“What year is that Mustang?”/Downriver/Detroit-Wayne County International Airport/Uniroyal Tire/Little Caesars Crazy Bread

Mustang Front

Yesterday I bid farewell to the Mustang.  It had been an amazing few days, a total redemption of the practices of car manufacturing and ownership in my eyes.  Ever since I arrived in Detroit, I have become gradually more and more seduced by the mystique of the car, and the culmination of the romance between myself and this invention was the Mustang.

As Ferris Bueller once said, “I love this car.  It is so choice.”

Before the player-hating begins in earnest, let me explain how it happened.

My girlfriend, Caroline Henley, came to Detroit to visit me last Friday.  At that point, I had already been here for almost two weeks, and a great deal of that time had been spent walking and waiting for buses.  I enjoyed it, partly because of the omnipresence of fear that reigns over even the safest blocks in Detroit, especially when the sun starts to go down.  The first time I walked home at night was from the Northern Lights Lounge in New Center and the empty streets, with lacy white veils of steam twisting out of the holes in the manhole covers and the way my heart picked up the pace whenever a silhouette would appear at the end of a block, gave me a bit of a rush.

But all the same, I thought it would be a good idea to rent a car when my girlfriend came.  We’d be safer, we’d be able to make a trip to my hometown, Ann Arbor, and besides I had basically been thirsty for an excuse to get a car ever since I’d arrived.

Such a big part of the thrill of Detroit is the highway, even if the construction of those highways after World War II led to the destruction of thriving neighborhoods and facilitated the suburban sprawl that helped doom the city.  The same way that walking the streets at night is a thrill because it’s so scary, it makes the highways more exhilarating to drive because of their vague yet undeniable aura of evil.  

Either way, it’s like eating spicy food: it hurts good.


I pause to survey the scene as I enter the Mustang in the parking lot of Model T Plaza, a strip mall that was built recently around the ruins of Henry Ford's original Model T assembly plant in Highland Park.

I pause to survey the scene as I enter the Mustang in the parking lot of Model T Plaza, a strip mall that was built recently around the ruins of Henry Ford's original Model T assembly plant in Highland Park.

Now, I did not originally plan to rent a Mustang.  Instead, I took great pains to rent the cheapest car that I possibly could.  I dialed up the prices for rentals at a site called Cheaprooms.com, and from there was directed to Thrifty.  At Thrifty, I reserved an Economy Car.  

I was nervous about the rental.  I had renewed my driver license only two days before, at the Michigan Secretary of State office in New Center.  The license had been expired since December 2007, and I had not actually driven a car in three years.  When I went to Secretary of State, I’d expected them to give me a test, interrogate me about where I had been and what I had been doing for the two years, and, if the Detroit address that I had given them was indeed accurate, how I had managed to survive in Detroit for all of that time with no automotive ride.  None of this took place; all I had to do was give them $25 and get my picture taken.

In the end, I should have expected it.  This is Michigan–the government wants you driving a car here, no matter what the circumstances, the same way the government sells cigarettes at elementary schools in North Carolina.

But still, it all felt too easy.

When I went to meet Caroline, I took the SMART (Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation) bus from a stop at the corner of Woodward and Larned to the Detroit-Wayne County International Airport.  The ride took over an hour, no highways were employed by the bus, but it was fun.  The airport is located in the city of Romulus, MI, in what is known as the Downriver area, which goes south from the city of Dearborn to the Ohio border, and west from the Detroit’s southwestern extremity to Washtenaw County, which is where I’m from.


The landscape of Downriver has much of the same feel as urban Detroit.  Stores along the avenues are either boarded up or totally new, anonymous, yet pristine strip malls.  But it is so dispersed, with so much empty space between the strip malls, houses, stores, trailers, factories, and warehouses, that it feels like somewhere where you could disappear if you were so inclined.  Looking at the map of Michigan, you conclude that Downriver is the Michigan of Michigan, the most bypassed, the most ignored, the most invisible series of boxes and names of towns with nothing but question marks attached to whatever they might mean (River Rouge, Ecorse, Lincoln Park, Taylor, Southgate, Wyandotte, Inkster, to name a few).


Edward H. McNamara Terminal, a.k.a. Northwest WorldGateway, at DTW.  Notice the monorail.

Edward H. McNamara Terminal, a.k.a. Northwest WorldGateway, at DTW. Notice the monorail.


As dilapidated and neglected as Downriver may be, the Edward H. McNamara Terminal at DTW is that much more brilliant, spotlessly clean, and in a state of constant improvement.  Its components of glass, steel, and fiberglass are interwoven with a powerful vibe of confidence and empowerment that is infectious for every ticket-holding passenger inside of it.

I couldn’t enter the terminal when I picked up Caroline, but she seemed extremely impressed with it.  She mentioned that there was a wine bar, which sounded like it provides McNamara with a taste of elegant yet mildly flirtatious civilization at a reasonable price.

