Neighborhoods, Work, and Ginger Ale ©2015

Memories of an ancient city, by L. E. Taylor

THE OTHER DAY, a newspaper article came my way about an archaeological find in my (old) hometown of Detroit. It was a short item– you might say, perfunctory. There was a color photograph. My mind began to race. I had to drop everything and write what I know about this topic, and what struck me about the puny way it was covered.

But the memories came in a torrent; too much to handle. I could write a book.

Well, once I did. Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga, was about the two branches of my personal “tree,” and the world I remember in vivid detail. But my musing this morning is not a pitch for a book. Something tells me it will take you and me further than that.

Let’s see.

The America we see in 2015 did not exist in, say 1900. Our country was a crazy-quilt of immigrant settlements, most of them founded in the previous century. These settlements were robust, but still fragile in their parochial attachments to Old Europe. The cliché of “melting pot” conjures images of the Irish and Italian enclaves in New York and along the East Coast where poor refugees trudged off the boats and plunked down right there, many to be victimized by remnants of the same tyrannies and corruptions they’d fled.

By 1900, the immigrant families had become Americans, and were migrating westward, away from the decadent Old to the fertile new centers of industry. Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago became smoky jewels in the golden crown of our industrial nation.

We know them as cities, as parts of that melting-pot cliché. They were, in fact, clusters of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods of working families. Shopkeepers, tradesmen, manual laborers, risk-takers, doctors, teachers… and the preachers and saloonkeepers who served the best and the worst of them.

It was all about one thing: work.

Work demanded energy, work focused a person’s mind and it validated one’s life. Work enriched not only the family bank account, but also the community spirit.

Pride of place became more than a provincial bias. It said, “The Ludwig children had to leave school to work so their widowed mama could keep her house”… It proclaimed, “The Taylor’s were dirt-poor coal miners who made their way north one-by-one to their future, and in one generation, succeeded to middle class respectability”… It boasted, “The Monaghans and Ryans and Kanes survived famine and abandonment to earn small (temporary) fortunes and even build modest summer homes on the Canadian side of the Lake.”

Every family was guided by a different faith: Catholic, Lutheran, Calvinist, and “none”. Every family believed in the future, especially for its next generations. Every family tended its own lawns and gardens, kept up its own home, rooted passionately for the Tigers, spent less than they earned, and most voted Republican.

In the 1850s great grandpa Fred Lottner had made his way to Detroit from Bohemia as a teen age orphan, got employed by a local brewer, and in the 1890s became Brew-master of Stroh’s brewery. When Prohibition came the working families all made do. For the drinkers, luscious, aromatic Canadian whiskey was just across the River and could be smuggled back on the ferryboat, often in mama’s knickers; and Labatt’s Ale and Molson Golden were wonderful substitutes for our own suddenly illegal brews.

Will Kane lived in Canada but ran a Detroit speakeasy. And Stroh’s converted to making ice cream, the best in Detroit. Which brings us back to the archeological find.

Back in Colonial times, and through the nineteenth century, pharmacies were run by independent practitioners, called village apothecaries. They were chemists licensed to dispense drugs and healing herbal elixirs. In 1862, a Detroit apothecary, James Vernor, was called to war. Among his store of medicinals was a unique ginger-based concoction that he sealed into a sturdy oak barrel just in case he got back to Michigan alive. Four years later, James opened the cask and discovered the secret brew had aged into an amazingly satisfying drink. He sold some and made some more. His fame grew and Vernor’s Ginger Ale soda fountains opened across the Great Lakes region.

The new libation was spicy and refreshing, and it was non-alcoholic. By the turn of the twentieth century every home ice box within a hundred miles of Detroit had a stash of Vernor’s Ginger Ale tucked away in the back, chilling near the remnant of last week’s block of ice.

FLASH FORWARD to 2015. The City of Detroit is in ruins. Buildings that have not crumbled on their own or been burnt down by riot and vandalism, are being demolished to make way for a new beginning. As a rotting old structure on McNichols Avenue collapses in a cloud of toxic dust, the side of its adjacent two-story neighbor building appears. The dust settles, and there, bathed in sunlight for the first time in nearly a century, stands a hand-painted mural in familiar colors. Boldly slashed across the yellow painted brick is the trademark green script:

Vernor’s

Ginger Ale
Mellowed 4 Years in Wood

Missing is the Prohibition Era slogan: “It’s what we drink around here.”

