Solidarity Forever: A Motor City Love Story

1978. That dark era between polyester leisure suits and President Reagan. I was adrift in a generation lacking purpose and good music.

As a student at a conservative suburban university, I was lost. Careers, computers, and upward mobility did nothing for me. I was still grieving the fact that while my older siblings were stringing love beads at Woodstock, I was waddling through the Chubbies department at J.C. Korvette in search of my first bra.

But the times they had-a changed.

Country Joe and the Fish had given way to the Bee Gees. While my peers spent their nights doing the Hustle to the strains of K.C. and the Sunshine Band, I, tie-dyed and alone, spent hours cloistered in my black-lit bedroom nostalgically chanting “give peace a chance” while meditating on the profundities of Abbie and Jerry. I was a hopeless idealist. A victim of the times.

Serendipitously, a ragtag group of like-minded thinkers emerged on campus during my sophomore year, and, with all the drama we could muster, we set out to start our own Revolution.

There were six or seven of us – primarily jaded malcontents from the liberal arts department. We were arrogant and shamelessly immature, but we did have fun. There’s a certain thrill to living for shock value and, in retrospect, I see that we wore our status as rejected outsiders on our tattered sleeves with pride.

Our little band became more serious when we decided that punk music and beat poetry wasn’t enough. We were being summoned to leave the cultural fringe and step into the brave, new world of politics.

With earnestness, we set out to gather the masses and free the proletariat. We called each other “comrade” and carried the same kind of lunch buckets that our black-lunged brothers in the coal mines used. We took over the college newspaper and outraged administrators and students alike by featuring the words of Lenin and Lennon and blaspheming Henry Ford, the patron saint of the university. It was a time of hope and lofty rhetoric.

A vague desire to resemble Diane Keaton in Reds and a natural proclivity for eclecticism led to a rather bold fashion statement on my part, consciously designed, I might add, to rattle the conservative bones of my bourgeois colleagues on campus.

On most days, I would purposefully stride across campus in red tights, billowing skirt, size ten bowling shoes, a ripped army jacket, and a crushed fedora salvaged from a dumpster outside the local Goodwill. With the Manifesto in one hand and my coal miner Thermos full of strong, black coffee in the other, I cut a striking pose. The briefcase set may not have been convinced, but I was certain.

The winds of change were sweeping over Dearborn, Michigan. The Revolution has arrived.

For the most part, our small vanguard was made up of the sons and daughters of the working class, a fact we felt leant credibility to our cause. For a group of self-proclaimed intellectuals, however, we lacked the brains to see the irony of our factory-employed fathers and tray-toting mothers working overtime to foot the bill for our little foray into freeing the oppressed workers of the world. We were selfish, we were oblivious, but we were sincere.

In August of ’79, four of us piled into Tom’s rusting Vega and chugged off to socialist camp, an annual gathering held at a Lithuanian cultural resort in the picturesque foothills of eastern Pennsylvania. In the spirit of the Merry Pranksters, we kidnapped the letter “R” off the exterior wall of an abandoned Arby’s in Ohio, an act of daring that we felt put us in league with the Chicago Seven. During the long ride, we subsisted on day-old Ding Dongs, Better Made chips, cold coffee, and Dylans’s Blood on the Tracks.

After abandoning the “R” on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and fighting over the last bag of chips, we arrived and were free to check out our rather swank accommodations. We were also free to consort with our fellow radicals from around the country.

It wasn’t long until I began to smell hollowness and hypocrisy, however.

Here were privileged kids from Ivy League schools – kids who never worked a day in their collective life – expressing angst over the plight of the poor workingman in serious and self-righteous tones. These manicured, soft-skinned elitists had never once played a hand of Friday night euchre, tipped a Stroh’s, or eaten sloppy Joe’s served on Tupperware place settings.

The suffering proletariat these working-class wannabes were crying over was us, and while it was flattering to be touted as the spearhead of the Revolution, we were genuinely moved to pity for our pampered comrades who had been denied the cultural privileges of bowling, church basement bingo, and Motown music.

As the week wore on and the Revolution became more imminent in the eyes of the Ivy Leaguers, we Detroit kids spent most of our time swilling beer and talking baseball with the toothless old-timers in the resort lounge, old guys who had their own stories of picket lines and taking fists to the face.

When the conference plenary on women’s issues sent forth the grave proclamation that cosmetics and shaved legs ran counter to revolutionary principles, I, of the heavy black eyeliner, knew that my days in the movement were numbered.

The Revolution would go on without me. I was bitter and disillusioned. Where had all the flowers gone?

Something else happened at socialist camp, however, that really made me shiver in my bowling shoes.

I fell in love with Comrade Matt, a fellow subversive from the Detroit contingency. A graduate of a westside Detroit Catholic high school, he had taken his peace and justice education seriously and, being of a rather romantic bent, found himself entangled in our little radical cadre. I found out that underneath the long, stringy hair, the greasy coat, and the hard rhetoric, the Comrade was an artist at heart.

One humid evening, Comrade Matt and I made a pact to sit on a Pennsylvania hillside and wait for the sunrise. While political platforms were being pounded out in nearby barns and fellow radicals spoke in hushed, urgent whispers of changing the world, the Comrade and I sat on a patch of grass and talked about ourselves.

This was foreign and forbidden territory for rebels like us. We could pontificate for days on the evils of capitalism. But talk of ourselves? No way. We had more defenses than Reagan’s Pentagon.

As the evening wore on fatigue and fate took their toll. By sunrise, I had discovered that the Comrade preferred museums to marches and at one time felt called to the priesthood. I proclaimed my love of Whitman and October afternoons.

By daybreak it was sealed. I had found my soul mate and so began the real Revolution.

The days of rallies and revolt receded. We, children of the working class, were content to spend our days on the banks of Belle Isle playing Scrabble and dining on White Castle. Before we knew it, we were at the altar pledging before God, family, and sundry friends our fidelity and love.

Solidarity Forever.

While some of our more cynical comrades still think we sold out, we know better. In an era of downsizing, we made the radical decision to have four children on a joint annual income that wouldn’t keep our Ivy League brothers in books for a year.

On any given night, you’ll see me and the girls sitting on our working-class stoop decked out in billowing skirts and red tights. I still love strong, black coffee, Motown music, and Whitman. On days when the kids are less than cooperative, the Comrade still entertains the notion of becoming a priest.

Although we are still strongly committed to justice and believe in giving peace a chance on the global level, these days the Comrade and I have adopted Lennon’s words as a family motto, an impassioned parental plea, an appeal to the gentler side of our brawling brood.

This is a Revolution of the heart, the spirit, the nerves. It is often bloody, brutal, and beautiful. It’s not for wimps.

For a couple of working-class kids, we’ve done alright.

 

Kim Redigan/1993