Yesterday, at about 6 p.m., a capacity crowd jammed the Old Miami on Cass Avenue to remember Matthew Loflin Davis, who died last week. The service was officiated by old Detroit Contemporary honcho Aaron Timlin, and featured a host of speakers who eulogized Davis for more than an hour amid tears and laughter. The audience of mourners was like a “who’s who” of Corridor creative types, including Lowell Boileau, Dave Krieger, Brad Ballard, Sandy Hopkins, Jerome Ferretti, Nick Enright, Bridget Volpe, John Gannon, and many more.
I didn’t get to see the whole service, but what I saw was compelling. Davis’ son, Gibson, played “The Tennessee Waltz” on a mandolin, and Gibson’s mother read a poem. Davis’ buddy Chris Dean gave a humdinger of a eulogy that moved many to tears.
Why all the hubbub over one person? Well, Davis was a longtime denizen of what used to be universally called the Cass Corridor, a neighborhood of gritty bars where artists and musicians rubbed shoulders with street folks and drug dealers.
In the very best sense, Davis was one of the people of the old Co’do’. He was always ready to lend a hand, had seemingly been inside almost every vacant building in the city, and was an accomplished writer, blogger, artist, photographer, and storyteller.
The Old Miami, that grand old dive frequented by Vietnam veterans, was one of his favorite haunts. It may have had something to do with the way his father, a Vietnam Vet, died over there when Davis was still 1 year old. Most likely it was the fantastic variety of Detroiters that topped off its barstools, many of them longtime friends of his who made the Cass Corridor scene what it was.
I first heard of Davis back when he used to stack stones on Belle Isle. Davis loved Belle Isle. Back around 2003 or so, he began building precarious, beautiful sculptures out of rocks along the shore, vertical piles that seemed to defy gravity. We covered it in our special “48 hours on Belle Isle” story
, noting how some people demanded the piles be taken down before Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, in one of his more judicious moves, allowed them to stand.
Davis was also a fixture at the annual Dally in the Alley, where he’d set up a couch near the beer taps and host guests throughout the day. I’m sure I’m not the only person who first made his acquaintance there, seeking relief from the slow-moving throng, but coming to enjoy his unusual company.
His photographs, which we’ve glimpsed on his Facebook page, seem to be a treasure trove of local history, the people of the Cass Corridor shot in candid snapshots against a backdrop of grit and decay. What’s astonishing are the relaxed poses Davis could draw from his subjects. Looking at the shots, it’s clear the person behind the camera is not some intrepid documentarian paratrooping in to capture ruin porn shots of strangers, but a friend, an equal, documenting the people he knew and loved.
One of his photo essays even made it up on our site, a rare instance where he allowed us to use his full name. It was a slideshow of his photos of the old Bob-Lo dock building
, along with his memories of exploring the structure over the years.
Those memories were taken from a phone conversation, but Davis was a talented writer too. He once sent in a searing little story about spending Christmas with a group of street people, a yuletide tale unlike any I’d seen. His writings were eventually compiled into a book, one that’s on sale at Cass Café and a few other places around town.
Also, given his résumé as a scrapper and urban explorer, Davis found an unusual line of work as a sherpa of sorts, working for photographers and tourists drawn by Detroit’s ruins. Davis had the street sense to know creepy from sketchy, and likely helped save Australian photographer Robert Wallace by gunning away from a crew of gun-wielding toughs at the Packard Plant last year
I wasn’t really even sure how old Davis was, perhaps 50. He’d seen better days. One trip in an abandoned building sent him tumbling down an elevator shaft, which left him in a wheelchair for a while. An encounter with a bursting bottle of acid left him mostly blind in one eye. Over the years, his hands became thickened, toughened by the roughness he encountered every day. They were the hands of a working person, or, as somebody else observed, sculptor’s hands. But he wasn’t given to complaining much, and would reel off his misfortunes with a breezy tone and a smirk.
Every so often, I’d meet with Davis at the Miami and we’d talk about something he felt should be in the newspaper. But it generally ended with the story not being pursued, because Davis would refuse to go “on record” with his name. He would ask that I use one of his aliases, such as “Pigpen” or “Django Boone.” I’d tell him that if he really felt strongly about something, he should go on the record about it, but he always refused. It makes sense why, when you consider the whole story.
It’s no secret, really, that Davis was a drug user. (The name of his book is Junky Chronicles
, ferchrissakes.) In a poor, urban, artistic community, there will always be a few people who grow used to navigating the trickier undercurrents of life. In fact, Davis joked about how he was certainly among the highest-functioning dope-users you could find.
And when you barely eke out a living in a city like Detroit, chances are you will wind up much like he did, haunted by warrants based on the wages of poverty, whether they be missed court dates, unpaid tickets, ancient citations. The great unspoken fear here is of being picked up on a warrant and having to face withdrawal in jail. In Detroit, Davis could generally rely on the mercy of the police to not run him in. But Davis would refuse to drive up and meet me in Hamtramck, given the way Hamtramck’s police department has a nasty habit of running people for outstanding warrants. Toward the end, Davis even refused to visit his beloved Belle Isle, for fear that a DNR officer or statie would deliver him to a fate worse than mere jail.
I’ve known a drug user or two who’ve existed in that twilight, caught between a desire to clean up and fear of kicking cold in a cell. One of them allegedly said he was going to turn himself in the next day, and overdosed that very night.
In a country like Portugal, where the War on Drugs has been largely called off, addiction is seen as a health problem, and those with substance abuse problems are offered free therapy, not jail. It’s worth noting that they’ve had remarkable improvements since such policies were implemented. In truth, we make it even harder for folks like Davis to get help with our typical “lock ’em up first” attitude. More than one conversation at this service touched on it, and even a commenter on Davis’ Facebook page said as much: “How many loved ones will have to suffer because of the War on Drugs? Something has got to change and soon.”
The service was over by about 7:30 p.m., and many poured out into the backyard to light cigarettes and share stories around the firepit. The crowd of drinkers, smokers, and jokers got my spirits a lot higher than I expected. Davis’ ghost presided over it all, as it was really he who curated this wide group of people that encompassed barflies, artists, street folk, and professors. It was a testament to the way Davis pursued living as an art.
A bit later, a real, live stripper took the stage at the bar, performing a lap dance for Davis’ son Gibson, who was a real sport about being put on the spot like that. Davis had insisted that, should he die, there must be a stripper at his funeral. And so what was already an extremely unusual memorial just got that much more interesting.
But the most emotional part of the evening was finally getting Davis’ book, which I still hadn’t obtained. His publisher, Jonathan, approached me and, before handing me my own copy, told me: “Last week, he said it was important that I get copies of the book to three people. One of them was you”
I felt an eerie tingle knowing that some of Davis’ last thoughts were of me. We’d been messaging each other back and forth about the 1970s TV shows we were rewatching, and he’d just assailed me with mock outrage about how I’d just got him hooked on The Rockford Files
. But to be surprised by this gift after his death was powerful.
“Who were the three guys?” I asked
“He felt very strongly about this, and insisted I promise to do it. One was to be delivered to some guy at the drug control policy office, another was to go to ‘White Boy’ Rick Wershe, and the other was for you.”
I can see Davis smirking now, having placed me in such illustrious company. Thanks, man. I’m so happy to finally have your book.
And now, at last, your words can go safely down “on the record,” old friend.