Well, I thought the newspaper article was skimpy. So I went to the Vernor’s website. Not much better. Bloodless, superficial. Knowing too much history can be hell.

Oh, one more thing: In the Depression years and the War years, a popular mixed drink in the neighborhoods was called a “Boston cooler.” It was simple. A tall cold glass of Vernor’s with a scoop of vanilla ice cream – Stroh’s, of course. In the neighborhoods, it’s what they drank.

Onward.

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Resources.

  1. Taylor, L.E., Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga, FreesenPress, Victoria B.C., Canada, 2012.
  2. Vernor’s Ginger Ale: http://www.drpeppersnapplegroup.com/brands/vernors/
  3. ginger-ale
  4. Robert Allen, Detroit Free Press

Toy Soldiers, Innocence, and Trust.

Reflections in a jaded eye, by L. E. Taylor

The little fellow had been frail with ear infections for each of the four winters of his life. He needed to be content playing alone in the warmth of his bedroom on the rugs that covered his linoleum floor or in the small living room.

Each trip Mama made to the grocery a block away usually included a stop at the “dime store.” Back home in the warm kitchen, emptying paper sacks of bottled milk, Kellogg’s Flakes, Del Monte canned goods, and small packages string-wrapped with pink butcher paper, her attention would drift down to her son, watching patiently from a yellow enameled wooden chair.

“Did you bring me anything?” he would ask.

She always had. A small red-painted racing car with wheels that spun. A tiny Ford truck. A cowboy with white furry chaps on horseback, swinging a copper wire lariat. A funny book. Or, best surprise of all, a toy lead soldier, marching, aiming, crouching. These trinkets were not large by later, post-war, standards; but they were just right for her little son, the only child so far in all the family; sickly, sunny by nature, and utterly puzzling to his young mother.

In a short time, the boy had acquired a variegated collection of such toys. He kept them loose in a four quart peach basket made of thin sheets of pale wood with a single wooden strap handle, the kind used in those days by farmers and produce markets for tomatoes and apples and of course peaches. Intermittently, each day he would take out his basket of “soldiers” and create make-believe. There had been no wars; he’d seen no movies. Television wasn’t even a word. He didn’t know it, but he was manipulating the tiny men and vehicles to make up stories.

Presently, in that city where springtime is cold, Mama would bundle him up with ear muffs and galoshes and mittens, and send him out to play in the rare sunlight. He’d take his basket of soldiers, hunker down on the porch or the sidewalk, and the new story would begin.

Before long, his solitary activity attracted attention. First, one boy from nowhere stopped by to help him play. The truck noises were fun for boys to imitate. He would divide up the miniature players and their vehicles, cannons, and horses, and the two boys would improvise the action.

In no time, there were other boys. Three or four, all older. And bigger. When Mama would come to the door and say, “Time to come in,” they would put the soldiers and cars and trucks back into the basket, and the little boy would scamper up the steps and inside.

By summer, the boy realized that he had fewer soldiers. Where is the Ford truck? The horse was missing its rider.

Mama explained to him about people. He did not understand. Later when he’d go outside to play, he told the boys they couldn’t play with his soldiers any more

They called him selfish.

Onward.

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L. E. Taylor

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If I Should Wake Before I Die

A Warning to the Zombie Nation
Observation & Opinion by L.E. Taylor

Yesterday, I met a remarkable woman. We’ll call her B’ushka.

B’ushka is one of sixty or so amazing men and women I’ve met over the past couple of months, all of them people who’ve found their way to one of my lectures in north Texas retirement communities. The topic of these talks was originally “Memoir Writing,” but it’s found its true branding under the simple moniker, “Great Storytelling.” This one-hour talk shares what I learned about mining one’s memories as I wrote down the stories that comprise my book, Elgan and Grace – A Twentieth Century Saga.

Well, sharing is part of it, yes, however the point of the one hour talk is not to brag about my book, but to assert that we all have stories to tell – and here’s how to do it.

These folks arrive, twenty-to-forty at each event, most in their seventies and eighties, writing materials in hand, to see if it’s true – that they really might reclaim a time and place where the first scenes of their own play were performed. That’s the hope: to grasp a tiny moment between thumb and forefinger, gently retrieve it from a dead past, and bring it back to life by writing about it.

