Here’s a diversity question some Detroit lunchgoers try to answer in 1983: Is E.T. black? 2,312 words. Illustration by Thomas Warming.
When General Motors announced its plan to save the auto industry with its first space mission to the moon Titan of the planet Saturn, the mission called for something special: burgers at Archibald’s Lunch. Despite its location just down Monroe Street in Greektown, Archibald’s Lunch was not at all Greek but was owned by a small wiry black man who never smiled. Archibald served burgers and tuna melts only. The tuna melts weren’t any good, and Archibald gave anyone who ordered a tuna melt such a fearsome look that the guilty party quickly called for a burger instead.
The foursome meeting up for lunch were dentist Mary, her hygienist Ramona, Detroit Free Press reporter Hollis, and the newspaper’s pop music critic Joe. Mary and Joe didn’t know each other. “Holy Moley, aren’t you the wife of our former movie critic, Carl Corbin?” he said to Mary when he met her.
“Ex-wife,” Mary said quickly. “Very ex. Since last month.”
“His desk used to be right next to mine.” Joe paused. “Unusual kind of a fellow. That whole E.T. thing. What a fracas.”
“Fracas is a newspaper word, Joe,” Hollis exclaimed. “It’s like brouhaha. We write it, but nobody actually says it.” Even as Hollis spoke, he knew he couldn’t stop the conversation from veering toward the biggest fracas in recent Free Press history.
Carl had served a brief term as movie critic after completing his master’s in Film Studies at the University of Michigan. At the time he was abruptly let go, Free Press editors mumbled something about taking the Entertainment Now section in a new direction. But it was generally understood that the new guy from L.A. had been fired for not liking E.T.
Now, Mary was no critic — but if Carl had only asked her, she might have suggested that, in a town with an unemployment rate of 17 percent, where a young Chinese-American named Vincent Chin got beaten to death outside a topless bar just because two white auto workers thought he was Japanese, where thousands of desperate former auto workers were flowing like an oil leak to Texas or California seeking jobs, if he was even thinking of calling E.T. The Extraterrestrial, the biggest feel-good movie of 1982 and maybe of all time, “a maudlin self-indulgent wallow in Steven Spielberg’s affluent childhood angst with a tired sci-fi twist,” maybe he ought not to.
Much of the avalanche of hate mail that ensured came directly to Carl and Mary’s downtown townhouse in Lafayette Park. Carl never read the letters. Instead, he used his newfound freedom to work on his newest screenplay: Why Here?, a story of “the relentlessly downbeat nature of young life, love and career in the depressed Motor City.” It was only a few weeks ago that Carl decided he should complete this reality-based story from a surfside apartment in Malibu.
“Well, it was a fracas…”
“Archibald’s. Shall we?” Hollis interrupted Joe, gesturing toward the door.
It was the first time this summer that any of them had been to Archibald’s. It felt good to be back. “Hey, Archibald,” Mary called out.
“Back atcha, Dr. Mary. Long time no see.” Archibald looked dapper in his white paper cap and apron. His wife Marla was in the back, placing giant plastic jars of ketchup, mustard and sweet pickle chips into a big walk-in refrigerator with a steel door heavy as a bank vault’s, apparently designed to stop condiment thieves dead in their tracks.
Mary, Ramona, Hollis and Joe took seats on tall stools at the white Formica counter, slick and flawless as an ice rink after the Zamboni. The four were soon presented with burgers (no tuna melts) — always top ground sirloin and served very rare, neatly wrapped in wax paper and stuffed into cardboard boxes, alongside a handful of paper napkins and an overflow of crunchy corkscrew Whirly Fries.
“They’re just like my hair!” crowed Ramona, picking up a fry and stretching it out straight, then doing the same with one of her bright orange curls. “So, Hollis, tell me everything!”
Hollis scowled. “About what?”
“Beats me. If you want any news on General Motors, or spaceships, or freakin’ Saturn, I’m afraid you’ll have to speak with Stanley Binder.”
“Who’s Stanley Binder?”
“Hollis isn’t covering the GM space mission anymore, Ramona. His editor gave the story to Stanley Binder, the auto reporter,” said Mary, giving Ramona a gentle but firm kick with her ankle boot.
