Northern Lights Lounge/Radio memories/”Unclaimed Dead Stack Up in Wayne Co. Morgue”


I decided I need to go out tonight, so I looked in the Metro Times for something to do. It said that someone called Sofa King Fresh was hosting a DJ party at a place called Northern Lights Lounge. The listing also said that food was half price, and when I tried to figure out the location I realized that it was close to Wayne State, where I was at the time. It was almost too good to be true.

I ordered a plate of nachos, the large plate.  Once I got to my second beer, I asked when the music was going to start.

This is one of those things that happens when you’re alone in a place where you don’t know very well.  You end up sitting at a table eating nachos, ordering beer, at 8:45 pm with nothing look to forward to but nachos and beers until 10:30 pm, which is when you were told that the music that you came here to see is supposed to start.

It’s my own fault: This was just a stab in the dark.  I have no idea who Sofa King Fresh is, anyway.  I decided to do some writing to kill the time.

I’m starting to feel bloated.  Really, this scene brings back the way I always used to feel about this thing called Detroit and Detroit techno in particular.  The music on the stereo is a mix of beat-powered dance tracks and popular hits from the 90’s.  Could they have known that I was coming, or is it somehow always the 90’s here in Detroit?  Had it been the 90’s long before I participated in the 90’s, for decades even–and did I just at some point wake up to it?  Like around 1990, for example?

The reason why the music is important is because it reminds me of the mix of music that played in my car in the late 90’s, when I was a high school and college student and used to drive around the metro area a lot.  The 90’s hits played during the day and the beat-powered dance stuff at night.  That’s right: I listened to the radio.  I’m not really ashamed of it, though.  I listened to the radio because it made me feel like I was connected to something.  The same signal beaming through the the whole region was tickling my antenna too.  Most of the time, radio didn’t really succeed in making me feel like an integrated unit in the system of the region, but the few times that it did made it worth it.

There was a show, for example.  It came on WJLB, 97.9 FM, which normally was the poppy hip hop station, like Hot 97 in New York,  the kind of station that would play “Too Close” by Next 3 times an hour in 1997. (You know that song–it’s the one where a dude exclaims that a girl gives him an erection because of her provocative dancing.)  The show only came on super late on Saturday night, maybe midnight or later.  It was called “Transmissions” and I felt really lucky every time it came on.  The summers of 1997 and 1998, following my senior year of high school and freshman year of college respectively, I was involved in various roving weed-smoking crews and when I would tune into “Transmissions” after sessions with them I would feel especially gratified.


“Transmissions” shifted JLB’s format over to techno.  It was ideal for radio, because there is no better driving music imaginable than techno.  Once, in particular, I remember “Transmissions” coming on at an especially opportune time: I was on I-94 after dropping off my prom date her parents’ house in the suburb of Dearborn, a large suburb that shares a border with Detroit’s West Side.  The date had not gone well, but I felt triumphant that night anyway–Mohiba and I hadn’t been dating that long, so the feeling of partying as one with the people I’d spent the last four years with mattered more.  All through high school, I never really felt like my peers were my real peers (probably just because it was high school), but that night I did, and the high of sorts that that gave me lasted all through the drive from Mohiba’s place in Dearborn back to Ann Arbor.

The beats poured out of the radio in perfect time to the disappearance of the short yellow stripes painted on the highway out of my headlights’ milky visual field.  The world is full of scenes from films in which music swells as cars pick up speed, and this is with good reason: No one shares the thrill of driving a car like a musician playing an amplified instrument, who can feel a room, an arena, or a stadium resonate with vibrations that ensue from the musician’s own body’s small movements.  Driving a car is basically like becoming a giant, the giddy thrill of it is feeling an entire vast, complicated, deadly (look at the statistics) machine hum and surge in response to the minuscule tick in your ankle that puts your foot, and therefore the gas pedal, closer to the floor of the car.

It’s not from the 90’s, but this remix of Morgan Geist’s “Detroit” by legendary Detroit DJ Carl Craig kind of gives you an idea of what I’m talking about.  Listen to it, close your eyes, and imagine jetting through an empty nighttime highway after prom in your parents’ Ford Windstar.

The price of all these connections that I felt–myself to the region, my dancing body to that of my high school classmates, my dancing body to that of my increasingly indifferent high school girlfriend who became disgusted with my classmates (in Dearborn, she went to a Catholic school, and thus was wholly accustomed to the sexuality and narcotics intake at my “alternative” high school prom), my body to the car–was that they all in one way or another ensued from my being in a car.  The feeling of potential for connection, potential for unity with a collective larger than myself, was both initiated and frustrated by the state of being in a car.

OK: Good.  That killed 56 minutes.

I’ve still got 46 to go.

No, this place is not very social.  I’m in the car of a little table.

In the bathroom just now, I chatted for a second with a guy.  There are clippings from the Detroit News hung above both urinals in the men’s room.  We both urinated simultaneously, and when he noticed the headline on the clipping above his urinal he mentioned it to me.  He said, “Hey!  Have you seen this?  This is about the most disgusting fucking thing I’ve ever seen.”

