My cousin’s stories of being a Detroit cop could have come straight out of an opera.
’s tagline is “reimagining place,” and there are few essays in our repertoire that take that phrase to task quite so well as “D is for the Dance of the Hours: A Portrait of Pre-Bankruptcy Detroit.” The essay is a self-described lament from its author, Aisha Sabitini Sloan, and yet, as a description of reading this essay, that label is entirely too simple. Recursive and lyrical in its structure, the essay is also a puzzle. In its attention to language and in its refrains, it is a song. In its care for its characters and the city itself, it is a love letter. It is also a police procedural, a map, a family history, and an opera lesson. It is carved out of the space between history and imagination, and doused equally in sorrow and wonder. It is, to me, unforgettable writing.
—Beth Staples, Associate Editor, Ecotone
My father performed in his first and only opera while he was a college student working at the Detroit Public Library. He had no aspirations toward performance, just a crush on Leontyne Price. With politicians in the audience, he was warned not to disrupt the dignity of the opera as he played the role of pharaoh’s guard in Aïda . But he found it difficult to keep a straight face while the men who played the high priest and the pharaoh gossiped about a sexual exploit with a female member of the cast, crass as they breathed between songs. My father was paid a dollar, and missed out on dinner with the company afterward because that dollar was all he had and he needed it to get home.
Both my parents are from Detroit. I grew up in California hearing stories about a city laced with more wonder than desolation. We know it as the birthplace of gallerists and world famous choreographers, of raucous family dinners. Though they spent most of their lives in LA, my parents began to spend more and more time in Detroit over the last few years, preferring to be closer to family. They moved there permanently this year.
Once my father and I drove across country from Tucson to Detroit. He put on “The Flower Duet” from Lakmé . Two sopranos sang bel canto as the night swelled black outside. Ground beneath us tilting downward, we fell through all that nothing toward a factory’s blinking lights, car cascading into sound.
On a prolonged summer visit to Detroit three years ago, I played classical music in the car while running errands. Each time I turned on the stereo, the world seemed to click—to become suddenly whole. Colors pair best with their opposites: turquoise and vermilion, blood red and new-growth green. In this way, the east side of Detroit is complemented by music that comes from worlds away: burned wood and the entrance of the conductor. Overgrown grass and the sweep of a violin bow. A baby carriage tipped over in an abandoned lot and the hush that comes between a song’s end and the applause.
In his essay “Detroitism,” John Patrick Leary explains that most writing about Detroit tends to fall into one of three subgenres: a metonym for the auto industry, a lament, or an optimistic delusion. Given that the running metaphor of this essay is opera, I’ll self-select: This is a lament.
My cousin is a police officer who often visits while she’s on duty, scaring the neighbors. One day in the summer of 2012, I went with her to work. When I first stepped into the Detroit Police Department’s ninth precinct, portraits of fallen officers greeted me. Elmer Cox died on May 5, 1925. His face is doll-like, or deerlike, his eyes sheened and shadowed. Alonzo Marshall Jr. died on September 1, 1971. In his portrait, he seems confused. I wrote down their names: Sypitkowski, Bandy, Steward. Somebody died on the year of my birth. I recognized the name of a man, Huff, who died after my cousin became this precinct’s lieutenant.
My cousin tells us stories about her job, like anyone else would. But a normal day for her involves a woman who lived with her dead husband for two years. He sat in their living room as the woman went about her business, silent on an armchair in front of the TV. By the time they found him, he was mummified.
At one house, presumably one of Detroit’s many mansions, my cousin says there was a branch the size of a large tree in the middle of the ballroom, home to a giant boa constrictor. Cops routinely answer calls about tigers and monkeys, pigs and birds. When I asked what the snake was for, she said, “That’s where they bring people who fuck up.” Certain animals are a form of exotic torture favored by drug dealers when people don’t pay their debts.
“On the west side, they’ll rob you and kill you,” she says. “On the east side, they’ll rob you, kill you, and rape your corpse.” She’d been inviting me for years before I finally decided to ride with her for a day while she was on duty.
