Detroit Clem

Nothing says winter like a death of an old uncle and a funeral in Detroit. Winter in Detroit
Why not?

Detroit is lovely in early December, adorned in its postwar winter blanket of muted gray splendor, an especially appropriate backdrop for burying my 93 year old uncle, Clem Patocki, my father’s oldest brother and his last sibling left.

He died suddenly in his sleep while spending the night at the hospital for some tests. And that was that.

I got to see Uncle Clem a months ago when the civil rights tour bus made a stop in Detroit. My cousin Elaine picked me up, took me to see him in the same neat, economical two story house he’s lived in for a half century, just around the corner from the hardware store he owned. The neighborhood has gone from predominantly European immigrant to African-American immigrant from the South to Arab immigrant. When we drove up to his modest two story, there were women wearing burkas chatting on the sidewalk next door. We dined on Chicken shwarma and Vernor’s Ginger Ale at La Shish, an excellent Arab restaurant with 12 locations in the Detroit area that reek of the authenticity like my favorite some Mexican restaurants back home. There’s such a critical mass of Arab culture that standards are considerably higher even in the simple downscale cafes compared to Middle Cuisine cuisine elsewhere in the United States. Chicken shwarma or lamb and beef kabobs wrapped in warm falafel bread for less than three bucks is the peasant food bargain of America. Top that off with a fruit or vegetable smoothie from the juice bar, which apparently are built in components of every authentic Detroit Middle Eastern dining establishment, and it’s hard going back to tacos, pizza slices, burgers, or hot dogs better than filet mignon.

Back at Clem’s place, I asked him about many of the people in the photographs that were hanging on the wall and on shelves and tried to reconnect with my family past. I studied old portraits of my grandmother and grandfather—Clem’s parents—and got a revised version of family history. My grandfather, Joseph, came to Lithuania from the Urkraine with his father George and his father’s brothers. They wanted land and to marry Lithuanian women because Lithuanian women were beautiful and intelligent. George did the advance scouting, so he got the best acreage, land that was so thickly wooded, he let the serfs cut wood free in order to clear it. According to Clem, Joseph took great pleasure in pointing the serfs to areas with the deepest snow, just to make their task more laborious. Joseph was something all right. He married Martha by tricking her. She made clear she wouldn’t consider marriage unless her prospective husband was a person of some fiscal standing. So Joseph borrowed a friend’s bank book and showed it to Martha as his own.

“What else do you want to know?” Uncle asked me. “Because when I’m gone, that’s it.”

He was right. Clem was the historian of the family and had made contact with relatives in the old country and had visited Lithuania. By comparison, the Texas side of the family were the lost prodigals. So I asked what I wanted to ask and came away thinking I was as much Ukrainian as Lithuanian on my father’s side (and Greek on my mother’s side, though with slight Italian undertones—my mother’s mother’s mother came from Italy).

I promised Clem I’d come back for his 95th birthday. Since he didn’t make it, I figured I owed him one last visit anyway.

Clem was a good Catholic, and departed with all the ritual vested by the faith. I attended the visitation and rosary Friday evening at the funeral home, his funeral and Mass at his church, St. Luke’s, Saturday morning, and his burial at the cemetery at noon.

My cousin Elaine, Clem’s only child and his keeper over the past few years, her husband Lou, and her children Jay and Eve greeted visitors at the funeral and shared Clem stories while the old man, with enough makeup to render his face waxen, lay in state in his half open coffin at the end of the room. “Oh, brother!” was Clem’s favorite catchphrase. I thought of it while I heard more Hail Marys recited than I ever have before at the rosary. I almost had “Mary, mother of grace…” memorized. The funeral home was a spacious operation with several ceremonies for the deceased going on simultaneously. One of the directors warned Elaine that there might be some noise coming out of the Hungarian funeral down the hall. Several musicians, some bearing horns, had filed into the hall. The same director came upstairs to the kitchen where Eve and Jay, Clem’s grandchildren and I were eating sandwiches. I’d been laughing loudly while the kids recalled how Clem could also be opinionated, tight, cheap, coarse, stubborn, and sometimes curmudgeonly.

Before the casket was closed preceding his Mass, I wrote a note to him thanking him for being the person he was, which was put in with other notes, along with the Wall Street Journal Elaine put in, since he read it every day. His watch and ring went with him. I’m not sure about his glasses.

I served as pallbearer. and despite the relative short distances of carrying, found the casket and the contents within to be quite heavy.

Shortly after the priest placed the shroud over his casket in the front of the church, a voice from the congregation rang out to take the shroud off and open the casket. “I want to see him one more time.” I later found out it was Clem’s next door neighbor, a dear Arab-American woman he’d become quite close to; she’d arrived after the casket was closed.

