City of night

Jun 9, 1999 at 12:00 am

It wasn’t supposed to go down like this. She’d said to meet her at Talal’s on the west side – and sure enough there she was, wrapped in a tight strapless thing that, along with earrings, mascara and spiked heels, tried hopelessly to cover half of her.

But without a car, what was she doing way out here? Michigan Avenue had that LA look, its trail through downtown Dearborn split in half by civic and corporate stretches of no-man’s-land. You needed a destination to come out this way, where the evening sidewalks of summer were just as deserted as any other time of year. Sedans cruised by full of spiffed-up kids inhaling the cool twilight, convertible tops and tinted windows down, just like southern California. But a cab or a bus? Forget it.

Anyway, the puzzle of her arrival would have to wait. From our cozy booth, I could smell the puffy warm pitas before they appeared like a plateful of gourmet falsies. Couples and parties of eight walked in, and the place filled up with humanity in its multiple disguises.

All through the meal I couldn’t stop checking her out, the lady in my lake of sweat and mystery. When we finally got the bill, she leaned on my arm to the parking lot out back (no one ever used the street entrance) where waiters were staring at the new moon and couples stood around having a smoke or a laugh.

There were sure a lot of babes out tonight – Chaldean beauties, Lebanese heartbreakers, plus a few with skin tones shading into Motown dreamgirls supreme.

For two minutes, the lady was just another contestant in a pageant, but I was the only judge and she had it made.

We rolled through neighborhoods, past strip malls and corner party stores, a mosque or two, and some old folks strolling hand in hand under the darkening sky. We got on the Southfield expressway since it ran north all the way to Birmingham, where our crosstown adventure would continue.

Birmingham, village in the city, developed (like Pontiac, Royal Oak and Ferndale) on the small town-with-center model, had become a sexy place to step out in the sprawl.

The streets were teeming with what seemed mostly to be high schoolers in sports caps, T-shirts, tube tops and khakis. But when you looked closer, there were also bars full of elegant drinkers, voices raised to near-painful levels of glee. Coffeehouses, a few sandwich shops, small streets lined with galleries, trees and BMWs. The lady’s hot outfit stood out here – gawkers thought, was she Filipino, Italian, Mexican, Armenian?

In front of the Birmingham Theatre, a line of teen jocks bugged their eyes at her. We got our tickets and went up to one of those Parisian-like screening rooms on the second floor. The flick? Who knows, ’cause I spent those two hours floating in the cloud of opium around her. All I knew was that the jazz on the sound track sent me back to a tiny club off Boulevard St. Michel in the Latin Quarter.

Later, we didn’t talk much, wandering the now-quiet streets, with a squad car parked at the corner and some kids acting up. Birmingham village was a cooling ember and it was time to go.

All the way down Woodward, street lights flew by as we raced. Not daring to look at her, I focused on the drugstores, car washes, motels, diners, gas stations, a view of nowhere. First a cemetery, then the zoo, then another freeway – if we weren’t in LA, this sure was a close second.

At last, back in the old city, we breezed into Hamtramck, almost like crossing a border in Europe between Austria and Liechtenstein, or the Czech Republic and Poland.

Now neo-LA and its satellite villages were far behind, as the pervasive "neighborhoodness" of Hamtown took over. Caniff ran through a tight row of old-shingled houses interrupted here and there by storefronts, bars, restaurants, halls for rent and parking lots.

It was midnight, but young kids still ran the streets. Dudes made last trips to party stores, leaving with hefty paper bags of booze and chips. Clubs like Paycheck’s and Motor were letting their last customers in the door, but I wanted to take the lady to a more intimate spot ... or so I thought.

No matter where you stop in Hamtramck, you can’t get away from the "lived-in" feeling of its streets. There don’t have to be crowds of after-hours revelers on corners for you to get a good jolt of city. It’s in the sidewalks, the curbs and the narrow stretches of lawn between them. It’s in the air that gets pushed down alleys behind the houses.

And cars in Hamtown are vehicles in which life happens – not showpieces bereft of life itself. A sublime encounter can take place in one of these cars, between a confused, distracted driver and an exquisite passenger, without anyone being threatened in his morality or investments.

But that’s not what the evening and the lady had in mind. We parked down the street from Lush, a relatively new point of light on the horizon. The doorman knew her. The barman knew her. The DJ knew her. I began fading into the decor with each passing minute and each throbbing note from the mix.

Three whiskeys later – and an unknown quantity of dry martinis down her deep velvet throat – I knew it was time to cash out. The big easy was sinking into the big sleep.

Yeah, it wasn’t supposed to go down like this. The last echoes I had of her were the glint of an earring and a click from her heels.