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Grand River and Joy

Grand River and Joy

3.5 2
by Susan Messer

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"With unsparing candor, Susan Messer thrusts us into a time when racial tensions sundered friends and neighbors and turned families upside down. The confrontations in Grand River and Joy are complex, challenging, bitterly funny, and---painful though it is to acknowledge it---spot-on accurate."
---Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After and


"With unsparing candor, Susan Messer thrusts us into a time when racial tensions sundered friends and neighbors and turned families upside down. The confrontations in Grand River and Joy are complex, challenging, bitterly funny, and---painful though it is to acknowledge it---spot-on accurate."
---Rosellen Brown, author of Before and After and Half a Heart

"Grand River and Joy is a rare novel of insight and inspiration. It's impossible not to like a book this well-written and meaningful---not to mention as historically significant, humorous, and meditative."
---Laura Kasischke, author of The Life Before Her Eyes and Be Mine

Halloween morning 1966, Harry Levine arrives at his wholesale shoe warehouse to find an ethnic slur soaped on the front window. As he scavenges around the sprawling warehouse basement, looking for the supplies he needs to clean the window, he makes more unsettling discoveries: a stash of Black Power literature; marijuana; a new phone line running off his own; and a makeshift living room, arranged by Alvin, the teenaged tenant who lives with his father, Curtis, above the warehouse. Accustomed to sloughing off fears about Detroit's troubled inner-city neighborhood, Harry dismisses the soaped window as a Halloween prank and gradually dismantles “Alvin's lounge” in a silent conversation with the teenaged tenant. Still, these events and discoveries draw him more deeply into the frustrations and fissures permeating his city in the months leading up to the Detroit riots.

Grand River and Joy, named after a landmark intersection in Detroit, follows Harry through the intersections of his life and the history of his city. It's a work of fiction set in a world that is anything but fictional, a novel about the intersections between races, classes and religions exploding in the long, hot summers of Detroit in the 1960s. Grand River and Joy is a powerful and moving exploration of one of the most difficult chapters of Michigan history.

Susan Messer's fiction and nonfiction have appeared in numerous publications, including Glimmer Train Stories, North American Review, and Colorado Review. She received an Illinois Arts Council Fellowship in prose, an Illinois Arts Council literary award for creative nonfiction, and a prize in the Jewish Cultural Writing Competition of the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture.

Cover photograph copyright © Bill Rauhauser and Rauhauser Photographic Trust

Product Details

University of Michigan Press
Publication date:
Sweetwater Fiction: Originals Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.80(d)

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Read an Excerpt


By Susan Messer

The University of Michigan Press

Copyright © 2009 Susan Messer
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-472-11699-7

Chapter One


He was working with his sister at the time. So it was just the two of them. And he stopped to pick her up on the way down, which was how he described the trip. "I'm heading down," he would say to her, when he called before leaving the house. "Are you ready?"

All he meant by "down," or all he thought he meant, was that the route to the business took him more toward downtown than not. He drove his silvery-blue Dodge Dart, a new model, 1966, through the streets of his neighborhood, over to hers, the autumn elms and oaks and sugar maples arching over the streets, stopping in front of her house, her waiting on the porch when the weather was fine, as it was that day. A perfect golden day for Halloween-something you couldn't rely on in the Midwest.

They said their hellos, Harry and Ilo, not much new since yesterday. He'd come to feel that this was his life, and this was how it would be, from today until tomorrow and on and on. Not a bad life. With his wife. His daughters. Your basic comforts. Summer vacations at the Michigan lakes, the great and the small. Then he and Ilo were nearing the end of their well-worn route down, making the turn onto Grand River, crossing Joy Road.

It was Detroit, and by 1966,Grand River south of Joy was all concrete and brick, with barely a tree or shrub, barely a patch of grass.

Joy Road-now there was a misnomer. That stretch had broken windows and traffic snarls, and grown men with nothing to do during the day. Up and down these broad streets, buses belched clouds of black smoke as they roared past the metal-grated building faces. And as if inviting trouble, Levine's was the only business along the stretch that lacked one of those grates.

Whenever Harry talked about the place, his sisters-in-law and cousins, with their stiff beauty-parlor bouffants and manicures, held their faces and said schwarze this and schwarze that. Same for the big-bellied brothers-in-law with their ruby pinkie rings and slicked-back hair.

