Read Detroit: An American Autopsy Online

Authors: Charlie Leduff

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

Detroit: An American Autopsy (7 page)

BOOK: Detroit: An American Autopsy
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L
IPSTICK AND
L
AXATIVES

I
BEGAN TO
understand just how bizarre Detroit politics could be when I met Monica Conyers, the high-strung city councilwoman, for a cocktail at a local jazz club in the early summer.

The youngish and voluptuous wife of the doddering congressman, Conyers had come to city politics under the banner of being a Conyers.

Her campaign commercials had the murky production quality of bad porno films and looked as if they’d been shot through a shower curtain. Still, they were simple and traded hard on her husband’s name as a civil rights warrior.

“Join the Conyers family as we fight to take back Detroit from those who put self-interest above your interest,” she cooed, dressed in a form-fitting blouse that highlighted her ample cleavage. “Detroit deserves better.”

Detroit chose Conyers, a political novice whose thin résumé included failing the bar exam four times. And Conyers got to work before she was even sworn in. Her first order of business was to pummel a woman in a barroom brawl after the woman complained about Conyers chatting up her man. The woman left with a black eye as big as a tea saucer.

Just in time for my arrival in Detroit, Conyers—in her capacity as a trustee on the city’s pension board—threatened to shoot one of Mayor Kilpatrick’s aides who rubbed her the wrong way.

“I’ll have my brothers fuck you up,” she shouted at the man, according to the police report and news accounts. “I’ll get a gun if I have to, and I got four brothers who’ll whup your ass.”

Conyers denied that she threatened the man. She said he started it first. She filed a complaint against him after he filed one against her.

Monica was my kind of woman. As least as far as the reporter in me goes. She was a self-absorbed, self-serving diva. A honeypot and a loudmouth who let a bit of power go to her id.

It didn’t matter to me if she spent tens of thousands of dollars on overseas trips paid for by the city’s pension fund. It didn’t matter to me if she mishandled the business of the poorest citizens in the country. It wasn’t my problem. It was my job.

She typified the politician of the current American landscape. An overfed buffoon who fattened herself at the public trough while the ribs began to show on the gaunt body politic. And in that capacity, she was nobody special. Chicago had its Governor Rod Blagojevich. Newark had its Mayor Sharpe James. San Diego had its Congressman Duke Cunningham and Youngstown, Ohio, had its Congressman James Traficant.

Clowns for sure. But Monica’s makeup was better. She was the perfect political caricature wrapped up in a real human being.

And one thing about clowns. Clowns sell copy.

I started keeping notes on her. Monica was fascinating. The big-mouthed girl from a broken home—her father had a record for breaking and entering, her brother for robbery—Conyers was susceptible to violent outbursts. She was a drunk in rush-hour traffic, a wreck in the waiting. I could have been related to her. I waited for the moment and Monica delivered.

One day, after showing up to council chambers looking tired and wan, her hair a mess and pulled back in a rubber band as if she’d just rolled out of bed, Monica flew into a rage when she was gaveled down by the balding council president, Kenneth Cockrel Jr., over some unimportant business.

She shouted at him. She intimated that he beat his wife. She called him “Shrek.” Twice.

Cockrel threatened to adjourn the meeting, to which Conyers shrieked: “Do it, baby! Do it!”

He did it. The scene made the six o’clock news. People printed T-shirts.

I had to get myself a piece of this. I called Conyers’s political adviser—a rakish con man named Sam Riddle who seemed to play the role of Clyde Barrow to her Bonnie Parker and accompanied her on her lavish trips paid for by the pension fund. I had met him once previously for coffee, at which meeting he told me: “The only difference between Detroit and the Third World in terms of corruption is Detroit don’t have no goats in the streets.”

Riddle answered the phone. He complained bitterly about a colleague of mine who wrote an unflattering story about him taking trips on the pension board’s dime.