Although I began to write this essay then, I have hesitated to share it because there is an implicit understanding among people who love Detroit that you shouldn’t talk shit. And I love Detroit more than most places in the world. A sense of possibility and kindness emanates from all that chaos in a way that is hard to explain. But censoring trouble doesn’t make it go away. James Baldwin, not to mention the Buddhist scholars I’ve studied of late, have long argued that healing results only from staring struggle straight in the face. The late philosopher and activist, Grace Lee Boggs, spoke of Detroit as a kind of ground zero where we might visualize a new world order. So: here goes.
Before she died, my paternal grandmother spent most of her life in my cousin’s precinct. One of the last times I saw her alive, she told me a story she’d seen on the news. An elderly woman was found strung up and bled, like a side of beef, after two men who worked for her had stolen money from her purse. Perhaps because of stories like this, my father was always a little wary of the cast of neighborhood characters who passed through the house she shared with her younger sister, Cora May. So he kept close tabs on each of them. Pudgy visited out of grief. He couldn’t make it to his own mother’s funeral while he was in prison, so upon his release he devoted himself to my grandmother in penance. Gracie was attentive, but her eyes were glazed, and my great-aunt never failed to point out that she always arrived at mealtimes. Fred was known as an old-school hustler, but he kept my grandmother and great-aunt company for a morning cup of coffee, so long as they provided it.
After my grandmother died, Fred continued to visit with Cora May, and my father periodically called to speak with him. Because my dad and I have almost identical phone numbers, I often get calls for him. One day, I received a message that began, “Lester—ah, this is Fred,” voice gruff like a heavy man’s gait. I didn’t think much of it then. That was the only time I heard Fred speak.
A few days later, Fred’s body was found in the tall grasses across the street from my grandmother’s house. He was bent and tipped over to the side, so it looked as though he’d died and entered rigor mortis while seated—dumped into the empty lot hours later. At the crime scene, my dad watched as Fred’s daughter relayed what the police had told her to the gathering crowd of neighbors, wailing out the details of his situation like a distraught paperboy or a backup singer. “It was really quite moving,” he repeated throughout the day.
We eventually found out that Fred had been drinking heavily and had a heart attack. Suddenly faced with a body, his friends panicked and dumped him in the lot across from my grandmother’s house. But because he died under mysterious circumstances the day before I rode with my cousin, some part of me felt like I was embarking on a quest to solve his murder. Since I hardly knew him, his unexplained death felt like a symbol for the rupture of my grandmother’s neighborhood. That day, I set out to collect clues that might reveal the phenomenology of the city’s collapse. A kind of autopsy.
In a book on my father’s shelves, the 1972 edition of The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera , A is for Azucena, a gypsy in Verdi’s Il Trovatore who watches her mother get burned alive. A is for Giuseppe Anselmi, the Italian tenor who left his heart to the theatrical museum in Madrid, where it is being preserved.
On the day of the ridealong, I am instructed to wear business casual, which is a variety of clothing I’ve always struggled with. So I borrow my father’s bright white button-down shirt and my mother’s trousers. My father had been unaware of my outing until this morning, and his concern hangs between us like an air-raid siren.
As I walk into the back door of the precinct with my cousin, an officer coming off duty points at his cheek for her to kiss. She gives a sideways smooch, then grabs at his wrinkled shirt and asks, “Was this in your car?” There is an eagerness for affection in his response, a childlike kind of purr. In a country full of awkward hugs and handshakes, my cousin greets people like a European.
I follow her into a large, white room. The floor is worn linoleum and a long, slanting pole connects the floor to the ceiling, which makes the room feel askew, as if just hit by an earthquake or flood. There are scattered desks at which nobody is sitting. File boxes are stacked precariously along the sides of the room. A fish tank sits next to a coffee pot, fake lilies, a box of green tea. It’s like an empty, disheveled stage set. When I gape at the bright-red concentric vents on the ceiling, I am told, in a tone of disbelief meant to emphasize the extent of the disorder here, about the mice that sometimes fall out of them. A quaint photograph of a barn decorates the wall, as if it’s a comment on the room.
