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Thursday, August 25, 2011

On the Wolverine, Cookin' with Hot Grease

It was turning into a bright, sunny morning as we emerged from the apartment building.  The cloudless sky was pale blue, with hints of amber as the sun began its ascent. Quiet, peaceful.

But rather than walk the few blocks over to the train depot, we took a taxi, given my luggage, and our concerns about safety - particularly the dark, crumbling underpass where Woodward Avenue dips under the railroad tracks.
The passengers crowding the waiting room were a surprisingly mixed group, perhaps 35 per cent white. In this predominantly black and historically divided city, such settings still are somewhat rare, in my experience. The demographics are changing, though. A New York Times article on July 3, 2011, heralded the growing number of creative people under 40 who are moving to the city. People have been hoping for a renaissance here for decades.  

Mom wanted to have a look at the train, the Wolverine, which links Detroit and Chicago. But it hadn't yet arrived.  As we looked around the station, she noticed an old menu from a train's snack car, posted on a bulletin board, meant as decoration.  It was a glimpse into bygone times, a reminder of her girlhood trips to the South, to visit relatives.  Upon reaching Cincinnati, my mother and her sister and mother would have to move to the segregated Day Car.  They would pack fried chicken and pound cake in shoeboxes before leaving Detroit, because on the southern portion of their journey, they would otherwise only be able to eat in greasy spoons at stops along the way. The narratives Isabel Wilkerson recounts in The Warmth of Other Suns are all too familiar to Mom. 

As the train limped along from Detroit, I could see some of the new center area, and then stretches of neighborhood and industrial blight as we ran parallel with Kronk Avenue, before the scenery changed to landscaped lawns and other images of relative prosperity near Dearborn.
The snack bar attendant assisted passengers getting on the train.
"We got a full train today, folks.  If you travelin' single, you might want one of the single seats."
"You want company?" he said to the well-dressed, middle-aged woman with a chestnut complexion who had chosen a seat on the side of the car with two seats.
"What?" she asked, in a tone suggesting she interpreted the attendant’s question as an unwelcome pass.
"We got a full train,” he replied. “Someone's going to join you over there. If you want some space to yourself, take one of those single seats over there (on the other side of the aisle). I'm just trying to let you know what time it is. Might not like to have someone sit next to you. Guy might have bad breath."
The attendant looked as though he were in his sixties, nearing retirement. He had close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, a generous waistline and caramel complexion. He had an air of, "been there, done that, seen it all."
Our next stop was Ann Arbor.
The conductor, a heavy-set man in his late thirties or mid-forties, with mocha-colored skin, entered the car and asked, "Who's our newbies?”
"OK. We're cookin' with hot grease now," he exclaimed, and began punching tickets.

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