Places I’ve Lived: Detroit Edition
by Suzette Smith
Fielding Street — Ferndale, Michigan — $200 + utilities (my share)
We lived in a brownstone off of Eight Mile in a decidedly not dangerous and predominantly gay area. To the west of us, houses began to fall in on themselves and the night became progressively darker. The streetlights were out.
My friend and I moved into a raised first floor brown brick row house. It was agreed upon by all her relatives that the raised first floor would keep us safe from people that molest at ground level but in the event that our building was set on fire, it would be easy to escape. These concerns were foremost in their minds.
I gave her the large room, twice the size of mine, because her mother was covering her part of the rent, and then she and I were illicitly splitting the rent again. She was the one who proposed this, but I was the one who got a dressing down from her mother, near the end of our lease.
“I’m sorry you don’t have a lot of money, but if you couldn’t afford it, you shouldn’t have tried.” A piece of her spit became glass. It entered through my eye and lodged in my heart.
Channing Street — Ferndale, Michigan — “The Litterbox” $200 no utilities
A rich woman who liked the way I write offered to let me live in her house for $200 a month. Her previous tenants paid rent in ethereal promises to clean. The house smelled like rotten food because there were abandoned boxes of rotten food hidden throughout the house. The company was good, though. She kept wonderful people around.
There was a third bedroom, kiddy corner to mine, packed to the ceiling with zine making supplies, mannequins, light-up Virgin Mary statues and masks. My landlord decided to rent this room out as well and began piling items in front of my door. Eventually I could no longer exit my room from my door and began using the window. This was a peaceful time.
Harrison Street — Royal Oak, Michigan — $282 + utilities
V. found an abandoned house and went to city hall to learn that it was owned by a nearby recycling plant. They were surprised we wanted to live there but quoted us a rate and said they’d clear it out. I wish we’d saved all the things that were in the basement and backyard before they got rid of it all. There was a language barrier and I don’t think they understood that we wanted to live with dozens of hand painted stone gnomes, salvaged wood carvings and damaged Polaroids. This was the house with cupboards in every spare vacancy and pineapple/eagle wallpaper. It might still be my favorite. I wanted to figure out how to buy it, but I was a poor night projectionist/student and I knew our landlords wanted to tear it down eventually so they could expand their building.
Strike 1 was when I was working late and V. started having house shows without telling me. Strike 2 happened during our Halloween party when people ripped our furnace pipes from the basement ceiling and danced on them. Strike 3 was when J.’s friend got stoned and spray painted ugly alien art on our landlords building. My housemates were entering a heavy psychedelic drug use phase, and I could tell our landlords weren’t renewing the lease. I moved to be “closer to school,” but really I decided the night I heard terrified screaming in the backyard. I ran outside, through the neck-high grass, prepared to defend lives and my good friend LB laughed derisively, “I’m on drugs Suzette. GOD!” A piece of her spit became glass. It entered my eye and lodged in my heart.
Willis Street — Detroit, Michigan — $300 + water and internet
I moved into in a 10-bedroom mansion with some REAL anarchists who wanted to start an artistic collective. I was nervous they would think of me as preppy or apolitical. I was a writer and sometimes I drew. I went to state college. Was that art enough? Over time I realized they were all on their parents dole.
I lost my keys in the first week of living there, but I was intimidated and didn’t want to seem flighty so I just kept breaking in through the roof. M&B, the reclusive sisters that shared the second floor with me, began to express concern that some vandal was breaking in at night. Several times I came home to elaborate booby-traps set up with dress form mannequins, bells, pins and extraneous ribbon. They were art school fabrics majors. I ninja-like stealthed my way through the traps, still not admitting my key loss until my friend Jeff moved in months later and made me a copy of his.
“But what happened to the other Raunchy Houses?” I wondered.
After six months we found out the landlord had been stealing electricity and gas from the city. We held a house meeting, intending to stand firm that if we were going to be responsible for those utilities, our rent needed to be lowered. Our landlord called his woman on the inside of Detroit Electric and began making sexual promises, explaining that vandals had been squatting in his house, but he now was considering renting it to a group of honest college kids. After she promised to make the bill go away, our landlord explained that now we had to Do As Adults. We could either ask our parents for more money to cover the bills or earn extra income working for his burgeoning porn website Raunchy House 5. “But what happened to the other Raunchy Houses?” I wondered. “What happened to Raunchy Houses 1 though 4?”
Gallagher Street — Hamtramck, Michigan — $171+utilities
Some of us found a house together across the street from a local judge and entertained ourselves the first few weeks, imagining his reaction to our extravagant, political, gothic genderqueer lifestyles. I never saw him so I imagine our extravagant, our political, gothic genderqueer lifestyles went largely unnoticed.
Having accepted that I would be single forever, I moved into a long narrow room with my friend who had also accepted he would be single forever. Our room contained bunk beds and our desks at either end. When I was sitting at my desk I was also sitting in my closet. We both promptly got into long term relationships. Mine was with another person living in our house who also slept in bunk beds.
One of our friends was robbed at knifepoint outside of our house. The next week my housemate allowed a sketchy man to grab her grocery bags and burst into our house under the pretense of doing an odd job for her. I wasn’t very cool about it, especially when she gave him money, insisting that she shouldn’t have let him force his way inside. I know now that bad things happen and it’s no one’s fault. We moved out of this house when a pipe in the basement began spewing poop everywhere.
Apartment on MLK — Detroit, Michigan — $200 + utilities
I wanted to move into the new group house with the same political glitter goths, but they very passively allowed me to understand that I would not be welcome. I was dating the least glittery one of them and he and I moved into a dark corner apartment on MLK. Originally I’d wanted to live on 2nd Avenue in a beautiful, bright studio in a great location that was unfortunately also a major meth spot. The view was amazing. The landlords saw my passable credit and offered me a nearby apartment because they could not, in good conscience, allow me live in a building where people were selling and exchanging drugs outside at noon on a Tuesday. I thought this was classist, but the least glittery goth boy was a bundle of nerves. This location was close to the place where he’d had the shit beaten out of him a year previous.
A few months into this living situation he told me he wanted to get a gun or move. I found him a safer place to live. It was a two-bedroom with a bedroom and a kitchen on one side of the apartment hallway, and a bedroom and a bathroom on the other side. I then moved our friend in, instead of me and broke it off.
The Disneyland — Hamtramck, Michigan — $200 + utilities
A friend wanted to rent the spare room of her apartment. It had a three-story wooden sculpture behind it — spires of flowers, spaceships and tiny men on bicycles. It was the “hobby” of our landlord who lived next door, and it was called the Hamtramck Disneyland.
When L. allowed me to move in she explained that the landlord, Dmytro, probably wouldn’t even know we weren’t the same person because we both had puffy red hair. When I left Detroit, I gave the apartment to a co-worker because I felt that he would help Dmytro with odd jobs and I cared for the old man like an uncle who often yelled at me and called me dirty, or an estranged godfather who often yelled at me and called me dirty. Later when I returned to visit he would insist I was L. and also married.
I liked it there. I would leave for school in the morning and come home to the middle of a fourth-grade field trip. I would come home at the end of a long day, sweaty on my bike, to find various cool guy rock bands posing in front. Dmytro would be working on the spires, blasting unintelligible jaunty music from a worn-out speaker. “Free Donation!” he would say happily, encouraging them to fund his project. “Yeah man,” they’d say confused, “Free the nation.”
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