A Place of Reversion
A PLACE OF REVERSION
Issue No. 9 – September 2015
Paul and I go to the McDonald’s to eat. It’s evening. The sun’s low. The McDonald’s is busy, crowded. Compared to the rest of the area it feels abnormal. Its parking lot overflows —cars park along the streets, in next-door parking lots. They expanded this location just a year ago: a bigger floorplan, a second floor, too. The line goes out the door. I’m not sure we’ll find a seat. They put in a PlayPlace for the kids. There are five cashiers at the counter, calling Next as fast as possible. There used to be land out behind the original McDonald’s lot too that they bought out, an alleyway and a long building. They tore it down and turned it into parking spaces.
We wait in line and get our food and go up to the second floor. We find a spot by a window, just vacated. We’re waiting for the sun to go down. From our spot I can see all up and down Grand River Ave. Across the street is the Food Centre, its small square windows a murky grey. People are parking in its lot and jaywalking over to the McD.’s. The food line goes out the door and down the Grand River sidewalk.
I bought the house here in Brightmoor soon after being assigned to Detroit. It was cheaper to buy a house than anything else. I figured I would be here a while.
We’ve become nocturnal these past months, Paul and I. We live in the same house. We wake up late afternoon to the sun slowly descending and pack up our equipment into Paul’s Cadillac hearse, then go to eat. We get free food at McD.’s by flashing our employee IDs. We work for McD.’s — corporate employees, in a way. The cashiers here know us by name.
The people in line outside don’t see us. The window is a looking-pane, a separating device. I scan the line. I have to make a visor of my hand to block the sun from my eyes. In line they’re all facing forwards, eyes level. Some of them talk with who they’re with. I see a few families, fathers and mothers and kids. The sun is low and orange and makes their shadows go across the parking lot. There must be a glare on the other side of the window for whoever looks up. People also leaving the McDonald’s and jaywalking to the far side of the street with paper bags in their hands or trays of drinks.
The news refers to Paul and I as the “Detroit Banner Bunch” — in spirit, at least. We go around the city hanging McDonald’s banners. We hang them at night. The banners say McDonald’s. No one knows it’s Paul and I who hang them; our identities are unknown. They don’t even know it’s just us two. The hanging locations — the “spots” — are assigned to us. We wear balaclavas to keep ourselves hidden. It’s entirely illegal, but Detroit law enforcement doesn’t have the resources or the energy to track us down or do anything about it.
McDonald’s has kept its ties to us concealed. They publicly deny involvement in the affair regularly, sticking to their guns despite journalistic pressure. It’s just the two of us, Paul and I. Small operation. We’re the only ones who do this sort of thing anywhere, this large-scale illegal advertising. It’s a one-of-a-kind setup. Detroit’s the only place it would probably be able to work. We hang the banners at night. We’ve been going for six months — Detroit’s a big city. We do maybe three spots a night, most with multiple banners.
We’re drinking coffees, black. We wake up in the afternoon and use the living room at our house to do basic workouts — push-ups and such. Then we come to McDonald’s. There’s a case of bottled water in the hearse’s trunk for if we get thirsty on the job, beside our banners and ropes and drills and harnesses. We wait for the sun to go down and hit three or so spots a night. We drill into concrete, brick, bolt in the ties for our banners. We finish in the early a.m. and come back to McDonald’s for a meal. The Grand River location is 24 h. Then Paul takes us home. This is our routine every day.
I bought the house at a bank in Pittsburgh. It was foreclosed, reclaimed by the bank. A representative took me into his office and showed me the photos and I bought it. I signed on a line and they transferred a sum from the account number I gave them. McDonald’s paid for the whole thing. He gave me two keys and told me good luck finding the place.
When the Grand River Ave. McDonald’s expanded it opened up a side area, a side entrance, separate from the main restaurant. This side place was a prototype. It was a part of the building but you had to enter from a different entrance. It was partitioned.
They didn’t have a name for it. You walked in and it wasn’t bright and colourful like the rest of the restaurant. It had grey walls. It was two enter/exit doors and a rectangle room, and besides a few windows that was it. You had to leave the doors to go to the restaurant entrance from outside.
