A few weeks ago I was at a show in Detroit, sitting next to my friend David on a white leather couch in the de facto VIP section of a club/art gallery in Midtown. We were surrounded by about 30 artfully dressed rappers, painters, producers and filmmakers who were all passing around blunts and talking about their work. Someone was actively selling weed and possibly cocaine on the other couch about three feet away from us. There was a girl twerking in the corner while she waited in line for the bathroom. Everything in the room was illuminated by a set of blue neon lights, and it felt like we were in either an arcade or the movie “Spring Breakers” — but the drug deal going on right next to us made it feel a lot more like the latter.
The image of James Franco fellating a pistol popped into my head, and I started laughing. Then I looked over at David, who I’ve known since my sophomore year at Detroit Country Day School — a very expensive private school in Beverly Hills, Michigan that we both attended on scholarship. I thought about how we used to play “Super Smash Bros.” and talk about “Top Gear” in our homeroom during lunch hour, between meetings with college prep advisors. I let loose a stupefied “bruh.” We both looked over at the drug deal for a moment, and then I asked the question that’s almost always gnawing at the back of my head when I find myself in a room full of musicians in Detroit: “What the fuck are we doing here?”
David, I found out, was asking himself the same question for many of the same reasons. When you’re growing up in a middle-class household in Southeast Michigan like we both did, you’re given a sort of default narrative arc for your life that, frankly, doesn’t include an episode with you sitting on a couch in Detroit across from a rapper named Ka$h ThA KuShMaN. It goes more like: work hard in high school, do your extracurriculars, get into a good college, figure out what you’re doing with your life, get a respectable job making more than your parents, marry, kids, retire, rinse and repeat for the next 15 generations. If you play the game right, you end up in a nice city like New York or Chicago with a comfortable apartment, good clothes and a well-fed 401k. If you had interrupted us mid-“Smash” back in high school and asked where we thought we’d be in six years, our answers probably would have been “Episode 3: Foot in the Door at Business Corp.”
But there we are, and there’s Ka$h. He’s not evaporating — in fact, he’s talking about the time he took 25 tabs of acid at once — which means one of two things: Either we really fucked up, or we found a way out of the Matrix.
On the one hand, like, shit, we’re on the damn VIP couch! I’m a journalist — I interviewed the guy that just said he took 25 tabs of acid at once. David is a DJ — he has done shows on the same stage as the guy that just said he took 25 tabs of acid at once. There’s a concert going on in the next room over, and we both know the guy who’s performing — personally! This is the most well-dressed roomful of people I have ever seen and, for all I know, anybody in this room could conceivably become a world-famous artist one day. We’re also in this room. We’re cool goddammit!
On the other hand, what the fuck are we doing here?!? We should have jobs with benefits! We should have places to be at 8 a.m. tomorrow! That guy just said he took 25 tabs of acid at once, is he insane?!? There’s a drug deal going on in this room, shouldn’t I be calling the cops?!? Weed is legal here?!? Don’t they know weed is a gateway drug? Does anyone in this building know CPR?
We sat there on the couch for a while longer, going back and forth about how absurd and incredible and confusing and just plain lucky it was for us to be where we were — this VIP couch that our parents probably never would have had the chance to sit on when they were our age, a couch that wasn’t even in this room until someone decided it was a good idea to open a club and art gallery in Detroit a few months before we sat on it, a couch right in the beating heart of an astonishingly vibrant underground art scene that’s still in its infancy.
The music was still thumping in the other room, but it got quiet where we were sitting as I stopped talking and started thinking about the realer side of “what the fuck are we doing here?” Maybe it’s OK to go bump around Detroit, sitting bewildered on strange couches for a while in my twenties with no particular goal in mind.
At the same time, just sitting on a couch feels like a waste of space — I’d like to do something more to help the city and its culture, but do I have any right to think that I could or should help? I grew up in the suburbs fed on a steady diet of horror stories about urban blight and corrupt mayors and general post-apocalyptic decay in Detroit. Before friends like David started inviting me to shows and really introducing me to the city, Detroit’s culture, for me, was limited to the Detroit Institute of Art, Eastern Market, Greektown, Tigers games and the occasional concert at Orchestra Hall — everything else in the city was just a foreboding network of wrecked houses and dark streets I was told to avoid driving around in at all costs. I’ve since learned that there are a whole lot of incredible artists living along those streets, and they’re immensely generous, community-minded, industrious and unbelievably talented. Things have been tough in Detroit for a long time, but the artists living and working there have built up a thriving culture through the struggle — they were doing fine before I started coming downtown to take new profile pictures, use up space on the couches and write articles about wondering what the fuck I’m doing there. Detroit was never my home, but maybe it will be one day. Yet would my presence there be adding something positive to the city and its culture, or just taking it out of the hands of the people who were there from the start?
Later that night David and I got off the couch and walked into the other room. My friend Martez was DJing a footwork set, dancing on a makeshift stage in the middle of the room between song transitions. About halfway through his set, a 40-something salt-and-pepper-haired white dude wearing three winter coats stepped up onto the stage and started waving his arms around as though he were doing tai chi. He alternated between undulating and rolling around on the ground for the next half hour, and nobody seemed to know what the fuck was going on (the way his eyes were bugging out of his head, I’m not sure he knew either). Nobody stopped him, but it kind of felt to me like I was watching the hostile takeover of a creative space. Martez kept DJing, and the guy kept doing his thing. Maybe it was performance art — just another weird art happening in Detroit, another addition to the surreal postmodernist dreamscape that is the city’s arts scene.
Eventually a few people got on stage and started dancing with him. I looked around the room, wondering what everyone else was thinking. I looked back toward the couch. My palms were sweating, and I didn’t know what to do with my hands.