On Grand River, the un-grated Levine Wholesale Shoes stood beside the tiny White Castle hamburger building with its crude crenellated top. Across the street and down a few blocks was the magnificent, decaying Riviera Theatre, or "the Iviera," as his sister called it. The R in the towering vertical marquee had become a jagged hole; farther down, the upper bar of the E appeared gangrenous, and the final R and A were also festering.

In the alley behind the business, two small boys scuffed along, kicking the alley stones as they went on their way to school. Ilo checked the door locks. The boys switched to single file, so Harry's car could pass.

"No costumes," Harry said.

"Halloween's for people who've got something to give away," Ilo said. She shifted her purse from lap to floor.

Harry pulled into the parking space under the wooden fire escape that led to the upstairs apartment. Curtis, Harry's tenant, stood on the landing.

Harry waved to him as he got out of the car. It was a warm day, with a Technicolor blue sky, promising a smooth road, straight through to evening; a gift for the children, who could run through the leaves without blustery-cold wind or driving rain, without arguments about sweaters that would bulk out costumes, or stupid coats that would obscure them entirely.

"Morning, Mr. Levine," Curtis said. "Any work today?"

It was a gift, too, in a way, to have Curtis upstairs, available whenever Harry needed him. But also, in a way, a burden of responsibility whenever he didn't. "We'll see what we've got," Harry said.

Harry tended to the keys, the unlocking, and Ilo followed him into the whole familiar cloud of smells, old and new, musty and fusty: wood and brick and rubber, leather and canvas, cardboard and jute. The two did their morning chores: turning off the burglar alarm, closing the metal bars behind them, snapping the padlock, then closing the big wooden door, fastening the two dead bolts, straightening the rows of shoe boxes in the aisles of gray metal shelving that reached practically to the ceiling, and checking the thermostat near the bathroom door. Harry asking Ilo what she thought about having Sappho, his family's Doberman, for the evening so the barking wouldn't chase the trick-or-treaters away, Ilo saying "Oh, all right. Two old maids spending the night together." Harry saying thanks. Coming along, coming up the hall, doing this little job and that, arriving in the front.

The front of the building was composed of two rooms. In one, a simple window display: three pairs of old-fashioned lace-up boots in black and brown, mini-torture chambers, with their needle-point toes so narrow through the foot and up the ankle that they suggested severe structural damage. Harry's father-that was Joe-who had started the business, had found them in the cave-like basement of the building they'd owned on West Jefferson. He brought them along when they moved to this new address, left them behind when he moved to Florida and then died shortly after, willing the building and everything in it to Harry. Not that Harry had ever wanted it. Not that Harry was any kind of expert on what he wanted, mostly afraid to want anything.

Ilo had placed those old shoes in the window, on a wooden table below the dark-green arcing letters that said "J. Levine Wholesale Shoes." She dusted them once a week and polished them once a year, with brushes and buffing cloths, and fussed with the arrangement, adding seasonal accessories, as if she were a window decorator at J. L. Hudson's, Detroit's big downtown department store. Harry said nothing about her display, as he said nothing about much of what she did, in their long history of brother-sister silence. But he did like having the shoes there, as they seemed to elevate their business, along with the concept of shoe, into the sweep of history, one chapter in the world's march toward human comfort, toward understanding the health function of a foot in a shoe.

Because of the chores, the routine, on the way up the hall to the two front rooms, Harry didn't see, or notice, the front window until the Halloween-morning sun glinted off it full on. And because he'd never seen anything like this before on his own front window, but because he had seen pictures, and because a deep ancestral memory of facing something like this was stored in a brain region that science had not yet identified, he now had a conjunction of shock and recognition, a sense that he'd always expected it, but that it didn't hurt any less for the expecting.

And because Ilo always came up behind him, as if to say, let him be the first to face whatever happened during the night, let him be the scout, and because she had stopped in the ancient bathroom, where the door didn't close all the way because of the warping and the layer upon ageless layer of paint, to check her lipstick-lipstick of all things, in a place like this. And because she was about to see the same front window he'd seen, he moved quickly in front of it and fooled with the old-fashioned shoes, thinking he might cover what he'd seen or simply distract her so she wouldn't see, or distract himself so that he wouldn't see, wouldn't fully see. Of course, the letters were backwards, when viewed from the inside, but it was surprising how many of them worked either way.

Ilo said it out loud. It was written in soap in big block letters-the honky and the Jew in horizontal bands, one above the other, and the boy below in a vertical that dead ended at the store's name. Dead ended because the writer or soaper had used the Levine v to make the boy y, crudely artful, like on a Scrabble board-triple word score. Honky Jew boy.

