soupy sales big

The kid’s comedy show “Lunch with Soupy Sales” launched in 1953 on WXYZ-TV in Detroit.

The first time I ever heard of Soupy Sales was when he came to the Farmington Civic in 1999 to perform with a couple of  ’50s Detroit TV stars Johnny Ginger and Mary Welch, and at the time I just thought he was some old guy with a vaguely sordid air about him.

But combing around for YouTube clips today, I really regret that I never saw his show, as a kid or a grown-up, because this man delights me. His manner is easy and charming, his smile is adorable, he laughs at his own jokes, his laugh is contagious. No kids’ program is like this anymore – zany and free and just for chuckles, unbridled by educational messages or moral lessons.

Here’s a great clip of Soupy Sales and Pookie the Lion dancing along to a Little Stevie Wonder song. Watch this a few times today, OK?

Books lead you to strange places. After learning about the cauldron that boiled Mad Anthony Wayne’s exhumed bones a few weeks ago, I was drawn to learn more about the young Revolutionary War general and his role in the settling of the city of Detroit.

After searching for out-of-print paperbacks on Amazon for a while, I remembered that I live next door to an especially good public library, and I put on a sweater and marched myself over there. When I arrived, though, I learned that all of the library’s books on Mad Anthony are part of the library’s non-circulating Heritage Collection.

So I slipped into the Heritage Room, where I failed to find the biography I was looking for but managed to become distracted in no time by the modest but well-curated selection of books on the Detroit area, the state of Michigan and the Great Lakes region at large.

michillaneous

A corner of the shelves in The Heritage Room is given over to the big binders that organize the city’s archive of newspapers and vital records, where my first instinct was to search for family names – specifically, an entry for my aunt and uncle, who were married in Farmington in the early ’60s.  Not that I need to – we have their wedding album – but it’s an affirmative comfort to see things on the public register. My aunt and uncle are dead now, and they didn’t just belong to me and my family; they were part of the world.

After fruitless leafing through the marriage books, my eyes were drawn to a fat blue binder, with collected news items about Farmington indicated on the spines: People; Land; Churches; Underground Railroad.

According to the Farmington Library’s online history index, an underground railroad station in Farmington is “part reality, part speculation,” but Mrs. Lillian Drake Avery, writing for the Michigan Historical Society in 1915, writes vividly (if anecdotally) about the business of freeing Southern slaves at a time when many people who lived through it were still alive.

first baptist church

Mrs. Avery writes that Farmington was “the principal station in Oakland County … and the conductor was Nathan Power, or ‘Uncle Nathan,’ as he was universally called.” She continues:

I have met only one man, now living, who personally harbored the runaways, Mr. Palmer Sherman … went out to his barn one morning in June and was considerably astonished to find thirteen negroes camping on his freshly gathered hay … It seemed that Uncle Nathan had more people than he could take care of and had directed this party to Mr. Sherman’s barn.

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… to Milwaukee – America’s German Athens. It’s our own little Oktoberfest, in which we enjoy the fall foliage along the I94 corridor, perpetrate merriment, visit the Golden Goat Bridge at Apple Holler, brunch heartily and commune with the spirit of the celebrated Captain Pabst.

We are snaking our way through Indiana now and enjoying Simon Schama on audio book and dramatic cloud cover, portentous of our upcoming epically delightful vacation.

Yes, I am a vegetarian. Yes, my dad is a meat magnate.

He’s Sy Ginsberg, President and co-owner of Detroit’s own United Meat & Deli, wholesale purveyors of gourmet deli meats including Sy Ginsberg’s Corned Beef and Gold Label Pastrami. He is a fixture of America’s Jewish deli scene and Detroit’s Jewish community. The smell of my childhood is garlic and peppercorns and brine; as kids, visiting the factory, my dad would take us into the refrigerator and sneak us pickles out of giant red barrels. We took calls at home for him from Willie Horton and Joan Nathan. Sometimes we’d see big semi trucks with his name on them and squeal.

I stopped eating the meat that paid for my life a long time ago, for an assortment of reasons, ethical and personal.  But I don’t begrudge my dad the work he does; I am beyond proud of him, as a deli folk hero, as a man of the city, as an entrepreneur, as a hard worker. He’s incredible, and I’ve always wanted to write a book about him, or the history of corned beef, or a memoir about my childhood (“Willie Horton Called Again!: The Amy Elliott Story”) or an imagined retelling of my dad’s childhood in the golden days of magnificent, industrious Detroit, son of a red-headed Russian Jewish mobster and a comely deli waitress from Kentucky. That is not at all like Middlesex.