“She’s a fucking bitch, and I don’t talk to the
News
.”

“You’ll have to take that up with her,” I told him. “Her sins aren’t mine.”

“Oh yeah?” Riddle shot back. “Go fuck yourself.”

He hung up.

I called back ten minutes later, thinking it an appropriate amount of time to have gone and fucked oneself.

“Look,” he said, before I could even say hello, “I don’t even work for that crazy bitch Monica Conyers anymore. She gives me gas. I don’t want to put up with her bullshit anymore. I’m too old. Do you know what I’m saying? Do you?”

I didn’t know what he was saying, but I said that I did.

He called himself her pimp, except for the fact, he said, that he didn’t like standing in the night air.

“Anyway, can you reach out to her?” I asked. “I’d like to do an interview.”

He thought a moment. “Would it be front page?”

“If it’s good,” I said. “I can’t see why not. I’ll even make a video for the Web site.”

“Let me see,” he said. “I’ll call you back.”

* * *

Not only did Conyers agree to do it, baby, she also agreed to my bringing along a group of schoolchildren who would ask her questions about her behavior in the council chambers, all of it to be videotaped.

The children arrived at the council chambers with their prepared questions in hand. They took the seats of the politicians behind the big oaked arch. At first, they cowered before Conyers, who sucked the air from the chambers with long, empty bromides about her march from squalor to law school to the chapel with a powerful congressman to the position of president pro tempore of the Detroit City Council. She insisted the children call her by that title: City Council President
Pro Tem
. A fancy way of saying runner-up.

Finally, Riddle stepped in and asked the children about the Shrek incident.

“Anybody have an opinion on that?” he asked the kids. A thirteen-year-old girl, Keiara Bell, asked Conyers if she felt she’d been disrespectful toward the council president and the city itself.

“What do you mean by that?” Conyers asked with a sneer.

“You’re an adult,” Bell lectured. “We have to look up to you.”

“Absolutely,” Conyers replied. “You’ve never gotten angry with someone?”

“Yes, but we’re kids. We’re looking on TV, and, like, this is an adult calling another adult Shrek? That’s something a second-grader would do.”

Conyers could barely contain her anger. Her eyelids flared, her jaw clenched.

“Now you’re telling me, young lady, what I should have and should not have done?”

“Well, you’re an adult,” Bell countered. “Sometimes people need to think before they act.”

* * *

Not surprisingly, the video made its way around the world via the Internet, and Conyers became yet another symbol of what was wrong in Detroit: murder capital, arson capital, poverty capital, unemployment capital, illiteracy capital, foreclosure capital, segregation capital, mayoral scandal capital—and now Monica Conyers capital.

Her negative publicity boiled for a month: the
CBS Early Show
, the front page of the
Wall Street Journal
, even the local television stations. None of it credited to the dying
Detroit
News
.

Suddenly, Conyers was everywhere for the wrong reasons.

Naturally, Monica wasn’t happy and wanted to tell me. In person. We arranged to meet.

As I drove to my rendezvous with Conyers at a cocktail lounge off Eight Mile Road, I decided to stop off at Keiara Bell’s home and say hello to her family.

I hadn’t seen Keiara since the “Shrek” taping, which had made her a YouTube darling and an example of what is good in Detroit. I drove through the crumbling neighborhoods on the city’s west side, where she lived.

When I had left home—back in the early nineties—Detroit was still the nation’s seventh-largest city, with a population of over 1.2 million. Back then, Detroit was dark and broken and violent. Murders topped six hundred a year and Devil’s Night—the day before Halloween when the city burst into a flaming orgy of smoke and shattered glass—was at its height.

Studying the city through the windshield now, it wasn’t frightening anymore. It was empty and forlorn and pathetic.

On some blocks not a single home was occupied, the structures having fallen victim to desertion and the arsonist’s match. I drove blocks without seeing a living soul.

