Read Detroit: An American Autopsy Online

Authors: Charlie Leduff

Tags: #Non-Fiction, #History, #Sociology, #Biography, #Politics

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“I look back and I feel broken,” he said glumly. “I mean, I’m managing to squeak by. I’ve got three kids, so I’m happy. I’ve got people who love me, and we’re eating and got a roof over our heads. But when I was making real money, I blew through the dough. I rent a house now for $800, when I was renting an apartment then for $1,500.”

His wife, Kim, walked up and handed him a soft drink.

“Thanks, babe. Anyway, when you have it, you don’t think about it, because it’s going to last forever. At least I did. See, Char, I’ve got a salesman’s mind. Most of us do. Salesmen and gamblers. That’s why there’s a casino in every town now. I guess what I’m saying is, I blew it.”

“Imagine what we could do with that money now,” Kim said and walked back to the office.

Billy paused, his mind running.

“Being stuck here. Being stuck here is the problem,” he said in an echo.

The lunch bell rang. The machines revved up somehow, by some unseen hand.

“Well, recess is over,” Billy said. He fired up his air hose, which hissed like a serpent.

T
HE
K
ING
I
S
D
EAD

B
Y EARLY FALL
,
it was apparent that the feds had been laying more wire in Detroit than the cable guy.

Leaks of snitches and news of plea deals and grand jury testimonies emerged almost daily, and Motown became hypnotized by a widening corruption scandal.

Kilpatrick had his problems with the text messages and dead stripper, but now they were compounding tenfold with the feds listening in on almost everybody with business before the city.

It began with a Greek who held lucrative contracts at Cobo Hall, the city’s decrepit convention center on the Detroit River. He told the feds that he made illegal payments of nearly a half million dollars to Kilpatrick and his father to get the concession stands. The Greek eventually pleaded guilty to tax evasion and got off with probation.

Working off this information, the feds began tapping phones and wiring cooperating witnesses.

Paranoia ruled the day. Worried that the feds had bugged their offices, some politicos were taking meetings at the International House of Pancakes or on downtown street corners. One councilwoman was using her granddaughter’s cell phone. Players were going through phone numbers like they were Chiclets.

Suddenly you couldn’t get a hold of anyone.

Kilpatrick and Monica Conyers and a dozen other municipal movers and shakers were in the crosshairs of the FBI for accepting bribes in exchange for their support on a billion-dollar sewage contract.

Details leaked out of the grand jury room about Councilwoman Monica Conyers and her clandestine meetings in fast-food parking lots where she took envelopes stuffed with cash. Apparently Conyers, it seemed, was a big fan of the fish fillet sandwiches on white bread.

Feeling the heat one muggy morning, Conyers and a group of city council members stood in chambers and prayed for divine intervention. God must have been listening. Lightning struck the building, crippling it for a week.

While the feds were building a RICO case against Kilpatrick, he was charged by the Wayne County prosecutor with perjury—for lying under oath about fucking his chief of staff, Christine Beatty.

While lacking meter and polish, the fire and passion in their electronified love sonnets must surely rate with those of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.

Christine Beatty to Kwame Kilpatrick—“Baby, if I was with you right now, I would sit you down, get on my knees in front of you. I would pull myself up to you and gently suck on your ear lobe and come around kiss you so passionately, then . . .”

K.K. to C.B.—“PLEASE TELL ME MORE!”

C.B. to K.K.—“Then I would take off your shirt and kiss you down your neck and suck on your XXX. After that I would take off your pants and lay you down on the bed. Then . . .”

K.K. to C.B.—“MY SHIT IS SO HARD ALREADY.”

C.B. to K.K.—“Then I would climb on top of you and start kissing you on the top of your head, move down to your face, then gently move to your stomach and gently lick around your belly button! Then . . .”

K.K. to C.B.—“DAMN . . . I LOVE THIS!”

C.B. to K.K.—“Then I would move my way down XXX and gently slide it into my mouth and move it in and out until you feel like you’re inside of me and you’re asking to be in me! Then . . .”

K.K. to C.B.—“SHIIIT!”

C.B. to K.K.—“Then just when you’re about to come, I would take it out of my mouth and climb back on top of you and slide it deep inside of me! I would then begin to slowly ride back and forth on top of you. Then . . .”

K.K. to C.B.—“DAMN CHRIS!”

C.B. to K.K.—“Then I would pull your chest to mine while you’re still deep inside of me and kiss you so passionately while riding you! I would then ask you to gently grab my ass and you would put your finger in just enough to make beg yo—”

K.K. to C.B.—“Don’t STOP! PLEASE.”

