Or How a New Yorker came to pen a novel set in Detroit and embrace his place in the Detroit Diaspora

It started with a visit to Detroit in 2010. To bona fide Detroit, as we’d say back in the day on the northwest side. South of 8 Mile Detroit. Back to the place where I’d come of age in the ’70s. Where I did a fateful stint as an undergraduate. 

And the place where my college friend was murdered, his bright light snuffed out by gun violence. 

The other times I’d returned, I’d limited myself to the “Detroit Metro” area, traversing the double-digit mile roads to the north. Offering me safer passage, so I’d thought. 

But I’d read the articles, seen the images of post-apocalyptic Detroit; something unthinkable and impossible had happened to the place that I knew only an on-site witnessing could fully capture. My old stomping ground, seared in memory from three decades before, was now a shell of its former self.  

In my first-person novel Detroit Unrequited, the protagonist, Tony D’Marino, narrates his shock upon returning after decades away. His cover for the visit is a business opportunity, a venture capital project to create for-profit medical clinics on the northwest side. He enlists the help of a realtor and fast friend, Alberta, for the task; but the trip is more a moth-like return to the scene of a traumatic loss. 

Tony dwells in a state of quiet desperation. He’s constructed what he calls a “safe, controlled, hermetically sealed existence.” But beneath this carefully curated facade, he’s mired in survivor guilt. Tony nurses a lifelong case of what he’s dubbed PTSDtroit that he self-medicates at happy hour and stints in and out of therapy.

Alberta gets him. She becomes an unwitting muse on his search for answers to essential questions he’s dodged for decades — about his buddy Roman’s unsolved murder and unfinished aspects of himself left at the scene. A “coming of age” tale derailed and unrequited:  

In minutes the Lodge disgorged us onto 6 Mile, aka McNichols Road. The landscape changed dramatically with each successive block from the exit, heading east toward my old neighborhood, the University District. … It came as a shock, like witnessing the aftermath of a nuclear detonation or some relentless tornado of biblical proportions.

I instinctively hit the window button, like a mechanical blink or click of a mouse, as if movement of the glass would reset the picture: change up reality to match my memory from decades past. Even the smells—the freshly cut lawns, fried fast food and family run Italian restaurants, the Kosher delis and bakeries, mingling with pungent automotive eau de Detroit, the freshly pumped gas and meticulously detailed cars, had all been downgraded. Replaced by a miasma of musty scents, remnants of torched or decaying properties laced with whiffs of car exhaust from rust-pocked mufflers—automotive victims of harsh economic times. 

Boarded up storefronts, beautiful Tudor and Deco low rise buildings, once occupied by grocers and cobblers, hair salons and decorators, card and book shops, banks and liquor stores, delis and coffee shops, even a few fine restaurants, were now mostly abandoned or burned out. … The side streets off 6 Mile, once chockablock with handsome bungalows built by skilled craftsmen, were now mostly run down, torched, or reduced to moldering piles of rubble. Just hints of former lives, vestigial foundations on overgrown lots. 

Some appeared occupied but marginally kept. A handful still impeccable, standing their ground. Mute testaments to Northwest Detroit in its heyday, like museum dioramas neatly displayed behind manicured lawns. 

“So this looks like a prime area for your sites I’d say.” 

Alberta was spot on. She slowed to a crawl and pulled up in front of several high potential properties along 6 Mile Road heading East toward Livernois Avenue, my old stomping grounds. 

We made several stops along the way, quick walk-throughs of generic, cinder block commercial buildings, and a few more decorative Tudor and Art Deco style strip malls peppered with a few local businesses, still standing, but in disrepair. We’d made quick work and only an hour and a half had passed. 

That’s when it hit me. We were only blocks away from Roman’s last pad, on Martin, in Palmer Park.

(From Chapter 11 - Palmer Park Renovation - Spring 2013)

My Detroit friends and family were sympathetic at first as I expressed my own shock and disbelief at the scene on the ground. But written across carefully curated faces and lacing empathic words was the real message; move along now—-nothing to see here. Then, a hearty genug! Enough already from the east coast chapter of the Detroit Diaspora. 

