I had two more complications: where to put my cars and how to get to the airport.
At the time of my moving to China, there wasn’t any direct public transportation to the airport. No rails, and the best bus route I could find looked like it would take hours, involving transfers and hitting every stop between downtown and the airport well outside of town. (I later read that a year and half after my move the metro Detroit bus system finally added a direct route from downtown to the airport.)
A taxi would be expensive, but I figured that’s probably what I’d do. I didn’t want to add another variable into the mix by asking someone to take me to the airport. With so much resting on this one point, I couldn’t risk depending on someone else not to fuck it up.
The airport question also was wrapped up in my move out of the loft in downtown Detroit, which I wanted to be all part of one motion. I was arranging things so that I would go from my final exit at the loft directly to a hotel near the airport. I didn’t want to muddy things up with uncomfortable stays at friends’ places or any of that.
But other things needed to fall into place first for that to happen. I set that question aside while I addressed the more pressing matter of where to store my “fleet” of two rusty old squares, a 1979 Buick Electra 225 and a 1985 Dodge Diplomat.
My first idea was to find someone in metro Detroit looking to rent out their garage. You never know what you might find until you look — perhaps a landlord is looking to rent out a garage separately from a house, or someone out in the country has extra space in a pole barn.
I found a place in Grosse Pointe, one of the brick homes that fill the area. The owner had no need for the garage. But it could only fit one car.
Another option was to keep the cars in the outside back area of the storage facility where I already had a rented shed, near my hometown. But it was pricey. The cost to store them would quickly exceed the value of the cars.
Both options forced me closer to facing the uncomfortable question of whether I would actually pay to keep the Diplomat, an absurd proposition, and yet one I couldn’t yet bring myself to dismiss.
The car is a creaking, shredded mess. The metal of the driver side doors is ripped length-wise. The frame has a spot where half the metal is gone. Driving it on anything but a perfectly smooth road brings images to mind of World War Two fighter planes flying through flak over Dresden. But it’s reliable as hell and has gotten me out of many jams. It’d really been the star of the previous seven years of striving to get ahead. It would have been as ridiculous to pay to store as it would have been shameful not to.
The alternative was the junk yard. That was as unimaginable as paying to keep it was absurd. And I knew that for years afterward I’d have dreams where I still had the car, then wake up to mornings colored with disappointment.
I started making calls to more and more storage places looking for better rates to park a vehicle outside. Looking at Google Maps, I made a wider and wider path as I moved from my hometown on the far northeastern extreme of metro Detroit deeper into the heart of the area.
I was striking out. Most places didn’t even offer outdoor storage. It also was beginning to feel stupid to have a transportation problem while owning two cars. Surely, there must be a way for one to address the other. Meanwhile, my eyes are working over the Google map, inching closer to the airport in metro Detroit’s southwest. Finally, it hits me: Find a storage yard near the airport.
The first one I called not only had outdoor storage, but it had a better rate than any of the others and it was the closest to the airport. It was just a few miles away, in the same suburb of Romulus.
As a final piece of due diligence, I called the next-closest ones, in Taylor, Michigan. Their prices were higher and they wouldn’t give a month or two free as a discount if I paid for a full year upfront — a sure sign of more stupidly obstinate customer service to come.
The airport storage place cost me $500 for 12 months, after two months of charges were dropped in exchange for the full-year payment. For only $50 a month, I would always have a car waiting for me right by the airport.
The put me much more at ease with the cost because now I wasn’t just paying for my sentimentality but for something practical as well.
As if that wasn’t perfect enough, I also learned that the spots are long enough to put a motorhome in — or two rusty squares. I could put both my cars in one spot and not be charged extra.
This was a great relief. I didn’t have to make a terrible decision about paying to keep the Diplomat, which I surely would have. I would keep it in the same spot with its sister. And wouldn’t you know it, the Diplomat would repeatedly save my ass in that very spot in the coming years, as it had in the many years leading up to this.
Now I could turn my attention to the other question: how to get these cars parked there while also getting myself out of my loft and to the airport in smooth, efficient fashion.
This is the procedure I came up with.
The storage place is within walking distance of hotels that provide airport shuttles to guests. So I booked a room for the night before the flight. I would drive the Buick there with my luggage. After checking in, I would drop my luggage off in my room, drive the car to the storage yard, and walk the two miles back to the hotel. Bathe, eat, sleep. Take shuttle to airport.
When making return trips home, I would do the inverse of all this and drive away.
But I still had to get the Diplomat to the storage yard before all this. How would I get back home after dropping it off? The answer came easily enough.
I would put my bicycle in the backseat of the car, drive it to the storage yard, then bike home. Twenty miles.
This would save me the hassle of getting a ride from someone while allowing for one last distinctly Detroit adventure before I left.