On the water fountain in the hall, someone has taped a piece of computer paper with a large, typed warning: “Don’t drink the water.” I sit down in a chair that will collapse if I lean too far to the right. At the public entrance, there is a sign that says, “Welcome to the Eastern District. To better serve you, the district will be in virtual mode from 4 p.m. to 8 a.m.”
“The craziest thing to come in that door?” My cousin says, “A man bouncing a basketball, shooting.”
A year after my ridealong, the city declares bankruptcy, and my cousin shows up in a brand new squad car. She shows us pictures of the department’s renovated kitchen. By this time the city has hired two hundred new police officers and one hundred new firefighters. Crime rates, which are still horrible, have gone down about 20 percent. Police and EMS response rates have improved dramatically. Fingers are crossed.
But that day in 2012, the department was in a state of chaos. Seventy-five million dollars had been cut from the police department’s budget. Officers were being warned to be on their best behavior because something in the realm of one hundred layoffs was rumored to hit soon. Precincts had been merged together. By the time officers made it across town for distant calls, the crimes they’d come for had become old news. The mayor announced that 164 firefighters would be laid off, despite the fact that arsonists kept the city lit like a bank of devotional candles. Fire stations received news of fire via fax machine and used a system of coins and soda cans to sound alarm.
Shadow figures from Kwame Kilpatrick’s days as gangster-mayor still haunted the halls of government. Corruption was eating away at the infrastructure of the city like a termite infestation. Months after the ridealong, a friend sent me the link to an announcement made by the Detroit Police Union warning potential visitors to the city to enter at their own risk.
Beethoven’s only opera was Fidelio , which The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera calls “an uneven but magnificent expression of faith in liberty and loathing of tyranny.” In it, a woman infiltrates a prison in the attempt to free her husband. Upon her urging, a group of men comprising the Prisoner’s Chorus are led out into the sunshine for fresh air. They sing what has been described as “some of Beethoven’s most radiant music.”
The opera is often performed at houses that are being reopened “after destruction or enforced closure due to war.” This association with war began upon Fidelio ’s very first performance, during which French troops were marching on Vienna.
The war that is Detroit is not yet over, nor has it been officially declared. But Fidelio was performed at the Detroit Opera House in April two years ago.
In the bathroom, a woman helps me put on a bulletproof vest and says, of her lieutenant, “Listen to what she says. She’s always into stuff.” She pulls at the Velcro so that the vest fits tight against my body, emphasizing the words that I should keep an ear out for. Duck. Cover. Run.
The stories that my cousin told me before the ridealong could have come straight out of an opera:
Castrato. A woman protecting herself against the swinging arms of her brother picks up a knife and raises it toward him blindly. He falls dead and blood blooms underneath him, from what wound they cannot tell. When the heavy body is lifted for removal, the man’s scrotum remains beneath, sliced clean off his body.
Chorus. A stolen car slams into and is wrapped around a pole. The driver’s head is found in the street. After hours of searching with a helicopter and a fire truck, the body is found on the roof of a store. Someone sends a text message with a picture of the disembodied head to the victim’s father, as though it were some kind of joke.
Crescendo. A naked man sets out in the direction of the ninth precinct office, holding an infant. He kills the baby and drops it along the way as he is walking. Biblical proverbs are found written in blood on the walls of the home he has left behind. So is the body of his wife.
As I reach for the soap in the bathroom, the vest snug around me, I try to imagine how I would react to each scenario. The dispenser is empty.
At the department’s morning meeting, my cousin stands at a podium with her glasses down on the tip of her nose. “Name of the game is we back each other up, back each other up, back each other up.” Each officer stands facing her in two rows. “Anything from the line for the good of the all?” she asks, and pauses. No one responds. She requests that an officer, a friend from her childhood, lead the troop in a prayer.
