by Anu Yagi
“I’VE GOT A GOOD FEELING IN A BAD CITY TONIGHT.” – Rancid, “Detroit” (eponymous debut; 1993)
Oh, Detroit. A place that demands you feel it. It’s got smooth, cool hands and hot nasty parts that’ll make you blush in bad ways; make you cry for more, too. It’s home to a people who say, “Look, this is who I am; we are.” And in so doing—at least for the tourist like me—challenges you to show something of yourself in turn.
That said, I’m sorry to report that my recent Maui-to-Michigan errand was meant for a better, braver Valley Islander. Picking battles would be good advice if you had a choice in the first place.
First place… Golly this goes against my MO of frothy self-loathe, but the whole weird reason I’m writing about Detroit (?!) is that I won first place (?!?!) in this dealie called The AAN Awards. (Ha. Ha. HA. Believe it or not, it’s got nothing to do with anonymous alcoholics. Just the pseudo-professional ones. Writing’s a great disguise gig for the self-enabled.) The acronym “AAN” stands for Association of Alternative Newsmedia and the awards are the dessert to the dinner that’s a hip industry conference, hosted by a different city annually. (Hence, Detroit in 2012.) The contest covers da whole country and Canada. It’s MauiTime’s very first first-place, if I may boast. And I won for my (recently retired) little Kula Kid column, of all things.
So, Hawaii, you know how it is: a keiki wins one Mainland prize an’ so gotta go Up Dea fo’ represent, eh? The responsibility’s part of our post-modernish cultural protocol.
My seat back and tray table was in its upright position with just a couple terrifying Orbitz clicks on Mom n’ Nana’s credit cards (building off of a serendipitously timed–albeit long-ago-planned–vacation to Humboldt, compliments of former MauiTime editor Jacob Shafer, my one and only “Cap’n,” and his beautiful wife, Alyssa; a trip to which I’d also tacked-on a visit to Washington, DC, where my dear friend Traci, a fellow Kula kid, recently relocated with her husband Eric, who now works at the Pentagon)…
PANIC IN DETROIT
Even in downtown Detroit’s most desolate streets, broken bits of pissed-on glass ain’t much match for hard Hawaiian feet. Who needs ruby slippers’ pointed pinch? Let my toes touch the ‘aina, wherever it may be and however concrete-covered. There’s life down there, I swear. Burgeoning and beautiful, because it’s of Earth. Sure, such islander naiveté in this day and age could land me with bacterial hepatitis, but who cares? My liver died long ago.
Oh-so apropos (and prize aside), I left Motor City with a nicked lip and bloody black eye, nearly swollen shut, hangover notwithstanding. “Um, are you OK?” asked a young flight attendant, her kind hand on my shoulder. All through the airport I’d gotten glances from other women, which read, “You shouldn’t let that bastard do that to you!”
“Nah. Jus’ had too much fun in your fine city. But thanks for asking,” I hiccuped.
Honestly, I have no recollection of my happy bruiser, and it’s easy to convince someone of that kind of truth when you’re clutching a can of Armour Vienna Sausage (more on that later) and reeking of Eau de 8 Mile.
Too much fun in a fine city indeed. And by “fun” I mean inspiration, moxie and love. Detroit dishes all that in spades; a diamond radically roughed so that it sparkles all the brighter in its renaissance.
“Don’t tell me this city ain’t got no heart,” an area man told me, quoting The Grateful Dead. I’d have followed that up with “you just gotta poke around” but in Detroit you don’t have to. Every experience is evidence.
Touchdown to take-off, after just 44 wild hours in Southeast Michigan, I’ve come to believe that what’s happening in their city will model the way our country at large exhumes itself from our current troubles. Keep an eye on them and remember I told you so.
And to Hell with behemoth bailouts! Real revival’s being self-generated, revving in the hearts and minds of Detroiters. Talk to anyone investing themselves there and you’ll witness truly tenacious enterprise, grounded and growing from nostalgia. Then there’s the graffiti and wheatpaste art on abandoned brick buildings, which beg locals, “DETROIT, RESPECT YOURSELF!” It’s sort of sad, but says a lot. Moreover, I think the healing sentiment’s working.
Lovely as our Hawaiian Isles may be, we’ve got loads to learn—even, if not especially—from places like Detroit.
