A Study in Contrasts: Joe Thee Great



Joe Thee Great just moved to our neighborhood, finding his voice in Detroit


Living in Detroit is a study in abundant contrasts.

I travel a lot, and right now I’m still awake in Denver at midnight (mountain time), so the bell on my phone that signals a new text doesn’t awaken me when it goes off 3 times in annoying succession. I look at the texts to see a barrage of messages.  Everyone back home is texting Captain Hope (yes, our community police woman carries the name Hope!).  Apparently the bikers are out on the prowl again on Jos Campeau, our courtyard side street, louder than ever. It’s well past midnight in the D, and folks inside the building clearly want their sleep. The folks outside want their music, and they want it loud and laced with profanity. The sound boxes mounted on their Harley’s continue to blast music long after the concert in Chene Park has ended. The speaker cages look almost as big as the motorcycle engines. Big bikes. Big sound. Big time.

I decline to text Captain Hope because it’s not my fight tonight. I will be back home soon enough. Besides, my neighbor Patrick has taken this up as his own personal cause.  He’s lived in our building for over 20 years, so he claims a certain right as the Dean of Detroit. He is an artist, who teaches art in Detroit’s public schools, but after two decades of union teacher concessions, I’m afraid he’s going to give up that fight and retire at the end of this school year, in favor of making sure that the motorcyclists are subdued, and he can follow his artistic pursuits without distraction. This has almost become his full time job, and he is persistent, and painfully well organized.  Patrick has already mobilized two meetings with the city council, and somehow secured a TV crew from WDIV to come out and interview the neighbors.  He’s holding the council fast to a promise they made last spring to post a sign enforcing the noise ordinance that’s supposed to be in effect.  It’s hard to imagine they’re going to follow up on this, it’s been a year since they assured Patrick they would. But loud noise, although annoying and sleep depriving, just doesn’t command the same urgency that other police matters do. I just want to make sure we don’t p#$@ the guys on bikes off so completely that they jump off their rides and make life difficult during the day for us as we pass them on the streets. It’s not worth that kind of fight.  Although come to think of it, they are clearly night owls, the music rarely starts before 11 p.m.  We probably won’t see them when the sun returns in the early hours.

Next day I am back in the D.  I am heading out to my car when I hear rap music coming from a BMW in the courtyard. It sounds different. Not loud and bracing, more poetic. And not at a volume that would offend anyone. Just a young guy in his car is in his own zone. He’s in the moment, totally channeling the music.  He has his dog with him in the back seat.

I signal a greeting and mention in passing, “just being honest, rap and hip hop is usually the one kind of music I just don’t get. My sons tell me there’s more to it so I’m sure it’s generational.  Call me an old fart.  Of course, as it turns out, the truth is I have heard some rap that I do like.” Guy leans out of his car window and says “I just recorded this.” He says this with a certain understated pride. Really.

I can’t help but be mildly embarrassed and impressed at the same time.  There is something deeply earnest about his voice, both in announcing this to me, and in the background vocals on the CD he’s playing.

“I finally found the courage to perform my art on the river last week. Found some guys and they were all in. So we took it to the studio yesterday and mixed it. No profanity, no trippin’ on bee-atches, it’s all faith based. When I turned my life to God last year it all changed. Moved here, found my voice. It’s all good.”

Guy has a way of making you feel good to be around him.  He has a serene smile, a soft voice. I can’t help but stand there for a minute, listening with him.  The dog in the back seat looks on.

“We’re working on our next tracks, gotta lot more stuff, it’s a work in progress, lot’s to say, it’s all good.”

This plays like a feeling, raw, powerful but not fully formed.  Detroit, with all its sounds, the music, the neighbors, the blight, the loud music and motorcycle engine’s revving late night, I guess on some level, it’s all good, all a work in progress. In our neck of the neighborhood, we escape much of it, the brutal crimes, the bodies in freezers, the car jackings, the neglected corpses, the drug runs that run in the wrong direction. That’s certainly real, make no mistake, gritty, raw, not clean, not sanitized, or suburban, or subdued. But the fact that we’re not up late with police lights, and yellow tape marking off our street as evening news crews arrive has to account for some progress.

Instead we deal with the tedium of small crimes and petty misdemeanors with the motorcyclists, the city park pan handlers, the concert goers walking to the bars after the music ends in Chene park, all of them expressing themselves, their voices at turns irritated, lubricated, unfettered, defeated, earnest, agitated. It’s so different for me, even though I grew up here. Strangely, it makes me feel both old and young at the same time.

Its not like the times are so different. My grandfather and his brothers were all weekend warriors who knew how to drink this city dry. They could tear up the streets when their shift was over, spend the night shift in the corner bars. My grandfather once stumbled out of the VFW hall after an evening spent fortifying his spirits. As he pulled his car onto Van Dyke he hit a pedestrian. An ambulance arrived on the scene, strapped the victim onto a gurney and put him inside the vehicle, apparently failing to secure the door latch as he did so. Whereupon said pedestrian flew out of the ambulance suffering several additional bumps, bangs and scratches. The only reason my grandfather was released from police custody to the care of my grandma and dad was that they couldn’t be sure which injuries were sustained by my grandfather. So its not like the Detroit of our past was without its similar head-turning twists and charms, fueled by alcohol and temporary lapses of judgment.

Detroit has a reputation for being that way, constantly on edge, in motion.  It has something to do with our automotive DNA, I’m guessing, the influx of immigrants, first from Europe and then the Deep South, the massive white flight that followed, stirring up a constant refrain of churn and drama, abrupt movements, and steady upheaval.

He extends his hand through the window.  “By the way, I’m Joe Thee Great, and this fine one is my dog Nola. I guess we’re neighbors.”

Joe Thee great makes me realize everyone does something different with the fight in them. Taking the raw feelings that the city, and all its elements stir. They turn it into something, whether art, a statement, or god knows some other kind of noise fueled by their agitation.

All good, this is real. My life now in Detroit.

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