I’d instantly become a member of a club I hadn’t known existed.  And Yiddishisms are common parlance in NYC, so I didn’t need a translation. I could feel their pain, a kinship with them as fellow victims. We had all lost some cherished part of our Motor City and its edgy, driving energy. Shared memories of cruising all 140 miles of the place, in perfectly detailed rides, a perpetual Motown soundtrack in our heads, in search of a nosh, or some exciting adventure just ahead. On roadways so iconic they didn’t need formal designation; not necessary to stipulate “Avenue” or “Boulevard” or “Road.” Just simply Woodward, Grand River or Six Mile, all you need.  

The protagonist, Tony D’Marino, revels in this essential Detroit vibe, while struggling to hold on in the undertow; a foreboding that came naturally to him. Il Malocchio, the Evil Eye, threatening to engulf the incomparable beauty and grandeur of the place. He senses the City is on an inexorable, downhill slide, like his life, in some inkling of a coming of age soon derailed: 

Belle Isle was a magical, transitional space of unfettered possibilities, just off the shore in the Detroit river. … 

Fishing murky waters, silently awaiting a flirtation from stray Lake St. Clair perch just up river, or the more plentiful but sketchy, high mileage river bass, old men positioned themselves at the shoreline, waiting patiently in folding chairs. Juxtaposed were home boys and girls drinking Colt 45 magnum and smoking reefer, undulating to ear splitting boom boxes, waving at buses of gleeful children on school excursions, sprung from their classroom constraints just like us. The school kids passing on waves in turn to church ladies out for a stroll in full regalia, their garish Beaux Arts hats flapping in brisk river breezes, like Jehovah Witness “Flying Nuns.”

The place did feel open and free. but for me, such good feelings were perennial double-edged swords. Holding potential for an equal and opposite set of circumstances. … I pushed the nagging unease down a notch, overlooking the increasingly hard facts. Like the City’s growing legacy of armed robberies, drug busts, racial skirmishes and assaults, and the murders, of course.

(From Chapter 37 - Belle Isle - Spring 1975

The gap I’d experienced on that visit south of 8 Mile, between the eerily present and the ghostly absent, had triggered a painful reminiscence. But I instinctively knew this reaction also beckoned me, offering me another step forward in the mourning process. A new way to transform the pain of an unbearable truth, to make meaning from the meaningless, on my personal ground zero. A process that simple admonishments to “move along” didn’t quite capture or couldn’t quite assuage my survivor guilt, even after so many years.

It was that visit that finally moved me to begin Detroit Unrequited, to try to capture my experience through a fictional narrative. And in hopes I might articulate an experience I shared with the scores of victims of gun violence left in the wake of our uniquely American epidemic. 

My years of professional practice as a Psychologist and Psychoanalyst, bearing witness to many struggles to mourn, but also, the transformations possible when living through and with traumatic loss, helped me access the strength to do it. Helped me to more fully process the impact of sudden loss that had carried through my own life and work, like an unfinished chapter scribbled hastily in the margins.

The months turned to years as Detroit Unrequited unfolded, taking shape around the murder — one of many left unsolved from the City’s rapid devolution in the 1970s. A memoir would have been too revealing, given my professional role. And during the ensuing years of practice as a psychologist, I had come to understand the power of fiction to foster emotional connections to the past and a way forward, at a safer distance. And discovering along the way how shards of memory could inform a narrative, could fashion a transitional space for the spirit but also the strife of those tumultuous decades, from the ‘70s to the 2010s, to emerge in the process.  

In working though my personal trauma around that loss, I turned the fictional plot over to the characters I’d created. Feeling at times as if the writing was out of my hands, yet still, imbued with the pain and longing I also knew from my work with the victims of trauma. Haruki Murakami, the extraordinary fiction writer, described a similar process of letting his characters inhabit the fictional space to interact and tell the tale they needed to tell. 

Tony (aka T), and his old friend and unrequited love, Chaka, tell us about the different spaces they now occupy, the paths they’ve traversed, the mourning they’ve done, and for T, still a work in progress. They share their experience of living with their past in the present, and we join them as they reconnect to each other, and this loss, still fresh after decades apart. Chaka’s seemingly simple hospitality opens a space for a revisiting of what was lost and engaging with what remains:

“That’s full fat milk, two sugars, then the coffee, poured from exactly one foot above the mug. Warms and froths the milk for a perfect blend,” she annotated her pour.

