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Slayton Family

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In 1961 I befriended a family living in a slum on Detroit's west side. The mother, Della Slayton, had fled Hazard, Kentucky with her five children a few years earlier after her husband tried to stab her. She landed in Detroit and settled into a large run down Victorian house and a life on welfare. Her oldest son Asbel could not read or write and had all the dysfunction of a young man shut out from society, e.g., overwhelming isolation, gnawing self-consciousness. It is no accident that I have no photos of him.

I tried to teach him how to read. He could not distinguish the letter M from N. "The M has two points on top and the N has one," I'd say, as he stared at the letters with incomprehension.

The youngest boy, Homer, was a feisty streetwise kid who brought money home by shining shoes on street corners. Della's other children were Larny, an attractive 19 year old girl yearning for a man and for affection, Clarence, a brooding teen-ager awash in Elvis's light, Sis, and Mary Lu. Della picked up odd jobs wherever she could and worked hard to keep her children under one roof. The first time I knocked on her door she was certain I was either a cop or a social worker for no one else had ever visited the house. But as the weeks passed and I came by regularly we worked through the mistrust and became friends.

Ever since the family had moved into this house they had been the brunt of neighborhood hostility because they were Hillbillies. But when people on the block saw a late model car pulling up in front of the house every week, and then the bright lights from the photos I was taking, the hostility stopped. The neighbors had no idea what was going on but were sufficiently impressed.

I remained friends with the family until I left for Paris in the fall of 1962. Saying good-bye, I told Della I was going away to Europe. She did not understand. "I'm going to Paris," I said. "Paris!" she exclaimed, "Is that a movie star!"