And, too, it looked as though the o of the boy could drop into the open arms of the v, now a funnel y, and then lodge there in the throat if the passage was too narrow, or if not, perhaps slip right through and become impaled, skewered, on the second l in Wholesale, like a Greek letter or a marshmallow on a stick.

If you were Harry, you could Scrabble it any which way, turn it into a game, like they did with the children on long car trips-playing I spy, or telling the girls to find all the letters of the alphabet on the signs they passed, and the first one who found them all was the winner. "Do license plates count?" Joanna, the middle daughter, always asked, as if there were an official set of rules for these made-up distractor games.

"Honky Jew boy?" Ilo said again, in that reading-group-2 way, where each word is a separate entity rather than a meaningful link in a chain.

Harry remembered what Ruth, his wife, said: that the word Jew, by itself, could sound ugly, spit out. It was better when softened with the ish ending, as in short-ish or small-ish, suggesting not exactly short or small but somewhat.

"At least it wasn't a brick," he said.

They stood near the window. He thought about how they might go on with the day, how they might move on to business, like any other day. His instinct was to minimize, something he'd learned to do in a house full of females, a wife and three daughters, whose emotional responses to him more often than not seemed overwrought, unnecessary. He had learned to balance, to offset, as on a teeter totter, with Ruth and the girls massed at one far end, and him, maintaining the weight and the force to keep them in balance.

"If you'd put up a grate like all the other business owners, like I've been telling you," Ilo said. She was always scolding, always telling, always what she'd said before, who hadn't listened, who hadn't understood what she so long ago had grasped, told, instructed.

"Some kid on Devil's night. Don't make a big deal." Devil's night, what they called it in Detroit-the mischief-making before Halloween, when kids soaped windows, toilet-papered trees and bushes, slathered shaving cream on sidewalks, rung doorbells, and smashed eggs. Those were innocent days.

"Oh yeah," Ilo said. "Trick or treat." Her hands in fists, on hips, her head shaking.

"I'll get Curtis to clean it," Harry said. He went to his desk.

His desk was in the other front room, set off by a wood-and-glass partition. In it were the two desks, an adding machine and phone on each, a black Underwood on Ilo's, the big old safe that Joe bought when he first started in business and that he lugged with him from West Jefferson to Grand River, along with the old-fashioned shoes. Both Harry and Ilo knew the combination, and every night, they opened it to store their petty cash, their checkbooks, their bookkeeping ledgers. And every morning, they reopened it to take out what they needed for the daily business.

Harry opened the safe, his fingers on the cool metal dial, his focus on the whirs and clicks of a reliable old lock. He shuffled through the pink order forms, the ones he needed to fill and deliver today. Keeping busy. That was his way.

"You could get his son to clean it, seeing he's probably the one who did it." She meant Alvin, Curtis's son, with the heavy-lidded slit-eyes and unsmiling lips that said he'd already seen enough to know how much was wrong with the way things worked. Alvin, with his head so finely sculpted it might belong to a mannequin, his flat smudged eyebrows, as if thumbed on with finger paint. Alvin, with the beautiful voice that could go to falsetto. Harry heard him singing all around the building-upstairs through the floorboards, out in back when the windows were open.

He ran his knuckle over his mustache. He had a high forehead, and significant, dark eyebrows, a roof over each dark eye, black wavy hair that made you think of Xavier Cugat, south of the border. "There's no way to know it was Alvin."

"No," she said. She fiddled with her window display-small gourds in oranges and greens, striped and mottled, with odd ridges and nose-like protrusions, each distinctive, lying on a bed of brown oak leaves she'd collected from her yard, with Honky Jew Boy as their backdrop. "Could be one of his friends." She joined Harry in the office.

"You think someone would do that to the place they live?" He shuffled through the papers on his desk. "Now tell me why someone would do that to their home."

She made the sound in the throat, a sarcastic cough, that declares the question ridiculous, undeserving of an answer. She sat at her desk. "What are you? Anne Frank?"

Foot traffic picked up on the sidewalk. Buses pulled up at the stop near Levine's front door, letting people on, off. People changed places, all around the city, a big game of musical chairs. People passing on the bus looked at Harry's window, people getting off the bus saw it, too, carrying the questions and private thoughts away with them, into their own days, perhaps telling the story to someone else, what they'd seen, what it meant.

