the blood of early French voyageurs.

Here I am trying to teach the kid how to do a terrifying impish jig:

One little Nain Rouge in training was ready to give that angry mob a piece of her mind:

As the parade passed, nobody really took any of my literature. I think our protest was more confusing than convincing:

[three previous photos, credit Alex Wright]

The kid decided that the marching band and the people in the costumes were terrifying and hid behind her sign. I was left to shout "Don't blame the dwarf!" all by myself. Pathetic. I was all, "You guys! We have to stay in character!" and they were all, Um, we don't really know that man.

After the parade passed us we realized we still had an actual, face-painted Nain Rouge in our midst, so she drove us around to various Detroit landmarks for impromptu photo shoots. Oops, looks like it's going to be another lukewarm season for the Motor City Kitties (that's what you get for putting Curtis Granderson in pinstripes, you assholes).

After that shot with the Spirit of Detroit statue we were planning to do a shot with the Nain Rouge fist-bumping the Joe Louis Fist, but suddenly this weird voice came out of a hidden loudspeaker ordering her off the podium. Nain Rouge, please step away from the Spirit of Detroit. We were being watched! Was it the ghost of Antoine Laumet de La Mothe, sieur de Cadillac? We hightailed it out of there and decided that if the Nain Rouge really were to appear in contemporary Detroit, it would probably be at a casino.

The Nain Rouge lost about $7.00, but her appearance foretold gloom and doom for at least 600 people chain smoking menthols and staring at her while losing nickel after nickel in the glow of a thousand jabbering slot machines.

[if you are at all interested in other stories of early Detroit history and folklore, check out one of my favorite new blogs, The Night Train


Posted by jdg | Monday, March 15, 2010

I was sitting with my son at the dining room table a few days ago and I heard myself say, "Just eat two bites of your pizza and I'll give you a gummi bear." Then I punched myself in the jaw.

Really I just sat there while those words echoed, batted back and forth by my conscience. Did I really just promise a gummi bear as a reward for eating pizza? That's like congratulating a kid for drinking chocolate milk or telling him he'd better finish those potato chips (two things I am quite certain I have done, now that I think about it). I could hear pre-parent know-it-all Jim clucking at me from the nth-dimension. Please tell me there are hippies out there who feel guilty when they have to say, Just eat two more spoonfuls of kaleloaf and I'll let you have one carob-sunflower-seed square? What kind of brainwashed little hippiespawn would eat kaleloaf without the mildly-disappointing promise of a carob confection?  As much as I admire parents who have never allowed refined sugar to pass their children's lips, I seethe with too much insecurity and shame to not hate such motherfuckers a bit too. Without gummi bears nothing would get done in our house. Gummi bears are the very mortar that keep our walls from tumbling down.

After my overly-generous promise, my sugarloving son looked at me and defiantly stated in his Wookiee language that he wanted a gummi bear but would not touch the pizza. Then he crossed his arms over his chest. I had a moment of panic.

A few months ago I went through a phase where I'd cook a meal from scratch every day using high-quality, local, nutritious ingredients, only to watch both of my children scowl at their plates and go hungry rather than consume homemade butternut-squash soup or authentic ratatouille. My children have more insufferable self-imposed dietary restrictions than a typical sophomore at Oberlin College, subsisting entirely on a diet of crackers, black beans, Colby cheese and high-fructose corn syrup. It had come to this: now they won't even eat pizza.

In the end, I ate his pizza and did not give him a gummi bear. The stubbornness, it runs strong in my family.

* * * * *

That noontime interaction was positively quaint compared to what I had to endure in the afternoon.

My daughter, charmed by the previous day's warmth, had decided she would wear a sleeveless dress before we went out to the playground to finally see all the other neighborhood children (who've been cooped up in their glass, modernist houses with unhappy hipster parents since October). While I honestly didn't care what she wore, her bare arms always vex a certain neighbor who must endure questions from her daughters about why they have to wear their winter coats until the summer solstice while my daughter gets to run around all spring like a trollop. I'd offer the truth: Sorry girls, it's just that she's the ward of a sloppy, borderline-negligent stay-at-home father. But on this occasion I just put my foot down and insisted on sleeves until the mercury hits sixty degrees.

This created quite the brouhaha.

The tantrum lasted about an hour. Every effort to soothe or proffer compromises was rebuffed. Every step forward brought us two steps back. It was as if any concession meant Spring had not come after all, that she possessed some sort of sartorial control over the seasons. Once I did manage to cajole her into a sweater and leggings, but she went into histrionics over a hole in her sock. We're talking Linda-Blair-Level-Five-Max-von-Sydow's-in-the-room histrionics. I stood there, brimming with frustration---and let's be honest, rage---trying to explain the logic of how simple it would be to exchange the damaged sock for an intact one. But apparently we're not all born reasonable. When you're five nothing boils down to the Aristotelian syllogisms you'll one day learn in some painfully dull college deductive reasoning course.  The new sock won't make things better because the old one will still have a hole in it, and no matter what your father says, that totally matters. In one dark moment I admit I understood how some parents think it makes sense to throw a misbehaving, disrespectful little kid over a lap and whack her until she stops, hoping, I guess, in a momentary lapse of reason to install a simple logic: if you want something, and scream because you aren't getting it, you will get whacked. A consequence. A catharsis.

I'm not in the business of passing judgment, but I'm still hippie enough to believe I shouldn't hurt someone I love just to solve a problem of words. Instead, I reached over and whipped the sock from her foot, stuck both forefingers in the hole and ripped the entire thing apart with one swift separation of my fists.

There was a moment of silent awe at this unexpected development. Then the waterworks started anew as she clutched the severed sock to her chest like a newly-beheaded puppy. I almost felt guilty. Between tears she communicated something about how she wouldn't stop crying until her mother sewed her beloved holey sock back together, and I left the room and closed the door until she worked through all this on her own.

* * * * *

At the dinner table that evening, she sat listening in silence while I related the tale of the day's epic tantrum to my wife. An hour later, I sat away from their din in my bedroom, staring at the computer when she came to the doorway, and without words crossed the room and climbed up into my lap, saying nothing as she rested her forehead on my shoulder for a long while that night.

This one was discovered during my days scrapping abandoned Detroit public school libraries before the snow ruined everything. It's so silly and deeply earnest I just had to make fun of it. Text is my own. The book is available on amazon if seeing the original text is that important to you.

This is Reginald Blaine Van Hoof III. His family has lived in their lovely brownstone on the Upper Upper West Side for many generations. His father is a hardworking investment banker with Goldman Sachs. One time Reginald took the 3 train to try to see his father, but he wasn't at the office. Reginald's mother gave him a stern look when he returned. "Someday you'll see your father," she promised.

One day, a monkey came through his window and handed him a large lollipop. "Reginald," he said. "Your father has sent me bearing this magical gift. He wishes he could spend more time with you, but he's busy earning the money to pay your Princeton tuition and Ivy Club dues so that one day you too may be paid millions to manipulate the markets with a mere modicum of intelligence. That's how all this works. Oh, and he also bangs a lot of hookers (don't tell your mom)." 

"Wow," said Reginald. "A Magic Lollipop! I wonder what it can do!"