Several days of traveling had passed before I finally arrived at the Rosa Parks Bus Station in Detroit — alone, exhausted, and armed with a promise of a bed from a stranger I met while squatting in an abandoned car park in Washington D.C. the night before. “The town you’ll be sleeping in isn’t Detroit, but Hamtramck, roughly 20 minutes away by bus,” the D.C. squatter directed me. “At the Treasure Nest there are usually free rooms. Just knock on the door and tell them you know Dave.”
Propelled forward by Dave’s guidance, I passed through the automated doors of the bus terminal. There was a mysterious excitement building within me, and I was grateful to be somewhere clean of all association — in a city where I didn’t have to be anyone but a stranger passing through.
Across the parking lot, I set my half-broken backpack down on the cement to stuff my sweatshirt and book back into its recesses. My fine leather boots — a gift from my father before I left Australia two months earlier — were scuffed and stained from the streets of New York. I’d been there on a prestigious mentorship grant that felt huge and thrilling when I arrived in Manhattan, but the money and lofts that framed my work soon left me with a loneliness I saw mirrored in the faces of other young artists who loitered outside of galleries around the city.
Marcel, a middle-aged Parisian curator who I’d often found camouflaged among the bustle of champagne glasses at art shows in Chelsea, was the only person in New York I thought filled the vague requirements of a friend. “If you ever need something, don’t hesitate to come and find me,” he’d promised warmly when I was still fresh in the city, but last week when I’d asked him for advice, feeling lost about what to do next and worried about losing momentum, he only mumbled, “Listen, get in line kid. That’s life.” The people I thought had finally seen my talent and potential left me aching for validation more than ever. I thought I’d find fulfilment but was unhappier than I’d been in years.
I felt an irresistible impulse to escape New York City for the one place people here suggested I avoid — Detroit, Michigan. After years finding solace and a sense of comfort in the lyrics of one of my most revered artists “Eminem,” I felt hooked — I needed to see the place that cemented a chapter of his story before I left America. I didn’t have much left other than a few hundred dollars, but I was sure the freedom to wander between Detroit and San Francisco for my last month in the U.S. would offer something honest and real I hadn’t found in New York .
As I slung my bag back over my shoulder and looked back toward the bus terminal, all I could feel was the sharp, empty pang of anxiety well in my chest. I was being followed. I’d first seen the man inside the terminal, dressed in a black sweatshirt and casually talking on the phone. I tried to tell myself it wasn’t true — that the advice I’d gotten not to trust anyone in this city was naïve, fed by fear-breeding propaganda — but as we both walked further from the station there was no mistake. His eyes quickly darted in other directions each time I glanced back at him.
I quickened my pace, turned left toward a string of local buses parked in a deserted waiting area, and crouched behind a low, half-broken wall. My breathing became shallow. I urged my mind back into memories of the best acting I’d learned from a school play that cast me as the lead — maybe I could talk my way out of this, throw him off.
The seconds felt like hours as I listened to the rhythmic jingle of coins in his pocket grow louder. He knew where I was — there was no mistaking it — and now I could feel the man standing only a few feet away, waiting. I fumbled and turned over the keys Dave had passed over to me during my southern road trip only a few weeks before. But as I tensed, my muscles surging with adrenaline, his voice gently floated across the space between us.
“Relax,” he said. “I’m not trying to rob you. Where you tryin’ to go?”
As I looked up, I found a calmness in his pale brown eyes, almost bordering on sorrow for worlds he’d seen too much of and maybe was trying to amend.
“Ham — Hamtramck,” I replied nervously.
“Don’t worry, I’ll walk with you a bit. Here, let me grab your bags.”
“You got a phone?” he asked, not waiting for me to reply. “Here, add my number. You get into trouble around here or anyone tries anything with you, you call me. My name’s G. And call me when you get to wherever it is you’re going.”
