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Within easy walking distance

Recently, I stopped by to visit an old neighbor — more accurately, our local branch of an old neighbor — the Salvation Army.

There, I met with Maj. Prezza Morrison.

Prezza is the daughter of a high school classmate of mine, John Morrison. John and his wife also served as officers in the Salvation Army, as did Prezza’s grandparents. She has pictures of the lot of them displayed on the bookshelves of her office.

John hasn’t changed much.

Her office was clean, efficiently arranged, ready for business. Always, there’s work to be done.

That old neighbor? When I was 19 years old, I lived on the top floor of an apartment building on the corner of Cass Avenue and Alexandrine in Detroit. The Andora Hotel was across the street on Cass. Next to it was the Salvation Army’s Harbor Lights Mission Center.

The Harbor Lights Mission, the Andora Hotel, more bars than were needed, dingy eateries, liquor stores too brightly lighted, flophouses, storefront churches, my apartment building, and a funeral home made up the neighborhood — one populated by a cross-section of humanity that included outliers like me.

This was the heart of “Cass Corridor” — otherwise known as skid row.

Five blocks north, within easy walking distance, was a different world: Wayne State University, one of our country’s major urban universities. I was a student there. The cultural center of Detroit, with its theaters, libraries, and museums surrounded the university.

Every day, I walked a cultural transition. An experience that provided an education for which I received no diploma but one that left an impression indelibly — if not visibly — written in the resume of my life.

Many people in the corridor were empty or in a process of being emptied: a diminishing light limited their vision.

One could see the effect of that limitation by looking in their eyes. Mental illness, alcohol, misfortune, intolerance, or dreams ended by unfathomable betrayal had moved them to despair.

For a 19-year-old boy from Alpena, Michigan, it was a revelation.

In contrast, people around the university were full of life or being filled with its opportunities.

Some of the smartest people I have ever encountered I encountered there. There was music, art, theater, social sciences, the hard sciences, medicine, law — all open for exploration, revelations of a different sort from those offered in the corridor.

To survive required assistance.

“Frantic Ern,” a DJ on Detroit’s WJLB radio, helped to fill that need.

Ernie worked from no playlist, followed no script, said what he knew folks needed to hear, gave rambling, off-the-cuff commercials that could go on for a couple of minutes. He played music people needed to hear, laying down a rhythm and blues soundtrack calculated to get folks through.

Even the legless guy who pushed what was left of himself around on a wheeled cart using his knuckles moved to rhythms laid down by Ern — who wouldn’t last the length of one of his commercials in today’s world of canned corporate radio.

Frantic, a dab of a potion of toleration, and a measure of tincture of fortitude got me through, and it was good they did, for, as it turned out, I would see it all again.

To people in the corridor, the Salvation Army ministered, giving them food and shelter — but those were not the most important things they provided.

For 24 years, I was a judge.

I saw the results of abuse and neglect, observed the victims of intolerance, hate, ignorance, and greed. I witnessed the results of betrayal by those who stole innocence. I saw the light in people’s souls flicker.

Not the brightest light, I nevertheless tried to bring some: respect for a person’s human dignity, compassion — those important things the Salvation Army tried so hard to provide to those with whom I lived. Those things that — wherever we live, however we worship, whatever our race, sexual orientation, national origin — whatever our circumstance — none of us can exist without.

Doug Pugh’s “Vignettes” runs weekly on Saturdays. He can be reached at pughda@gmail.com.

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