The Breakfast Table

A Little Smutty and a Little Putty


Social Security issues? Far from spicy, they seem as frigid as the air in Detroit where I spent Christmas and its aftermath. I couldn’t resist sneaking in more weather, but Mark Twain was wrong. People do do something about it; they talk about it in a post-Freudian age, when dialogue helps one accept powerlessness over uncontrollable situations.

Nor could I resist sneaking in Detroit. I’m getting tired of lead and pewter, so let’s just say the sky was the color of putty and the cold was like a rasp on my flaky cheeks. I was with a photographer friend who specializes in urban blight. Year after year, he bounces between Newark, Camden, Gary, and L.A., tracking the progress, if you can call it progress, of neighborhoods that fall apart. In the old crone’s mouth of downtown Detroit, he showed me the huge gap where Hudson’s department store stood until recently, and blackened buildings poking up out of vacant lots like rotten teeth. We crawled though a hole in a fence to see one of his old pals: the Michigan Railroad station designed by Warren and Wetmore in 1913, the same year the architects built Grand Central Station. My friend much prefers the vaulting brick ceiling in the abandoned Detroit station to the newly restored aquamarine ceiling in New York’s. (“None of that constellation stuff,” he sniffed.) It was shocking to see how the place hadn’t merely eroded with neglect but was clawed at, chunks of stone torn away by people determined to challenge any pretence of durability. The windows broke beautifully, in organic patterns similar to a Matisse cutout. It was the day after Christmas, and the streets were near empty. Consumption was happening elsewhere, unless, I’m guessing, it’s the kind that makes one cough.