03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

Growing Up in Detroit: Community Organizing With Mostaccioli

There is a lot of talk these days about who killed Detroit. Was it the overpaid CEOs and other executives at the auto companies, or the unions who fought for health care and dental benefits for hourly workers? This conversation brings up all kinds of memories of growing up in Detroit during the manufacturing hey-day of the "Big Three."

I grew up in a family of nine kids, to a conservative stay-at-home mother and a hard-working, beer-drinking, card-carrying UAW employee Dad, in a working class suburb just outside of Detroit. Raising a big family was tough for my parents. Feeding 11 people on an auto-workers income meant everything my parents did required effort and creativity.

In Michigan, there are four seasons, just like everywhere else: winter, spring, summer, and deer season. Dad was a hunter, and Hamburger Helper was used for much more than just hamburger, although when I squeamishly asked which species we were eating that day, Mom would always say, "Beef." The beef took on many varieties, colors, textures and tastes. I honestly believed my pet rabbit died in the prime of his life and went to live on a farm with lots of other cute bunnies (Perhaps that is why I am a vegetarian to this day).

Every house had a laundry tub. That is where you kept the smelt you caught until you could freeze it. That is where you put the trout you caught until you could de-bone it. That is where you put the snapping turtles you caught until they were made into soup. That is where you... well, you don't want to know.

Our vacations were weekends spent "up north," which is where everyone in Michigan went on vacation. In Colorado, where I live now, everyone says, "to the mountains." I suspect my sisters who moved east say, "to the shore." My Dad bought a little piece of land in rural Kalkaska County, which was his haven away from work. When we were up north, my Dad cleared the land and built the cabin with his bare hands, while the kids picked wild berries my mother canned to take back home. I don't think my mother or father actually ever had a real vacation until they were in their sixties. They were always trying to figure out how to feed all of us kids.

Entertainment for my family meant going to the drive-in movie theatre that charged per car, rather than per person. How many people could you fit in a station wagon in 1970? At least eleven. Friends often joined us. Getting even a few minutes break from the kids for my parents meant sending them off to Sunday school, or shoo-ing them outdoors to play kick-the-can.

Hand-me-down clothes were the norm, except for a gift at Christmas and Easter, or on our birthdays. There were five girls in a row in our family, and each year at Easter, we all had a new matching dress, assuming Montgomery Ward carried them in multiple colors. Mine was usually yellow. Easter dresses had to have full skirts with pleats so we could spin around and have them create a parachute effect, of course. And no Easter dress was complete without a set of white gloves. You could time when to buy your Easter Dress without ever looking at the calendar. First, you would see all your friends eating donuts (Fat Tuesday) and then they all had ashes on their foreheads (Ash Wednesday).

Our very modest suburban Detroit home was in an Italian-Catholic neighborhood. Three giant Catholic churches were a mile away in each of three different directions. My Mom was brought up Southern Baptist, and my Dad was raised Catholic or Episcopalian (depending who you ask), so logically, we went to the Methodist church down the street. We were Irish and Dutch/German -- fate must have brought us to that neighborhood. Most of the residents were from other places, drawn to the working-class suburbs of Detroit by the lure of union jobs with good benefits.

My Dad's friend's names were a laundry list of what would be considered "ethnic intimidation" or racial harassment today. "Dago Pete," "German Joe," "Square-head Dean," "Old Buck," "Joseppe the WOP," "Larry the Pollack," "Leon the Jew," "Jerry the Greek," etc. They not only called each other these names, but they usually combined them with some kind of affectionate insult when they greeted each other. "Here comes square-head Dean. I bet he is going to tell us long-haired 'Frenchman Moreau' doesn't know how to change a tire again."

"Nah, I bet he just sold that old Buick to that black guy Ernie at the shop."

My Mom babysat for doctors at the nearby hospital, most of whom were from India. My Mom's friends did not call each other the kinds of names my Dad's friends did. They called my Mother "marcie" which means "like mother." We grew up eating Indian food, kim-chee, glumkee, lutefisk, pierogies, honey cake, venison, sauerkraut and pretty much whatever else was shared between our wonderful neighbors and friends.

When my Dad's friend's came over to play poker in the garage, it looked like a working-class United Nations meeting ... with smoke.

Years later, when I moved to Denver, I was a little surprised all of the kids were expected to call the parents, "Mr." this, or "Mrs." that. Since I did not take my husband's name, this was quite a dilemma for me, since I am not a "Mrs." anyone. I decided the kids should call me "Miss Nancy" or, if their parents were okay with it, just "Nancy," which I much preferred anyway. A friend once asked me, "What did you call your neighbors when you were a kid?'

"You don't want to know," I told her.

Every man in the neighborhood worked for the auto industry, or some business closely related to it. There was constant competition between Chrysler, GM and Ford employees, similar to alumni fighting over football elsewhere. FORD meant "Fix or repair daily" or "Found on road dead." My Dad would tell his friends, "Get your piece of crap out of my driveway and park it down the street before anyone else sees it."

"Yeah," my Dad's friend would joke, "I don't want to block the revolving door to your garage to fix all those Chryslers that keep falling apart."