Though I’d come a long way at great expense to my family n’ friends, I still couldn’t afford the AAN Conference registration. So I crashed the nighttime parties. Duh. (Hey, I didn’t eat their food and I bought my own beer! And, with a travel-sized watercolor kit that my third grade teacher gave me when I had leukemia two years ago, I went so far as to make my own “Aloha, My Name Is” nametag that read “Imposter.”)
A couple weeks before I took off from OGG, just two days before Award nominees were announced, an unsolicited psychic embraced me and whispered crisply in my ear, “RISK!”
It’s good advice, to a point. The writers’ Way, some might say. That is, until you can’t remember anything the morning after. (It’s the opposite of ideal when remembering’s the whole heart of your business.)
Straight off the plane, I got gussied up, Google Mapped the club’s coordinates, and found my way to a Woodward Fountain-side party at the center of the city’s spoke wheel called Campus Martius Park. In ancient Rome, that meant “Field of Mars.” A fire destroyed the city in 1805, so Judge Augustus Brevoort Woodward (who Thomas Jefferson had appointed as the first “Chief Justice” of then-just-a-territory Michigan) designed its rebuilding with Campus Martius–with its “Point of Origin”–as the iris of its radial roads. Even cooler is that the layout’s modeled after Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s design for DC. (Our nation’s capital, coincidentally, was where my trip would conclude… By the way, I learned all that cool historic stuff—and loads more—the next day, from my new friends at The D:hive1.)
As I stepped into the party, I was consumed with but one thought: WHAT THE HELL AM I DOING HERE? I was not in Kula anymore. Way up here in the massively contiguous United States of Anonymity, there’s no social life jacket of friendliness by proximate familiarity—at least, not for Mauian me. It’s easy to forget the comfortable side effect of one of our islands’ clever curses: that your auntie’s friend’s neighbor’s sister is around every corner.
I really was an Imposter. Likely the only Imposter—and if not the only, certainly the most pitiful. Here I’d flung myself—by myself—across the globe on my grandmother’s dime, to land in a strange, old city as notorious as they come to collect what I thought could at-best be third place from people who didn’t even know I was here. Go ahead, open up your box of jokes about bright crayons.
So I plowed through—and away—from the party of high makamaka writerly types, chiming glasses a melody to their industry talk. Because if there’s anywhere I feel comfortable, it’s at the bar. And that’s where I found my liquid courage, always with its bag of levies not bargained for.
At the beginning of the end of the first night, some Big Wig from the host paper, Metro Times, bought me a drink. Shot it when I was supposed to sip.
Big Wig said, “That was impressive!” And that’s the last thing I remember.
Well, it’s the last thing I remember until I came-to bawling in the lap of the politician-turned-United Way2-board member who I’d befriended earlier that night. A perfect gentleman who, thank God, ensured my safe return to the old but obscure Milner Hotel. (The Milner, bless it, is a place which a traveling wine dealer, riding with me in its oddly pie slice-shaped elevator, described as the poor man’s Chelsea.)
A couple months before I took off from OGG, after my second-to-last feature for MauiTime, a different psychic told me that I’d “puka through” to another dimension of living after I experienced The Great Sob (with an emphasis on the definite article). Then I’d enjoy a lifetime of “vomiting truth.” Take that, Miss Cleo.
So that first morning-after—amazed my poisoned brain could think of anything at all—I thought of the psychic(s) as I texted the turned-politician with my mortified apologies.
He replied, “So u remember breaking down? U were quite hysterical. LOL.”
Yikes. Yes, I remember screaming about Hawaiians’ je ne sais quoi genocide. The Bible. The Whale. The Big Five. The Tourist. How Hollywood has bitch-slapped our image around worse than Judy Garland. How the whole thing just ain’t fair. And again as before, I’m not cut out for any challenge—especially one of helping to piece our Hawaiian Humpty Dumpty identity, much as I ache to…
Goddamn, Detroit. You and your mirror up to Nature! WELL, THERE. You happy? Force me to show mine ‘cause you bared yours? I warned you it wasn’t pretty. But cut me some slack. Please. Besides, isn’t there enough beauty in the world already?
My night was stolen by the bottom of a glass, but I remembered that shit.
Sure wish I could remember a bit more, though.
See, when I got to the awards ceremony the following night, I asked if I could join the table of some Metro cats who looked sort of familiar. I was sure I talked to them at some point the night before. Just sure of it.