You didn’t get food on this side. There was a counter with three receptacles. There was a plastic pane wall-to-wall on top of the counter like the kind you see across the cashier at convenience stores to guard the ladies that stood behind it. There were big dips in the counter at the three receptacles so you could slide things under the pane. They also put three circle microphone things in the pane that you talked into to talk past it. There were signs over the receptacles labelled Receiving and Drop-Off and Pick-Up, respectively. Ladies stood behind the counter and pane at each receptacle and talked through the microphones.
I wasn’t here by the time they installed this side area. I got here after it was built. I learned how it works through people who were here. Mainly through Paul.
This side area off the McDonald’s is open 9 a.m.–5 p.m., not like the 24-h. restaurant area. You come into it and you go to the Receiving receptacle and you tell the lady your information. You tell her your information and she puts it into her computer and tells you to stand x feet away and she takes your picture. This is what happens if you’re new. Then she goes to the back and brings out a bag for you. She prints off a card for you with your identity information and the picture, an ID card. You take the bag she slides under the pane for free and you bring it home and you open it. You receive it. You get it for free if you’re new.
And you open the bag at home and inside are these pieces of cotton, chemical-smelling, these large squares, nicely manufactured just for you. You only get a few nice big squares if it’s your first time. The bag has McDonald’s written across the front with the golden arches. And you look in the bag and you see there’s also a small spool of string and some needles and pins, and a booklet. And you read the booklet. The cotton squares you get if you’re new are usually plain, black or white or grey. And you look at the booklet and it has instructions for putting together the pieces of cotton which you realize are marked with chalk outline, the cotton squares, for you to put the pieces together with the string and the needles and it tells you where to cut and how to make it look proper. It tells you to do this and put it in the bag and bring the bag back. And the bag you realize has a place to re-seal it so you can give it back to a lady at the counter.
Or if not a shirt then maybe a sock or a scarf or a sweater, and the bag will have the material necessary for that. And they’re in styles you don’t need complicated machinery to do, that you don’t need advanced collars on or something. They give the more complicated things to the people who aren’t new.
You realize there’s a bar code on the outside of the bag and you bring the bag back to the McDonald’s and slide it under the pane at the receptacle that says Drop-Off and the lady there takes it. She scans it and tells you Thank you and tells you to expect something in the mail in the next few days.
McDonald’s is one of the last thriving businesses in Detroit. Most businesses are boarded up or else blocked off with fencing. Unemployment is high. People have been steadily leaving the city. The ones who remain have ties or don’t know what else to do but just wait.
The sun outside the McDonald’s window is going down slowly. People jaywalking. People sitting on the little concrete curbs in the parking lots rifling through paper bags. People sitting on concrete benches on Grand River’s sidewalks.
We hang the banners at night and get home at around 4 a.m. usually, something like that. From there Paul goes out. I stay home and he goes. He has business to do at 4 a.m.
The shops around this neighbourhood are mostly vacated. There’s the Food Centre with its pharmacy and USPS inside and the McDonald’s and that’s it. Everything else is all boarded up. You go down the street and it’s all plywood painted grey or else white. You go down a sidestreet and it’s more grey with sometimes colourful sprayed graffiti.
Our banners have holes in the corners for rope or cables, with high-quality grommets in them. They’re made with industrial-level vinyl, shipped from the McD.’s corporate HQ at Oak Brook, IL. They hold well; as far as I know no banner we’ve put up has come down unless it was intentionally bothered with.
The shops out the window on Grand River Ave. are shells of their previous forms. The homes around here, too. People leaving homes and the homes being retaken by the Earth — reverting to nature. A more primitive, unconstructed, uncultivated time. Windows broken, barriers undone.
We drive in Paul’s Cadillac hearse. It’s better for us than my sedan. The bed holds our all our banners and gear.
At 4 a.m. Paul goes out to see his “boys”. He calls them his “boys” — nothing else. We don’t talk about what he does. He goes out and a few hours later he comes home. He’s busy his whole day, from wake to sleep. We both of us fall asleep before noon.
We’ve had our food and our coffee and we go to the first spot, a highway overpass. It’s just after sundown. Paul parks his hearse at the gas station right off the corner nearby, around the back of the station attendant’s little building. There’s a smallish alley-like area here. He parks it so there’s quick and easy getaway if we need it. We probably won’t, but still. By now we park for quick getaway without thinking.
