Tuesday, April 22, 2003

I FINALLY SAW "8 MILE." Eh. (1. So I win one of these "battles" and I'm set for life? Sign me up! 2. What in the name of Dr. Atkins has Brittany Murphy done to herself?)

But I had to see the movie, for two reasons. One: I like Eminem's work. I don't think a whole lot of him as a person, but I like the work. When I first heard the name "Eminem," I figured it was a band in the asshole-rock genre, like Korn and Limp Bizkit. I try to keep up, as those of you who have endured my Strokes fixation know, but when you've crossed that 40 line you toss a lot of popular music into the things-I-don't-have-time-to-bother-with closet. But as the buzz grew louder, I fired up Napster and downloaded some songs. "The Real Slim Shady"? Amusing enough, I thought, but not something I'd listen to repeatedly. Still, there was something about that kid's voice and that kid's sound. Later I heard that "Stan" was the song to hear, and I heard it.

Wow. I can be a surprisingly easy mark for cheap sentimentality, I'll admit. And I'm not especially keen on "sampling," which is essentially a rapper taking credit for another musician's work. But the juxtaposition of Dido's "Thank You" and Eminem's little obsessed-fan tale really touched me. I liked the rest of "The Marshall Mathers LP," too, though and eventually I actually bought it (take that, Napster-bashers). I like Snoop Doggy Dogg's "Doggystyle," too, but the life of a 41-year-old newspaper editor doesn't contain all that many occasions for listening to rap music.

REASON NO. 2 is that the words "Eight Mile" (the name of a street in Detroit) are significant to me. I grew up in the Detroit area. When my parents moved from Pottsville, Pa., shortly after I was born so my dad could find a job, we lived off Eight Mile Road -- albeit a block and a half north, on the Ferndale side rather than the Detroit side. My toddler pictures were taken in our next house, 2 1/2 blocks north of Eight Mile. It was the standard white-people progression: Next we bought a house between 10 Mile and 11 Mile. Then, after the divorce and Mom's remarriage, the newly constituted family bought a townhouse condo with a 13 Mile Road address.

Eight Mile Road, in case you haven't read this in a movie review, is the border between very black Detroit and the very white suburbs to the north. (There are suburbs south of Eight Mile -- including the very white and rather wealthy Grosse Pointes, where as it happens my wife spent many of her formative years -- but for the most part the pattern in the metropolitan area is farther north = more white.) There are people here in the Washington area who pride themselves on never setting foot in the actual city, and that's probably true for St. Louis and Cleveland and a host of other cities as well, but I think it's safe to say that nowhere is this attitude as strong as it is in the suburbs of Detroit. "Downtown" is a bad word for many people in that area, and "Detroiter" is practically a racial epithet.

Maybe it was that forbidden quality that led to the fascination with cities that I only relatively recently acted on in real life. The apartment above the downtown barbershop was always my favorite place in the Fisher-Price Play Family Village, and I remember harboring a lingering curiosity in my pre-teen and early teen years about just how low those "mile roads" might go. If 16 Mile is better than 12 Mile is better than Eight Mile, what might be the "worst"? (Seven Mile seems to be the answer, though McNichols Road is sometimes called Six Mile and there's a Five Mile in the might-as-well-be-Mars-to-me far-southern suburbs.) But aside from those exciting (perhaps more so because of the fear of being mugged) trips to Tiger Stadium, Olympia Stadium and Cobo Hall, I lived my life well north of Eight Mile.

My dad was Archie Bunker in many ways, especially when it came to the Germans and the "Polacks," but he was all Meathead, in the best sense, when it came to black and white. He loved the Kennedys -- to the consternation, I learned much later, of his very Catholic but very conservative family -- and he channeled RFK in preaching to his children that blacks and white were equal. When the '68 Tigers won the World Series, the black Gates Brown and Willie Horton (no, not that Willie Horton) were heroes just as much as the white Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich and Mickey Stanley. Dad and little Billy laughed ironic Democrat laughter when we hung around Tiger Stadium after a game and saw Willie Horton exit in an avocado-green Cadillac driven by a white chauffeur. Dad had common sense, though. He worked downtown at General Motors headquarters, and he could read between the lines during the 1967 riots when he was told the executive parking spaces were available if he wanted to come in. No. thanks.

Our home near 11 Mile Road in Madison Heights was geographically quite close to Detroit but racially miles away. There was one black person in my high school. It wasn't always the same black person, but another didn't come until the first one left. It seemed like a rotating position. Madison Heights wasn't and isn't a rich suburb, but the lower-middle- and middle-middle-class residents were almost all white. My much-more-tuned-in friend Barry later told me that this was the result of housing discrimination, maybe even covenants, from way back.

I remember debating a Detroit-dwelling step-relative, after Dad and his drink moved out of the picture, about the whole racial-equality thing. Of course there were realities that Marky had to deal with and I didn't, but I never strayed from Dad's wise party line. I deal with assholes at school too, and as it happens they're white. Sometimes I think I was talking the talk but not necessarily walking the walk, but I don't remember giving a second thought to entering a boxing tournament in 1976 at which I was pretty much the only white kid. (I'm at right in the photo above. My boxing career lasted two rounds.)

Still, after my family moved from the Detroit 'burbs to the Phoenix 'burbs while I was in high school, I retained the downtown-is-scary mind-set to some extent. The thought of living in the city of Phoenix never crossed my mind. Even when, at age 27, I moved to the D.C. area, I first settled across the Potomac in Alexandria, Va. Finally, at 28, I made the move to Capitol Hill, where I still live 13 years later. I'm not far from RFK Stadium, but I'm farther from RFK than my dad was. If I were running for office (ha!) I'd call myself a "law-and-order liberal," and in my old age I probably side with the buffoon Rush Limbaugh more often than the buffoon Jesse Jackson. Disagree with me if you disagree with me, but I like to think I've established some semblance of street cred.

But I digress. Bottom line: I kind of like Eminem. (My new motto: Success is my only motherf***in' option; failure's not.)

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