EZ Parking

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, November 23, 2011

This is not a post I ever wanted to write, but I feel it would be somewhat irresponsible for me not to. I tend to be relentlessly positive about this city and all of the things we're able to do here, and that's probably annoying and unrealistic so I feel compelled to follow up on a couple of ongoing stories to give the full picture.

First, one of the stores that I wrote about in the old "But where do you shop?" series has gone out of business. R. Hirt Jr. weathered the 1887-88 recession, the Panic of 1893, the Panic of 1896, the Panic of 1907, the Panic of 1910-11, the Great Depression, the early 1980s recession, and our current economic crisis only to be felled by a family squabble. The family member who owns the building didn't let the one who operates the store to renew the lease, but promises to open a new cheese store in the space under a new name with new employees.

This wasn't just a store to our family, it was a weekly ritual. After picking the kids up at school, we'd stop in to pick up our weekly supply of milk, pasta, cheese, yoghurt, sausage, and whatever else we needed. The kids would always beg to climb three stories to the toy department, and I'd hold their hands as we climbed the creaky 118-year-old steps and we'd always tell the same stupid joke about the pile of hay above the steps ("Hey! Hay!") and when we got to the third floor full of wicker baskets and holiday decorations I'd let them run over to the toys where they'd spend twenty minutes looking at each one before picking out some small $1 or $2 trinket to bring home. My daughter in particular always had a difficult time choosing a toy, and the kind ladies who filled out our handwritten bill must have watched a hundred times as I got down on my knees on those old plank floors and tried to reason with her that she didn't have to feel nervous or ashamed for wanting something. A few weeks ago they told us the bad news: they'd been given pink slips, and the toy department was liquidating even before the rest of the store. One of them broke into tears, talking about how they've watched my kids grow up and soon my daughter started crying. It took her almost an hour to recover.

It might seem not seem like such a big deal; the space is going to re-open with a new retailer from the same family. It will still have cheese, but not the toys. The faces behind the counters won't be the ones we've come to count on as friends. Over the last few weeks of business, our weekly visits grew more frequent. I became a bit more magnanimous with the toy allowance. One or another of the ladies in the Hirt sweatshirts would always end up crying after we started talking. They'd lost the only jobs they'd had for decades. It was pretty emotional.

On Saturday we stood outside the store and watched the last people coming out. I recognized my daughter's emotions as partly my own. I think she was beginning to fully understand the idea of memory; that our experiences in that store with those people had become part of an inaccessible past, and there is something profoundly sad about that. And that when something exists only in memory you have to fight to keep from forgetting it. Yesterday morning she pulled this out of the closet and insisted on wearing it to school:

Over on the sub-page, I created a little photo essay: The Last Days of R. Hirt Jr., 1887-2011.

* * * * *

The second piece of lousy news is that the little garden we spent all summer building was torn out so the property could be used as a parking lot (I wrote about the Busy Bee Garden Project here and here, for some background). The garden went from this:

To this:

Construction of a new jail in a huge vacant lot closer to downtown where many football fans used to tailgate has pushed the market for game-day parking out much further that it has ever been before, and this year the vacant lot next to our garden was leased by some group that swoops into the city's vacant lots and charges for parking during Lions football games. Even though the small, trash-strewn vacant lot where we built our garden had stood unused for a generation or more (with weeds and inches of soil covering whatever had been there before) it caught the eye of the parking company and they approached the owners of the lot (Busy Bee Hardware) and offered to lease it for parking. And they agreed.

Here is where I accept responsibility for my naivety: I am entirely at fault for trying to do something positive on land that wasn't mine, and I don't for a second think I have any standing here. I was stupid and put my faith and trust where it didn't belong (mostly in the belief that it would be safe to grow some food and flowers in a trash-strewn vacant lot that no one had wanted anything to do with in decades). The Busy Bee folks were unapologetic and told me that this was actually a good thing, that whatever this company was paying them would help pay for the taxes on the property and in the end it would help the hardware store. And because I obviously have an interest in not seeing their business go the way of R. Hirt Jr., I have to be able to see their side of it. That doesn't mean it still didn't hurt.

On Saturday, with my daughter distraught over the closing of her favorite store (see above), we encountered the parking guys who were tearing out our garden. My wife took the kids home while I went over to take some pictures of the destruction and see if I could save some of my neighbor's perennials. The parking guy ordered me off the land and told me to stop taking pictures. "Take a picture of THIS," he said:

I believe his exact next words were, "Wanna take a picture of my dick, too?"