I’m great with names and stories when I’m sober. But I couldn’t remember these cats’ names if it’d save a blind puppy from a toy store fire.
The shit thing was, they knew who I was. And not even as “Imposter.” They called me Anu, proper as if Pidgin was their first language.
“Look, guys. I just wanna apologize for last night,” I said. “I really don’t remember a thing. Not even this,” I pointed at my busted eye. I was the only one laughing.
“I wouldn’t worry about it—too much,” said the lean, lip-ringed boy to my left. He hung me on a long pause.
I shrunk into my shoulders.
“You said some very interesting things,” he casually exhaled. As if that made a bad thing better.
Crash, splat. I felt like a fat girl in a beauty pageant. Again.
“Well, for one, you said, ‘Everything pleasurable begins with the tongue.’ You made a decent argument: food, breath, sex, speech.”
“[Expletive deleted], I would NEVER say that,” I denied. I’m too prude. Surely he was lying! A trick city kids play on blackout bumpkins…
I am poor, the pupu buffet looked rich, but the whole “tongue” thing made me too sick to sample. The Awards started suddenly and—evermore all a ball of nerves—I didn’t even use my last prepaid drink ticket. Which says a whole hell of a lot.
YOU REALLY LIKE ME?!
“This is the part when the bucket-o-pigs blood dumps from the ceiling,” I told myself. Might’ve said it aloud, too.
A virgin to accolades like these, I realized it’s something of a proportions thing: when losers win, it feels suspiciously extra-great.
I was in the too-fancy Westin Book Cadillac’s Crystal Ballroom; the kind of joint I stink up by just standing too close to the door. Fancypants alt. journo folk were handing me a plastic trophy—not to keep, just to pose with—and a lowball of neat bourbon. It was the drink of the night, poured for first-place winners only.
Though grinning and giddy I was still suspect of everything. Cheeks pink, I thought of Keats: “O, for a draught of vintage!” Prolly not bourbon, but a hemlock hydrosol. Surely a trick to rid Earth of my rambling…
In lieu of certificates (forthcoming via snail mail), winners got to reach into a plastic grab bag, assembled from Detroit’s (Maybe The World’s) Most Curious—And Contagious—Automated Kiosk. This is AAN, after all. The vending machine’s goods included XXL men’s BVDs, a hot pink n’ black garter belt, a tiny bag of Cheetos, Hormel Chili, a travel enema kit, a banana flavored condom… Never thought I’d keep a can of Armour Vienna Sausage for all time, but it’s looking like I will.
Someone then snapped a picture of me—one giant, tangled giggle—and all I could manage to mutter was “Shut up! SHUT UP!”
Wished Eminem-in-my-head would’ve shut up. I couldn’t help but hear him: “If you had one shot, one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it or just let is slip?”
Yo, I squandered that moment. Though no one was really giving speeches, if I only had a brain I’d have at least tried to spew some semblance of the thanks in my heart. Would’ve tried to say how badly I want to make my sweet n’ sorrowful small town proud.
Nope, not idiot me. The whole dealie was about honest, artful speech and I could only shout “SHUT UP!”
It was, however, all sorts of fun to unabashedly chee hoo for former MauiTime art directors Scrappers and Chris Skiles, with current photographer Sean Hower, who for their 2011 MauiTime cover designs won an Honorable Mention. Scrappers also won third place in the same category for his good work at The Portland Mercury (the pub to which he’s boomeranged back to).
Considering I killed Kula Kid a couple months back by quitting MauiTime, this AAN shindig was a posthumous surprise. Something like a hall pass from Heaven to attend your own funeral ‘cause the flowers smell that good.
Sometime toward the end of the program I mustered the courage to drink the bourbon. “Mahalo ke akua,” was earnestly on my bitter breath. And God, I’ll never taste another drink quite like it.
When finally I got my wits about me and looked around, nearly everyone in the ballroom was gone. ‘Cept two smiling boys—one of them a fellow first-placer—and they wanted to buy me a beer.
In five minutes flat we were The Three Musketeers, out on the town, talking craft and falling into the sort of city mischief that I hope’s written on the wind somewhere, ‘cause it’s too good for my pen.
Terrence M. McCoy’s a ginger Wisconsinite who speaks fluent Khmer and just wrote a book called The Playground, about wahine rebels in Cambodia. (McCoy’s book’s available on Amazon, and it has a sweet review in the The Washington Post, too). He’s a contributor to The Atlantic, among other awesome stuff, and just moved to Texas to write for the Houston Press.