The overpass has concrete side-barriers and a chain-link fence on top. It’s an easy tie-up. We have two banners, one for each side of the thing, facing the highway both ways. Paul and I get out and go to the trunk and pack my backpack with the banners and rope and we put on our masks.
We walk across the asphalt, me with my bag. We’re outfitted in all black. The streetlights are bright enough to make out the cracks in the pavement, the weeds sprouting up, the places where the ground’s not level.
With the tall fence on both sides the easiest thing to do is just climb across the outside of the bridge. Paul used to be afraid of heights like this. He’s grown accustomed to them by now. This height’s not bad anyways. At most, the overpass is 10–12 ft. off the highway. And cars on the highway are few during the day; they’re even fewer now.
The bridge has an outcropping steel beam that goes its whole length. We stand on the beam. I go first with my pack and Paul follows. We hold onto the chain-link with our hands and hang off over the highway, working across. The fence and the steel beam are both rusty under the yellow streetlights, the steel’s paint chipping in parts. We’re wearing gloves.
We get to a spot in the bridge’s middle and Paul comes behind me and takes the stuff out of my pack. We tie two corners up to the fence. We lean off the rope with our weight to make sure it’s tight.
We repeat on the other side. Tomorrow a representative will drive by to make sure it’s visible. We drive off.
I met Paul my first day in Detroit. I followed a map and drove to the house I’d bought from the bank. I arrived in the morning, just before noon. When I unlocked the front door there were people in the living room: a woman and a little baby boy. They asked who I was and I said I’d bought the house. The woman called her husband.
What the banks don’t tell you is that these foreclosed homes haven’t been evicted.
They were the previous owners, still living there. It was Paul and his wife and his little boy. They had nowhere else to go. They were one of many in the neighbourhood who lost their homes. They had neighbours whose homes were bought also; they knew their turn was coming sooner or later.
Paul said his wife’s name was Bianca, his son’s Paul Junior. He said they called the kid “P.J.” for short.
He told Bianca to pack up so they didn’t have to inconvenience me longer than necessary.
Bianca asked if they could just eat before they left. I didn’t know what else to say.
The lady at Drop-Off takes your bag and they ship it off and look at the completed product and make an analysis of its quality, and that’s how they determine what you’ll get back from that. And if you do an okay job you get something. You get a letter in the mail and it tells you your analysis and if you should go back to the counter at the McDonald’s with its Receiving and Drop-Off and Pick-Up. If you do an okay job you get something at the receptacle where it says Pick-Up.
And with your photo ID card now you have the option to go back to the original Receiving receptacle and give the lady there your ID under the pane and tell her how many bags or what size of bag you want. They have these catalogues you can ask for where it has all the types of things they give you in a bag. And you choose the bag you want but this time because you’re not new it’s not a free sample or anything like that anymore. You make a deposit to get the bag this time. And the lady tells you that if you do an okay job when they look and analyze the quality of the product you’ll get your deposit back. And depending on the quality of what you drop off you’ll get your deposit and then some. But if you do a bad job you lose the deposit. This is the risk.
If you do good when they analyze then within a few days you go and bring your ID to the Pick-Up receptacle at the counter and give your lady your ID and you can get a cheque with the amount they determined your product has earned. But here’s the thing: if you want, instead of taking a cheque which has money on it, McDonald’s has the option that you can get four times the amount you’d receive on a cheque as McDonald’s store credit. They put the credit on your McDonald’s spending account, which is linked to your ID card. So if you choose, you can get that store credit amount put on your ID and then go out and just walk around the building to the regular restaurant entrance and buy food for yourself or whoever else, with what they just put on your account.
I got to the house in Brightmoor, Detroit just before noon and the wife Bianca made us all lunch.
Paul lost his job about a year before I got here, and it was uphill ever since. He used to work at the funeral home downtown, but business was poor. People were leaving the city; they were dying abroad. Those who did die here didn’t have families that could afford the service. The state would sometimes pick up their slack. But sometimes you’d see a body wash up on the river shore.
