This Issue 5 logo was handset and printed at Signal-Return, Detroit

Long essay
VFW, Southfield
Aaron Foley
Coming of age in '90s Detroit

Did other teenagers in other cities party like we did in Detroit? It’s so strange to look back on those years now, having just turned 30 and looking at them in now-distant memory. I have to write this down, because the details are beginning to fade.

I do remember this: I spent years dreaming of my first big high school party. In elementary school, I had this vision of driving a red, two-door Buick Skylark: the 1990s version, the last generation of Skylarks that General Motors ever made. My mother had one as a rental car when our 1988 Ford Tempo was in the shop, and at the time I thought they were cool. They had these rounded seats that were ribbed in the midsections, and before I knew that “new car smell” was a thing, I loved its scent. I’d imagine myself pulling into the parking lot of Cass Tech High School—the school where my much cooler cousin went—in the Skylark, surrounded by girls wanting to take a ride.

I wouldn’t get my own car until well into my college years, so I spent all of my real time in high school getting rides from mom or riding Detroit Department of Transportation—“Dee-Dot” is what we called them—buses. And I didn’t go to Cass Tech, which had a reputation all over the city as the best school in Detroit. Cass had the distinction of graduating Diana Ross, as well as almost every famous person that ever left Detroit. In the 1990s, there was a rumor that the late singer Aaliyah had attended there. She really attended the Detroit School of Arts, but Cass made sense because Cass pumped out superstars. As for everyone else that attended Cass? They stayed home and became doctors, lawyers, and architects. But they always introduce themselves as Technicians, regardless.

I ended up going to Renaissance, a school whose name I wouldn’t be able to spell by heart until two weeks into freshman year. On paper, Renaissance was better than Cass. While Cass was one of the biggest schools in the city, Renaissance was a small, academic factory with a stringent, college-preparatory curriculum. School board members boasted of the school’s 99% graduation rate, and near-equal college acceptance rate, besting its suburban counterparts. “It’s the cream of the crop,” I remember my middle school art teacher, a white woman, warning me. She told me people have a hard time at Renaissance, a magnet school, and end up going to their neighborhood school. I still wonder if she meant “black people.”

It turns out Renaissance was very much a black school, and maybe my art teacher was wrong and too worrisome. And high school would be nothing at all like I pictured. My favorite movie growing up, a movie I was far too young to be watching when I first saw it when my much cooler cousin showed it to me when I was 9 or 10, was the Kid-N-Play comedy Class Act. In it, a geek trades identities with a juvenile delinquent, and they spend most of the movie being cool: going to a nightclub that serves alcohol, going to a reggae club that serves alcohol, rapping at a talent show, having sex, engaging in a car chase with drug dealers, and wearing designer clothes.

I started high school in 1998, and you have to remember how black people looked on TV back then. I’d always wanted to attend a party wearing goggles with a designer name, because that’s what they wore in rap videos, or maybe substitute my thick glasses for slimmer frames with colored lenses. Sagging jeans, the newest Air Force One sneakers, a chain around my neck.

Air Force Ones were expensive, so I started ninth grade with a pair of Nikes on sale at Mervyn’s. My jeans did sag, but I was careful not to show off what brand—Target’s High Sierra line or J.C. Penney’s Arizona—was printed on the belt line. I was lucky enough to score one pair of Guess? pants, a pair of olive green corduroys on super-duper clearance at the men’s store, Van Dyke’s, in Northland Mall. I had nothing to match these pants, except a no-name striped shirt from either Target, Kmart, or Mervyn’s. I’d tuck the shirt in to the corduroys and wear them with tan, suede Hush Puppies. It does sound like I dressed like an old man, doesn’t it? But it was Detroit in the late ‘90s—wearing old-man shoes like Rockport walkers and Hush Puppies were the thing, and you had to match them to designer pants. This was the best I could do.

My first party was the homecoming dance in 9th grade, after the pep rally where the record producer Jermaine Dupri was a special guest, and the marching band played DMX’s “Ruff Ryders’ Anthem.” I think it was at the Masonic Temple, which almost closed last year had it not been saved by Cass Tech graduate Jack White. I wore the cream-colored suit I wore to 8th grade graduation with fake snakeskin burgundy shoes. I remember the slow dancing to Myron’s “Destiny,” and the raising of the roof when the fast songs came back on, and the lights coming on telling everyone to leave.