“Thanks, Mary, but I’m over it,” Hollis said. “At least I’ll never again have to write the phrase, ‘Detroit’s first fully-appointed interplanetary luxury vehicle…’”
“Actually, I had lunch with Stanley Binder on Friday,” Joe noted.
“How many minutes before he mentioned his Pulitzer for covering the 1967 Detroit riots?” demanded Hollis.
“Stan’s got a Sunday mag piece coming out all about Saturn’s moon Titan,” said Joe, ignoring Hollis. “He interviewed a bunch of NASA guys and researchers from the University of Michigan, and even somebody out there at Caltech. That’s in Hollywood, isn’t it?”
“Pasadena. Well, what about it?” asked Hollis, curious in spite of himself.
“Stanley said the Voyager I and II missions brought back pictures of Titan in 1980 and 1981, but they didn’t have much luck getting anything on film except for orange clouds. It’s like whenever I go on vacation to Colorado, I try to take photos of the stars but I just end up with all these black photos. The wife hates that. But scientists think there might be some really interesting stuff under the clouds.”
“Like what?” Ramona asked.
“They think the clouds indicate that Titan has air. Not like our air, different air, but still air. And it might be a lot like a frozen version of planet Earth, with lakes made of gasoline instead of water.”
“We already printed that,” grumbled Hollis.
“Yeah, but there’s more,” said Joe as he polished off his last three Whirly Fries. “They figure that some parts, under the clouds, might actually be warm enough for real water. Some of these science guys figure there’s a small spot, say five miles in diameter, on the surface of Titan where the weather patterns may actually mimic those of suburban Detroit.”
“Get outta here!” Hollis threw a Whirly Fry at Joe. “The temperature on Saturn is 287 degrees below zero.”
“It is like suburban Detroit,” Ramona said of the city’s frozen winters. “Hah!”
“Detroit on Saturn’s moon Titan,” Hollis mused. “I wonder whether it has a good library and safe public schools. Or have they, like Saturn’s other frozen moons, experienced the problem of white flight?”
“Who said there was a they?” saidJoe, shaking his head. “So far, nobody has said life. All Detroit is doing is sending up a probe to gather scientific data.” He paused. “Besides, only you would wonder whether or not there are black neighborhoods on Saturn, Hollis.”
“Well, why not?” Ramona asked. “After all, the most famous alien of all time is black.”
“Who?” asked Hollis.
“E.T.?” said Hollis
“E.T.?” echoed Mary.
“Yeah, E.T. is black,” Ramona replied. “At least, I think so. Don’t you think so, Mary?”
Mary considered it for a moment. “Yeah. Sure. I guess so.” She returned her full concentration to eating fries.
“E.T. is not black,” Hollis said.
“How would you know?” Ramona asked.
“How would you know?” countered Hollis, feeling vaguely insulted, though not quite sure why.
“E.T. is a fictional character,” Joe offered gently.
“How can you tell whether a guy from another planet is black or not, Ramona?” Hollis grumbled. “That’s like trying to tell whether a reporter is black by looking at his byline in the newspaper.”
“Hey, I can tell by looking at your byline,” Ramona replied crisply. “Hollis Monroe Warfield III? Please. You’d have to be either a Louisiana riverboat captain, or a middle-class black guy from Detroit. Besides, I can tell E.T. is black the same way I can tell you’re black, Hollis — by looking at him. He’s the same color as you.”
“Believe it or not, that’s the first time anyone has ever pointed that out to me.” Hollis laughed. “Okay. Maybe E.T. is black. I like it. I’m sure ace movie critic Carl Corbin could have waxed eloquent on the topic.”
“Oh, let that white boy stay out there in California by his pool,” Ramona exclaimed. She was always proud to have grown up in downtown Detroit instead of the suburbs with all those white people.
Hollis didn’t have the heart to remind Ramona that she was white people.
“So what do you think, Joe?” Ramona asked. “Is E.T. black?”