I guess it’s not too late, but David Sax has in part beaten me to it with his book Save the Deli, a valentine to the traditional Jewish deli, a mythical place where no one orders a sandwich on white bread or with any condiments besides a little bit of spicy mustard. The book features a whole chapter about Detroit deli heavyweights, Sy Ginsberg included, and it comes out on Monday, October 19.

save the deli

Mr. Sax’s publicist is pretty awesome and he has been all over the media world in recent weeks. Some of my favorite selections include a lovely ode to the deli in the New York Times (October 7) and a charming and funny Robert Siegel piece on All Things Considered (October 13).

You can try Sy Ginsberg’s Corned Beef at many local delis, including Mudgie’s in Corktown, any Bread Basket Deli, Hygrade Deli on Michigan Avenue and, of course, Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, where David Sax and my dad will be on hand for a book signing in late November (date TBA).

Oh, and I found this, from VITAL Source’s 2009 excursion to Detroit for the credit-crash auto-industry-collapse edition of the North American International Auto Show. In a bitter twist of fate (or perhaps the consequence of our hubris), our magazine ended up folding before we could print the story. But we did get a nice video series out of it.

I wish I were eating a pickle right now.

In the six weeks or so that I’ve been back in metro Detroit, I’ve been spending at least an hour a day in the woods, walking and thinking (or trying not to think too much).

From my apartment, it’s a five minute walk to a steel-caged footbridge that carries me over I-696 to Woodland Hills, a rough, root-knotted walking trail looped around a brambly 74-acre nature park. At the back of the park, just past a trail heavy with goldenrod and dogwood, there’s a marshy pond, goose families, and a few no swimming signs.

bridge

shaded path

bench by the pond

Suburbs have long seemed like no-places to me — invented miles of strip malls, office parks, curlicue’d subdivisions with no sidewalks, their continuity interrupted by perpetually widening expressway corridors. The suburbs, especially when I lived in the suburbs, were inconvenient, alienating and colorless at their best — at their worst, resource-sucking, psyche-ravaging holes in space.

But Farmington Hills is my hometown and, for now, the no-place I call my own, and although I felt strange and scared to move back here, I am learning to reconsider the suburbs — or rather this suburb — as an honest-to-goodness place. It’s a complicated reckoning, especially in Detroit, where every attempt at so-called normal life seems infinitesimally examined.

berries

There’s a lot that has dazzled me about Farmington Hills and environs, a freshness that comes as a luxury of my many years elsewhere. My small suburban apartment complex is unquestionably the most diverse place I have ever lived, and the sprawling aisles of ethnic food at grocery stores — and the languages I hear there — are dizzying. And I still see good movies and good art shows and hear good music and hang out with smart, creative people — my biggest fear about leaving a “real” city and moving to a satellite suburb in a huge, fragmented metropolis.

But my search for a spiritual core of suburbia has taken me time and time again to several local parks, all of which I call, in casual conversation, “the woods.”

park blight

The woods are part of the natural history of a place and reminder of the human history around it that I often want to deny the suburbs. In Heritage Park – Farmington’s 200-acre jewel — there’s a pet cemetary from the 1930s where the Spicer family dogs are buried, near an English-style countryside manor, built in 1926, where Eleanor Spicer lived until her death in 1982. The land that’s Heritage Park now was her farm — she rode horses, raised sheep and often referred to her land as “the only unspoiled place” in the city.

(Aside: stumbling around the internet for some basic fact-checking has led me to this excellent guide to historic Farmington buildings and sites, organized by architectural style.)

Farmington’s abundance of megaplex movie theaters and big box-anchored shopping centers belies the city’s history. The area was first settled by Quakers; Farmington founded a post office and organized a township in 1827. My parents live a few suburbs over in Novi (apocryphally, the number six — No.VI — train stop); a half-mile from their house, nestled between two industrial parks, is a little farmstead cemetery started in the mid-1840s by the Knapp family. Just past the graveyard you can hook a right into Rotary Park, a 67-acre swath of barely-tended woodland along the Middle Rogue. I walk my mom’s border collies down a trail crashed with deadfall and overgrown with water grasses; the dogs like to race down the trail ahead of me and leap through the brush into the river.

huldah blanchard

dogs in the river sized

Today, Novi is the mall capital of Oakland County, with the Fountain Walk and Twelve Oaks and the Town Center causing immediate aneurysm to anyone who finds herself at the 696 and Novi Road interchange. Then again, my brother lives in Novi on a gravel road and has watched herds of deer (and an occasional coyote) caravan through his backyard.

The woods are also, like the suburbs, a kind of no-place. These parks seem less like parks to me than slices of Farmington unstuck in time, shaken loose from the tended lawns and chain restaurants and allowed to be what they have always been. Just as the strip malls I’ve known in Michigan don’t look too different from the strip malls I’ve known in Iowa, Wisconsin, or Indiana, I call all of the nature trails I love — Woodland Hills, the river bluff trails in Milwaukee, even those modest few acres that buffer my elementary school from the subdivision behind it — the woods. And all of them make me feel basically okay about wherever I am.

marshes

branches on the river sized

wade in the water

What am I going to do during the winter? Maybe I should learn to cross-country ski.

