It was like any other Wednesday (but then again, no Wednesday is ordinary because it’s that special time of the week when the best and brightest gather in the local watering hole for a contest of champions). A number of our finest were headed to Great Lakes Roasting Company to defend our trivia title (we’ve achieved fairly consistent bronze). Upon arriving, an elderly woman who had made her way through most of the regulars in the cafe by that point found me. She pleaded and begged for McDonald’s, and she told me she loved me. Full send, I thought. I can appreciate that. I folded like a cheap suit and offered her some cash. Instead of taking it, she insisted that I buy it for her and offered to pay me back. She even showed me the money with which she offered to repay me. What dire straits this woman must face, I reflected. What could this woman have said or done that she was denied access to the only fast-food place for miles?
The short walk from Great Lakes to McDonald’s gave me perhaps my most in-depth glimpse yet into the day-to-day of one whose life, though parallel to my own, revolves almost exclusively around avoiding danger and discomfort. Surprisingly enough though, I was heartened by our time. We walked the exact same path that I took to get to Great Lakes, but the difference was that the street and its people came alive.
The same somber faces slumped against the post office we passed moments before lit up when they saw my new friend. “How are you doin’, baby?” “Oh I’m alright, how are you?” I wondered a bit jealously if this woman had told everyone else that she loved them. She showed me the essential oil that her friend gave her and offered to give me a whiff. I was touched, but I graciously declined.
During the rest of our walk, my new friend couldn’t stop speaking about her daughter. When we finally arrived, she said, “Oh please, can you get me a fish filet and some small fries? I’ll split the fish filet with my daughter. Thank you! I love you!” and planted herself on the stoop of the barbecue place nearby, Starter’s. That was probably the most contemplative I had ever been waiting in line at McDonald’s.
Never had gentrification manifested so personally to me before. This was a woman with a family, good friends, a city, a community, and dignity. She let me in to visit her nebulous and beautiful life, and I was grateful. Naturally, it also made me hyper-aware of our differences: a city that no longer cared to keep her and her family, nor to employ or help them. Nonetheless, I looked the consequences of gentrification in the eye and instead of being consumed by grief for what it meant, I was given her personage. When an idea looks at you and smiles, tells you they love you, worries for their daughter, they concretize. You realize how foolish you were to get lost in what someone signifies and to ignore their humanity and, by extension, your own.
The next day, I was sitting in the Three Seasons room in the Green Garage and the same matriarchal, personable, popular, proud, full-send, fish-filet eating Detroit native popped her head in the window. She asked the guy next to me if he had any money for bus fare, told him she loved him, and left when he had nothing to offer. She didn’t recognize me.