“No comment. I cover pop music, not movies,” Joe said. “But I certainly hope the music is better in outer space. Do you realize Duran Duran’s Hungry Like The Wolf has been at the top of the Billboard charts for three weeks? Want to know the greatest hits of the past two years? 1981, Diana Ross and Lionel Ritchie singing Endless Love. 1982, Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder giving us Ebony And Ivory. Identical plastic turds, those songs are. The music is bad, the economy is bad, the weather is bad and the cars are ugly. I tell you, I’d hate to be young in Detroit in 1983.”
“We don’t do it on purpose,” Hollis agreed.
“What do you think, Archibald?” Ramona asked, turning away from her companions.
“Excuse me, young lady?” Archibald said, shocked that the orange-haired woman with the angelic face, the one who had compared her curls to a Whirly Fry, was addressing him.
“E.T.,” Ramona said.
“Do you think E.T. is black?”
“E.T.? Little dude from the movie?”
“Is he black?”
“That’s what I’m asking.”
“Naw,” Archibald said, smacking two raw burger patties onto the grill. “He space people.”
“Yeah, but that’s not what I want to know. I want to know whether or not you think he’s black.”
“Ramona, I’m not sure Archibald has time to talk about this,” Mary warned, watching Archibald’s sharp facial features rearrange into an even less friendly expression than usual.
There was a long pause as the burgers sizzled alarmingly. Then Archibald whirled around to face his customers. “Yes, I have time to talk about this. I most definitely have time to talk about this. Every day, every single day, I come in here and fry burgers,” Archibald began. “End up being about hundred burgers a day. That’s a lotta burgers, a lotta buns, a lotta them little tiny onions. Marla cuts up all them onions by hand, and I ain’t never microwaved them buns. I got a kid in community college at Macomb. He’s not Marla’s kid, he’s from before, but she treats him just like her kid, God bless her, even though he kind of a pain sometimes, although thank you Lord he don’t do drugs or nothin.’ And we get here at 7 a.m. because that’s when they deliver the pickles. You want to know how bad the economy is right now? I tell you how bad. Guy came in here other day asked me to make him a burger because he lost his house and he and his family, they been sleeping in they car. They car. And it’s a convertible. Anyway, I give him a whole bag. And they ain’t the only people sleeping in they cars, let me tell you. Another guy come in all happy cuz he just had a baby, this real cute little baby, except they had to have him right out there on the street on this old blanket cuz they don’t have medical or anyplace to live. Whole bunch of people moving out, and I ain’t blame them, but where they gonna go? Like it any better in Florida or Kansas or Texas. Still ain’t any jobs for people, a lot of ‘em end up just turning around and coming back broker than they was before. And we give away a lot but we don’t have enough burgers for everyone. We got this kid at Macomb. Marla never complains about the bills or anything even though it ain’t her kid, bless her heart. And then you come in here, in your nice warm coats from your nice warm jobs, probably in some kind of nice car, and sit down at my lunch counter, order you a bunch of burgers, and sit there eating my Whirly Fries, which is my very own invention and my own special recipe, and ask me whether space people black. Space people black! Nothin’ ever gonna be the same in this town again, and you want to know whether space people black. You know what Archibald has to say about that? I say it’s a shame.”
By now, the two burgers had turned into two charcoal hockey pucks. Archibald flipped the ruined meat off the grill and replaced it with some fresh burgers. Mary, Ramona, Hollis and Joe stared at one another in shock.
“Sorry,” squeaked Mary, who considered ordering a tuna melt to go just to break the tension.
“Yeah, sorry,” Hollis said.
“Never mind,” Archibald grumbled. “Space people black.”
“Well… I gotta go,” Mary said hesitantly. “Two fillings at 1:30.”
“Space people black,” muttered Archibald again.
“Yeah, me too,” Hollis said. “Come on, guys.”
They headed for the door of Archibald’s Lunch, Mary biting her lip and Ramona about to burst into tears. But as Joe opened the door, they heard Archibald say quietly behind them, “Say, Marla, you think E.T. is black?”
“E.T.?” replied Marla suspiciously.
“Little dude from the movie?”
Diane Haithman grew up in Detroit and is a former Detroit Free Press staff writer. This is an excerpt from her unpublished comedy-fantasy novel Deep Space Detroit.