K.K. to C.B.—“I’m ABOUT TO COME RIGHT NOW!”

C.B. to K.K.—“Then I lay on my side and you lay behind me and pull me so close to you and I say ‘I Love You So Much’ and you say ‘I Love You Too’ and kiss my neck so soft. And then we pull up the covers and go to sleep and wake up in an h—”

K.K. to C.B.—“HELL YEAH! CHRRRRISSS! HOW DO You FEEL?”

C.B. to K.K.—“First tell me how youuu feel!”

K.K. to C.B.—“NO NIGGA! You 1ST.”

All this . . . their salaries, the phones, the cars, the chauffeur, the Kleenex, paid with the taxpayer dime.

Kilpatrick concocted an interesting legal strategy. I call it the Poltergeist defense.

Kilpatrick acknowledged that the text messages were made on his city-issued cell phone. But he insisted he didn’t type them. It must have been the Ghost of Christmas Ass who tapped out the randy messages while the phone lay idle in Kilpatrick’s pocket.

He hired a bevy of million-dollar consultants and lawyers, but it is apparent he heeded little of their advice. Although he was barred from leaving the state as part of his bond, he took a day trip to Windsor, Ontario—forgetting it was in another country.

Strike one.

When two sheriff’s deputies went to the mayor’s sister’s house to serve a subpoena, the police encountered Kilpatrick there. Kilpatrick stormed out of the house yelling, “Get the fuck out of here!” and pushing one of the cops, a white man by the name of White, off the porch.

He then turned to the other cop, a black woman, and shouted, “You, a black woman being with a man with the last name White, you should be ashamed of yourself!”

Strike two.

Until then, the governor and attorney general of Michigan had stood on the sidelines, not wanting to confront a black mayor who just might evade the eight felony charges with a rogue O. J. Simpson–type juror.

But after he pushed the cop, the full weight of the system came down on Kilpatrick. The governor began removal proceedings. The attorney general began criminal proceedings.

Kilpatrick was hauled into court. The Hip Hop Mayor stood before the judge, choking back tears, his lips quivering.

“I apologize immensely . . . I am asking your forgiveness . . . I apologize to the citizens as well, but mostly to you.”

What a pussy. Strike three.

The judge sent him to jail for the night.

Shit, I thought, standing there in the courtroom, watching Kilpatrick blubbering. What a big bitch. My sister had done more nights in jail. Hell, even I had.

Hip Hop my ass.

Out of moves and out of friends, Kilpatrick took a plea deal—four months in jail, a million dollars restitution and resignation of office.

* * *

Kilpatrick appeared on television and gave his resignation speech to the people of the city. He wore a garish tie, something like the old paisley drapes in a seventies bachelor pad. His wife wore a matching dress.

I watched the speech from a corner seat at Mosaic, the power players’ watering hole in Greektown. The bar was packed and eerily quiet as Kilpatrick spoke. He took credit for a long list of things he never actually accomplished, among them municipal financial stability and the demolition of abandoned buildings.

You could hear the ice cubes tinkle as the players silently calculated their next moves. In the end, Kilpatrick was only a temporary hiccup. After all, when a king falls, the kingdom still remains.

The deputy mayor, drinking white liquor, shook his head when Kilpatrick proclaimed in all earnestness, “You done set me up for a comeback.”

“Awh shiiiiit,” someone said from the corner. It was Adolph Mongo. “Shiiiiit.”

Good old Mongo. The inebriated uncle at the funeral shouting all the things people wished they could say.

“Goddamn,” he cackled, his voice box one part Redd Foxx, one part cement mixer.

“Who told them to put on the matching tie and dress? They look fucking ridiculous. That’s what you get for a million dollars in consultants? The guy fucked it all up. The king is dead!”

Mongo spied me in the corner, gave me a sober nod and then pretended I wasn’t there. I paid my tab and slipped out the side door.

G
ONE TO THE
D
OGS

F
RANKIE DIDN’T CRY
when, as a boy, I hog-tied him with a belt to a tree as the cars drove by on Joy Road. As he hung potato-sack style, a group of teenagers jumped out of their car and beaned him with snowballs.

Frankie didn’t cry when he was hit by a car, breaking his body forever. Frankie didn’t cry when his daughters were born. Frankie didn’t cry when he got laid off from Ford. Frankie didn’t cry when the
FOR SALE
signs popped up in his neighborhood like so many horse thistle weeds.