Paul would go in to work in a suit. He still had the thing, up in his closet. He didn’t have occasion to wear it anymore, really.
He had a “friends and family” discount at the home. He’d buried lots of his friends there.
The owner finally decided to pack up and leave like everyone else. Those last months before packing up were a deficit. But Paul stayed with him until the end. He said to Paul he was sorry, but what else is there to do. As consolation he gave Paul the Cadillac hearse.
Paul and I have become friends these past six months. It was natural, unavoidable. We talk while we work, about things — anything. We flow.
We hit abandoned buildings, mainly. Hang the banners off the sides. Sometimes we hang them on billboards, sometimes on bridges. The spots are assigned by McD.’s. Once a week a McD.’s representative comes to town and drives through to make sure we hit all the scheduled spots okay.
Twice a month we go to the separate side-area of the McDonald’s with its grey paint and its counter and we go to the Pick-Up window. This is where we get paid for being the “Banner Bunch”.
Paul and I play CDs when we drive. We have a whole collection of CDs in a rack in the hearse’s trunk, beside our equipment. There must be a hundred. The collection is Paul’s — another giveaway from an abandoning store owner, a local music shop. We have a ritual where we don’t choose what we play. We go to the trunk and lean in and grab one from the rack at random.
And now tonight’s our last two scheduled spots. We must’ve hit 500 spots in our six months. 1,000 banners easily. We do it nightly. You can’t now drive more than five minutes without seeing McDonald’s hanging somewhere. The running joke between Paul and I is that soon people will start calling this city “McDonald’s, MI”. Tomorrow I go back to Pittsburgh.
We’re at the top of the Marriott downtown. We drove over from the overpass. We just bolted up the two mammoth banners they gave us for the place, drilled holes into the building’s concrete. One facing west, one east. If you act like you know what you’re doing you can go through the lobby downstairs to the elevator real quick. The banners wrap around almost the whole sides of the curved tower. They flap back and forth against the building’s glass in the wind.
“That’s it,” I tell Paul.
“That’s it man,” he says. “The Banner Bunch.”
Paul told me earlier that he was taking the night off tonight, that he wouldn’t be spending it with the boys. He told them he was taking a break, just for one night.
We hop up onto the Marriott’s ledge and swing our legs over, facing west towards Brightmoor, the two of us. It’s still dark out.
“It was a good thing,” I say. “These months.”
We take off our masks.
When you come by the Grand River McD.’s during the day there are two lines out the door, not just one; one for the restaurant and one for the side area. People lining up to return their finished products at the Drop-Off receptacle. They come with bags, totes, knapsacks, wheely carts. Carloads of completed product. The people flock to receive, to produce, turn in, get their McDonald’s store credit. The trans- and saturated fats, the savouriness. They do it unconsciously.
Before the Grand River expansion they’d do nothing — sit on sidewalk benches on streets or else sit in living rooms watching TV with whatever reception their CRTs picked up.
After the deposit return they get paid pennies per article. To make anything reasonable you need to produce hundreds, thousands of articles a week. Tens of thousands. You line up with truckloads of the stuff, to turn it in. These people collect their children, nieces, nephews, set them up in living rooms. Whole organizations, collaborations of them. They pound out hundreds of articles a day, pile them up by the couch and out in the garage. Shirts and socks and scarves, sweaters and jeans and underwear. Rooms that smell of chemicals; aldehydes and ketones. The smell of freshly machined cotton. It keeps them occupied and it keeps them fed.
Twice a week McDonald’s has their semi come by to exchange all the product. They back the truck right up to the building and it all happens without being seen from outside, behind the shield of the truck and the restaurant walls. They take away the finished product and drop off more uncompleted. The exchange goes unseen.
They’ve already made expansions to other McDonald’s locations in Detroit, implemented it elsewhere. Perhaps they’ll have the setup go abroad, like everything else from Detroit — the cars of the past, the people of the present. It’ll be natural, unavoidable.
About a week ago Paul told me Bianca was pregnant again.
“B. was pushin’ me for another,” Paul said. “I was worried about the money we got. I got nothin’ else lined up after this banner thing. She was tryin’ a get me to cave, pushin’ for one more.”
“Then I guess you caved,” I said.
