A Few PCBs

Nancy Nelson

Nancy Nelson

A Few PCBs was selected for MSUL’s themed call for work about Water, in coordination with the MSU Broad Art Museum’s fall 2023 exhibition, Flint is Family in Three Acts, featuring the photography of Latoya Ruby Frazier.

Last week the young woman who cut my hair kept up a steady stream of one-sided conversation while I sat in the chair. Callie grew up nearby in southeastern Michigan—a happy childhood playing in parks and swimming in lakes. She laughed, describing the Ford Lake of that time. "Oh yeah, we thought it was great—we'd swim around all day! I remember all the gas and oil floating on top. Didn't hurt me any, though. Not anybody else, either."
Pollution? Hailing from the Downriver area south of Detroit, I thought that was my specialty. The suburbs along the Detroit River and its tributaries are filled with factories large and small that have discharged chemical waste into the waters since the late 1800s. By the 1940s, nearly every trickle was fouled.
In the town where I grew up, the Frank and Poet Drain—we kids euphemistically referred to it as "the creek" —choked on bald tires, shopping carts, cardboard boxes, dead animals, and slimy sludge. Who cared? With no fear of what invisible agents might lurk in the bottom muck, we spent summer days poking around, netting crayfish, wading, turning over rocks. In a 1970s high school biology class, we focused an ecology unit on the Frank and Poet, only to classify its state as dismal (with a "poor distribution of benthic organisms").
The Detroit River stretches from the city itself south to Lake Erie. The towns along the river's twentieth century shore—the American side—were punctuated by Great Lakes Steel, Wyandotte Chemical Corporation, Monsanto, Chrysler Engine, Ford Stamping, and three coal-fueled power plants. Pennsalt Chemicals filled the air with stinking sulfur; McLouth Steel lit the night sky a glowing orange. The factories dominated our lives—jobs, houses, politics, public works, recreation, education, and the very air we breathed.
Built in the days when factory effluent seemed insignificant in comparison to the endless bounty of Michigan's lakes and rivers, these plants were regarded for decades as signs of progress. But by the early ‘60s, heavy contamination had spoiled the Detroit River so seriously that no one could ignore it. Fishermen threw back their catches—except for the folks who needed them for dinner. 
On summer days in Trenton's Elizabeth Park, my mom forbade me to put my feet in the river water that washed over rocks on the shore. 
"It sparkles!" I said. My sandaled toes perched just inches above the water's rhythmic lapping.
"No, it's polluted!" 
The word imbedded itself in my five-year-old brain as a bogeyman—poisonous, evil, life-threatening.
. . . . .
A recurring dream started then. I'm crossing Detroit's massive Ambassador Bridge to Canada on foot, gusts of wind heaving the metal beams and cables up, down, north, south. Instead of passing over on a solid concrete walkway, I hop from rickety wooden slat to slat, trying to miss the gaping holes where rotten boards have fallen away. Far below the swaying bridge I can see the Detroit River—swift, filthy, menacing. Only fancy footwork keeps me on course. Miraculously, I cross the span and do not fall in. I awake, sweating.
. . . . .
The last few family trips to Lake Erie's Sterling State Park found us on a beach littered with dead fish—alewives. Sometimes Mom allowed me to swim, but she warned, "Don't put your head underwater." She didn't use the P-word, but I understood her meaning.
. . . . .
Ford Lake, where Callie swam, is man-made, the product of damming the Huron River between Ypsilanti and Belleville. Such a lovely name—"beautiful town," in French. Ford Motor Company named the lake, of course. One of the company's components plants, now closed, rests, solid and visible along the water's edge. Adjacent lies Belleville (originally Edison) Lake, also artificial. Damming provided hydroelectric power to Ford and other industrial concerns, which sent their unpleasant by-products burbling directly into the lake and then downstream, unhindered. 
We kids splashed in the prosperity of our forebears.
. . . . .
My junior year of college, Mom was diagnosed with breast cancer, had a brutal radical mastectomy, then chemotherapy. I ran back and forth—college, home, back again, struggling with classes. A young man—a chemistry major I was convinced was the great love of my life—graduated, leaving me behind for Harvard. 
My dream visits me again in the night. I stumble on the Ambassador's rotten slats, stomach seizing, feeling the swinging expanse is more treacherous than ever. But once again I reach the Canadian side. To no one in particular I whisper, "I'm still here."
. . . . .
Again and again, my dream visits me, sustains me, right on cue. Mom dies, another boyfriend leaves me.  
In my sixties comes another alignment of emotional slashings: my last child heads off to college, my father's long and painful decline into dementia ends in death. Divorce, after twenty-four years of marriage. I wallow in the isolated life of pandemic seclusion. 
I'm awake this time when I console myself. I'm from Downriver. The river's heavy metals, polychlorinated biphenyls, and coal-fire residues have inoculated me, given me resilience. As always.... I'm still here. I'm sure of this now. 

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