As the People’s Movement Assembly wound down we were directed by new friends to this annual event called the Buck Dinner. Which, again, just happened to be taking place that weekend. It was described to us as a Detroit progressive fundraising tradition. Beyond that, we had few details. The several people who recommended the dinner simply urged us to go see it. Some of us, including me, were feeling pretty wiped out after the PMA. The last thing I wanted to do was to go to another meeting and listen to another procession of speaker, leftist or not. One of our contacts in town, Adele Nieves, had been thinking about evening activities for us: art openings, dancing, dj nights, etc. We say, “What about the Buck Dinner? That guy over there says we should go…” And she says, “Oh, yes, go to that. Definitely go to the Buck Dinner!!” So it was settled.
out the Buck Dinner is a remnant ritual of the Old Left, having been first
staged in 1930 and every year since. Even as of a decade ago it was still an
event to which only socialists were welcome; the anarchists were turned away.
How it works: It was held in a big union hall, filled with folding tables of
the long kind, in a grid of probably 8 rows x 10 files. Each table had a name
card on it denoting a sponsor or “headhunter.” That person is responsible for
bringing in their own guests, and providing a spread of appetizers. So there
were different spreads of great food laid out between every so many tables;
some headhunters sponsored only one or two tables whole others had their name
on four or more. The headhunter collects donations from their guests. That
money goes to the pool, out of which grants are made to local progressive and
activist groups and projects, and to the coffers of some progressive candidates for office, too. You get a feel for the range of causes and groups by the different banners hung around the hall.
There were probably at the very least 400 people there. The proceedings included an hour long performance by a singing and acting troupe that played live acts from an old socialist radio show, that, I guess, used to actually air in the Detroit area. The singing was terrific, and the skits were all historically-based. This was truly the conscious working class reproducing its own culture and historical self-awareness. And I must say, all that happened in the Thirties, with the bankers and so forth, sounds so relevant today. At one point during the entertainment Amy Partridge turned to me and said that she had no idea that this kind of progressive culture was still extant in America. None of us visitors did.
The first Buck Dinner brought into seamless continuity the working class consciousness and the Michigan deer hunting tradition. Supposedly, lawyer Maurice Sugar and a group of labor activists turned a bagged buck into an opportunity to rasie funds and socialize, hence the name. The thing is, from the beginning, partly for reasons of tradition and partly for reasons of security, attendance at the event is by invitation only.
So we crashed the dinner. It took a little gutsy sweet talking, but once people got the story on us—being from out of town and visiting for the PMA—we were brought right into the party. We even found welcome at a table that a headhunter had been unable to fill. We sat at the table of Ronald D. Glotta, a longtime Detroit labor and civil rights lawyer. It worked out great; we happily made our donations. And we even ran into what by then felt like old friends: Rich and Bill (who, after running into me at both the panel on Friday and then at the PMA, marveled at the way we seemed to insinuate ourselves into everything leftist in cities strange to us), and Julie from the Labadie. Ron Scott, who we loved from the Friday night panel in Ann Arbor, was at a neighboring table. We got to give props in person, and while we were getting down on the introductions, I mentioned that the reason we made it to the panel was because we’d been reading issues of Inner City Voice at the Labadie. Then he says, “So you’re into Detroit radical history? Well, do you know who this guy is? Have you ever heard of the MC5?” And he grabs by the arm a tall, goateed fellow who was right then walking by. “You ever heard of John Sinclair?”
Oh, shit. More introductions. We were deep into it now.
I actually had the presence of mind to tell John Sinclair that I own a signed copy of Guitar Army that I bought at Maximus and Co. Booksellers in Birmingham, Michigan. And it was a good thing I did, too, because I think I may have blown his mind. He looked at me in utter disbelief and said “That was a long time ago!” You see, Maximus must have closed its doors in, oh, probably 1985. I said to him, “Hell, yeah! I was sixteen years old! The book changed my life!” Maybe an exaggeration...but, well...not really! Afterward, Rozalinda reminded me that in the right light, when you can't see my gray hair, somebody–especially somebody twenty or more years older than I–might think that I was only 30 years old.
Later the socializing turned into lazy pleasure, with Sarah, Amy, and Rozalinda chatting up Julie’s activist sister Elena Herrada, and me getting acquainted with others around me. Brian and Claire found some old-timers at another table.
We all left the wealthier in relationships and connection with history. Rich at one point said to me that the Dinner is great, but old. An old form for the old society. Knowing that the parking lot outside was full of private cars and that our long term future will not include such things, was indeed a reality check. Nonetheless, the Buck Dinner was in our estimation strong evidence of why capital has fled Detroit. The working class is just too damn bad ass there.
We ended the night at an art opening in this enormous old factory complex known as the Russell Industrial Center. I had not been in any art setting like it since visiting the massive Fontanian studios in the New Territories of Hong Kong; others from our group said that it reminded them of old factories taken over by artists and squatters in Europe. As impressive as the disused factory buildings are, the art exhibition was, to be generous, conventional; and to be critical, it was lame. Not only were they charging a cover fee for entry, but the art work visible from the entrance was so bad that Rozalinda and I didn't even bother going in. Claire talked the gatekeeper into letting her take a quick run through for free, since she gave up all her cash at the Buck Dinner. I spoke to a couple of people who'd just gone through and they didn't recommend going in. It was a given that our run of interesting and unexpected events would soon end. It was just all too predictable that the streak would run dry with a mediocre art show.