I didn’t get laid, I didn’t get any girl’s number, and I rode home with my mom. And after the dances, it was back to the academic grind. Renaissance would prove to be a little bit harder than I thought; for the first time since I’d been in school, my grade-point average dropped below a 3.0 during one cardmarking.

Black mothers of high-achieving kids can be twice as stern as mothers of average ones because their circumstances differ. A high GPA can, like for our family, be important as keeping a tradition. For other mothers, a GPA was a shield from the ills that can come with living in the hood, or at least hood-adjacent. And all of us weren’t aware at the time, but our mothers were preparing us for the realities of living in a white world where we’d have to perform twice as well as our white counterparts.

I remember my mother’s disappointment, and her telling me I had to step it up. You internalize this, and add it to the list of Renaissance concerns. I have to step up my grades. I have to step up my popularity. I have to be the cream of the crop. I have to be popular.

Sophomore year is when I really started to party. Well, party as best as a Renaissance Phoenix could. You see, we weren’t only the smart kids of Detroit Public Schools, we were the good kids. My best friend in middle school (he went to Murray-Wright, a rowdy school nicknamed as Murder Right) said that all the parents at Renaissance were doctors and lawyers.

Regardless of where you stood economically, Renaissance had a reputation on the outside as being full of the good kids. We didn’t smoke, drink, or sleep around, and if you were one of the few that did, you were gossiped about mercilessly. There was a rumor that the top floor of Cass smelled like “badussy” —booty, dick, and pussy, for those unfamiliar. And there was a rumor that there was a girl at Renaissance who had an abortion just so she could keep fucking with the dude that got her pregnant. But we didn’t shoot up our schools; that’s something white kids in Colorado were doing when we were freshmen.

If we had a reputation to uphold as the cream of Detroit’s crop, we certainly tried to shake it off after hours. At parties, we started to show our asses. Here’s how a party worked: You’d get your parents, your auntie, your play-auntie, whoever, to rent you a hall. A popular choice was the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall in Southfield, a middle-class, half-black suburb north of Detroit, or maybe a ghetto lounge somewhere on the Westside. After the hall rental, you printed up invitations on 8.5 x 11 paper with the date and time. For girls, you’d include a picture of yourself, hands on your hips and head cocked, smiling for the camera. For guys, there might not be a picture at all—those were gay—or if there were, you’d be sure to do the pose: hands crossed at the crotch, barely looking at the camera with an ugly mug. You’d hand the invitations out to potential partygoers or post them on the class bulletin board or around the lockers.

I’m glad I mentioned the movie Class Act because there’s a scene where the geek fronting as a popular dude visits an art museum where his girlfriend works, and the song “Moments of Love” by the Art of Noise! is playing in the background. If you grew up in Detroit, you know this song well because almost every night at 10 p.m. on 97.9, the highest-rated R&B station, the “quiet storm” hours of slow songs would kick off with “Moments of Love.” The song was released in 1985; most of us were born in 1984. Our affinity for all things retro didn’t end with the Rockports.

“Moments of Love” is a soft, seductive song with no lyrics. It is completely electronic—and let’s not forget, Detroit is a pioneer in the field of electronica—and its rhythms are booping and beeping synths. It goes something like “doont-doont-doont-doont, DOONT-DOONT-DOONT, doont-DOONT-DOONT-DOONT-DOONT, DOONT-DOONT-DOONT-DOONT,” I guess if you were to try to write it out. The song is mysterious, and maybe because of its allure, it just never went away. And it was played at every party. It is sensual Morse code, and because there are no lyrics, you make up your own sometimes. The Hot Ruff Rydin’ Boys, a popular clique, would stand in a circle, put their hands on their shoulders—this wasn’t gay, apparently— and sway side to side to the beat, chanting “let’s…fuck…these hoes” in place of where “mo…ments…of love” would be. I doubt any hoes were fucked on those nights, though.

About two hours into a party, the DJ would play “Moments of Love.” If you were male, you’d grab the nearest girl, if you could, and begin to slow grind. My mother always warned me of this. One time she was in college, where a guy was grinding so hard on a girl that he not only became erect, he came on himself. And by that time, we’d all seen the movie The Wood, where one of the main characters, a teen like us, had to suddenly excuse himself after he got hard. This wasn’t the case with us.

