On Friday morning, we were introduced to the daily routine of the urban farmer. Our host and fairy godmother KT Andresky is both a teacher and volunteer at the Catherine Ferguson Academy, a ground-breaking educational institution for teenage mothers. Amongst other things, the girls who study there learn about farming.
We got to feed the ducks, the rabbits, and the chickens - both the tiny baby ones and the grown-ups - but the highlight of the experience was the milking of the goats.
As soon as the gate of their enclosure was opened and the first lady released, she waddled of her own free will across the field, into the barn, and onto the milking stand. Her reward was a bucket of feed, as well of course as some blessed relief from the pressure of the enormous bulging bag of milk between her back legs.
Milking a goat is quite a strange experience. Its udders are basically small, hairy versions of human breasts; the small amount of familiarity which accompanies the total strangeness of squeezing milk out of the thing is quite disturbing. The technique of doing also takes some getting used to. My fingers were aching before the jar was full, half the time nothing came out, and at the end the goat began to get quite restless and impatient.
At the end of all this we had about five large jars of steaming milk, which the goats in turn seemed glad to be rid of. To a city-dweller like myself, there is something magical about seeing first-hand where food comes from; it makes the world seem a little less cold and systematised.
Later in the afternoon, we were driving in the centre of the city. Suddenly I noticed a red light on the dashboard which had not been illuminated before. The reason quickly became clear: the engine temperature was rising rapidly, and was soon off the scale. By the time I had found a space to park, there was smoke streaming out from under the engine cap.
Having left the engine to cool down for a while, we drove around for about ten minutes in search of a garage or at least a petrol station. But before long the temperature was once again off the scale. It was clear that we would have to fix the problem ourselves.
When we opened the engine cap, the problem seemed quite clear; there was no coolant in the reservoir. Around the next corner was a convenience store, where we were able to buy a large bottle of the stuff. With the tank topped up, we set off again, hoping that the problem had been solved.
It had not. After around ten minutes, the temperature once again began rising rapidly. By now, we were out of ideas.
Finally, we came across a petrol station. My reasoning for stopping there was that, surely, someone there would know some basic stuff about cars? This is the Motor City, for crying out loud.
But of course, the guy behind the plexiglass screen inside had no idea. With no further plan, I began reading the section “Troubleshooting: Overheating” in the Haynes manual tucked in the pocket behind the driver's seat. Nothing seemed like a likely cause.
Since we were at a petrol station anyway, we filled the van up - $80 of fuel and barely over half-full. While I was doing so, a homeless man asked me if I could given him a few dollars. I told him that this really wasn't the right time to be asking.
As we now stood staring at the engine, he approached us once again. “You got engine trouble?” he asked. Uh-huh. “I worked fifteen years in the auto industry. Lemme have a look at it.” he said. It didn't seem like the time to say no.
Turned out that it is not sufficient to fill the coolant reservoir: if the cooling system is really empty, you must also fill the radiator directly. Obvious perhaps if you know it, not at all if you don't.
So, about a quarter of an hour and maybe ten litres of water later, and the engine was running like a dream. I thanked our saviour heartily, and asked him if I could give him some money for his troubles - after first apologising for the knock-back the first time. He was happy to accept a donation.
His name is John. I asked him why he was homeless when he clearly has some useful skills. The reason he gave me was unsettling: he has developed arthritis, and so can no longer do heavy manual work - such as work in the motor trade. End of career, no safety net - and no medical insurance. He could be talking bullshit, but I had no reason to disbelieve him.
He pointed to the cross on the roof of a church a little further up on the other side of the road.
“See that cross?” he said, “that cross is for me.”
This is a hard place if you are unlucky.
I guess that these two experiences illustrate my impressions of this place so far: it is on the one hand a place of endless space, endless possibilities, and hands-on, practical solutions. On the other, it seems tragically dysfunctional, unable to implement the simplest things. Every day is fascinating.