Strange Magic in Motown

By Anthony Kovatch, M.D. — Pediatric Alliance — Arcadia



Musical accompaniment: “Strange Magic” by Electric Light Company:

“Oh, I’m never gonna be the same again
Now I’ve seen the way it’s got to end
Sweet dream, sweet dream
Strange magic
Oh, what a strange magic
Oh, it’s a strange magic
Got a strange magic”

Please listen to the music if only for a time,
It does affect the tone of the story, as well as the rhyme. (– author/ LOL)




Once riding in old Baltimore,

Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,

I saw a Baltimorean

Keep looking straight at me.


Now I was eight and very small,

And he was no whit bigger,

And so I smiled, but he poked out

His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”


I saw the whole of Baltimore

From May until December;

Of all the things that happened there

That’s all that I remember.


-“Incident” by Countee Cullen



Chapter 1:  Burn Baby Burn!


Only twice in my life have I been so scared that I did not have the wherewithal to pray. The first incident was fifty years ago in downtown Passaic, New Jersey — a city whose heyday as an industrial magnet had come and gone and, therefore, was in the state of sociologic deterioration rife for the racial tensions of that era. I cannot remember to this day what a scrawny, bespeckled, nerd-apparent adolescent was doing walking around at dusk on a backstreet in a recognized-dangerous business district. I do remember that he became electrified with terror when approached by three African-American youths roughly his age on the prowl for trouble.

“Give me everything you have in your wallet if you know what’s good for you, Whitey!” angrily demanded the most athletic and youngest-looking of the three (I imagined he was a hood-in-training). I lied and whimpered “I have nothing,” as I picked up my pace toward the better-lighted main street. They followed me until we were surrounded by the evening shoppers and then veered away with a sneer which I interpreted as “we’ll get you later.” I revealed the incident to no one — it was a triviality compared to what was going on in America at large and within my own confused psyche. Plus, I argued to myself that it would take magic or voodoo to get it out of my head, and I believed in neither.

The second time…

They called for thunderstorms the day in Detroit fifty years later when I ran the city’s half-marathon with great anticipation in spite of a half-night’s sleep. The event started in the late morning, giving me time to attend early Sunday mass and pray for a race without heart attack or physical collapse, and to make adequate port-a-john rest stops to prepare for a comfortable effort and maybe even a PR (personal record). I found free parking at a casino on the perimeter of center city. Completely out of character, I arrived at the starting line early; in spite of the ominous overcast and dampness, the rain stayed contained in the dark, overhanging cloud cover.

“Detroit is the starting line of the world’s imagination” claim commercials inviting Amazon and other industrial giants to make the Motor City their headquarters. After running the first couple of miles amidst the skyscrapers of center city we all believed the slogan. However, as I found myself beholding the signs of Clairmont Avenue, 12th Street, and the vicinity of the Algiers Motel, I recalled the solemn words of William Faulkner: “The past is never dead; it’s never even past.”

I suspect that on July 22, 1967, I was walking fearlessly and mindlessly on the streets of Passaic, oblivious that a spark of then conventional hatred on 12th Street ignited a civic conflagration that labelled the Detroit racial riots the “most violent urban revolts of the 20th century.” The spark was kindled by the joyous return of two African-American servicemen from Vietnam and the refusal of patrons at the bar to disperse when police tried to shut down the celebration after hours. The rioting, looting, and burnings rocked the city for 5 days, leaving 43 dead, 1,189 injured, and 7,200 arrested; 412 buildings were burned to the ground and property damage was estimated at $45 million. Worst of all, the Motor City lost its soul, and years were required for its revival — years and a man named Isiah.


Tomorrow on The PediaBlog — Chapter 2: When the Cold Winds Blow, It Can Turn Your Head Around.



Read more essays by Dr. Kovatch on The PediaBlog here.