I have no documentation of this on hand, but my Dad always used to tell me that DTW was considered “the worst airport in the country” prior to the completion of McNamara as Northwest Airlines’ main North American hub in 2002.  Like Downtown Detroit, McNamara also has a monorail–unlike the People Mover, however, this monorail serves a clear purpose, which is that McNamara’s concourses are among the longest in the world and a major hike without the aid of rapid transit.  

Caroline and I left McNamara on a small bus provided by Thrifty rentals.  It took us off the grounds of DTW, over an ageless-looking series of highway on- and off-ramps, into a road that felt isolated.  Across the street from the lot, there was a massive chemical factory of some kind.


View of RKR facility from across Wick Road, in the Thrifty car rentals lot a short distance from Detroit-Wayne County International Airport in Romulus, MI.

View of RKR facility from across Wick Road, in the Thrifty car rentals lot a short distance from Detroit-Wayne County International Airport in Romulus, MI.

I gave the gentleman behind the counter at Thrifty my newly renewed driver license, which was just my expired-in-2007 driver license with a temporary license, printed on paper, stapled to it.  I was looking forward to getting my real new license in the mail because my photo on the 2007 one showed me with shoulder-length hair, which I am embarrassed about, and also because I think that my Detroit, MI address will impress people in New York.

I apologized for the paper, stapled license, saying, “It’s, um, it’s just a temporary license . . . I hope that’s OK,” but, since this is Michigan, the man said, “No problem.  That’s perfect.”

After he swiped my bank card and I spent almost two entire minutes crossing my fingers behind my back, he set to work on finding a car for us to take back to Detroit.

“It’s your lucky day,” he said.  “You get a Mustang.”

My hands shook as I signed the paperwork.  A Mustang?  It didn’t seem possible.  I imagined that the gentleman behind the counter saw something fundamentally good in Caroline and I standing in line, holding hands as we waited together, as though we and couples like us all over the world needed to be protected and nurtured whenever possible for the good of the future of the human species, and that the man behind the counter had awarded us the Mustang for this reason. 

Or maybe, like the good apartment karma that I had had when I first entered Detroit, this car, with its radiant cherry-red exterior; thrusting body that really lets the great American open road know who wears the pants; and its motor, the operatic tremolo in whose singing reaches heartbreakingly beautiful levels of intensity as the gas pedal swoons beneath your foot, was the repayment of some debt owed to me by the forces of automotive good since time immemorial.

I immediately forgot the number of the parking spot where I was to find the Mustang, but I recognized it soon enough by the galloping steed on its rear.

Absolutely amazing.

Absolutely amazing.

We drove back to Detroit on I-94; whereas the SMART bus had taken 90 minutes, this trip took 15. As we crossed out of Romulus into Allen Park I had a chance to show Caroline the mythic Uniroyal Tire, a monument that I have always viewed as a gateway to Detroit of sorts.


The UniRoyal Tire by night, standing tall and stoic beside the blur of I-94 traffic.

The Uniroyal Tire by night, standing tall and stoic beside the blur of I-94 traffic.

The Uniroyal Tire was built for 1964 World’s Fair in Flushing Meadows Park, Queens.  Its original purpose was to serve as a ferris wheel; Jackie Kennedy was one of the celebrities who rode it.  It was moved to Allen Park immediately after, and has stood sentinel by the side of a dramatic, swooping curve in I-94, about a mile or so from the airport, ever since. 

Uniroyal became a subsidiary of French tire manufacturer Michelin in 1990; the French have done an excellent job of the maintaining and caring for the Uniroyal Tire ever since, just as they have the careers of Woody Allen, David Lynch, and innumerable jazz musicians.

The fact that the Uniroyal Tire is only visible from the highway is somewhat typical of the area.  It is only possible to feel truly welcomed if you travel by car over the interstate.  Somehow, mass transit is not worthy of the Tire.

And yet, also somehow, I was deemed worthy of the Mustang, despite the small sum that I had had to offer Thrifty.

Driving the Mustang in Detroit had its downsides, however.  It attracted a fair amount of attention.  On Saturday night, we decided to order pizza from Little Caesars, and when they said they wouldn’t deliver, we were like, “Fine–we’ll just drive over there in the ‘Stang.”  Soon enough we were lost, and I pulled into a gas station on Warren near 31st St. to ask directions.

There was an African American homeless man standing between the tanks and the entrance to the shop at the gas station.  “What year is that Mustang?” he demanded.

I realized that I didn’t know.

Just then I saw, across Warren, a series of silhouettes approaching from a sidestreet.  This is an image that one sees frequently, since a lot of the sidestreets don’t have working streetlights. 

My plan had been for Caroline to wait in the Mustang, which I had not parked in a parking spot.  Instead, it was in the narrow thru-way between the shop and the tanks.  The windows were down, the doors were unlocked, and the silhouettes across Warren had assumed the form of African American teenagers and were approaching rapidly.

