I woke up a little groggy from the microbrews of the previous evening, but it had been nothing a cup of coffee and a donut or two wouldn’t fix. I rolled off the air mattress and, while everyone else slept, considering ducking out to the café just a block away in Detroit’s West Village, where I was staying with Brendan and his girlfriend Maria. As I was pulling on my sweater, I heard Davor get up. The grey morning sun was gaining strength in the windows and the fragrant dust of new carpets swirled in the air with a silver glint. Davor said good morning and as I was about to ask him if he wanted to get coffee, Brendan came out of his room. We all traded bleary good mornings and shuffled around looking for something to do while Brendan made coffee, then I remembered the donuts.
Since the first time I went to Seattle, I have loved Mighty O donuts. The Mighty O was one of the first places in the country (at least that I knew of) to make vegan donuts. After the artisanal donut craze of the last few years, there are now quite a few other bakeries that make them, but, for me, none rival the original. When I’m in Seattle, The Mighty O is a requisite stop, so it had come as a beautiful surprise the previous day when Davor had produced a box from his backpack. Before flying in from Seattle, he’d bought a box of donuts to go with coffee for the next few days while he would be visiting.
I told Brendan and Davor I was going to run out and grab the donuts from the car. The sun was burning through the leaden clouds above the street and certain spots of the neighborhood leapt up in color where the sun had broken through. A mailbox, a passenger side mirror, a roof tile, these things detached themselves from the ordinary street and raised themselves up in the way favored things do; they stood out proudly among the dim spots: the flaking paint, cracked concrete and the weather-beaten roof tops. I walked off the porch onto St. Paul Street and saw the dimness spread and deepen crowding out the bright spots, overtaking them. The sun had burnt out, now a white dwarf lent its ashen and feeble light to the street and the light was rent with holes, yawning blackouts stretching out from the rotten buildings into the broken streets, one such place shone with particular vehemence, the color of rust, stagnant water and decay. Its gloaming and sickening light shone on the place where I had parked the car the night before, where now there were only tire treads in the mud and surrounding street detritus.
The car was gone.
I stopped and then thought, ‘no; I must’ve parked it somewhere else.’ I started up the block again, but only took a few steps before realizing that there had been no error and would be no point walking down the block further. The car had been here. I remembered parking it here. Now, it was gone. The tire treads were the only indication that I had once had a car in my possession. Even those were dubious. They could’ve come from another car. 100s of cars could have come and parked briefly in the spot where I had parked the night before, 100s of years ago in another place, another city, one not plagued with the oily light of this worm-eaten star, crumbling in the sky and festering in each abandoned reflection.
I grasped wildly at the idea that the car had been towed, but, like the notion that I had parked somewhere else, it diminished into impossibility immediately. The other cars remained silently parked on St. Paul St. unticketed and otherwise unmolested. I found myself hating the Subarus and other foreign cars, much newer than mine, which hadn’t been taken, which still gleamed in the wholesome light of the sun on a spring day.
I walked to the edge of the dim spot, but there was nothing to see; nothing to be done. I was defeated at once and then, after I had accepted my defeat, did I realize its extent. I walked back inside out from under the hideous light swirling and storming under the oak, next to which, the car had been.
I pulled the door open and kicked off my shoes. “You better hurry up with that coffee,” I told Brendan. “I’m really going to need it in a second when my brain catches up to the fact that the car is gone.”
They yelled, incredulous. They went to the window, they went to the porch. They saw. They stood in their socks, gestured and made disgusted facial expressions at the empty spot up the street and the dim light which radiated from it. But nothing changed. Nothing could be done to arrest what had already happened.
We drank the coffee. The liquid had been separated from its flavor. Even the comforting warmth had been stolen by my own consuming blandness, my fear. The car wasn’t empty. There was nothing of monetary value, but everything left inside had been richly sentimental. These things too were gone and the worst part is that no one wanted them. Now, they were in a ditch, floating in the Detroit river, run over on the Lodge expressway, stomped, smashed, ruined. But there were worse thoughts yet. The car which had become an empty spot, which at that moment was being dismantled, broken and melted into nothing, wasn’t even mine.
I came back to stay with my parents a few months ago while I waited for my next job assignment. I wouldn’t be living with them, but my stay would be longer than a normal visit, a few months. My dad offered his jeep. Normally, he didn’t use it in the winter much. My first day in it, I had flipped the thing, rolling it off the highway after hitting a patch of ice. I felt terrible. There was no coverage. I offered to pay the cost of the repairs. “I don’t know,” my dad had said, “we might just have to scrap it.” I worried for a few days until the assessment came back. The car was alright. 500 bucks and it would be fine to drive again. Happily, I paid this, glad to have restored to car to its former condition.
