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Made in Detroit


A few weeks ago, I was telling my friend Werner about my two winter trips to Detroit, prompting him to mention Paul Clemens’ Made in Detroit: A South of 8-Mile Memoir. A week later, a copy of the book arrived from Amazon, courtesy of Werner (thanks, Werner!), and a week after that I began reading it. Due to various distractions, I didn’t get around to reading it in earnest until a few days ago, and I finally finished it Sunday morning.

The author grew up in northeast Detroit in the 1970s and 1980s, in a white, Catholic family. He writes about white flight, attending Catholic schools and church, the steady closure of Catholic schools and churches, the governance of the city during the long mayoral reign of Coleman Young, city and suburb, racism and religion, his father’s work on autos and his mother’s domestic work in nearby Grosse Pointe, and much more. Well worth reading.

A couple of Saturdays ago, when I was just a short ways into the book, we went to a friend’s birthday party and got to talking with her brother-in-law, a Detroit native, about the city. I mentioned the book, which he knew well, as he did the author’s old neighborhood. We talked about life in Detroit for a long time. An endlessly fascinating city.

Perhaps the best part of the book is Clemens’ depiction of his father, whose understanding of the workings of cars is nonpareil, both as mechanic and as driver. We get our first glimpse of the father’s expertise in the fourth paragraph of the book:

My father had amazed me throughout my childhood with his ability to spin 360s in icy intersections–it had something to do, I noticed, with violently jerking up the parking brake–and he remains the only person I know able to shift his way from first to fifth wihtout his foot once touching the clutch. “It’s how European rally drivers do it,” he once said to me. “They never use their left foot. Their right heel is on the brake, and the ball of their right foot is on the accelerator.” “But how do you know when you can shift that way?” “Without using the clutch to disengage the gears, you mean? Oh, you can hear it when the gears mesh.” Car performance, and upkeep, was everything to this man. …

My own experience with a clutch is extremely limited. There’s the time I helped my brother drive from New York to Oklahoma, in September 1971. I got a crash course in order to share the driving duties, and then we were off. I was pretty good as long as I just had to put it in fifth on the interstate. The first evening, after we had gone around Indianapolis, my brother’s eye was sore and I had to take over for the final 100 miles into Terre Haute, where we were to stay overnight. I didn’t mention that the car was a sports car, whose transmission was not the easiest to master, but it sure liked to go fast and the road was empty except for the occasional semi. I got into a great rhythm, hitting 100 mph for long stretches, slowing to 90 to pass a truck, then getting it back up to 100. All was well until we had to get off to get to our Terre Haute motel, but under my brother’s guidance, we made it. The next day was the worst. We crossed the Misssissippi into St. Louis, had to get on local roads because of some detour, then I took over the drive as we were about to get back on the interstate. But somehow, a few miles on, I got in the wrong lane and we mistakenly exited at a giant intersection for the Six Flags amusement park. A state trooper controlled the intersection, letting cars enter the interstate from the park for a couple of minutes at a time, then letting us get off the ramp into the park. But I wanted to go straight through, from exit ramp to entrance ramp. And when our turn came, I managed to stall the car. He stopped us all again, let the other direction go for a while, then pointed at me, shouted “Are you ready?”, and waved us forward. I was feeling a little pressure. And if I remember correctly, as we headed up the ramp, I screwed up by shifting from 1st to 4th. But we made it onto the interstate and I continued driving to Springfield before handing off to my brother again.

Clemens’ father I wasn’t.

Categories: Automobiles, Books, Life, Society
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