Albion Through My Eyes
by Nicolás Dumit Estévez Raful
On Feet and Wheels
Much like a painter uses a paintbrush or a photographer deploys a camera as the tool to generate their work, I walk as art. So for close to two decades I have been treading urban as well as rural geographies step-by-step, block-by-block, and mile-by-mile. There is, for example, the two-day trip I made with support from Lower Manhattan Cultural Council and Franklin Furnace from Lower Manhattan to the far end of Queens, seeking to reach the Queens Museum. Prior to this, I spent a similar amount of time journeying again from the island of Manhattan to the Bronx on the U.S. mainland, the place that has become home for me. I have also walked up and down the narrow streets of Calaf, a town near Barcelona, Spain, in my attempt to meet as many of its inhabitants as possible. And here I am, walking in Albion, Michigan, not far from the iconic automobile capital of the world: Detroit.
The story goes that in the early ’60s, before I was born, my father Nicolás Estévez Espejo ran a travel business, through which he singlehandedly recruited and transported passengers from the northern part of the Dominican Republic to the northwest section of the country, not too distant from the neighboring Republic of Haiti. The biggest material assets of his entrepreneurial endeavor were of course his big cars, all of which were none other than Fords! Upon gathering this information from my uncle Badui, I thought about the non-visible webs connecting places and people in unsuspected ways. Here I am 50 years later in the same state where my father’s vehicles were manufactured, and so I can only wonder about what other links might exist between people in Albion and vicinity and my family’s story in the Caribbean. I reflect on this as I walk from one end to the other of Superior St. because, unlike my father, I never learned how to drive. While in Albion, I am relying on my feet and on the rides that I am offered to learn about life in the region.
The afternoon I strolled down Superior St. I did not expect to encounter a man coming out from behind a bush in back of the public library. The person happened to be a volunteer who was trimming a plant that I stopped to admire. I left our long conversation on New York and Michigan, and on weather and herbs with a delicate white Moon Flower in hand and five of the prickly pods that the gardener so purposely clipped and carefully discarded so as stop the plant from propagating. Days later, I needed to find my way to the supermarket and so I made my first stop at a gas station. A man who overheard the clerk point me in the direction of Family Fare waited for me outside to give me a ride in his car. He was originally from Albion but now lives in Ann Arbor. I tried not to peek into what he was sipping from his brown bag, his genuine kindness deflating my curiosity. Another day, at the farmers market, Kaye Wright introduced me to Sue Ott from Jolly Green Junction. How to get there was my first question to Sue after she gifted me with five straws filled with different kinds of honey. Is it walkable, I inquired? Before Sue could reply, Gail Reed responded with an offer for a ride, and gave me her telephone number and e-mail.
I have made it a ritual to drop whatever I am doing whenever I hear the trains in Albion approach town. If eating my Kellogg’s cereal, I put my spoon down. If counting sheep to try to fall sleep, I let go of the last one I numbered. If sitting by the river, I breathe slowly at the same time as I look at the shimmering current until the sound of the whistle fades into the horizon. I call this train meditation or train track prayer. The act of stopping what I am doing is meant to help me to turn my internal motor off, to park my body and put it in neutral. It is a nice interlude between walking and riding.
Now, traveling between Albion and the Bronx by public transportation is another story, a long, long, one. I can tell you that it took me hours searching online for ways to commute on my own back to the Bronx for short visits. Going to the Detroit airport once, Joe gave me a ride and we got there in less than an hour. But last week I arrived in Michigan from a weekend trip to New York by five modes of transportation: subway, city bus, airplane, taxi and finally Greyhound. It took almost two days to for me to see the “Welcome to Albion” sign. I thanked the Greyhound driver from the soles of my feet, wondering as I crossed two train tracks what the next rides and footsteps in town would unfold for me in the months to come.
This time I did not hold a silky Moon Flower in my hand but a rusty railroad nail that I found resting on the ground. With no train in sight, I kept up a rapid pace to my home on Cass St.