Yes indeed my sweet, you are so right.”

I was moved to tears by her perfect memory of how I took my coffee.…

“I will not say goodbye this time. Stay as long as you like. Just close the door behind you. It’s set to lock. And please, please, don’t disappear on me again, hear?”

I reached with my right hand for hers, gently kissed it, then mindlessly nibbled on the index finger on my left. I’d limited myself over the years to his one venue, leaving the cuticle raw, ravaged.

I choked back a sob, a deep sense of relief at reconnecting at last to someone else I hadn’t fully grasped was missing.

Chaka didn’t miss a trick. 

“T–they don’t feed you in Manhattan, or what?”

“Oh—just a nervous habit.”

“Now T–tapping your fingers on the desk for a few secs is a nervous habit. Scratching your chin is a nervous habit. This is a whole other thing, no? Gnawing at yourself. Have you ever talked to…?”

“Yes–the couch even. You should have seen me 20 years ago. I broke the habit of smacking myself upside the head.”...

“I’m sorry, T.  Really, really sorry.  But I think it’s the time and the place for you to get to the other side of this.  The other side of Roman. Of Belle Isle. I think it would help if you try to see this place a bit differently. I know it’s not easy to let go of what was. I feel it myself. The before is gone here. I am trying to make peace with the new reality on the ground too.”

(From Chapter 39 - Chaka and T Do-over - Spring 2023

I grew to love these characters in Detroit Unrequited as their narrative evolved. And I am grateful to them for what feels to me a ”good enough” outcome. 

The reactions of my Detroit friends and family to my shock at witnessing life south of 8 Mile, along with Murakami’s advice to fashion a space for characters to live their narrative, had propelled me forward. And shifts in thinking on traumatic loss over the last decades — from Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ “Stages of Grief” (that didn’t quite capture my species of unrequited mourning) to Psychologist Pauline Boss’ more recent and resonant construct of “Ambiguous Loss” and the “myth of closure” — all helped me to make space for the characters to work through their painful nostalgia. 

Tony continues his feverish search for answers to his essential questions, leaving him rattled. Pulled full-tilt back to his adolescent escapes, numbing himself on boozy binges with pharmacological chasers to cope with the deeper pain of this loss. In this scene, we join him as he reaches out to an old friend after years away, plying himself with nostalgic fantasies and some classic Detroit comfort food to manage his feelings. But he’s also reaching out to people in the process, both new and old relationships, on this journey to fully occupy the present:


I hung a quick right into the parking lot of a Elias Big Boy.  Ordered up a sky-high banana cream pie and a coffee, the beginning of what was becoming a serious caffeine and pastry binge. Titrating my morning Ativan with a little sugar and caffeine kick was very much in order after that visit to Detroit Homicide. 

I began a full blown reunion fantasy. Heard Coleen squeal with delight. Saw her call a “pop-up” party in my honor. 

I was hangin’ 10 on a manic wave of nostalgia.

I pulled alongside the curb at 25 Dupont Circle, and slid into park, just the two of us, the Mustang and me, idling anxiously together. Then I went into familiar deliberations:

Should I walk right up the circular drive, big as life, just ring her bell? Better yet, circle in, lower the passenger window, do a quick honk and cruise up just like the old days?

(From Chapter 33 - To Reach Dupont, Just head Due North from Detroit Homicide - Belle Isle - Spring 2013)

And so this project brought me back — back to my Detroit. The City of relentless driving energy, of rough edges and dings, of heartthrobs and heartaches, that had so captivated me, decades before. Helping me engage and transform the memories through this novel, for better or worse. And no longer avoiding full engagement in fear of encountering the painful ones. Not unlike the process of mourning the characters in Detroit Unrequited moved through, living their Detroit, their lives on the ground over many challenging decades. 

The protagonist, Tony, plays catch up at first to his Detroit friends and family. Finally getting to his unfinished work.  Arriving at a true acceptance, a true remembrance through living with and not without this warded off past. 

Forging new memories.  

Forging his Nu Detroit. 


Contact for the Author:  detroitunrequited@gmail.com