But he was crying now.

I left the newsroom and drove over to see him. He was wearing a knit cap and a sweatshirt, looking for a soft piece of earth in which to bury his massive golden retriever.

“What the fuck happened?” I asked.

“It was the dog food,” he heaved.

“What do you mean it was the dog food?”

“I looked it up on the Internet. It was the dog food. Poisoned shit from China.”

He wiped his nose on his sleeve. I looked around his gray neighborhood. Somebody had stolen the aluminum siding off the abandoned house next door.

This place called Detroit wasn’t interesting to me anymore. It was breaking my heart. It was driving me insane. A whole generation of people relegated to the garbage pile. I hugged my brother.

“Poison shit from China. How much is a man supposed to fucking take?” my brother sobbed. “They killed my fucking dog.”

I stood with my hands in my pockets as he dug a hole in the cabbage patch, the only soft spot in the dead of winter. It was directly beneath his neighbor’s window, which didn’t matter so much now that the neighbor’s place was foreclosed and vacant.

Frankie put stones on top of the dog so the wild animals couldn’t dig him up and cart him away.

G
HOSTS IN THE
A
TTIC

“W
ALT’S DEAD
!”

“What? Who is this?”

“It’s Nevin.” Mike Nevin. Sergeant Mullet over at Engine 23. He was crying.

It was one of those lifeless, slate-gray mornings, and I was standing at the upstairs window in my home. I could see the Detroit Zoo water tower from my window. Kwame Kilpatrick’s name had already been removed from it, but I could still make out the ghost of its outline.

“Hello, Charlie? Walt. He died two hours ago. A fucking house fell in on us this morning. Goddamn it. A little piece-of-shit house. One of them mousetraps. I had him in my arms. Jesus Christ. Anyway, we’re over at the engine house. I thought you’d want to know.”

“I’ll be right over.”

I lingered at the window, staring at the water tower, considering the name. Kilpatrick. What did it matter? One asshole gone, another takes his place and the shit goes on and on.

I jumped into my pants and kissed my wife. She was still sleeping and I startled her awake.

“What’s the matter?”

“Walt’s dead,” I told her. “I got to go to the firehouse.”

“Walt the fireman? Oh my God.”

I had taken her and our daughter over to Engine 23 on more than one occasion, and we had grown fond of the men there. They were a fraternity of doers, and I admired them for that. I like being around men who accomplish something. It makes me feel a little bit better about being a guy who makes his living typing up clever things other people say.

“Tell them I’m so sorry,” my wife said. “We’ll pray for them.”

I drove to the firehouse fast. The roads were empty. No one was on the way to work.

I had seen Nevin and Walt Harris—the firefighting Baptist preacher—just the day before. I had stopped by the firehouse for lunch. It had been a long time, as I’d been banned from all Detroit firehouses after I wrote my first story about Nevin’s crew criticizing the mayor’s office for its neglect of the department and its firefighters. But rather than accept the chronicle of their complaints and try to improve the situation, the city reprimanded Harris and Nevin and the other men who appeared in my story and hauled them downtown to give statements.

Everything Harris told me then turned out to be true now, including his death. The culture of lying about Detroit’s problems went from the mayor’s office to the ministers’ pulpits to the no-name bureaucrats in uniform. No one wants to admit they live in an archeological ruin. That’s why a house of firemen complaining about the decay were hauled to HQ.

Nothing had changed. Their pants and boots still had holes in them, the fire alarm at Engine 23 was still a jerry-rigged alarm clock, they still had to buy their own toilet paper and the city still burned.

Yes, Walt was right when he talked about people removing their dead from Detroit, just as his prophecy had been right that one of the men from Firehouse 23 was going to die.

Being a Baptist minister, Big Walt always gave the invocation before chow. And the men, loving Walt more than God Himself, dutifully lowered their eyes. The last prayer of Walt Harris was a good one: “God, look over these good men and return them to their families.”

Above him, over the firehouse dining table, a teeny-bopper movie played on the television set with cheerleaders in tight sweaters pulling each other’s hair out in the high school cafeteria.

I laughed out loud at the ridiculousness of it, and Harris looked up with an arch of his eye and laughed too. Then he kicked me in the shin under the table.

“Shut the fuck up, Charlie.”

I ate the chicken fried steak and went home.

Eighteen hours later he was dead.