Mostly, I drove the car from my parents’ place up to a café, at the edge of town to write in the mornings, but a few times, I took it to Ann Arbor or Lansing. Detroit was as far as it had gone. I had fully expected to return the jeep to my dad in the same condition he had lent it to me in, but now there was no condition; there was nothing to return.
A phone was handed to me, the police. It was ringing. “Detroit Police Department?” A voice asked, as if it were shorthand for “why are you calling the Detroit Police Department?”
“Hi, uh, I need to report a stolen car.”
“You have to go into a precinct for that.”
“Ok, thanks” and I hung up. Brendan knew the closest precinct and we piled into the car breakfastless, mirthless. The acid coffee sloshed in our empty stomachs.
The precinct was empty and weathered. The windows had that strange buffered look that old windows of municipal buildings take on. We drove on and found a patrolman sitting in his car before a block of rotted homes.
“You could try the gaming building. That would probably be the closest.” He gave us directions and in a few blocks we had reached the gaming building. It had the same bleached and buffered look, but the parkinglot was full of copcars and cops. We drove in. I approached a cop walking leisurely toward the building. “Can I report a stolen car here?” He told me they didn’t do that and that I’d have to go downtown. We drove out that way, through the beautiful faded grandeur of downtown Detroit, the red brick sky scrapers, the art deco façades and the steaming manholes.
The cop at the door of the precinct didn’t want to let us in. He was clearly annoyed that we had come to his precinct on a Saturday with our problem. After asking a battery of stupid question, he gestured irritably to a woman sitting at a desk before a computer.
I explained the situation to her and she told me that my connection to the car was too tenuous. I wasn’t the owner. I had a California license. I wouldn’t be able to file a report. My dad would have to come to Detroit. A vision from high school spread before me. I was a teenager again, sitting cowed in an office while my dad took care of things. I waited for him to give my useless ass a ride home, feeling his strong disapproval and weariness. It was a situation I didn’t care to repeat. Frantically, I looked through my wallet for something that might connect me to the car or at least to Michigan. I found an old driver’s license bearing my parents’ address. I offered it. The woman glanced at it before tapping the hole punched from its upper corner. “Expired,” she said handing it back to me. “Yeah,” I started, trying to be extremely polite without being too cowed. “But, you see it connects me to my parents’ address. You can see I lived there.” She gave in and handed me a form to fill out.
Everyone’s attention was on me, on the form, the purpose for all this disruption. The spaces to be filled in were too small. My hand shook with coffee, irritation and selfpity. When I handed the form over, the woman bemoaned my awful handwriting. “These are numbers?” She yelled. “They look like letters.” She held it up for Davor and Brendan, “don’t these look like letters to you?” She asked, confirming my own suspicions that I was an utter idiot.
The idea had been growing in my mind since I had found the car gone that I was somehow inept, or at the very least, obviously sophomoric. I had flipped the car on the ice, gotten it stolen and now I couldn’t even fill out a form correctly. We left the precinct and I walked out into the parking lot devalued, the way a new car leaving the lot loses value. I left my dignity and any notion that I was worth a damn in the police station.
There was nothing left to do. We drove around a little looking for the car, thinking maybe someone had taken it joyriding and dropped it off somewhere nearby. But the city was huge. Empty buildings and abandoned cars without plates littered the streets. Weeds would grow from the remnants of the car before anyone ever did anything about it. The hulk of the car would become another place where the pale, watery light of neglect, abandonment and theft fell. It would be another piece of junk to bury Detroit, from under which no light of the sun would reach, leaving the city to seethe and bleach and crumble.
We came back into West Village and, for lack of anything else to do, we went to get another cup of coffee. Around the café, people were out enjoying the warm weather. They greeted each other and the aroma of coffee drifted out into the street. The patrons of a nearby restaurant joined in the friendly throng. The music of their voices seemed to rise up and pierce the grey sky. A restorative light fell upon the scene and I felt my optimism rise, if only slightly. If a city, long mired in its problems, both perceived and real, could banish the oily light that had so long seeped out over its abandoned streets and crumbling walls than perhaps I too could find something redemptive in myself. Maybe every useful thing is occasionally plagued by uselessness, maybe we only cycle through periods of utility and inutility. Maybe, we wax and wane, shining in different lights, under different stars.
I bought a coffee. I thought about the Mighty O donuts that had been in the car which were now gone and I noticed that the café had a vegan pastry that looked a lot like a donut. I ordered it and went outside to eat. The taste was amazing. The sun shone again. I found myself thinking “at least they couldn’t take my donuts.”