Jeez, all I did was ask him if he was a Joni Mitchell fan. I was kind of grateful to that guy for being such a jerk, because it allowed me to get angry at "EZ Parking" rather than crying over spilled Brussels sprouts.

At least my kids had one thing to be thankful about, ba-da-bum. Speaking of the kids, I still haven't let them see what's happened to the lot. After all the time we spent there and work we put into it, I really don't feel like trying to explain why somebody thought it would be better as a place to park cars for a few hours two Sundays a month, four months of the year:

I thought they were only going to be able to get about ten cars in there, but they tore down the fence in between the two lots and managed to squeeze in fourteen at ten dollars a car. That's $140 per game, and with four games left this year what they'll squeeze out of the lot won't even come close to the cost of the materials, soil, plants, and labor that we spent to build the garden.

I was a little annoyed watching people park their cars on our garden when I noticed that there was a vacant lot (see above) about 25 feet away that hadn't been a community garden where no one was parking cars, as well as a fenced-in lot next to it owned by Stroh's, the same company that leased the other lots to the parking company. I guess they wanted to keep the lots contiguous, so they would only need to pay one guy to take all the money. These two lots---which are actually closer to Ford Field---sat empty while the others filled up.

* * * * *

The real story here isn't the epic fail of some douchebag's neighborhood beautification project, but the reality that despite all the good that's happening in this city, it's still a place where vast swaths of the downtown area are only used a few hours a week for people to park their cars. A friend on facebook recently linked an article that rang true: "Parking lots are the best possible way of destroying a city’s soul. They are gruesome, lifeless places."

I've heard it said that these parking companies bring money and jobs downtown, but then again so does crack cocaine. I can hardly imagine an industry that has less of a positive impact on a city than these parking operations. I don't see the money or the jobs staying in the city. Basically a bunch of guys with accents and orange safety vests show up in the city for a few hours on the eight Sundays that the Lions play in Detroit and charge people $10-$30 to park in surface lots, many of which sit completely empty the other 357 days of the year. On the day of the football game, the individual in charge of all parking operations near our garden was a Pakistani gentleman driving from lot to lot in a luxury SUV. I saw him drop off a black woman in her 50s near our garden and hand her an orange flag that he told her to wave on the side of the street to attract customers. She told me she "was just trying to get out of town" and he "picked me up at the bus station" and "didn't even give me enough time to take a shit." I asked her if she was being paid minimum wage and she laughed, "Nobody earns $7 an hour in Detroit." Those are the kind of exploitative jobs these companies bring to the city. 

I started asking people why they parked there, pointing out that there were three free street parking spots less than twenty feet from where they handed the guy $10, and all three people told me that they didn't want to get their cars broken into during the game.

* * * * *

Luckily, the Busy Bee folks were able to salvage our wooden boxes, tools, and rain barrel before the parking guys threw them on their lovely trash pile with the bricks, plants and flowers. We were also able to save the bees and give them a new home thanks to Greg at Brother Nature Produce.

I'm already scouting out locations for a new garden next year, and I've got a couple of prospects that could prove to be way better. When we started this I said, "My interest in this project was less about gardening or growing produce, but teaching my children the responsibility that comes with caring for plants." The hundreds of hours we spent up there were not wasted, and this year when we get those boxes set up in a new lot with new seedlings soaking up the sun I'll be teaching them about stubbornness, and perseverance, and maybe even a little but about naivety.

So with Thanksgiving tomorrow and another fourteen cars destined to park their cars on a little spot where we built a garden that made our summer so wonderful (before the Lions play on national television) I am thankful that we had that summer, even if our garden has now become a memory: part of an inaccessible past. The kids are already thinking about the future.

Occupy Best Buy

Posted by jdg | Tuesday, November 22, 2011

According to the Detroit Free Press, some lunkheads have already set up tents at a suburban Best Buy, even though they don't yet know what the Black Friday deals are going to be. “A Best Buy employee said it was going to be great this year, the best in five years, so we will see what kind of deals we get."

I think this means I have participated in my first internet meme. Next up: lolspeak.

Notes From a Silent, Empty Room

Posted by jdg | Wednesday, November 09, 2011 |

I woke up feeling really good yesterday, which is almost always a sure sign that trouble lies ahead.