The street around the firehouse was crowded with fire engines and work trucks. The mourning had begun and, as is particular to the fraternity, it was something of an Irish wake, with distant relatives from all around the region dropping in to give their hangdog condolences. A few rookies were made to stand out in the rain to make sure nobody broke into the trucks or stole the aluminum ladders, which brought a good price at the scrap yard.

Inside the house, it smelled of cigar smoke and weak coffee and it was mostly silent except that Jimmy Montgomery was screaming, “What a complete fucking waste. For what? For what? Some dump of a fucking house? No. No. No.”

The commanding officer, Lt. Steve Kirschner, stood in the corner looking on with the pallor of a sickly walleye.

I had learned about firemen. I had learned about them over the long dark days following the massacre at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. I had gone to dozens of their funerals, and I profiled Squad 1 in Brooklyn over the course of a year, a firehouse that had lost half its men that bad morning.

I learned that when one of them dies, the Irish comes out of the rest of them whether they are Irish or not. A firefighter is Irish by culture even if he is a black man, and there were plenty of them here. The firehouse is one of the few places in Detroit that is integrated at all. The blacks run the department, but its soul will always be Irish. And the Irish don’t handle outsiders very well. Especially reporters. Especially in death. Even if one has been invited to the wake.

I had learned in New York to stand in the corner and wait to be acknowledged. So I poured a cup of coffee and waited. The men of the house had broken down Walt’s bed and assembled a memorial from his bunker gear before the clock had struck nine. It would stay there as long as the house did, along with the statue of a Dalmatian and the swordfish and the American flag over the busted toilet seat and the portraits of men gone by.

A raggedy man with patchy facial hair from the neighborhood walked into the death scene, begging change. The rookie gave him a couple of bucks and a cup of coffee and kindly told him to fuck off.

Nevin watched, a Swisher Sweets cigar burning in his hand.

“You okay?” I asked him.

“This place is making me sad.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Let’s get the fuck out. I’ll take you to the house where Walt died.”

He gathered up Montgomery and Jeff Hamm, the fireman-nurse who tried to resuscitate Harris on the way to the hospital, and Verlin Williams, who was also pinned down by the collapsed roof.

Williams was an odd duck, older than many of the men in the department because he had served twenty years in the Marine Corps before moving back home to Detroit. As a boy growing up in the city, Williams would gravitate to the local firehouse, where he scrubbed and washed the engines. It kept him straight and out of trouble, and his life’s dream was to serve in the department.

That is, until he got into the department.

“Now all I want to do is go out West and retire as a cowboy,” he said as we rode over to the house in the fire engine. “Think of that. Spending your days breaking horses in the wide open spaces. Far away from here. Yeah.”

I didn’t have the heart to tell him there really weren’t cowboys out West anymore. Let him have his dream. Every sucker’s got to have one.

I looked out the back window and saw a reporter from the
Free Press
and his photographer tailing us uninvited.

We drove past the hulking wreck of the Packard plant, a square mile of dead factory. After a half century of rot, it still stood as a disgraceful reminder of our great past and sordid present. Its founding president was Henry B. Joy—the man who built the first coast-to-coast highway and the man for whom my Joy Road was named.

Now all that was left of his empire was a ruin that burned at least once a month, usually from the torches of scrappers. A shotgun row of houses stood directly across the street from it. Houses with children growing up inside them.

We passed more houses with blue tarpaulins for roofs and weedy lots and burnt-out cars and children. Plenty of children. Sweet Jesus, too many children.

The house where Walt died was no different from the rest of them in this east side swath: an abandoned blue and green bungalow on East Kirby Street. An arson reward poster was tacked to the door and cans of juice and beans were sitting unopened on the dining room table.

This being Detroit, the men responding to the blaze went into the house to look for people. In this city, crumbling houses are often occupied by drug addicts, the homeless and even families with children struggling to survive.

This time, there was nobody home.

As the firemen were snuffing out remnant embers in the attic, someone heard timber snap. And then the roof collapsed.

“He was right behind me,” said Hamm, pointing to the spot. “He was right next to me. I don’t know why I’m here.”

It took a few minutes to find Harris because his homing alarm failed to sound. It failed because it was defective. Because that passes for normal here. Defective equipment for emergency responders.

Harris died not because he was burned or because the timber broke his bones. He died of suffocation, unable to breathe from the weight of the roof. If the alarm had only worked.

Harris was pronounced dead before the sun had risen.

“Goddamn,” Nevin spewed, standing in the damp exposed attic.

