Things go awry


Today did not go as planned.

It started with the train from Chicago to Detroit. One of the cars’ heater burned up, starting with temperatures that were too hot, and ending with the car suddenly filling with smoke and then being abandoned. The other car had several leaks, and the entrance to the lounge car had some sort of door problem that resulted in the floor being covered with up to a foot of snow in places.

Of course, the grim mood was not helped by the scenery outside. We were passing through an area where the nation’s industrial contraction was on full display. For starters, there was lots of abandoned railbed and there were numerous houses. The main sign of new construction was a set of massive seven-story parking garages for a casino that was located a mile into Indiana, obviously going after Chicago’s gamblers.

My seatmate from Kalamazoo was talking on the phone about how he’d just been laid off and needed to figure something out by the end of the month or he wouldn’t have any money; child support was one of the things he would no longer be able to pay. I got uncomfortable with listening in, so I went to the lounge car for most of the trip.

My talk in Detroit was canceled due to a storm that dumped nearly a foot of snow. As is the case with other services, snow removal has become more challenging as the population has dropped by half since the 1960s. Motor City has some really wide streets, and getting the thoroughfares clear is a daunting task by itself. The side streets are another matter entirely, and on the way into town I saw streets that had only a few houses remaining and no sign that anyone had been shoveling lately, let alone plowing.

I was told that when it snows like this, people just hunker down and expect things to shut down for a few days. Of course, I’ve also been told that people are sometimes attacked by packs of feral dogs. Detroit’s decay has a certain mythical side.

Since my gig was canceled, I just headed to Cass Cafe a restaurant that was recommended (and which I recommend for anyone who winds up in Detroit, even though it was a little smoky; good cheap food with vegetarian and vegan options), right across from the campus of Wayne State University. School was not back in session yet, and in the process of cutting $8 million from its budget due to a sharp drop in enrollment. I had put out an open invitation to several people to meet for an informal discussion, but was not surprised that nobody came. It was a good night to eat at home. It was shaping up to be a rather quiet evening in a very quiet city.

However, it turned out that the café was next to a mosque, so I took this as an opportunity for some interfaith work. I stopped in for mahgrib (sundown) prayers, and afterward spent about an hour in a really great economic conversation with a few of the brothers. It was a wide-ranging chat in which we talked about similarities and differences between Christian and Muslim teachings on money, as well as more general topics of the global and local economy.

My favorite insight from the talk was regarding insurance: Buying an insurance policy is putting one’s trust in the financial system, rather than putting one’s trust in Allah.

This ties in to a conversation I had this morning on the commuter train into Chicago: An elderly woman was telling me about how things are going to get so bad that people will have no choice but to turn to God. My perspective (to which she agreed with gusto) is that this will be the God of Genesis 1:26, who said “Let us make people in our image, to be like ourselves.” That is, we can’t wait around for a paycheck falling from the sky; we’ve got to get to work on those two great commandments that are shared by Muslims and Christians alike.

I never did see a city snowplow during my time in town, and the pavement was totally buried on the way out of town on the Interstate. There was no way to tell where the lanes ended and hard to see where the shoulder began, so 3 ½ lanes of traffic just kind of muddled along. We had a really aggressive bus driver who cruised along passing everyone else on the road, playing really cheesy R&B on the radio. It wasn’t until we got out near the airport that the pavement became visible with any regularity. It wasn’t my favorite bus ride ever.

This bus trip was a sign of how far Detroit has fallen. Once upon a time in the 20th Century, Detroit was served by the Michigan Central train station, a huge and glorious Beaux Arts wonder that rivaled anything in the country. It has about 20 stories of railroad headquarters offices and as many platforms. On my first visit to Detroit (in 1994) we were able to walk over the fallen fence surrounding the abandoned station, climb up the stairs, and gawk at the birds-eye view of Detroit’s vacant lots. From that vantage point, we could also see the new train station, a squat temporary modular building aside a single platform. Now, they at least have a decent station, but it is miles north of downtown (where the suburban population dares not tread) and there are only a few trains a day, all heading west toward Chicago. To get to the east coast, it is necessary to take a bus south to Toledo and then wait an hour or three depending on the destination. This indignity of it all is almost unbearable.

The greatest plot twist of the day was still to come. The train from Toledo to Pittsburgh was held up by a derailment, and so I dozed off in the station. I then exercised my ability to sleep through anything (including a significant earthquake once) and woke up to a mostly-empty station. After several minutes spent flailing around in that half-awake fog that is not good for advanced problem solving, I accepted my fate: They would let me on a later train that would get me to Cleveland, where I would have to switch to Greyhound. This meant I would arrive about 8 hours later than planned.

Luckily, that still gives me a few hours to spare before my talk tonight. If I am going to miss a train, this is a pretty good one. In any case, I’ve been wanting to check out Cleveland for a while and have been getting clues that there is good stuff going on here. Now I get a chance to briefly see it for myself. My main impression is that the panhandlers are really polite and friendly (and plentiful). This would be a hard place to be homeless, and I gather that it’s a growing problem. The bus station is surprisingly nice, except for the movie playing at full volume that apparently is a showcase for J-Lo and domestic violence scenes. Bleh. Fortunately that is over now, probably because someone complained; I’ve never been so glad for ESPN.

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