Blue Jays and White People

What's the best thing to do when a stranger jumps out of an SUV and starts taking pictures of your house? Do what I did: invite them inside.

In my west side Detroit neighborhood, white people are like blue jays: They are rare enough that you pay attention when they land, but once they are gone, you move on with your day as if nothing special happened.

On the other hand, when one jumps out of an SUV and starts taking pictures of your house, (a white person, not a blue jay), well, that’s special.Blue Jay I

I was sitting on the sun porch recently when I spotted Camera Lady taking pictures of the side of our corner house from across the side street. From there she moved around to get shots of the back. Walking briskly, she then went  around to get three-quarter shots of the front and side of the house. When she walked to the front for some dead-on photos, followed by the SUV, it became clear that this was no ordinary sighting of the species.

Hoping not to frighten this rare bird away, I went to the front door and gently called out, “Can I help you?”

“I used to live in this house,” came the full-throated reply.

Her name is Marsha Bell, 65. Patricia B. Williams, 67, is her sister. Behind the wheel was their good friend since childhood, Carol A. Klausing, 65. Much to their delight, I invited them in to see for themselves how this particular little nest in Rosedale Park has changed.

They spent an hour or so gleefully roaming around the ground floor and basement, reminiscing, asking questions, pointing and providing me a history lesson on the house.

The sisters moved into the house with their parents in 1961. They had come from a house on Plainview, not far from ours, that their father, Oliver Hyde Bell, had built.

Bell was an electrical engineer who was quite handy.  The sisters told me he constructed the living room fireplace, among many other projects.

“He never called a handyman,” said Pat. “He did all the work on the house himself.”

In the basement, Marsha walked to a spot where her father had his work bench. There is nothing against that wall now, but in her mind’s eye, she could see that bench, and that made her tear up. Their father died at age 90 in 2009.

Marsha and Pat also told how their mother, Lucile, used to do hair in the basement. One of her customers was Carol’s mother. For Lucile, it was extra money: She worked for years as a beautician at Kern’s Department store and later, Hudson’s, two Detroit traditions that are lodged only in memory. The sisters are proud that their mother volunteered to do the hair of women who were shut-in. Lucile was 93 when shed died two years ago.

Upstairs, the sisters marveled at the walls and doors that have been removed since they left; the hardwood floors that where hidden by the wall-to-wall carpeting so popular back in the day; and the appliances that are built into the kitchen counter top.

I explained why I ripped out the window seat in the living room that they remembered with fondness. They agreed that it’s removal made the room seem bigger. In fact, to all of them the house was brighter and more open than it was 50 years ago.

The sisters were in Detroit to take pictures of all the houses that had been in their lives, not only ours. In addition, they had been in Chelsea to visit family graves.

Pat and I have another connection. She lives in Norfolk, Va., a city I lived and worked in back in the early ’80s. She was there at the time, being the first faculty member of Eastern Virginia Medical School in 1972.  She is a clinical pharmacologist with a Ph.D, and still teaches there.

Marsha took after her dad. She has a degree in mechanical engineering. She now runs a bed and breakfast in Sandpoint, ID with her husband.  Carol, the sister’s friend and driver for the day, grew up in a house down the street from ours. She now lives in Novi.

The Bells sold this house in 1972. Melba and I moved here in 2000. We purchased it from the estate of retired Detroit police officer. Finding out who owned the house between him and the Bell sisters is entirely possible, but that’s no fun. Better to keep an eye out for people jumping out of vehicles with cameras and stories to tell.


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James E. Kenyon

James is the publisher and editor of Page One Post. He was a newspaper reporter in Detroit and Norfolk, VA, before working in the corporate communications departments at a number of Michigan companies. His last stint was 18 years at Chrysler Corporation, where he handled media relations, product and marketing PR and speech writing. He retired from Chrysler in 2007. He enjoys listening to jazz, good cigars and bourbon Manhattans, often at the same time. He and his partner, Melba, live in Detroit's Rosedale Park neighborhood.