I did it five days before the flight. I drove the Diplomat in through the electronic gate after entering my access code. As I emerged from the rows of metal storage units into the back area, I saw before me a sea of other junk cars, all nicely organized in rows.
A revelation. The other tenants were just like me.
“I definitely found the right place,” I said out loud. There were plenty of expensive motorhomes, but there were just as many dilapidated vehicles. “It’s like the place was made for me!” I exulted.
I’d been worried that people here would laugh at me for bringing such a decrepit vehicle here. Why would he pay to keep that here?
But some of these cars were outright ruined. The first thing my eyes fell on was a Lincoln with its front end entirely smashed in. Other vehicles appeared to have been sitting for years. Windows gone. Tires flat. Tarps in tatters, only a few shards left flapping in the wind. My car now looked above-grade, simply because it was moving on its own.
Junk cars in paid spaces. No one else there, as far as I could see. It was just after sunrise. Dead quiet except for the sound of jets descending right overhead.
I drove in deeper to find my spot. The lot is like that of a shopping center: a flat expanse of concrete with parking spots marked by surface paint. A fence surrounds it. Security cameras and tall light poles are spread throughout. Many other customers also had put two cars in one spot. The one right behind mine had two cars in it, both of them neglected. They sat on flat tires.
I felt comfortable. What a perfect morning. “I’m home,” I said. Now I get to ride a bike on a warm sunny August morning as everyone else schlepped off to work. It was a Tuesday. This is why I do what I do.
I took Michigan Avenue most of the way. This is possibly the most desolate stretch of the avenue on its entire length from Detroit to Chicago. Nearly every property you pass is raggedy, even if it’s an operating business. Most are long out of business, empty and abandoned. Gas stations, strip clubs, and a Detroit Highwaymen motorcycle club are among the few places in operation.
There are few signs of public maintenance. The sidewalks are broken. I had to keep a sharp eye out for broken glass. This was more of an exercise in testing fortune than skill, as pieces of glass blanketed the sidewalks and roadsides. Then I come to a newer type of Detroit setting, the hipsterland of Corktown and its predictable accompaniment of smug self-satisfaction that sets my teeth on edge. It’s a high a price to pay to fill vacant properties. I turned right and headed to the riverfront to take the long way home.
Final Leg of the Mission
When the day came to take my Buick there, I was anxious about getting everything right. I didn’t have much margin for error. It was already late afternoon and my plane took off in the morning. I had to drive from my hometown an hour north of Detroit to my loft, grab everything, and do the hotel-storage routine.
I had my kayak strapped to the top of the car. It was too big for my storage shed so I had to keep it with the cars. Same with the bicycle. All means of transportation that I owned would be in one place: bike in the backseat of one of the cars, kayak either slid underneath a car or strapped to the top of the Diplomat, underneath a tarp.
I still had to pack everything else. I’d been in a scramble for days, getting everything into storage, getting unwanted junk out of the loft, handing off my many plants to various people. Anything I wanted to take with me to China I’d been simply leaving on the floor. Heaps of stuff were all over the place and still had to be organized into luggage. A pile of Chinese money sat in the middle of the wooden floor.
When I got there, I frantically packed everything up and moved my luggage out the back of the building and into my car parked in the alley. The car’s engine rumbles like a Harley’s. When I left, I had to carefully nose the car, this crazy laden green beast, out of the alley into heavy pedestrian traffic before taking off down the long service drive toward the expressway. I flipped off my building and the whole scene as I passed. Sunday in Eastern Market. The pompous hipster kung fu business next door. Overpriced sandwiches at the deli downstairs. Doofy weekenders browsing outdoor artisan stalls. “Yeah! Fuck ALL of you!”
It remains the best place I ever lived in. But as of that instant, I was done with it. It was an unusual sensation of having experienced a place precisely as much as you cared to, down to the minute.
It began to rain as soon as I hit the expressway. It was a full-on storm, pouring rain so hard I could barely see. Traffic slowed to a stop. Water leaked onto my luggage. The windows steamed up. I cursed, offended by the weather.
It stopped as soon as I got off the expressway. This almost upset me more. Now my grieving at my profoundly bad luck looked more like childish whining.
It was pushing 7 p.m. by the time I arrived at the hotel. The sun would be setting soon. I had a lot to do to get these cars buttoned up for long storage, but now I would have to wait until morning to get started.
Get up early, drive to the yard, drop off the car and button everything up, march back to the hotel, then head to the airport. I drank beers in the bathtub then went to bed.
The Storage Operation
I was up before dawn and at the yard just after sunrise.
I ran fuel stabilizer through the system. This is a liquid that prevents the fuel from going bad during the many months before the car will be started again. Measure it into the gas tank according to how much fuel is in there. Turn on the engine and let it circulate for five minutes.