He pointed to the article above his urinal with one hand while he zipped up his fly with the other.  The headline said: “Unclaimed Dead Stack Up in Wayne Co. Morgue.”  The gist of it is that there are 52 bodies in the Wayne County Morgue that no one has come to take home.

The reason for this is that, by law, claiming a body in Wayne County (maybe elsewhere too?  I don’t know) requires you to bury it.  Right now, a lot of people are hurting, financially speaking, especially in Wayne County; hurting too badly to pay for a burial.  Thus, the typical unclaimed-body count of 10 in the Wayne County Morgue at any given time has recently swelled to 52.

OK, cool.  32 minutes to go.

The guy was wearing a red T-shirt that said “Cass Corridor” in a font inspired by the Coca-Cola logo.  The Cass Corridor was created as an urban renewal project in the 1960’s, which means that a lot of homes and businesses were coercively evacuated and then demolished in order to make way for it.  The Cass Corridor became infamous for drugs and violence almost as soon as the construction was finished, but since has gentrified somewhat; the White Stripes used to play there a lot.


The Cass Corridor, a stretch of blocks around Cass Avenue bounded by Wayne State University on the North and I-75 on the South, was created by the government as an urban renewal project in the 1960’s. This means that a lot of homes and businesses were coercively evacuated and then demolished in order to make way for it.  The Cass Corridor became infamous for drugs and violence almost as soon as the construction was finished, but since has gentrified somewhat; the White Stripes used to play there a lot.

Anyway, the Cass Corridor T-shirt guy and I stood in the bathroom and talked about the unclaimed-body problem for a second–it’s interesting, because the article above the urinal refers to Detroit as “America’s poorest big city,” but that’s what Detroit was even before the recent economic meltdown; therefore, the increase of 42 to the unclaimed-body count means that the current economy is horrendous even by comparison to Detroit’s usual standards.  

The guy explained that the author of the article in question had also written a piece for the New York Times about how NYC has a ratio of ten rats to each human inhabitant, and thus a total five-boroughs rat population of 100 million in NYC.  I explained that I was not from Detroit, I’m just visiting from New York, and he said, “Right on.”  Then, he said, “OK, man, enjoy your trip,” and went out the door.

Was I disappointed?  Do I really need friends that badly?

This grim series of thoughts reminded that there was a friend back in New York who I wanted to call.  It seemed like a good idea to settle up, wander around outside for a second, maybe have a phone call or two, and then come back inside when the music is to supposed to start.  

I told the waiter that I wanted to pay the bill, but for some reason was careful to explain that I was probably going to come back in a half or so.   The waiter just smiled and was like, “If you’re just steppin’ out to smoke some pot in your car, man, that’s cool, I watch your stuff.”

It would have been great to have either a car or weed on a night like this; but I had neither so I just paid the bill.

Outside, it was very still.  Northern Lights Lounge is located in the New Center area, the first neighborhood up Woodward from the Wayne State area and the Cass Corridor.  There are some famous buildings here in New Center, including the Fisher Building.

Fisher Building

The whole area has the gentle hum and echo of distant footfalls that you hear in an area where a lot of people work during the day and peel out come nightfall.  There appeared to have been a lot of new stuff built since I was last here, and I reached the conclusion that the whole area actually looked pretty good.  


I was impressed: I couldn’t remember seeing Detroit this economically healthy.  It’s a reminder that Detroit is a functioning city, with businesses, workers, bosses, offices, and stores.  It’s especially heartening, since the Fisher Building was designed by Albert Kahn, Detroit’s most famous architect.  In addition to the ornate Fisher Building, Kahn also designed some of the city’s most important factories, including Henry Ford’s original Model-T plant in Highland Park, a little ways up Woodward from New Center.

I called my friend to explain how impressed I was with the progress that had been made in the revitalization of the New Center area, but he wasn’t there, so I decided to just go back to the bar.  At the bar, the waitresses seemed mildly alarmed that I was still ordering drinks–one of them asked me if I needed a glass of water.  

Personally, I was amazed at my willingness to continue spending money on a night out by myself, but they were cheap ($3 for a Bud draft), besides which you’re never really alone when you have a blog, as I’ve discovered.

When the speakers finally turned on, a young African American girl in a jean jacket who appeared to be having a really great time began spinning a series of 80’s hits.  The first was Madonna’s “La Isla Bonita,” followed closely by “Everything She Wants” by WHAM!, and the like.  I decided it wasn’t worth paying for more beers, so I debated whether I should call a cab or take my life in my hands, fuck it, and just hoof it.

I decided to walk home.

~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 8, 2009.

One Response to “Northern Lights Lounge/Radio memories/”Unclaimed Dead Stack Up in Wayne Co. Morgue””

  1. […] Northern Lights Lounge/Radio memories/”Unclaimed Dead Stack Up in Wayne Co. Morgue”… […]

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