They want to bring it back for many reasons.

B’ushka speaks with an English accent. But when she first spoke to me, I recognized the hint of a more exotic dialect. I will not divulge what she’s already confided in me, except to reveal that at the age of two, she was living with her parents in a Soviet gulag. The rest is a tale that must only be told by B’ushka. I’m willing to help her, if she wants me to.

These weekly blog essays are not merely some self-indulgent adventure in narcissism. They’re part of my own late-term commitment to choosing life. The storytelling lectures and workshops are another. They are all part of the process that began twenty-six years ago when I found myself disgorging a fragment of family lore onto a yellow pad. Soon I was transcribing it onto a tiny computer screen. I was hooked.

The mysterious process led to longer narrative, then in a couple of years it became a novel. It might even morph into a movie. But first, I had to set aside the reasons I couldn’t do it, and just… write.

How many among us go through life in a trance? Not doing the very things that can reveal a new life waiting to be lived. Look about you. A fog of mediocrity enervates a lot of people we know, and they opt for the easy cynicism of defeat.

Why is one’s potential rejected when the alternative is death?

Consider the evil plague that has snuffed out the great City of Detroit. Just a few decades ago my hometown was a world-class paradigm for industrial, financial, and cultural civilization. Today, we’ve seen the evidence of political corruption, lazy greed, and moral sloth. How many among us see this destruction and hideous waste, and just wring their hands? They aren’t angry, they are “sad.”

I have other words.

The amazing place once called Detroit is a main character in my book. But its historic truth bears no resemblance to the corpse that molders in its place. I am not sad; I’m furious. Old Detroit didn’t die; it was murdered. How do I know? Because I remember. I choose to remember.

Living a life of passive dissatisfaction cannot be the cosmic plan for anything with such astounding creative ability as the human mind. Consider the root of the word “inspiration” – spirit, the very breath of life.

But the stamina of our society seems to be slumbering away. Numb between the ears, slumped for decades staring at the TV or the Xbox, people remain mute members of a zombie audience. No ambition to mount the stage or take the field.

Or to get out of the gulag.

I remember the first little prayer I was taught by my German grandma:

Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.

It was comforting, I guess, to an Old European world of fear and short lives. That always seemed to me kind of grim for a child’s last thought at bedtime. It still does. Too soon for that! Wake up! Whether you’re six or ninety-six, wouldn’t you rather choose life? Me too.

Just wait till you read B’ushka’s story!

Onward.

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First Trip to the Museum, 1943.

There were no parking spots in the small unpaved lot behind the museum, so Daddy parked the Plymouth on a neighborhood street nearby. The eight year-old gripped the big gloved hand while the man’s other hand held on his fedora against the February wind. The little boy’s eyes stung as his dad led the way through a gust of flurries and they rounded the front of the great building. They mounted the cascade of steps and entered the Detroit Institute of Arts.

The boy’s heart leapt.

Just inside, the Sunday crowd was quietly festive, still milling about in their bulky mackinaws and long winter coats. Daddy removed his topcoat and hat and collected the boy’s wraps for deposit in the cloakroom to the right of the entrance.

The crowd thinned out for a second and the sight of a great marble entry hall, elaborately domed, and lined by suits of gleaming armor as far as he could see struck an image that the child would carry with him for a lifetime. This would be only the appetizer of a visual banquet about to be served. Continue reading

A Boyhood in Detroit

Remembrance; Commentary – by L.E.Taylor, author of Elgan and Grace

In the Eastside neighborhood where I grew up there was an understanding among families: When the streetlights come on, the boys go home. Enforcement was the job of parents; no-nonsense reminders by adults on street corners were not uncommon.

Within a couple of generations after the new century dawned, Detroit had drawn a flood of laborers from farms and mines in the South, from Canada across the river, and from afflicted peoples beyond our shores. Quickly, the town became a city of homeowners. (By mid-century, at well over 70%, it had far and away the highest per capita home ownership of American cities.) For most, the homes were their first, mortgaged on the strength of dependable employment in the planet’s greatest industrial metropolis.

Inside the homes that comprised each neighborhood lived a family. A tiny nuclear corporation, headed by a father and a mother. Their property was precious beyond its financial worth. Continue reading