This weekend, Detroit celebrates the grand opening of The Accidental Mummies of Guanajuato, a world-premiere exhibition of 36 corpses that were naturally mummified in their tombs about 100 years ago. The exhibition at the Detroit Science Center — aggressively promoted as a highly educational experience — will delve into mummy science, forensics and facial reconstructions and Mexican culture and death lore.

mummies

It’s the first time the mummies have left Guanajuato. They will travel to major museums throughout the country over the next three years, and it’s a coup to have them in Detroit first. They’re also controversial and of course creepy as goddamn (but Mexicans celebrate the dead! Chill, America!), but in a post-Body Worlds society, can anything really shock and awe anymore?

On hand for the grand opening tonight is Mexico’s 6’5” former cowboy president Vicente Fox, former mayor of Guanajuato and all-around strapping, mustachioed ranchero.

vicente fox

I was pretty excited to learn that Vicente Fox was going to be here, but then someone told me that he comes to Detroit all the time.

Also on deck this weekend: a flea market at Historic Fort Wayne to benefit the Detroit Historical Society. Tours of the Fort and the military museums it houses will be available. We hear there is also a bake sale. Fort Wayne, built during the 1840s to protect the United States from a possible British siege via Canada, has never seen a shot fired in anger and has mostly been used as a mustering center, garrison post and supply depot. It’s named for “Mad” Anthony Wayne, the Revolutionary War hero who led the capture of Detroit in 1796.  (He died weeks later in Pennsylvania after contracting gout. Fun fact: he was exhumed and his bones were boiled in a cauldron that is now on display in Erie’s Historical Museum. Creepy as goddamn. But kind of awesome. Halloween road trip?)

mad anthony wayne

I’ve never been to Fort Wayne, and I look forward to seeing this mildly important Detroit landmark for the first time with the added flourish of lots of junk for sale.

(EDIT: Detroit’s Fort Wayne is also, maybe, sort of, haunted.)

Finally, we will not be able to make this show, but we recommend you do: the fantastic keyboard pop trio Lightning Love plays tonight at the Blind Pig in Ann Arbor to celebrate the premiere of a new music video. They’re so pretty! Go there!

lightning love

(Photo by Trever Long)

This is what I love about working on this podcast: meetings of great minds. Illustrator/live artist/smart guy/mystery man Dwellephant dropped by the WMSE studios to talk to Mark Metcalf about art, advertising, graffiti, working on a book with Justin Shady, setting goals for the future and why he trys anything once.

Mark reveals himself to be an anti-capitalist anarchist, Dwell reveals himself to be a little OCD about cleanliness, and everyone has a really good time.

You can listen online at ThirdCoast Digest or subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

More interviews with illustrators and artists to come in the next couple of weeks!

On Sunday we went to Richard Barnes’s lecture on Animal Logic, his installation at the Cranbrook Institute of Science (part of the Artology series, a collaboration presenting “visual and experiential examples of the ways in which art and science frequently parallel or complement each other,” which will hold over creative-types while the Cranbrook Art Museum is closed for renovations).

The photographer gave a comprehensive introduction to his life as a photographer — working on assignment, documenting archeological excavations for universities and museums — and as an installation artist. His work, at its most basic, is about objects in space: buildings (like the Unabomber’s cabin, a series that is not on display in this exhibition but which Barnes discussed extensively in his lecture), tools, fetishized objects of trades and professions, the body as object and objects on display. There’s a sculptural element to this work — something formal.

exhibit a

But there’s also something intensely interrogatory at the heart of his work; in the Unabomber series, Barnes explores the building on trial, the building as an object of interrogation. And in a series on the excavation of the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco — built over a Gold Rush-era cemetary — Barnes explores what goes inside of museums and what stays outside (or underneath) them and questions the authority of the museum in preserving, displaying and creating our past.

legion of honor

(I’m reminded of a recent conversation about the British Museum, which a friend described as hilarious, and how the artifacts, although they should probably be returned to the nations they were looted from, are in the British Musuem to stay, and unintentionally create a shadow museum — a permanent exhibition on the history of British colonialism. But that’s another blog.)