I remembered the prophecy Walt Harris had given me six months earlier at a house fire: “Every one of these guys here will tell you that he’ll give you everything he’s got to help the people of this city. He’ll give his life if he has to. It breaks your heart.”

The men fell silent. There was only the sound of the rain.

Then I heard a mechanical click.

I spun around on my heels. It was the photographer from the
Free Press
stealing a little photograph of the scene.

The next morning, on the cover of the
Free Press
was a photograph of Verlin Williams, the would-be cowboy, reenacting his death-defying escape from the caved-in roof.

* * *

I took my daughter to the funeral. Firefighters came from all over—Chicago, Toledo, Canada, the Detroit suburbs. What struck me was the shitty condition of the Detroit equipment, the shining suburban stuff next to the banged-up, dented Detroit rigs.

Nice speeches were made. “He was a hero,” said fill-in mayor Ken Cockrel Jr. “It was his brand of heroism that will never be forgotten.”

It was bullshit, and everybody knew it. Criminals ruled the streets. Christ, Cockrel himself had the gutters stolen off his house for scrap metal.

Firefighter Wes Rawls had his car stolen at the memorial service the evening before. It was the third time he’d had his car stolen. One of those times, Rawls was attending an anger-management class.

Walt was put in the ground, and as quick as that, the hero went forgotten by the city.

* * *

I got a call from one of the men in the firehouse the following weekend.

“We’re gonna burn it.”

“Burn what?”

“The house.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“The house where Walt died. It’s still standing.”

“It’s still standing?” I said, incredulous. In New York, a firefighter dies in a house, the thing gets torn down in hours. But I had to keep reminding myself, this place wasn’t normal.

“Nobody gives a fuck,” the firefighter said. “It’s becoming a shrine, like at one of those places where kids die. There’s stuffed teddy bears and bullshit stapled to the house. We don’t want that shit. This ain’t Disneyland. We want it down. We want it fucking gone. That’s what they would do in New York.”

The pain in his voice frightened me. He was violently rational.

“We’ve got it prepped. The holes are cut in it. We just pour some gas on it and watch it go.”

“Don’t do it,” I told him. “Don’t. Don’t become one of them.”

The prospect of a firefighter dedicated to saving a city ravaged by arsonists crossing the line into criminality, even if it was for the right reason, horrified me.

“We don’t give a fuck anymore,” he said. “Eventually, we all become one of them. We’re gonna burn it.”

“I’ll be back to work on Monday,” I told him. “Just wait. Please, just wait. I’ll make some calls. I’ll try to get them to tear it down. If they don’t, you can torch it then.”

“Would you do that?”

“Yeah, I’ll do that. Just don’t do anything stupid.”

“All right, we’ll wait.”

I went straight to the firehouse that Monday. The black bunting commemorating Walt’s death had been ripped loose by the wind and hung over the bay doors like a hangman’s noose. No one was there. Out on another call.

I drove over to Kirby Street. Not only was the house still standing, but just like I’d been told, it was decorated with T-shirts and wilted flowers and a teddy bear, like at those street corners where a teenager has been gunned down. There was a sign that read:
PERSON WHO SET THIS FIRE IS A MURDERER AND COWARD
.

The fire had indeed been ruled an arson, making Walt’s death a murder. And yet the thing still stood.

I knocked on a neighbor’s door.

“This is the second time they set it on fire,” a woman told me in her kitchen doorway. There were three children playing behind her. “They lit it on fire a couple years ago, and the city never did nothing about it the first time, and if they had, then maybe . . .”

I was scribbling in my notebook.

“Who you, the po-lice?”

“Reporter.”

“You gonna get that house torn down?” asked her husband, who had joined her in the doorway.

“It’ll get taken down one way or another.”

“I would much appreciate that. It’s a hell of a place to raise your babies.”

“I bet,” I said.

“Sir, you’d win that bet.”

I drove back to the office and started working the phone. The building authority, the mayor’s office, the demolition department. Hell, I even called FEMA. Nobody returned my calls.

There was no one in charge of the city anymore.

I eventually reached Councilwoman Sheila Cockrel, the stepmother of the interim mayor, who was more knowledgeable about the inner workings of the city than anyone I had met since I had come home to Michigan.

The process of tearing down a building is a long and tedious one, filled with red tape and greasy palms. In fact, Cockrel told me, the city of Detroit had recently been awarded a $23 million federal grant to demolish abandoned houses like the one Harris had died in. And yet the city council voted to spend just $14 million on demolition while funneling the other $9 million to politically connected ministers for their “block programs.”

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