Meanwhile, the homeless man was still waiting for his answer.  I still had not told him what year the Mustang was. 

I wanted to, it made me feel the same longing that I always feel when I’m writing a paper and I see a sentence that still needs a footnote, and I was optimistic that I would be able to tell him.  Somehow, I believed, I would be able to find the information that he wanted within the next 30 seconds and then, with a clear conscience, drive on.

The teenagers from across Warren had arrived at the gas station.  I was scared that I was going to get carjacked, but they walked right past me into the store.

At that point, I was standing, wearing the open door of the Mustang like a dress, my body below my waist hidden from the homeless man by a wall of cherry-red chrome.  When I had seen the teenagers coming from the unlit area on the other side of the avenue, I had realized that I needed to put up the windows and lock the doors before I went into the store to ask directions, but I also didn’t want them to see me doing it.

So I just got back in the Mustang, closed the door, and kept driving on Warren.  The homeless man, who I imagined had once been a Ford employee and was intimately familiar with the production details that help usher Mustangs into this world, would never know for sure what year my Mustang was.  Or at least not with any help from me.

A few days later, I cruised the burbs in the Mustang.  The Mustang carried me all the way from Ferndale to Grosse Point on 10 Mile Road, and, in traffic in the city of Warren, an old white man with a lot of missing teeth and long white hair craned his neck out of a rusty pickup truck and shouted, “What year is that Mustang?”

My friend Peter was with me in the Mustang then, and he didn’t know the year either.  The old man in the pickup was on the shotgun side, where Peter was sitting, and he shouted back, “I think it’s brand new!”

The old white man rolled his eyes and sped off in his pickup truck.

The night that I panicked at the gas station on Warren, Caroline and I never ended up finding Little Caesars.  We drove the Mustang the entire length of West Grand Blvd., first up to where it becomes East Grand Blvd., then all the way down to Michigan Ave.

Grand Blvd. is a horseshoe-shaped boulevard that arcs over the half of the city between New Center and Michigan Ave., becoming West and East Grand Blvd. (respectively) on the West and East sides of New Center.  The Little Caesars people had told us that the place was at the intersection of W. Grand Blvd. and Mt. Vernon, and, from what we could ascertain after our sweep of the Grand Blvd’s entire Western half, no such intersection exists.

And it’s a shame, too, because both of us had grown up with Little Caesars and were really looking forward to it.  In particular, we wanted Crazy Bread, a special type of cheesy, garlicky-tasting breadstick that people liked to order as a side dish to their meal of Little Caesars pizza. 

I had not thought about Crazy Bread in years, and as soon as we ordered it I became convinced that I would be able to recapture a few lost, precious moments from my childhood.

Little Caesars is a Detroit institution, since the owner, Mike Illitch, also owns the Detroit Tigers, the Detroit Red Wings, and the Fox Theater.

Is your mouth not watering right now?

Is your mouth not watering right now?

After W. Grand spat us out on Michigan, we finally gave up on our Little Caesars dream and ordered a pizza from Happy’s, a much more local chain than Little Caesars.

The highlight of the drive was that there were long stretches of W. Grand Blvd. where the lack of streetlights included not just the sidestreets, but the boulevard itself.  Vague shapes, not unlike people, congregated on lawns and bobbed up and down on the fringes of the Mustang’s headlight shine, but everything and everyone that mattered was hidden by the sheer absence of light from everything and everyone else.  There could have been thousands of people standing around or none, that’s how dark it was.

The fear hurts good, like I said earlier in this post, but sometimes, like any drug, it can go to your head.  We waited in the parking lot outside Happy’s Pizza, smoking cigarettes while our greasy and not-very-flavorful pizza was completed.  It’s possible I looked as nervous as a death row inmate, pulling off the smoke in a series of short, deep puffs, standing by the side of the Mustang. 


Or it could have been that I was so excited, so exhilarated both at having the Mustang and the possibility that I was about to lose it, that the feeling was making me sick: like I’d stuffed myself with too much birthday cake.

~ by electrorefutedrobo on August 19, 2009.

5 Responses to ““What year is that Mustang?”/Downriver/Detroit-Wayne County International Airport/Uniroyal Tire/Little Caesars Crazy Bread”

  1. not sure where you’re staying, but you probably didnt want to take your rented “stang” to that Little Caesars anyways. kinda surprised you made it away from Happy’s with your car and your pizza :-D. For future reference heres the LC you were looking for.

  2. I believe the man said, “WHAT are you doing HERE with that Mustang?”

  3. Too much birthday cake, is sooooooooooooooo good, Patrick, thanks for a cool and anxious ride through Elmore Leonard’s moonscape.

  4. That’s a 2007 Mustang

  5. […] day.  She had picked it out and everything.  By that point in time, I had already developed a keen understanding of the difference between having and not having a car in Detroit, and all that that […]

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