'Detroit all of my life'

Mar 18, 2009 at 12:00 am

I was born in Highland Park in 1962. I was raised in the suburb of Berkley. I've lived in Troy, Pontiac and Royal Oak as well. I've lived in the inner city of Detroit and in "challenged areas," where vacant lots from torn-down houses remind me of the open farming lands that I tilled as a youth in Lapeer.

Essentially, I've been Detroit all of my life.

I've lived as a minority. I was told to be afraid. One summer afternoon, I got a flat tire as I neared home around Seven Mile and Evergreen. I was stranded, close enough to see the street where I lived but a world away as well. My sanctuary was on the other side of the "wall." I did what I was told. I was afraid.

Two young men approached me. Would they beat me up? Would they steal from me? Flight or fight. "I cannot abandon my ship," I thought to myself. "My Ford is my life, my way in, my way out."

"Can we help you," one man asked. They grind, they push, they get me home. They ask for nothing, only remarking, "You'll do the same for someone else."

I've been Detroit all of my life.

I've been relatively wealthy. I have had no want or need and have enjoyed the extravagances of travel and leisure. I've had a new car. I've had a swimming pool. I've had lush gardens and ordered fine food from the right side of the menu, without regard. I've been hailed and lauded as an innovator and a thinker. Through all of this, I've been a Detroiter.

I bought one of those fine fixer-uppers in a badder part of town, just south of Highland Park. I was leery. My talents with a hammer can't outweigh hostility. I might be perceived as an outsider and resented. This ingrained phobia of those not like me is so potent.

I get my bag of candy. It is Halloween, and, if I'm correct, children will come to my door begging — even here. I shun my trepidation and inkling to dim my home and pretend I'm not there. As daylight fades, I hear the autumn leaves begin to rustle as cute little children march: A bunny, a queen, a superhero beckon me with their call of "Trick or treat!" They've got their proud parents in tow.

I've been Detroit all of my life.

I've been relatively poor. I've collected bottles and cans and redeemed them for 10 cents apiece for a gallon of gas. I've bought day-old bread and last-day meat. I've eaten scraps that I might have given my dog in better days. I've had to change my own oil and patch my own roof. I've had to ask for help. I've been cold, shivery cold, because I had no heat. I've missed payments. I've been injured and sick and needed treatment, but time was all I could afford.

I've been thrown in jail for being stupid (drinking and driving mostly). I've been stepped on, spit upon and given up for dead. I've been laughed at, looked over, passed by for someone else instead. I'm a lover and a worker; I've been down and got up; I've been up and fell down. I've been every color that there is, even blue.

I've been thought of as mean. I've been a loner and didn't need anyone. I've scared people. I've been wrong. I've been sorry. I've been drunk. I've been a victim. I've felt sorry for myself. I've felt shafted. I've felt hopeless, powerless, ignored.

I've been Detroit all of my life.

I'm a mother and a sister. I'm a brother and a man. I'm a father and a son, a teacher and a student, an outsider and a familiar face. I've smiled and laughed and cried and been moved. I've redeemed myself. I've failed and had to start over again; and again.

I am now going green. I recycle, I try to be aware of all that I do that leaves a carbon footprint. As one person, I'm just one speck, but if all of us specks became more aware of our carbon footprints, we would be on our way to improvements in our little speck in this vast universe.

I've been vindicated, redeemed, validated, believed in and trusted. I can do good and not need to be heard. I can listen.

Rise, arise. We are at the dawning of a great new day. I must prepare. I must make ready. I must not yet give in. I must not give up.

I've been Detroit all of my life.

AJ O'Neil is the proprietor of AJ's Cafe in downtown Ferndale. He is the subject of a book, In Sunlight or in Shadow, by Karen Wilhelm, about his 50-hour "Danny Boy" marathon, which garnered headlines in the United States and as far abroad as Russia and Hong Kong. With his next event, the Assembly Line Concert, he's aiming at Guinness Book of World Record standing for the "longest continuous concert by multiple artists." A tribute to the Detroit auto industry (when the industry needs it most), the idea is to have bands play continuously for 240 hours (in other words, 10 days) with only minimal transition time. Martha Reeves sings the national anthem to start the concert at 5 p.m. on Friday, March 20. AJ's is at 240 W. Nine Mile Rd., Ferndale; 248-399-3946.