Better Bathrooms

broken-beer-bottle-0424209-lgI came to love Detroit, in spite of the bathrooms.

When you work in hospice or home care, driving around to visit people, you have to find your own.

When I saw people as their hospice chaplain, I wasn’t a guest.  I hated to impose the worry of a clean bathroom on already burdened people.  So, fast food places, and libraries became familiar stopping places.

I used to cover both the city of Detroit and the suburbs as a hospice chaplain, until we had too many patients.  My boss told me I had to choose – Detroit, or the suburbs.

The suburbs meant lots of places to eat lunch, and plenty of nice, clean bathrooms in libraries and gas stations, plus coffee shops.  People like me, white, suburban, familiar.  Choosing Detroit meant really learning the city, not just going in for a concert or the museum.

In the end, I got Detroit.  And Detroit got to me.

For the first five years I lived here, I served a church in the suburbs.  I missed city life, missed the culture and the diversity and the food, but I didn’t think I could find any of that in Detroit.  Detroit was burned out buildings, hungry people, unemployment, long-closed factories and despair.

After I moved from the church to the hospice, the first few months were all about geography.  I struggled to plan my visits so I wasn’t driving all the way across the city and then back.  People always told me that Detroit is large, geographically.  I didn’t understand until I started driving it every day.  It’s huge, and often empty.  One day I drove down a four lane street, and block after block was empty.  Then, around a corner, one board bungalow in the tall grass.  Children in their underwear played outside, making me feel like I had somehow traveled back to rural America.  One Sunday I visited a neighborhood church.  A member had to come and unlock the door, covered with metal bars, for me.  She waited until all the stray dogs ran away before she opened it.

Driving around, I came to love the energy of this city, too.  The art in unexpected places.  The creativity of the people who pop a beer garden in a vacant lot for a month, or a store open on the weekends.  The grit of the math teacher who warns off the gangs when they come to recruit at the middle school.  The guy who reluctantly agrees to coach kids, and ends up teaching not just basketball, but about being a man in a perilous place.  The girl who changes schools every year, but keeps up her A’s.

Nursing homes in the suburbs are quiet.  In the city, the staff plays dance music for the residents.  People sing, and talk more.  Listening to the staff is an education.  As the fall grows chilly, the talk turns to heat.  “You run up the electric bill in the winter, and then you need the summer to pay it off,” one of the health aides says, as the others nod their heads.   “I’m not ready,” she adds.  “I didn’t get it all paid off yet.”  Other times they talk about the dads of their kids, and the struggles to get them to show up, and to pay up.

My patients taught me the history of Detroit in the story of their lives.  Many of them came here from the South for work in the auto plants.  The Great Migration of history books is alive in them.  Now they’re moving toward the end lives of hard work and discrimination.  Story after story reveals the backbone of this city.  It was these people in the factories, making cars, that made Detroit famous.  Now the backbone of the city is the nurses and aides, women mostly, who care for the now old and sick, and keep the city running with their own hard work.

One day I got out of the car to make a visit, and the sidewalk was covered with broken glass.  Ironically, from a bottle of Barefoot wine.  Anyone who was barefoot here would need a trip to the emergency room.  This is a street where kids walk home from school, the younger ones in the care of the bigger ones, no adults in sight.  I opened my trunk, got out a plastic bag, and started picking up the pieces of the bottle.

Crouching on the sidewalk, searching for more glass, I knew that I had come to love Detroit.