“Dear Lord,” he says, “Let us come back in one piece. Amen.”
She lists off the crimes that have taken place the day and night before. Shootings. Arson. Cocktails—I’m assuming Molotov. “Sweetie responsible for that,” she says, lowering her glasses and looking at the officers for emphasis, referring to a recurring somebody that everybody already knows.
“Possible homicide. Man named Fred Young,” she says. Upon pronouncing the name of my grandmother’s friend, she looks at me and nods. When we walk outside, the garbage truck rumbles past us. The parking lot smells of rot. Apparently, when the incinerator across the street is burning, it rains trash.
According to The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera , opera has been performed in Detroit since the mid-nineteenth century, “when seasons were given by the Pyne-Harrison and De Vries Companies, and by an Italian ensemble under Arditi.”
One winter, some year I can’t quite remember, my family and I went to Greektown for dinner. Our waitress, most likely in her sixties, was short and round. She wore a tight bun and sat in the back of the restaurant, smoking a cigarette while we looked over our menus. Handing us our food, she had the grace and voice of a person who’d lived a big life, a quality my father can detect like a drug dog. I’m sure he asked her a question, but I remember their interaction as more accidental than that, as though without any kind of prompting the two of them began chuckling quietly about the temperament of a black soprano whose voice they both admired. She herself had spent much of her life as an opera singer. The night echoed a little deeper after she left us to our avgolemono soup. When we went back to find the restaurant the following year, it was gone. The casinos that light up the street offer free food, and many of the historic Greek eateries have been forced out of business.
Not far from Greektown, where Woodward meets Jefferson at the river, stands the statue of a seated man with his arms extended: The Spirit of Detroit . The man is muscular and cross-legged, made of bronze. In his left hand he holds a golden orb with rays shooting out of it, and in his right he holds a golden family with their arms upraised. The plaque states, “The artist expresses the concept that God, through the spirit of man, is manifested in the family.” But you would be forgiven for thinking that he is holding the orb of light up and away from them, just beyond their grasp.
D is for Dresden, where Wager served as the music director of the Royal Opera House one hundred and two years before the city was bombed. D is for “The Dance of the Hours,” a short ballet in La Gioconda (and, later, Fantasia ) “in which the eternal struggle between darkness and light is symbolized.”
Our squad car makes a faint whining sound when my cousin starts it, so we switch to another. This one has no cage to separate the back seat from the front, but it’s the better of the two. A cherry-scented air freshener, a Cheetos wrapper, and a blue bomb popsicle wrapper are stuffed into various pockets and creases of the car. I am struck by the way the belts and the glint of light off cuffs make male officers walking across the parking lot look so feminine, accentuating the natural twisting of their hips. “That’s the morality unit,” my cousin tells me, which means “vice,” which means prostitutes. When she pulls on the panel with the lock and window buttons on the door of the five-year-old patrol car, the entire panel comes off in her hand.
“The car radios don’t work, so if something happens to me, pull up this radio and start talking.” She grabs at the radio attached to her uniform. As if she can sense that this information has freaked me out a little, she adds, “I’ll try not to misbehave today.” Given all the stories I’ve heard and all her bravado, I am surprised to learn that in over thirty years, she has only ever fired her gun at a firing range. She avoids using her baton too. As I yank at and click in my seatbelt, I glance over at her and notice that she’s not wearing one. Feeling my gaze, she announces, “They’re not gonna find my body shot up trying to unbuckle.”
