Can't Forget the Motor City
By PAUL CLEMENS for The New York Times Magazine
A few years back, my father and I were driving through Detroit in my Pontiac, listening to ''Darkness on the Edge of Town.'' The track was ''Racing in the Street,'' which opens with Springsteen singing, ''I got a '69 Chevy with a 396/Fuelie heads and a Hurst on the floor.''
''He gets that first part wrong,'' my father said. ''There was no such thing as fuelie heads on a big block, which is what the 396 was -- a big block. Now with the small-block Chevy engine, the 327, you could've had fuel-injected cylinder heads. But with the big block, no.''
I'd been hearing this kind of talk since my boyhood. Our first house in Detroit was south of 6 Mile Road on the East Side, near Pete's Towing and the Wrench Pit, an area surrounded by Catholic churches and collision shops, where friends of my father scraped together a living peering under hoods. They were men, as Heller says in ''Catch-22,'' with a variety of useful, necessary skills that would keep them in a low-income group all their lives.
I had no useful skills and developed different preoccupations. I became bookish in a house without books -- but with plenty of magazines: Popular Hot Rodding, Hot Cars, Drag Strip. During my teenage years, my father would read Super Stock & Drag Illustrated in one corner of the living room while I sat in the other, memorizing lines from ''The Great Gatsby.'' (Usually, when he saw me with some thick novel, he'd say, ''If it's any good, they'll make a movie out of it.'')
My heroes were Hemingway and Fitzgerald; his were Don (The Snake) Prudhomme and (Big Daddy) Don Garlits. My father promised to let me race his dragster when I turned 16, but I spent that year reading and rereading ''The Immoralist,'' by Andre Gide. It was his fault, I said, for sending me to a rigorous Catholic school. I was leaving my white-trash roots behind.
Not that I considered us white trash -- not really. We were Catholics, and it seemed to me the terms were mutually exclusive: Catholicism possessed an imposing grandeur, while white-trashdom carried dirty-faced children under its crooked arm. We weren't white trash; we were working class.
But our eight-millimeter home movies told a different story. Watching them as a teenager, I wondered: did we ever go anywhere but the drag strip? Why was my sister, age 2, drinking out of some redneck's beer at a dune buggy race? And didn't the law forbid running through sprinklers in Fruit of the Looms?
I wanted to trade up. My sophomore yearbook photo features me in a Benetton sweater. I'm sporting a Princeton, not my typical crew cut, because the Grosse Pointe boys, whom I despised and envied, wore Princetons. I briefly dated a girl, an aspiring snob, who pronounced Detroit the French way: Day-twa.
But none of it worked. I had to make a break for it. I left Detroit in the early 1990's for a university far from home, and then, at 22, for graduate school, moving even farther. There was no way, after 18 years in the city, that I was sticking around and no way, after those 4 years away, that I was returning.
What I underestimated was the gravitational pull of the place; even Pluto can suck things into its orbit. So after a spell of purposeless dawdling as a clerk in a bookstore -- the only thing books had prepared me for, as my father jokingly predicted -- I moved back. Whatever else it was, it was also home. I married, started a family, bought a tie, bought a house, got a job downtown at the city's public university. My sister, last seen buzzing on warm brew, married an architect, moved to the suburbs, enrolled in graduate school.
My sister and I tend to think of our white-trash background almost as an ethnic identity that we've managed to shed. But it doesn't quite work that way.
In the Pontiac that day with my father, rather than meeting his car talk with my old teenage strategy, silence, I asked about the second line of the song. You couldn't have fuelie heads on a big block -- O.K. ''But could you have a Hurst on the floor?''
''Sure, you could have a Hurst gearshift with either the big block or the small block,'' he said. ''That's an after-market thing. The Chevy wouldn't have come with a Hurst, but the Hurst was compatible. Now, starting in '70, the big block, even though they called it a 396, was actually a 402. . . . ''
Though the particulars still elude me, I've begun to appreciate the lyricism in my father's disquisitions. They may lack the magic of Fitzgerald's -- ''His count of enchanted objects had diminished by one'' -- but my father's lines have a lilt of their own. When I reread ''The Great Gatsby'' recently, the line that struck me most had nothing to do with the money in Daisy's voice or the impossibility of repeating the past. It was a sign outside a garage near the valley of ashes: ''Repairs. . . . Cars bought and sold.''
Paul Clemens is the author of ''Made in Detroit: A South of 8 Mile Memoir,'' which will be published in September by Doubleday and from which this essay is adapted.