During school hours, girls would sometimes smack guys on the belly for the “six-pack test,” to see how hard your stomach was. This happened to me once; I was told my abs weren’t hard enough. So then you’d spend a little more time in the gym after school or go harder on your workouts if you played a sport. After hours was the “dick test,” to see what they could feel down there. I remember one girl commenting that you could tell how big a guy’s dick was by looking at the size of his thumbs.

This strange idea of purist, clothes-on intimacy culminated with “Moments of Love,” when sometimes instead of slow grinding, a girl—almost always whoever was throwing the party—would bring a chair out into the middle of the dance floor to be given a lap dance by a guy. Or a guy would bring the chair out expecting something from a girl. I’m not sure where we learned this from. But there we would be, crowding in a circle around a girl in a chair getting crotch thrusts in her face or a guy getting a face full of ass from a girl he had geometry with. All to the beat of “Moments of Love.”

And then we’d all go home. Back to the academic grind again.

Somehow this was all in good fun. Lots of Renaissance girls bragged they’d never date a Renaissance guy because either they were going with someone in the neighborhood or they had the ultimate coup, dating someone from another Westside school like Mumford, the same school Axel Foley of Beverly Hills Cop went to, or University of Detroit Jesuit, the locally famous private, all-boys school where they dressed in Ralph Lauren sweaters and Gap khakis. “Renaissance boys are weak,” they’d say. “They’re nerds.” It was OK to freak or be freaked on by the guys because it was all fantasy and make-believe. I remember someone writing in white-out on the wall about one of the fine-ass basketball players, that “he’s cute, but he can’t fuck.”

Sometimes dudes bragged about getting girls in bed by playing Maxwell songs, specifically “This Woman’s Work” or “Whenever, Wherever, Whatever.” They lied, often.

When my grandmother died, we moved into her house and I transferred to a different school my senior year, thirty miles away in a different county. Unlike Renaissance, which was full of good black kids, Ypsilanti High was about 50/50 black and white, and actually more like the movies. The white kids cut classes to smoke—smoke!—in the woody area behind the school. Some black kids smoked, too; I’d never seen a black person under the age of thirty with a cigarette. There were at least two confirmed drug dealers, one Asian guy and one Ecuadorian student who also was new there for senior year. And students who were parents had the option of bringing their children to special classes. Sex was never as blatant at Renaissance, and cigarettes were nonexistent. Drugs at Renny? Perish the thought!

I kept that “cream of the crop” mentality with me, though. The one thing they don’t tell you about Renaissance when you go there is that you live in a bubble. You’re so pumped up full of yourselves, that you’re the best of the best of the best that they don’t tell you that you won’t be treated the same elsewhere. Renaissance was a safe black haven where everyone that looked like us was equal. Ypsilanti had long been integrated, but investment in black achievement wasn’t top of mind. Renaissance had guidance counselors who knew your name, your mama’s name, your class schedule, and where you were going to college. The counselors at Ypsilanti knew you by student ID, and whether your GPA meant either college, military, or factory work after graduation.

I didn’t go to a single party in Ypsilanti until the last day of school when I was hanging out with kids from my humanities class. They smoked, drove in circles around town, drank beer, and tanned in the sun by an in-ground swimming pool. There was talk of maybe going to Meijer, a grocery store in neighboring Ann Arbor, later on, because it was open twenty-four hours and there was nothing else to do.

There are theories about the grown man who reminisces too much on his high-school years and criticisms of nostalgia. They say that guys like us re-color our memories to make it seem like we were more popular than we actually were and that we cling to the past because we don’t want to deal in the present. I am writing solely from memory. I can’t remember the last time I read a yearbook, and I have two “memory books” —those scrapbooks sold to you by graduation-favor companies—hidden in a plastic storage tub in my guest bedroom closet.

People have written that Detroit is a magical, heavenly place, and those that do have often lived in places like Ypsilanti all their lives and have only lived in the city proper starting in their mid-20s. They will never know what it’s like to pop-on-the-floor or gel-and-weave at the VFW in Southfield, nor the fact that Detroit Public Schools actually does care about its students, and this is the part of the story that’s missing. And I wonder if they’ll ever know what they missed out on. I wonder how that feels.