Our first task of the day is to back up two officers responding to a call about a twenty-seven-year-old with an AK-47. My cousin tells me that because of laws intended for rural Michigan hunters, it is perfectly legal for an eight-year-old child to carry a gun in the street, so long as he or she is accompanied by an adult. We scan the streets for a man who is five-foot-six, wearing a gray shirt and jeans. As we pass by the location he was seen departing from, the girl who made the call is standing in the doorway of a nondescript apartment building, wearing pajamas and glasses. “She’s mad at him because he took her keys.” There is something nerdy about the girl. The idea that she was just in close vicinity to an AK-47 puts the whole concept of an AK-47 in a new light for me. I try to imagine the way this kind of weapon will look, angular in what I imagine to be a flimsy drawstring backpack. We search for a figure darting through alleys, or walking in broad daylight, or hiding next to a dumpster, but find no one. Small blue flowers proliferate on the lawns we drive past, and I remark upon the color. “That’s probably the state flower in some other country, but here it’s a weed.” One family has assembled out front of their house to pull the weed up. Their efforts are surprisingly arduous considering the delicate shade of their pale blue enemy. At another house, a woman with a yellow shirt and pigtails is combing her hair out on the porch.
“We all get up in the morning, come outside and comb our hair,” my cousin narrates, mockingly. At the sight of a woman walking down the street, she says, “Out here, thirty looks sixty.”
She doesn’t expect much action this morning, not until around one o’clock, when more people have gotten out of bed. Still, the failed search has raised my adrenaline significantly. I am no longer curious to see anything extraordinary happen. I just want to get home alive. A man in an open blue dress shirt bikes through the blue weeds, scowling at the cop car.
In the years since, as I’ve wept at the sight of Michael Brown’s body and Freddie Gray’s body and Eric Garner’s body on the news, I’ve wondered about the story behind that glare, and all the other stories I am not told that day. I think often how my white cousin negotiates the question of race when violence plays out in front of her, or on the news, since she herself has a half-black son.
I am told to keep track of street names. Lansdowne and Morang. Kelly and Moross.
Two attractive, clean-cut young men, one white, one black, stand in the street, in the middle of a transaction that they make no attempt to hide. They watch us pass with smirks on their faces. “Dope,” my cousin tells me. She does not slow down. “There are some things you don’t do alone.”
We pass a Valero station where my cousin once arrived to discover a man who had been shot just inside the entrance of the store. As he lay dying, his head was struck by the door each time a customer stepped over him to enter and exit, carrying on with business as usual. “Shut off the pumps,” my cousin announced, infuriated, to the clerk when she walked in. Pacino-ish in the retelling.
We are on what my cousin calls Chedda Avenue, which means money. “Whatever the fuck you want you can buy on Chedda Avenue,” she tells me. She pauses in front of a house decked out with balloons, T-shirts, candles, and liquor bottles, which serves as a memorial for a group of people who were recently killed. “That’s a rip kit,” she says. “R.I.P. Rip. One officer joked that he wanted to sell them at shootings.” She pauses, chuckling to herself. “I know. That’s sick.”
Someone has called to report that a vandal is in the process of stealing aluminum siding from an abandoned house.
Chalmers and Elmdale. Chalmers and Maiden. Chalmers and Hayes.
“Nobody pays rent there, I’ll guarantee it,” she says as we drive past a series of apartment buildings. “Those assholes were shooting at us the other day.”
On a well-maintained residential street, we pass a minivan that has been completely stripped. It looks like a war victim, no wheels, no nose, caved in and lopsided. A pit bull meanders down the block, wagging its tail.
In the documentary Searching for Sugar Man , folk musician Sixto Rodriguez walks down a street in Detroit, sun setting tangerine behind his slouching body. One of the most beautiful songs in his repertoire features his aching voice, singing of the drug dealer who sells him “silver magic ships” and adds color to his dreams. Jumpers, coke, and mary jane act as the cure for his lost heart, his false friends, and his lonely, dusty road. “Sugar Man,” Rodriguez sings, “you’re the answer”—his voice lilting—“that makes my questions disappear.”
More than a few operas center on the theme of elusive pleasure.
Faust sells his soul to the Devil in exchange for a little youth.
Hansel and Gretel are sent to the woods to gather strawberries as punishment for playing, and instead of bringing the fruit back home, they eat to the point of exhaustion.
In Irmelin , a prince named Nils follows a silver stream, convinced that it will lead him toward true love.
At dinner one night, we go around the table making toasts. When it’s her turn, my cousin says that if she could stop one thing in the world, it would be addiction. It is impossible to talk about Detroit without talking about intoxication.