Ever since the end of Daylight Savings Time, it's been a lot easier to get the kids to school on time---or even early---allowing me to experience what it feels like to be a responsible father. Yesterday was one of those days where the kids seemed to wake up already dressed for school and I had their breakfasts on the table on time and nobody left the house with cream cheese smeared across their cheeks or melted M&Ms in their hair. We were absolutely poised for something to go wrong.

I am in an interesting stage right now where my daughter is in school full time and my son goes a couple days a week. Any free time I gain is so often taken up by petty errands and extracurricular school business that I still sort of have an excuse to avoid looking for a real job. During my "free time" I also like to procrastinate doing freelance jobs by cleaning the house. The other day I started refinishing the hardwood floors, so you know I must have had a particularly annoying deadline. I recently made the wildly-insane decision to cook a family dinner almost every day so we can all sit down at the table in daily recognition that my wife and I spawned two persnickety brutes who prefer banging their fists against the tabletop chanting for macaroni and cheese and Halloween candy every night rather than consume a healthy, well-balanced meal. I am gunning to become the first male winner of Michigan's Top Homemaker Award, you see, but I just won't feel comfortable nominating myself until I can get my kids to eat my pot roast.

If I'm not running errands or cleaning or cooking while the kids are at school, sometimes I just like to sit on a chair without having anyone scream at me.

My son has been a lot better about accepting that he must attend preschool this year. Last year I frequently had to peel him off me and rush away to the sound of him screaming, but this year he has a little pack of buddies and runs off with them as soon as we get to school without so much as a glance over his shoulder. Yesterday was different. Yesterday he decided he didn't want to go to school, and it took 45 minutes of intense negotiations just to get him to let go of my coat. Several times I was walking to the car when he ran up and latched on to my leg. Whatever, I mean we all want to be loved, but come on kid, there's a chair waiting for me in a silent, empty room. Eventually I convinced him to walk into class with his buddies, and as I stood there in the satisfying glow of watching him go I reached into my pocket and realized I didn't have my car key.

I spent two hours retracing my steps around the playground in a serpentine Family-Circus dotted line, trying to remember where my son's wildly flailing arms might have knocked it out of my hands. I scanned the playground covered in oak and maple leaves and dug through wood chips. A concerned parent reported to the principal's office that a deranged lunatic was wandering the school grounds. Eventually I gave up, abandoning the search (and the car) to make my way home and get the spare key.

* * * * *

Two Practical Jokes My Mother Played on My Father When I Was a Child:

1. My father restores antique cars for a living, and he often had to order parts from sellers in other states which were delivered via UPS. One guy in California was giving him a really hard time over a part he really needed and he complained bitterly about unkept promises and shipping delays. The next day my mother found an old beat-up muffler by the side of the road and threw it in a battered cardboard box with a fake shipping label and set it where the UPS man always left his packages. We watched from the window as my dad emerged from his body shop to joyfully find the box and then discover its contents and nearly explode with rage.

2. My father had a $5-a-week Super Lotto habit but would frequently forget to watch the TV when the numbered ping pong balls rolled into slots for the winning numbers. He would ask my mom to call some lottery hotline to get the winners, and she would dutifully write them down on a slip of paper so he could compare them to the five random numbers he'd chosen that week. On one Saturday with a particularly-big jackpot, she peeked at the numbers on his ticket and later wrote down one full set of his numbers as the winner, casually handing it over with a bowl of microwave popcorn in her other hand. She sat there munching on popcorn, watching nonchalantly while his eyes darted from his ticket to the "winning" numbers, filling with visions of the sudden, unimagined wealth now within his grasp while his throat groped for the syllables to express his excitement. Unable to contain her laughter, his reverie dissipated right then like any other working man's dream.

* * * * *

Last night my wife got home from a grueling day at work. She was in the office all weekend and has had early mornings and late nights as she prepares for a long-planned trip to Mexico, but last night she was tolerant enough to listen to me gripe about losing all my "me" time over a lost key, and the $265 replacement cost and the need to drive to some flat suburb with Heights or Hills in the name to find a dealership that could do it. I don't know where or how she found that key, but when I put my coat on this morning, it was the first thing I found when I reached into my pocket: a pocket I checked and emptied a hundred times in those desperate hours the day before. I even emptied that pocket before going through the metal detector at the courthouse. But this morning there it was.

My daughter blames elves. Or gremlins. I blame my wife, because the only other option is that I'm losing my mind. I don't care if I am a deranged lunatic or just the victim of a cruel jape, I'm just glad I could spend today sitting in a chair in a silent room rather than at some car dealership out in Farmington Heights.