There was a quiet, subdued confidence about him. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, his athletic figure suggesting that he respected his body, and his straight posture, clear eyes, and unassuming expression didn’t seem to rely on anything. I could tell he knew exactly who he was.
I can’t explain what implored me to follow up, but after convincing the housekeeper of the Treasure Nest to let me stay a few hours later, I placed my belongings in a spare upstairs bedroom and called G’s number.
“Landed?” G asked.
“Yeah, everything’s good.” I breathed deeply as the relief of having found a warm, safe bed washed over me. Its soft mattress welcomed me and I would have curled into the world of dreams had I not felt a low, rumbling desire to know more about him. I was curious what prompted G to be so kind to me, a stranger who, not long ago, had acted with suspicion toward him.
G paused as if unsure how to continue. “What — what are you doing later? How about I pick you up and we can have dinner together?”
I hadn’t eaten anything since leaving New York the morning before, and the kitchen downstairs left a lot to be desired.
“Sure,” I replied a little too enthusiastically, grateful for the chance to make a friend here. “Anytime you’re ready.”
Shortly after, he parked his white Nissan outside a plain block of brownstone apartments. As he opened the door of his unit, the strong aroma of a freshly cooked, pan-fried salmon wafted over to us along with the soft laughter and bargains of a pre-recorded episode of “Pawn Wars.”
“I love watching this show,” he mentioned casually as we walked in. “I used to work in a similar type of job but we would go and repossess people’s belongings who didn’t make payments on time.”
“Oh really?” I asked, curious.
“I remember this one time when I was contracted by a recording studio to go and take back the CDs of an artist they had been helping to make a record. Something went wrong with the deal and I find a whole bunch of recordings in these two fake Louis Vuitton bags in a rented office space.”
“What happened when you saw them?” I asked.
“I kind of felt bad for the guy, so I wrote down my number on the desk and took two CDs out of the bags to give to him later. He called me up a few days later in hysterics screaming, ‘They’ve got my Louis bags!’” G started laughing. “I managed to calm him down and explained to him what happened, met up with him at the McDonald’s around the corner from my place. He was so grateful that he even signed one of the CDs for me and let me keep it.”
“That’s really cool. Do you still have it?”
“Somewhere around here, but we should have something to eat first.”
After “Pawn Wars” was over, I placed my plate down and hesitantly asked, “G?”
“Hmm?” he smiled back.
“Why are you doing this?”
He thought for a moment, as if he hadn’t decided which answer he should give. “Let’s just say that years ago, if you met me on the street, the outcome would have probably been one you originally expected.”
“Detroit is a dangerous city, and I want you to be safe. I’m making a change with all that now. Trying to do my best, I guess.” His brow furrowed, and his eyes glazed over, as if those very words had ripped the dressings from unhealed wounds.
Silence washed over us, and the fast jingles of loud ads became lost in the gratitude I felt.
“G—” I piped up a bit louder. “Thank you.”
“Hey don’t worry about it,” he half chuckled through a mouthful of salmon. “Before you leave I’ll take you to my mum’s house in 7 Mile for a barbecue. She’d sure be happy to meet you. It’s rare for her to find someone with such impeccable manners around here.”
Before I left Detroit, G gave me a new pair of shoes — he’d noticed my old boots were starting to fall apart. “They may not be as flashy,” he said shyly, pressing them into my hands. “But I’ve hardly worn these Nikes. Maybe they’ll be more comfortable. And you’ll have something to remember me by.”
I smiled at the good I had found in a city that friends and family had pleaded me to avoid. There was a genuine kindness and sincerity within G’s heart that glowed bright. He was helping because he wanted to.
“Thanks G,” I managed to muster aloud, touched by the support. He didn’t care about my success in New York, or whether my name meant anything in the art world.
Instead of luxury lofts and promises of art parties, I found true kindness the world told me I wouldn’t see in this forgotten city, from a man who expected nothing but acceptance from me in return.
I returned to Australia in G’s Nike shoes.
Photos provided by Ahmad (@detroit_chiver)