I jacked up the cars and set them onto jack stands, one at each wheel. This is to keep the weight of the car off the tires, which will go “out of round” if left to sit in one spot with pressure on them for too long, as I learned the hard way while living in Korea.
I disconnected the batteries. To keep the Buick battery from going bad, I attached a solar trickle charger to it and placed it inside the Diplomat, on the floor of the driver side, on top of a wooden board. The cord to the small solar panel ran through the crack along the door panel and out onto the hood of the car, where I had the panel duct-taped to the dissolving paint of the metal. (In case you’re wondering how this turned out: When I came home 11 months later, the battery went dead after a few cranks of the engine. The charger hadn’t done shit. I think it actually drained it.)
I threw the tarps on the cars and started to tighten them down with bungee cords. The Diplomat’s tarp turned out to be too short to cover the whole car, but that solved the problem of how I would ensure the solar panel wasn’t covered up: I simply didn’t cover the hood.
There weren’t enough bungees so I had to fashion more fasteners out of tie straps and spare lengths of rope that happened to be in the trunk. Then I had to undo some of this and reconnect the battery for a moment so I could roll up the electronically-controlled windows that I’d overlooked. Minutes ticked by.
Some of the tarp fasten points didn’t look right so I redid those. I had to be sure these things would stay taut for a year of Michigan weather.
The sun was now above the trees. It’s always peaceful out there at the storage yard. The morning air carried the sounds of summertime bugs and birds. But whenever I began to forget that I had to be on a plane to Beijing in a few hours, the urgent pitch of another jet engine passing overhead, the sound of high pressure, snapped me back into reality.
The sun rose and planes descended, moving in that unnervingly slow way they do near the airport, while I worked. It must have been two hours before I had everything all buttoned up. Now I had to say goodbye to “my children”.* But the procedure was set. This is how I would manage trips back and forth from now on.
A Procession of Zoning Types
I set out on foot for the hotel. I had on rubber sandals and cargo shorts. I was carrying a 1953 foreign policy book about China.
I took the first steps of what would become in my mind the pivotal operating component of my China years.
The storage facility is on a wide, fast-moving street full of semitrucks. The area is an odd jumble of warehouses, light factories, retail businesses, and shoddy little houses. Everything is widely spaced apart. Empty fields separate many of the properties.
I head south on the gravel shoulder of the road. Everything is scrubby and overgrown. Trucks push air at me as they pass. The sound of jets presses down from above.
A vision of the 21st century.
I turn west to begin angling toward the hotel. The north side of the road is barren and full of fast-growth woods. On the south side, I encounter a rural setting. The adjoining roads are dirt and the houses sit among large old trees. The growth is almost thick enough to be forest. It feels unreasonable, this rural pocket appearing here.
I go down one of the dirt roads and see more adjoining it in standard block pattern. It’s how you might imagine a country neighborhood was 60 or 70 years ago in the very first stage of its transformation into suburb. The houses are too close together for this area to still be considered country. But it’s too heavily wooded and rustic for it to be considered suburban yet. Maybe this pocket somehow never moved past this stage. Expressways and an airport, warehouses and industry arose all around it, and it just stayed the same, tucked away and overlooked back here.
Just as abruptly, it’s over after a few blocks. On the other side of the last dirt road is an immense parking lot for air travelers, with a barbed-wire fence around it. The road ends at the end of another road. This one is paved. From back in this corner begins a half-mile strip of chain hotels. Beyond that is more of the same style of blandness in restaurants and gas stations.
An uncommon walk. After a sequence of light industrial, commercial, and residential properties, it turns bucolic and charmingly rural. That is yanked away to reveal gross barbarism. Crushing 21st century commercialism follows an equally careless mess, and in between the two is an unvalued square of peace. I got to the hotel with a few hours left to clean myself up, check out, and get to the airport.
*So called because I don’t have children but have seen some people be forced to get their shit together after having kids. I figured if I treated my cars as my children I would be similarly motivated, or close enough. And I wouldn’t have to deal with the ruinous expense of kids to get there. Cut out the cumbersome part.
I just had to believe it enough to trick my mind into triggering high-level importance over this subject. Many years into this, the sleight of hand continues to work. Whenever I consider long-term matters of work and finances, I think of my cars. I must take care of them. I must never allow myself to get into a position where I cannot. This also is why I couldn’t fully bring myself to consider the idea of giving up the Diplomat. More than giving up a car with a lot of meaningful history to me, it would have meant tearing down this façade that had been so effective for me. Would I finally have to stop playing make-believe?
This post is part of the Moving to China series, documenting my transition to mainland China in 2015 and 2016, when government-operated broadcaster CCTV flew me over to work as a news editor at its Beijing headquarters. The channel is now known as China Global Television Network. It is a soft-power endeavor of the country’s Communist Party-ruled government.