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The People of Detroit: Mysteries and Enigmas | by Noah Stephens
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The People of Detroit: Mysteries and Enigmas

Canon EOS 5D Mark II | Canon 50mm 1.4 | Available Light

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I was around 12-years-old when my father took time off from his day job as a traveling absentee father, and arranged to finally meet the most handsome and best-smelling of his nine abandoned children.


The meeting place was my childhood home on a bright, sunny, summer afternoon. I remember feeling a roiling storm of contradictory emotions: hurt and anticipation, anger and curiosity. More than anything else, I looked forward to unloading 12 years of playing-catch-with-a-brickwall animus on its deserving progenitor.


Being the emotional genius that my poppa is(was?), he anticipated a less than welcoming reception. In an attempt to preempt and ameliorate my prepubescent indignation, he came bearing gifts.


My mother must have told him I was into learning and shit, because he arrived with a milkcrate packed neatly with 12-15 hardcover books that collectively comprised an edition of the World Book Encyclopedia that was about 20 years out of date.


Before I could launch into The Airing of Grievances he produced a vaguely familiar broad smile and said "these are for you."


He told me a "friend" gave him these books to give to me.


Over the years, I set aside the animosity I had for my father. I realized that he was absent not because I was an unworthy son but because he was a unworthy father. Nature has installed remarkably efficient mechanisms for making babies, but it has far fewer fail safes for making parents. Once I recognized that my father was absent because nature simply did not equipped him to be a parent, I could no more be angry at him for depriving me of a father, than I could be angry at clouds for depriving me of sunshine.


Even still, one question lay dormant whispering softly yet persistently for an answer: who the f-word was papa's encyclopedia-fairy friend?


Last week while I was out exploring a historic Detroit landmark for the (ashamedly) first time, fate introduced me to the answer to this lingering mystery. Fate also introduced me to a brand new enigma.


I wandered into the foyer of John K. King Used and Rare Books and was met by... a collection of World Book Encyclopedias, milkcrates, and a sign:


"Free books. Please do not take crates"


And with that, I was introduced to my father's "friend." One mystery solved. Now, the enigma...


As I mined the expansive, wonderfully dusty shelves of John K. King's store for vintage photography and science literature I knew I wanted to share the awesomeness of this place by sharing the story of one of its patrons in The People of Detroit.


I initially put a call out on Twitter and Facebook asking fans of this place to inbox me. I got a few replies, but this whole approach just didn't seem right. I started this project because I wanted to profile people who I just happened across in my daily life as a Detroiter. Putting out a casting call on the net just seemed antithetical to the project's spirit.


I decided to go about finding a subject the old fashioned TPOD way: by standing around in one place like a creep and waiting for an interesting person to happen across. I did that for about 45 minutes and was on my way out of the door when the young woman pictured above walked in.


When I was planning this photo - before I had even found a subject - I previsualized a person with interesting eyes looking at the camera through the selves. I was excited when I saw Tracy (Traci, Trace?). She personified what I was looking for.


I usually feel a certain level of self-consciousness when I approach complete strangers and ask them to take their picture. I suppressed that inhibition, approached Tracy, and shook her hand - firmly. I consider all handshakes a referendum on the shakers' respective willingness to skin a bear, eat its innards and wear the inside of its head as a ceremonial hat. Tracy must have a similar philosophy because her handshake was competitively firm.


Then again, it may have something to do with the firm grip she undoubtedly developed when her dad taught her how to fly planes when she was a teen. Or maybe it was her background as a Taekwondo black belt. Or the fact that in her spare time, she likes to watch documentaries on Navy SEALS.


I never would have guessed any of this from looking at her. An enigma indeed.


We talked for a good thirty minutes about her plans to travel across Asia, her sports medicine studies at Wayne State University, and about the scar she got when she injured her Achilles Heal doing Taekwondo and how a tendon was taken from elsewhere in her leg, stretched down to and looped through a hole drilled in her heel bone.


"And after all that, you still do Taekwondo?"




I didn't ask, but I'm pretty sure Tracy actually has ceremonial empty bear head at home. Such a pleasantly unusual young woman.


I gave her a card for TPOD, but neglected to get any contact information for her - hence why I'm unsure about how her name is exactly spelled. As of this writing, I haven't heard anything from her, so as it stands, I've solved one mystery and met one enigma.


I'm fine with that.


[View the ongoing project and meet more of: The People of Detroit ]


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Taken on August 18, 2011