"Soaped windows, okay, they're an annoyance," Ilo said. "But they're in the range." She went back to the window. "This," she said, "is not in the range." People at the bus stop, whose gazes were usually fixed down the street, as if the act of watching summoned the bus, stole glances at the defaced window. They emerged from the customary isolation to talk among themselves. Heads shaking, shoulders shrugging, embarrassed by what the words said, unsure how to respond, whether to be caught looking.

"If you won't do something," Ilo said, "I will. You have to show them."

"Show them what?" Harry asked. "Show who?"

"That you're not afraid."

"Who said I'm afraid?" Everywhere he went, from home to work to home, it was women, telling him what he felt, what he was, what he wasn't, what kind of mistakes he was making. "I told you I'll take care of it."

"What do you mean 'take care of it'?" It was a good question. Preserve? Coddle?

"Clean it off," he said. They spoke to each other this way-clipped, devoid of commiseration, not wanting to feel. He pushed his chair back from the desk.

"You don't want to know who did it?" she asked.

"And once we know?"

"When we call the police, that's for them to decide."

He was on his way to the storage closet. His back was turned to her. "We're not calling the police."

"Oh, you." The gesture she threw after him, a silent, empty overhand pitch, was one of their mother's, imprinted early, meaning that an argument may have been lost but it wasn't over, that once again being overruled, censored, made powerless, left her wanting to fling something at the censor. "The cleaning stuff is in the storage closet," she called after him. "Or down in the basement." Curtis had used it last, when he washed the window the other day. She'd seen him working, making sure to catch every drip, checking for smudges both inside and out. She got up, as if she would follow Harry, to make sure he heard her, but the phone rang, a loud ring, echoing through the building.

"Hallo," she said, the accent on the first syllable, impatient, as if it were her hundredth of the morning. She pulled the order pad from the shelf, lifted a pencil from the gas-station jelly jar, settled into her chair and checked off boxes, filling numbers into columns. "Uh huh," she said. "Yup. Nope. Anything else?"

Oh, how she wanted to tell the customer what had happened, the window, the words, Harry's response versus hers, to tell on him, his dismissal of a weighty matter. But something stopped her. Loyalty. Obedience. Work ethic. "Twelve women's eights?" she said. "Navy or white?"

"Ilo," Harry yelled. He was in the storage closet. "Where's the bucket?" She didn't answer. He rifled, and finding nothing he wanted, backed out. And so, to the basement. There, Harry stored the extra shoe inventory. It was Curtis, mainly, who carried the shoe boxes down when a shipment came, sorting them by size, and arranging them on the shelves. The staircase was narrow, the steps uneven and worn, so balancing the stacks of eight or ten shoe boxes at a time, while watching one's footwork, was difficult, sweaty, and repetitive. Bringing them up again to restock the upstairs shelves was no picnic either. Still, Curtis did it without complaint, though Harry often apologized for it.

At the bottom of the stairs were two big inventory rooms, one on either side of the long hallway, and they were filled with long rows of high metal shelving, like the ones upstairs, and stacked with tan and white boxes, patiently waiting to be called to duty. Beyond those rooms was the furnace room, with the huge old boiler, its pipes reaching up and out through the basement ceiling.

Beyond the boiler were the rooms where he stored business records-some going back to the forties-and other mysterious detritus from the building on Jefferson that they had brought along but never looked at again. In those rooms, also, they stored the contents of Ruth's parents' house-moved here after both had died. Storage: the solution to the problem of not being able to part with something, but not being able to use it either. Upstairs, he could hear Ilo, the rollers of her chair on the wooden floor, the phone, her heels clicking as she moved from the desk to the file cabinet and back.


Excerpted from GRAND RIVER AND JOY by Susan Messer Copyright © 2009 by Susan Messer. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Grand River and Joy 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
DoctorJ46 More than 1 year ago
As a person who lived in the Detroit area during the 1967 riots, this book was especially meaningful. It is geographically and historically accurate. I would,though, recommend this book to anyone who is interested in a well-written and gripping story that illuminates relationships in general and race relations in particular in America. Our book club read it and had one of the most interesting discussions ever! I have recommended this to all of my friends and family and would love to read other stories and books by Susan Messer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If you are interested in Jewish traditions, this book is one for you. If you are looking for a book that discusses, even in a fictional way, the build up and actual Detroit riots from the 60's you will be sorely disappointed as only the last 50 pages or so touch on the subject.