Animal Logic is about museums, too — specifically, natural history museums — and what goes on underneath them, in this case in a more figurative sense, as the artist explores museum objects (mostly taxidermy) in transition, or in storage. The museum is a theater, and Barnes allows us to go backstage with him to see the rigging.

animal logic

The exhibition is like a Victorian cabinet of curiosities: disarticulated skulls, bird nests made out of trash, beheaded mallards, tiny stuffed parakeets so bright they look like they’ve been painted, installed on their backs with their skinny legs in the air. (Further reading on Animal Logic should include the New York Times’ piece on “New Antiquarians” and the Morbid Anatomy blog and the artwork of Cassie Smith.)

It’s a critical survey of the way we see nature from inside an institution, but with the incorporation of “Murmur,” a 2007 multimedia installation about starling migration in Rome, the exhibition takes on a layer of graveyard meditation, too: the defiance of death through the eternity of taxidermy (hints of humanity’s romance with ancient Egypt, and Barnes worked there on a dig with Yale); the creepy liveliness of a mounted stag’s head; the second death of a stuffed specimen taken off display; with the starlings, aspirations of eternal return.

New photographs and specimens for the exhibition were taken behind-the-scenes from Cranbrook’s extensive ornithology collection, and it’s amazing to go upstairs after spending some time with Animal Logic and see the Science Institute dazzlingly refreshed. Richard Barnes makes art from artifact; upstairs in the science museum, the artifacts on display— dinosaur bones, stuffed peacocks, pinned butterflies—look curiously like art.

bugs and butterflies

Barnes also has corresponding exhibitions at the University of Michigan Museum of Art (through December) and Uof M’s Institute of Humanities (through October 30). For another perspective on photography, the Detroit Institute of Arts hosts a comprehensive study of Richard Avedon’s fashion photography through January 17. If objects in space are more your style, Breeding Ground continues at the Museum of New Art through November 21.

Animal Logic runs through January 3. Next up in the Artology series, Cape Farewell (hint: it’s about climate change. Fun!) opens January 13.

neidermeyerbetty and francine

Dear Mad Men fans, Milwaukeeans, and friends of Mark Metcalf:

One day this summer, I called Mark Metcalf to confirm our regular weekly recording session for the podcast we produce together.

“Uh, I don’t — I can’t make it this week,” he said. “I’m in California. It’s kind of — sudden.”

I was worried that someone had died unexpectedly, so I didn’t ask any questions and asked him to call me to reschedule.

Several days later, I found out through Milwaukee’s film grapevine that Mark had landed a role on Mad Men. And after some gentle persuading from his friendly senior editor, Mark agreed to write about his experiences shooting the show for ThirdCoast Digest. (Read “Mark Metcalf does Mad Men” here.)

And finally — finally! — tonight is the night. The man you know and love from Seinfeld, Animal House, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that Twisted Sister video and, of course, Backstage with Mark Metcalf makes a guest appearance as the Mayor of Tarrytown, the city with development plans for that reservoir in Ossining that Betty’s all riled up about.

Mark, ever modest, claims that his costume and hair cut did all the work. I can’t wait to see that three-piece suit!

As a youth, I spent my college summer breaks at home in Michigan, working at Guitar Center in Southfield by day and storming M14 by night to get to Ann Arbor, where my friends at the University of Michigan smoked pot on their rooftops, watched strange films, worked at coffee shops and radio stations and led bold charges into late-night escapades with exhilarating regularity.

I came of age in Ann Arbor, where the summer streets rang out with champagne and Interpol, philosophies of war and sex and Stevie Wonder issued drunkenly forth, broken Wurlitzer pianos were drunkenly played, and in the mornings we all stretched out on the plush Kentucky bluegrass on the diag, cells throbbing in the sun.

My friend John was the commander-in-chief of Ann Arbor when I came to stay, navigating the city’s waters and one-way-streets on a course of maximum mystery and dazzle. In the first summers, we spent a lot of time with John’s roommate Sean, a skinny eccentric who ordered ginseng gum by the case and kept a room full of toy keyboards.  For Christmas one year, John gave me Sean’s album of holiday carols, rendered in cascading synths and yelps. I still play it every Advent.

Sean got loopier over the years and I didn’t see much of him, but it was rumored that he was sleeping on benches and the WCBN couch, taking a lot of hallucinogens and composing strange and gigantic sidewalk chalk murals.

I learned, eventually, that Sean (a.k.a. Jib Kidder) was a folk art fixture in Ann Arbor. John lives in Detroit now, and this weekend, over YouTube videos and hunting season High Life at his house in Corktown, we talked about Sean and his life in San Francisco, where he makes music and mind-boggling internet video remixes. John says he is gaining ground with modern dance choreographers as a favorite musical selection.

In a body of work that is prolific and cosmic and bizarre, this might be his opus: “Windowdipper,” the YouTube dancing video to beat all dancing videos. Maybe it was just the hunting season High Life, but this video gave my brain a good stretch and a surge of endorphins.

Seriously. This video is amazing.

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