THE QUILT GOES TO MOTOWN by Mark Freeman, originally published in COMING UP! August, 1988. Part 1 of 4
“I can’t bear to be losing you, ‘cause I’ve loved you my whole life through. Somebody shake me, wake me, when it’s over.”
“Now if you feel that you can’t go on, because all of your hope is gone, and your life is filled with much confusion until happiness is just an illusion, and your world around is crumbling down, Darling reach out. Reach out to me.” Holland, Dozier & Holland, for The Four Tops
“Hitsville USA, shrine to Motown music: the mothiest scumbag place I ever played. But the audience there, bless their hearts, made me feel at home.” Michelle Shocked, a musician
Into The Motor City
Downtown Detroit has survived some hard times. It is still in them, so promises to be a place that lives up to a bad rep, but also has a strong heart.
By putting Detroit on its tour, The Names Project included a city whose gay agencies began to address the AIDS crisis about five years ago, and whose Black mayor has been somewhat quiet on the issue, (to keep closet doors from banging, say a few). With an 86% Black population, inner city Detroit’s people with AIDS are most likely to be people of color, intravenous drug users (IVDUs), or female partners and their children—the “second wave” of AIDS. It also has its share of familes and friends of those who left there to live (and die) in the more tolerant cities of both Coasts.
Early on the Fourth of July, as I leave the airport in San Francisco, a six-wheeler heads out from New York, transporting the Quilt ahead to the 16th city of its tour, out of a total of 20, before it returns to Washington DC in October.
This truck carries a nomadic cathedral, a living memorial, one that comes for a few days, then goes. It is more like an Ark of the Covenant than any marble monument; in kinship with the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial, though, it is also simply made of names. Unlike any official effort, the Quilt is crafted piece by piece by friends and folks.
This diary of a week spent with the Quilt in Detroit is a patchwork about names and naming, about rituals of birth and life, of death and memory. But to protect from reprisals and discrimination, even toward surviving family members, real names are not used here. PWAs [People Living With AIDS] chose their own pseudonyms—perhaps the name of a childhood hero or of a remembered friend.
These pieces of stories offered at least one San Franciscan a momentary chance to get away, for a week, from my own city’s fish-eye view of the epidemic, and to see how another place is doing. Here is what i find.
There’s a pulsing heat rising over Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s north-south artery. Trees still show green on this lick of land off Lake St. Clair, between the Great Lakes of Huron and Erie, but down on the ground the grass everywhere is burnt by a drought that has all of the Midwest by the short hairs. Above the freeways, the giant green computer signs read: “Let It Rain! Let It Rain! Let It Rain!”
It’s summer in the city and everywhere there are teenagers in jams of all colors, or cool matching outfits. An amazing sound system on some kid’s scooter shakes a whole block of Six-Mile with hip hop; some are unison dancing on the street, others are sounding off, walking in single file and finger-popping like crazy mixed-up Marines in heat. How can anyone here be thinking about a health crisis?
Up the Street from Cobo Hall
Cobo Hall, the Quilt’s local home, sits at the foot of Woodward, on the waterfront right next to Joe Louis Arena (which proudly displays two bronze statues of the Brown Bomber, one simply of his forearm-and-fist. The day before the Quilt opens, volunteers are being taught the choreography of “unfolding,” though they are for the most part yet unaware of what the whole event will look, or feel, like.
“It’s gonna be hard work,” says Areena. She is part of a local program of Black high school Peer Counselors whose job is to reach out to teen parents. They’ve come as a group to volunteer at Cobo Hall.
During the rehearsal, Areena wanders to the front of the hall and there spots one of the forty new Detroit panels mounted behind the state. She breaks down.
“When I saw his name,” she says. “He went to my church, he was a dear friend of the family. I knew he had AIDS, but not until two days before he died. I knew he was gay, it was obvious; he never said flat out, but it showed in everything he did—how he’d mention his boyfriend, the way he talked, everything. I would have wanted to see him before he died; but not the suffering in his eyes. Then, I saw the panel; I needed to see it, cause I didn’t cry before.” Welcome to the Quilt.
The teams of “Unfolders”, among them the one that includes Areena, learn to fulfill their ritual duties with grace. As the name of each of the dead is read aloud, each square, made of eight panels each the size of tatami mats, the size of human bodies, is opened petal by petal. It billows in the wind like a floating lotus, then settles in place. The last square to open, in each city of the tour, is a yellow one left blank for visitors to add their comments. Later, another of the peer counselors would get on his knees on the open Detroit square and write this:
What AIDS is NOT
It is not God’s punishment for humanity. It is not just a homosexual disease. It is not anyone’s fault. It is a disease. It is something we must learn to deal with compassion and understanding. It is a disease like a cold or a flu, but it kills. We must be careful. Peace. 2000 for a New Age.
And On the Street
At mid-day, waiting for a bus on Woodward, I overhear two street people arguing about the amount of change they need to get aboard. One of them, wearing a sooty grimy camouflage jacket (even in 100-degree weather), has sallow skin and pupils constricted from being narcotic sick, or worse. He almost-hisses at his buddy the simple expletive “Bitch!” in a familiar, lispy tone. I smile slightly in recognition, and he sees me.
People on the bus try to ignore him as he walks down the center aisle broadcasting his louder-than-necessary repetitions to no one in particular. “This heat is frying my brain! My fuckin’ brain! I’m not polluted—air’s fuckin’ polluted!” When he sits right behind me, I tell him I agree with his comments on the weather, and he starts to talk to me.
He grew up all over, a military brat. He calls himself Doc. He was a medic in Vietnam. He stays loud and agitated, until I mention I am in town for the AIDS Quilt. Then he calms down, his voice lowering to a level meant only for me to hear. I ask him what he thinks it would be like to have AIDS in Detroit, does he know anyone who did?
“It’s OK. Yeah. There’s less discrimination here than in a small town. In a city everybody has their own problems, they’re more likely to leave you alone. Two friends of mine died. But it was in a hospice, a good place. They had family there, loved ones all around them. They weren’t ‘institutionalized.’ That’s the most important thing, isn’t it? To not be alone at the end.”
Before he gets off at his bus stop, Doc gives me detailed directions on how to recognize my stop, so I won’t miss it. I’m touched he is concerned about my safety.
“May your road be fulfilled, Reaching to the road of your sun father. When your road is fulfilled, In your thoughts may we live. May we be the ones whom your thoughts will embrace. On this, on this day, to our sun father we offer prayer meal. To this end: may you help us all to finish our roads.”
Zuni Prayer, Presenting an Infant to the Sun
____________________ end of Part 1 of 4