Clem used to complain he’d outlived his friends; no one was left. Still, several of Clem’s friends showed, including an animated black woman, a longtime employee at the hardware store who told me proudly Clem called her Sis, they were that tight. Clem’s fellow members in the 50s Club at church gathered to sing a song of farewell. Elaine delivered a wonderful eulogy that focused on Clem’s love of nature and his telling of a hermit who lived on the mountain near his boyhood home in northeastern Pennsylvania and who lived off the land and knitted socks to trade in town whenever he needed food. Clem thought that was the perfect way to live. The hermit, whom my father told me was a character called Greasy Jack, had a big following in my family. The priest also noted Clem’s regular church attendance and his love of food.

At the luncheon after the funeral, I’d told my cousin’s husband, Lou, who runs Clem’s hardware store, about my memory of a childhood visit when I had the hardest time talking Clem out of a baseball, which I did eventually get, even though Clem didn’t do freebies, and of throwing that ball on the roof of my uncle’s garage, playing catch with myself, while listening to Ernie Harwell call a Tigers’ game on the radio. The next morning, Lou showed up at breakfast, with a new ball he’d fetched from the store, a Catfish Hunter autographed model. I will throw it on the roof and play catch with myself someday soon, I promised, thanking him.

Clem’s departure made me realize what good people my cousins and uncles and aunts were and are. For that alone, I’m glad he gave me a reason to visit.

Visions of Detroit in the winter.

Salt on the roads. Rust on the bottoms of cars.
The “Viva Bush”, “I’m the NRA and I vote”, “Boycott Disney” bumper stickers on the back of one beater van weren’t that unusual, but the one next to them, for Ted Nugent’s Kamp for Kids, I’d never seen: “Take Your Kids Hunting So You Don’t Have to Hunt for Your Kids.”

Fordlandia. Dearborn is Ford Country. The Ford part of Dearborn has a classic Sunbelt office park look of low rise office buildings surrounded by open space and beyond that, strip malls, and massive postwar subdivisions. The preponderance of domestic vehicles. Imports are few and far between. Maybe it’s because I stayed at a hotel across Mercury Drive from Henry Ford World Headquarters, right across the freeway from the Fairlane Town Center. But it got me to thinking about buying domestically. Do locals buy Fords because they know they’re keep money in their community, like liberals I know who shop local independent retailers rather than go to Wal-Mart, or it is based on customer loyalty, price, or what?

Ford’s fertile imagination, penchant for innovation beginning with the development of the assembly line, easy access to shipping and rail transportation, and his sense of place, growing up in this area when it was farmland created a perfect storm that make this region boom early in the early 20th century.

The Motor City was no Chamber of Commerce catchphrase. This is a place that once was exciting and cutting edge as we perceive the Silicon Valley to be now. You can still feel it on the wide roads crisscrossing the megapolis west and north of downtown Detroit and in the Ford name, which is affixed to everything.

You can breathe in the Ford vibe at Fair Lane, Henry Ford’s estate on the banks of the Rouge River, a mansion of mansions built in 1914, just across the road from the Fairlane Town Center mall.

Ford had a good thing going and made piles of dough for his ideas. But just as importantly, he learned how to live well as a wealthy man, evidenced by Fair Lane, a National Historic Landmark that is part of the University of Michigan-Dearborn campus.

The estate’s garage is an estate unto itself but I was more intrigued by the view from the front porch, which a marker notes is the same porch visited by Thomas Alva Edison, Ford’s boyhood hero and adult friend, George Washington Carver, the Prince of Wales, and the Princess of Japan. To the west, architect Jens Jenson created a long meadow flanked by an alley of trees that led to a lake a half mile away. In summer, the sun sets over the lake between the two lines of trees, as astronomically precise during the equinox as the corners of the Chichen Itza pyramid are during solstice.

Driving east towards downtown from the estate, Fordlandia is everywhere, from the world headquarters to the Ford Credit and AAA high rises and the Henry Ford Centennial Library and the Ford Performing Arts Center. Which made big sign for Superior Nissan that I saw while driving east towards downtown on Michigan Avenue stick out like a sore thumb.

Michigan and Texas accents are very different.
“Do you have Life magazine?” I asked the women at the bookstore.
“Laugh magazine?” she asked, giving me a funny look.
I sucked it in and re-pronounced the word, this time tight and clipped and very distinctly.
She heard me that time.

The funeral procession traveled went on Warren Avenue between Wyoming to Beech on its way to the cemetery. The surrounding streetscape revealed Warren as the heart of Arab Detroit, with block after block of bakeries, restaurants, Halal meat markets crowded together, most businesses using Arabic script on their signage to advertise their services, the writing in many cases illuminated by neon. One female lawyer of obvious Arabic descent advertised her services on a large billboard with a photograph that was almost as provocative as Angelyne billboards in LA. In fact, the Warren strip, largely constructed after World War Two, reminded me of cruising down Pico Blvd., with Arabic subbing Spanish and Korean.

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