Christopher Twarowski’s the investigative reporter at the helm of The Long Island Press, “the largest weekly newspaper serving Long Island, NY.” A multiple AAN Award winner and former staff writer for The Washington Post, he later drove five hours each-way to visit me in DC; twice bearing flowers, introducing me to his journo braddahs who work for Voice of America and orchestrating an impromptu Ethiopian-style birthday party, complete with a black velvet cape and mango smoothies.
Both boys are Columbia School of Journalism grads (the only j-school in the Ivy League; offering Masters programs-and-up only), cool as they come, and my adventures with them alone could fill this entire page and then some.
The thing is, I like ‘em so much that I hesitated inking anything about them at all. If I can fool them into being my friend for just a little bit longer, it’ll be too late for them to turn back.
Back… It wasn’t time for me to go back to Maui, but I had to be on outta Detroit. Sprinting from a taxi in the too-early morning, I made my flight with literally a second to spare—swollen, stinking and so fully inspired.
The glances, the glares, a kind hand on my shoulder, “…too much fun in your fine city…”
Just before the plane took off to my turbulent snores, I took one last big gulp of “carbon and monoxide / the ol’ Detroit perfume,” as Paul Simon sings, and prayed its sweet and sour lessons might linger with me forever.
WINNING WASN’T EVERYTHING
Detroit was but the intro to the first real vacation of my adult life (cancer not included):
I lounged for a week in the ancient redwoods of Humboldt, under apple trees a la Newton or Eve; ambling along the epic Lost Coast, collecting pieces of dead creatures with my hanai nephews. Strange enough, it felt like coming home—though most everything I saw there I’d barely before even imagined. (Case in point: pelicans. What’s that Jurassic shit?! Oh, and kelp is terrifying. The aesthetically evil tentacles of Cthulu, all too alive and well.)
I rode a Greyhound to San Francisco, my myriad seatmates sharing South Park references, blonde hash and some sort of medicinal honey that, to illustrate its potency, comes in an itsy bitsy dropper bottle. Along the way I also made friends with a couple harmless Columbian drug dealers and almost got arrested at the airport (Sorry Mom). I ate cheesesteak in Philly. I saw the Liberty Bell. I rode the DC Metro to the Newseum where I was sobered by a memorial to the hundreds of journalists who were murdered for their work. I smoked cigarettes and ate Peruvian chicken at the Pentagon. I snagged a book from their 9/11 memorial chapel called Battlefield Prayers…
With all that n’ then some, I’m a little bolder and barer for the wear. I returned to Hawaii with 66 cents in my pocket; all, like the love and time in my life, borrowed to begin with. Oh, and with can of Armour Vienna Sausage. ■
 The D:hive is an ultra-progressive place that “work[s] to make a personalized connection with each individual [they] come in contact with… [primarily] from a physical storefront in Detroit’s Central Business District where you will find help with anything Detroit: places to live, connections to great jobs, opportunities to link up with community organizations and leaders, and unique ways to explore and learn about this captivating city.” They hooked me up with a bad-ass private tour of downtown (thanks, Jon!), and if you’re ever in Detroit, you need to check ‘em out. Learn more at dhivedetroit.org.
 Actually, I met two politicians-turned-United Way heroes. Other than the gentleman (his name was Mike), there was a woman named Britt to whom I said, “Dude. You look like a former Miss Detroit or something, right?” She didn’t deny it and I’m starting to think I’m getting pretty good at pegging strangers. Because I was simply crashing parties, she planned “the perfect day in Detroit” for me, written in girlish script on a cocktail napkin that she folded all origami-ish. (The list even included her dad’s cell phone number, should I have wanted to take his boat to Canada.) In addition to a tour from D:hive, Britt set up a tour with Marletta at United Way—which meant I spent two hours sobbing about the wonderful ways they’re saving the world. Food and shelter aside, did you know that for ever 300 kids in poverty there’s just one book? Compare that to 30 books for each kid in middle class-and-above. So, Southeast Michigan’s United Way has partnered with all 10 hospitals in the area to meet with mothers before and after birth, giving them a “Village in a Box,” a program which includes a free keiki book for every kid, every month, for the first five years of their life. That’s the most lighthearted of their stories. The others I’m still recovering from.