As a young adult, my first new car was a Toyota, the purchase of which was a mortal sin in my parent's neighborhood. I remember the look my Dad had on his face when he saw it coming down the street, his cigarette almost falling off his lip as he stared. My car was white, so my Dad called it, "The Toy-let." "You better park your Toy-let around the block," he'd say. "If word gets out my daughter bought a car from Japanese Motors, that will be the end of my reputation."

Our neighbors were not just neighbors like people have today -- they were our "family." Family we loved, family we fought with, family members who shared our tears and our celebrations. We knew our neighbors well because all that separated us was flimsy, four-foot chain-linked fences, designed to hold up rose bushes and lawn ornaments. The level of the fence was exactly the right height for our mothers to rest their arms on while they talked to each other.

As a kid, we timed how fast we could scale those fences. "Run up, put one foot in the middle, both hands on either side, follow quickly with the second foot, and jump off the top." I usually landed flat on my face unless I got to the top, turned, and carefully climbed back down the other side. Until the early 70s, I had to wear dresses to school, so I didn't want anyone to see my underpants, anyway.

Every event that happened on our street was commemorated over a pot of mostaccioli, made by the neighborhood matriarch, Marge. Marge was the quintessential Community Organizer. She knew the names of every person in every home for several blocks. All family news went through Marge, and Marge knew the answers to most of the questions you could think to ask. "How do you get worms for fishing, Marge?"

"Mow the lawn real short, then water it with the hose all day" she would say. "The worms will come to the top. The best time to go fishing is at dawn, though, so go get the worms up before you go to bed, then store them in a coffee can with a tight-fitting lid and a few little holes on top."

Marge and the other neighborhood women organized events psychologists now call "social support." Everyone knew their role when something happened. My Mother was usually called on to make cake, or to collect money for flowers, depending on the nature of the need. Ethel made cookies, Connie babysat, and Nancy would ask what needed to be done. Suzy could be counted on to distract the kids with popsicles. Marge always had the mostaccioli covered. She would walk for blocks with her gigantic pot of pasta, trailed by one of her miniature poodles, Mitzi or Fifi (or some other similar name). Aunt passed away? Mostaccioli! New baby at home? Mostaccioli! Kid graduating from high school? Mostaccioli! First communion? Mostaccioli! Hunting season off to a bad start? Mostaccioli! Bread-winner got laid off? Lots of mostaccioli!

Our neighbors were also a significant source of economic exchange. No one could afford to pay for plumbers, electricians, tile installers, brick layers, cement workers, house painters, or anything else. But many of them knew how to do these jobs, so bartering was the norm. Winter coats were traded for tile installations, tree removal was traded for car repair, hardware was traded for a side of someone's uncle's cow on a farm "up north," gardening was traded for helping finish a basement or attic, a bicycle was traded for a hunting dog, and a new roof was traded for an old car.

My Dad and his friends usually had conversations that sounded like this, "Hey, (fill in the blank), my (fill in the blank) is broken. I need a new one."

Someone else would say, "I know a guy who..." If they were really lucky, the other person might say, "I have a buddy who ... and he owes me for ..."

When I was in high school, my best friend had an unplanned pregnancy, and decided to keep her baby. Since my very-old fashioned Dad took it upon himself to be the Dad for everyone in town, I was afraid to tell him. When I did, he thought for a long time, then asked me to tell her to come over to the house. When he saw her, he hugged her and said, "You know, if your baby needs grandparents, we'll always be right here." To this day, my friend, her son, and his children still visit my folks, even though I am eight states away. (I think they might like her better than me, actually.)

With the help of scholarships and student loans, I was the first member of the family to go away to a state school. I roomed with a friend from high school who happened to be African-American, about the same year Michelle Obama roomed with a white girl whose family had an issue with it. I remember my Dad being happy I was with someone from "home" but surprised and somewhat concerned the dormitory was co-ed.

My freshman year, I got rides home from a new friend who was gay. When I told my Dad he was interested in men, not me, my Dad was relieved he didn't have to give him "The Talk." My father was much more interested in his car. To this day, my Dad can tell me the kinds of cars all of my friend's drove and when they drove them.

My sophomore year, I brought home my Jewish boyfriend (now husband), hoping my Dad and friends would not welcome him with ethnic slurs. Instead, he asked, "What kind of guy are you?"

"Excuse me?" my husband choked.

"You know, are you a beer guy or a coffee guy?"

"Neither," my husband said. "Do you have iced tea?" My Dad looked at him with great suspicion. ("What kind of bull-shit answer is that?" he would ask me later.) "Water is fine, thank-you."

After a few weeks, my Dad asked me, "Is that hairy boy you've been dating a Jew or a Dago? He's got to be one of those to have hair on the back of his neck like that."

In our neighborhood, children were not raised by one set of parents. They were raised by the whole community. The stay-at-home Moms on the street had a phone tree so efficient, I could get in trouble at school, and by the time I ran home, the news had traveled between four households, and my Mom would be waiting for me with the full story, with commentary, at the front door.