“Yeah,” Paul said. “I stopped worryin’ ’n’ caved.”
“Congratulations, buddy. That’s great.”
We’re now sitting up on the edge of the hotel building, looking out westward over the city. Even with the nighttime darkness I can see some of our banners in the Detroit streetlights, across the city.
“How many you think we put up?” Paul asks.
“A thousand, easy,” I say.
“. . .”
“. . .”
“It was a good thing alright,” I tell Paul.
The banner underneath us flaps against our feet.
“I have something for you,” I say. I take two cigars out of my breast pocket and give one to Paul.
“What’s this for?” Paul says.
“You know,” I say. “The baby and all.”
“You don’t gotta do that.”
“I can take it back if you don’t want it,” I joke.
“Hell no man. I ain’t gonna say no.”
We unwrap the cigars and I give Paul my lighter. It glows orange-red in the dark and casts upward shadows on his face. I light mine.
We sit and inhale and let the smoke rest on our tongues. The flavour is sweet and musky and on the smoke it’s just right.
We sit there and wait, both of us unthinking.
The original plan set up by McD.’s was to just have me do the jobs alone, putting up the banners all over. They sent me alone. I had my sedan and I was to use that to drive over Detroit. But I called HQ up after Bianca’s lunch and they said that if that’s what I needed, then sure, they’d have another contracted employee.
So I said to HQ to put Paul on the payroll. They had me give the phone to Paul and he told them his information.
The sun starts to come up behind us. The city below is fading into grey.
“What’ll you do after this,” Paul says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “Whatever they have for me. . . . Something corporate.”
I look over at Paul. The sun is grey-yellow on his back.
“Come with me,” I say to Paul. “We’ll get you a job in Pittsburgh or somewhere. Anywhere.”
“I dunno man,” Paul says.
He looks at me and the light from behind us shadows his face, its ruts and divets and crags. His weathered face.
“McDonald’s isn’t any way to raise a kid — two kids,” I say. “It’s no diet.”
“P.J.’ll be right fine,” Paul says. “McD.’s is what my momma raised me on. B., too. We turned out right fine.”
“We’ll put you in school. I’ll find a school for you. You’ll go back to school. Or I’ll get you a job with McDonald’s. I can get you something.”
We’d finished our cigars and put the little nubbins on the ledge in the space between us.
“We’ll get you back into classes. College classes,” I say.
Paul used to go to a school in the area, after high school. He’d told me it was called something something Ford.
“I’m too old for that now, man,” Paul says.
“Bullshit,” I say.
I feel the sun’s warmth on the back of my neck.
“When I go back I’ll take you with me,” I say.
Paul laughs. “Okay man.”
“Serious,” I say. “What’ll you do after this? Wait for the next guy to come buy your house?”
But the homework interfered with the time Paul spent with his boys. There was one day when Paul let himself be pressured into a night with the boys. He skipped class.
“We can find something for you to do,” I say. “There must be something you’ve always wanted to do.”
And when Paul got the bill in the mail halfway through first term, the money was tight. Those days his only income was from the funeral home. Bianca was pregnant with P.J. already then, too. He realized money was something he’d have to think about. He didn’t want to have to constantly worry. Soon, one skipped class became two. The rest is history.
We’d watched the boxes of banners grow small each month. We’d get our monthly shipment FedEx’d to us from Oak Brook, IL and piled on the driveway, and we’d spend the evening packing the boxes into the garage. They ate up the whole space, with only thin passageways in-between.
On Sundays we’d go to church, Paul and Bianca and P.J. and I. All of us and everyone else all sitting and standing and kneeling, all facing forwards as one. I was never very religious, but it’s something you do here — hold onto your faith devoutly.
“McDonald’s, MI,” Paul says beside me on the ledge.
The sun’s higher now, the city brighter. Less grey. This high up you can see the whole city. Canada, even.
“Promise me you’ll get out of here someday,” I tell Paul.
But even still, this high, the city is different. It looks normal, healthy. We’re too high to see the boarded windows, to realize that the abandoned buildings out there are just shells.
We sit up on the ledge and look out.
Reggie Mills is pursuing a M.Sc. in organic chemistry at the University of Toronto. His hobbies include eating toast and drinking coffee. This is his first publication.