Sometimes, you don’t choose your destiny. Sometimes, it seems, destiny picks you.
Take Patti Kay. She’s a self-professed picker – someone who sees a flea market, junk yard, garage sale or wayward object and has to look further. She was doing just that a couple years ago when she spotted something that would, objectively, change her life.
It was a bus scroll – a destination sign that bus drivers in the 1940s and 1950s would hand crank as they made their stops around Detroit. This worn yet graphically stunning series of scrolls resonated with Kay on multiple levels.
There was the emotional connection – the sight of those familiar street names where so many generations lived, worked and played. The names are epic: Alter. Eight Mile. Grand River. Gratiot. Trumbull. Woodward.
There was the physicality of the signs themselves – the rough texture, the faded lettering, the brass that ran the entire length of the back to provide durability (but only on signs made before WWII; all metal had to be used in the war effort, so other materials then came into play).
There was the all-around beauty evoked by the simple yet masculine lettering. The black on taupe-white background holds your eye. To some degree, it is hard to pull your eyes away at all. It is almost like a newspaper headline – stark, informative and blunt to the point of rudeness.
Kay treated her signs with reverence, carefully splitting the seams along the originals, taking them to a local frame shop. She knew exactly how she wanted them presented – with a wide border, giving them the space and gravitas they needed. Kay had seen these signs in one of her favorite magazines, and that was the classic exhibition.
Some she sold right away; others she still holds onto as a memento of that moment when she first unfurled them. Respectfully, she created reproductions using similar paper and materials as the originals. The words, the images, the feelings they evoked needed to be shared – and she had an idea that a business could be borne out of this discovery.
T-shirts followed. Not just any shirt, mind you. But one of the softest, heathery cotton. Her newfound company, Detroit Scroll, was her baby (not to replace her three children, but the passion for its future was somewhat similar). She created a tag line: “History Made. Detroit Driven.”
I’ll jump in here and tell you that she’s taken a huge leap of faith – Kay has launched Detroit Scroll as her new full-time gig. She has taken what was a largely part-time effort to share her find and is putting her entire self into evolved the signs into something more. It is a giant, stunning leap for this divorced mom. But Detroit’s moment is now, she rightly feels.
If this business she lovingly created is a bust, she’s kinda sunk. But if she can make Detroit Scroll a kind of keeper of the city’s transportation history…If it can be a kind of homage to what the city was and what it still means to people…and if she can feed herself and family on the income it generates…well, then I think we’ll really have a story then. But I digress.
When I first saw the signs at small, independent retailers like Leon & Lulu a year or so back, I thought they were gorgeous. But I wondered what was behind them – were they mass produced by some giant poster company? Were they just another cliché like the subway or L-train stop signs you see at mass merchants?
I saw the scrolls again this week via a friend’s Facebook feed. When I “liked” Detroit Scroll, an invitation to meet Patti Kay quickly popped up. Kay is like that – you like her stuff, she likes you. I asked to learn more about her company, and she suggested we meet for coffee. Then in the course of our three-hour, largely rambling conversation, she invited me back to her apartment, where she operates her company somewhat on a shoestring, packaging products right in her dining room.
Part of the reason Kay took her signs into commercial territory is her irritation with those mass-produced ones that focus on New York, Chicago and the like – always leaving Detroit off. Those that mention our fair city do so as an add-on or wedged in like book seams – necessary but unnoticed. These bus scrolls were our ticket out of isolation, Kay felt.
People who pick up her posters, shirts, glasses and greeting cards tend to share their stories with her. There’s the family that knew their immigrant mother only made her way round Detroit thanks to the typeface – it got smaller as the stops continued. She couldn’t read the signs, but she knew when to depart based on her internal count and the scroll’s font size.
Another favorite is the woman who read the street names only to abruptly stop at one line and burst into tears. One sign included “Ford Rouge Gate 23,” the very spot where she dropped off her husband nearly every day for 30 years.
“They tap into everybody’s emotions,” Kay said. “They harken back to a time when the city was hustling and bustling and everybody was happy.
“We’re all so steeped in despair (about the city’s present and future),” Kay continued. “But it was and still is so beautiful.”
So many people have been supportive and collaborative along Kay’s journey. I’m hoping against hope that her bus scrolls continue to move her in the direction she is meant to go – and that our city will follow her optimistic view of its future. That we are beautiful. That we are worth something. That someone, something, somewhere will see beyond the trash and find the treasure, the exquisiteness of our Detroit.