In the squad car, my cousin surprises me when she says, “You wanna buy any kind of dope? Go to that gas station.” I turn around, squinting back at the station in question, working hard to dismiss thoughts about a very stupid adventure involving a dime bag of weed. As if she can smell the curiosity on me, she adds, “Wanna get robbed or shot? It’s gonna happen there too.”
My cousin’s first death on the job was at a hospice, due to cancer. The second was a man on a couch, whose body she saw out from the corner of her eye, perhaps because she was unwilling to face him. The third was a stabbing, at which point she took out her flashlight to better see the wound. “I got braver,” she explains. The first shooting she witnessed “blew her fucking mind.” The most recent death was self-inflicted. “My horrible,” she explains, “is the nephew and the brother looking at the body.”
When she started on the force, her brother told her, “Don’t let them make you something you’re not.” And she took his advice to heart. Instead of going out to drink after a shooting, as is the tradition for many of her colleagues, she goes home instead. She has gone maybe once during her entire career. If only every officer had a brother like Ralph.
At the house we have come to investigate, there isn’t a trace of a thief. We walk through to the backyard, examining the place where the siding has been taken. Stealing off of abandoned lots is a kind of home-and-garden pastime for Detroiters of all backgrounds. You can have some marble from the Packard plant for your end table, replant some long-gone woman’s rose bush in the front of your house. Everybody does it. When he was young, my father helped my grandfather collect scrap metal to sell. But this was done with the owner’s consent.
A cat meows as it enters the house next door, where trees are growing out of the windows and the entire front has melted. Across the street, a man trims his hedges. He has no idea who might have called the cops. This does not mean he wasn’t the one who called, though. The graffiti and billboards in this city shout back and forth like a family argument, declaring the pros and cons of snitching.
We meet up with two other officers, both women. The conversation is idle, quiet, meandering. I feel like I am back in first grade, on the playground, playing make-believe with a couple of friends. We stand facing the charred and melted house and discuss the vegetation issue in this city. “See that?” My cousin asks me. “That’s not a tree. That’s a weed.” She is pointing to the tallest plant near the house, a skinny, wild thing, but wide and high enough to be mistaken for a legitimate tree.
The degree to which the abandoned house has been overtaken by greenery verges on magical. It reminds me of movies about children growing up in the South, spending days investigating floor after floor of old barns and farmhouses. Except, in these films, there aren’t two men breathing heavily behind the side door, hands calloused from ripping at the aluminum siding, waiting for the cops to leave.
One of the policewomen who has come for this call kicks at a tree stump. She has puffy neon stickers on the butt of her gun. We pile into our respective squad cars and go.
One night, on the front steps of our house, my cousin told my mother and me some of the most incredible stories we’d heard yet. In one, a man picked up and flung an eighty-year-old man onto the sidewalk before stealing his gold. The gold was the necklace of the old man’s recently deceased wife, a loss that hit him much harder than the beating. A woman who watched this scene play out chased after the assailant, but he disappeared into a field of tall grass. “People are tired of this shit,” my cousin said, laughing at the tenacity of the bystander who seemed so bent on bringing the fugitive to justice.
Sometimes we worry about her. That all this extremity and violence has hurt her more deeply than she’s willing to admit. The stories she jokes about are sometimes so terrible, it seems impossible to summon a polite smile in response. My uncle, a retired psychologist, explains the necessity of laughter when it comes to stories like Detroit. Without the chance to find humor or beauty in these moments, such jobs would be completely unsustainable. But jokes can only heal so much. One day, after a home visit that rocked him badly, he drove to Lansing so that he could get out of his car and scream.
In Jenufa , an opera in three acts, the body of a child is found underneath the ice.
When this plot played out on my cousin’s watch, counselors were called to speak with the officers involved. My cousin was the only one to speak at the baby’s funeral.
This extract is taken from “ D is For The Dance of The Hours,” which was first published in Ecotone 20, fall 2015.