Discipline was likewise meted out by all of the adults. If a little boy was seen playing in the street, someone else's Dad would yank him out of the street, sit him down, chew him out, and pull him by his collar to his parents. If a school-girl was seen wearing too much make-up, someone else's mother would go home, get a wash cloth, and come back with it for the girl to wash her face. When I was in my mid-twenties and went to a wedding of one of our former neighbors, she said to me, "I was in college before I realized your Dad didn't have a right to put me in "The (time-out) Chair."

On numerous occasions, we had various other kids come to live with us, in that crowded little house. My Dad had an open door policy for kids who ran away or were thrown out of their parent's homes for one reason or another. My Dad read them the riot act the same way every time, "You follow my rules, and you can stay. You go to school (or get a job if it was summer). You cut your hair (to a boy). You help when I tell you to, and you call me Mr. Cronk. Is that clear?" The girls rules were a little different -- no boys, no makeup, help around the house, and do well in school.

"Any rule violations," he would say, "and out you go. I'm not raisin' no Who-Yous." My Dad would teach the boys to fix cars, or would give them work around the yard. My Dad's business card even said, "George D. Cronk and Sons." People would ask him, "How many sons do you have, Dean?"

"That depends. How many do you need?" he would answer. They were usually ready to go home after a few weeks working for my Dad.

I remember sitting in my parent's living room when I was quite young, watching Viet Nam war numbers being called for the draft on television. My oldest brother had a draft card, and as they read each number, there were shouts and screams. My brother was lucky -- he didn't have to go. Some of the other kids in our town were not so lucky.

Everyone went to everyone else's weddings and funerals. Neighbors were honored by being attendants in weddings, and pall bearers at funerals. Neighbors bought funeral plots near other neighbors, so they could antagonize and annoy each other for all of eternity.

After my husband and I had been dating awhile (and he was still not scared off), he would ask, "Who's getting married this weekend?" My husband learned to be patient during the super-long Catholic weddings, and resisted his temptation to go up for communion just to get something to nibble on. He knew there would be a huge celebration with lots of food, dancing, gossip and mayhem later.

I remember one day getting ready to go to a relative's wedding, and the "news" hit everyone in the room like a ton of bricks. I walked in, seeing everyone's face white, as if someone had just died. "What? What?!" I asked, nervously. "What happened?"

"It's a Baptist wedding today. No food. Just cake. No dancing. No booze. Why would I want to go to that, anyway?"

"I'm not going."

"Me neither."

Of course we did go to that wedding (Mom didn't give us a choice), and every other one like it. We stopped for gnocchi and merriment on the way home at Silas, the neighborhood Italian restaurant.

Like family, we all knew everyone else's business! I remember one of our younger, single, newer neighbors complaining, "If I want to know what I am doing tomorrow, I just go to my neighbor's house. They seem to know before I do."

I remember sitting on the porch of my parent's house (one of the few rooms that did not have four people already sitting in it) as a 16 or 17 year old kid, dreaming of a land far away with palm trees and lots of sunshine. Marge walked up to me and said, "Your acne is getting worse. What kind of soap are you using? You don't touch your face with your dirty hands, do you?"

I remember staring back at her and thinking, "This can't be normal. No one on television has conversations like this with their neighbors. I can't wait to get out of this place."

Today, I have my own family and my own home. I moved to Denver twenty years ago - a great place with gorgeous scenery, wonderful people, and big blue skies. But the thing I noticed first was the six-foot wooden privacy fences, which made me long for home. I wanted to raise my children in a community where people look out for each other's kids -- where being "family" is not defined by sharing genetics, or an accent, or a last name, or even a church -- it means sharing meals. I wanted them to live in a neighborhood where people care when someone gets laid off, or doesn't have health care, or a family member passes away, or goes to war. I wanted them to care when someone else lost a job, and to do something to help.

It's been twenty years since we moved to Colorado. Despite the privacy fences, and with new friends in my area, we have tried to create a similar atmosphere in southeast Aurora, CO. Various friends and I have started babysitting coops and car pools and a weekly night at the neighborhood wine bar to discuss (and argue about) politics. We fought with the school board to reinstitute a bus route, and we fought with the city to get stop signs put up between a neighborhood park and a busy new strip mall. We fought with the county to improve snow and ice removal. I have few wonderful neighbors who, once again, are like family to us. When I plan a local protest or offer someone's kid a ride home from school, I think of Marge, and all of the inspiring people who helped raise me. Pay it forward.

Still, I miss the old neighborhood just outside of Detroit. I live about a thousand miles from that little street with the nosey, wonderful, loving neighbors, and I miss them every day. I cry each time I hear one of the beloved neighbors in my parent's generation has passed away. With each one goes a little of my childhood.

I think of Detroit and the horrible economic tragedy that has befallen it. I think of the families who may have run out of unemployment benefits and wonder how they are surviving. I hope and I pray there are neighbors feeding their children, church members calling people when they hear about job opportunities, and community organizers offering encouragement, a sense of dignity, and empowerment to keep fighting the good fight.

In Michigan, the unemployment rate is getting better, but is still too high. Detroit itself is still struggling, and it's tough for families everywhere. It's going to take a whole lot more than mostaccioli to fix these problems.

Let's get to work.