I stopped by the Bells’ home off Livernois, once known as the Avenue of Fashion. They lived in a Tudor alongside other grand Tudors that surrounded a park with long, unkempt grass and a broken drinking fountain. I knocked on the iron gate that sealed the front door. The Bells weren’t home. They’d taken their rattletrap Cadillac and gone around the way to sell candy from the trunk, since the only other candy to be bought within a five-mile radius was at the liquor store.

A dead sycamore that had snapped in the wind was lying in the street.

Harry Bell, the family patriarch, praised God when I called him on his cell phone to find out where they were. I asked about the tree. He said the sycamore had fallen on his car a week ago during a heavy rainstorm and smashed it. He’d been asking the city for months to cut the dead tree. He called the city to come clean up the timber. But it was still lying there like a corpse.

“The car still works,” Harry told me over the phone. “Great is He. God works miracles.”

Harry was a typical Detroiter: unemployed part time, full of God and finding hope anywhere he could get it.
At least the car still works. Praise Him!

I drove around the corner to meet up with the family. They were in a neighborhood of blown-out, windowless houses mixed with others that had neatly manicured lawns. Harry grew up on this block.

His wife, Marsha, waved wildly and ran to give me a hug. “Heya, Mister Charlie!”

I blanched. “Mister Charlie” is an old slang term from antebellum times, a name given by slaves to their white oppressors.

“Please, I told you, Marsha. Don’t call me Mister Charlie.”

I shook Harry’s hand. He looked ill, and he was ill, suffering from obesity and hypertension and high blood pressure. He was my age but looked ten years older. He used to work in a fish house, but was too sick to stand anymore. I worried about him and how his family would get along without him and his steadying influence, if it should come to that.

“Where’s the kid?” I asked him. He pointed.

Keiara was in the front of the car, head down and sullen.

“What’s the matter, Kei?” I asked, sliding into the backseat.

She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know,” she said. “All the attention, I guess. It’s got me thinking. I’m ashamed. I’m ashamed to be poor. And I’m ashamed to live here. And I don’t know if I’m ever going to get out. I just want to move away.”

“Where would you go if you could move out? The suburbs?”

“No. I wouldn’t really fit in there,” she said. “Maybe the country, way far away, where there’s nobody to bother me. And it’s just a little farm and I have my family around me and nobody else.”

“That’s a good dream,” I said. “That’s my dream too. It’d be nice to have you for a neighbor.”

She smiled, and I smiled back, knowing the odds went against her. Half of Detroit kids don’t even make it through high school, and of those that do, half of them are functionally illiterate.

Keiara was an honor student despite it all. The secret to her success, her mother said, was to lock her in the house at all times, except for the fifteen hours a week they spent at church. If any kid was going to get that farm, it was going to be Keiara.

It was growing late. I had to meet Conyers, so I said good-bye to the family, promising Harry I would call the city in my capacity as a reporter to see if I couldn’t shame someone into removing the dead tree blocking the street.

“Good-bye, Mister Charlie!” Marsha shouted as I pulled away.

* * *

I headed west and drove up Linwood Avenue. I remembered the street. I often delivered funeral flowers from my mother’s little flower shop to the black churches that lined the boulevard. Usually, the arrangements were gaudy casket sprays and urns stuffed with purple and orange pompons. Men would always greet me at the back door, dressed in dark funeral suits of varying exoticness: black, lavender, sometimes blood red or tangerine orange.

I drove past the Shrine of the Black Madonna, the pan-African Christian church that set itself up in the 1960s as the militant alternative to the oppressive white version of Christianity. In the Shrine’s version of the passion, Christ is a black man.

The church boasts thousands of members, if not worshippers. It delivered the vote that made Coleman Young Detroit’s first black mayor, in 1973, and has since been the wellspring of black political power in the city. Politicians like John and Monica Conyers still paid reverence. The county sheriff was the nephew of the Shrine’s founder, Jaramogi Abebe Agyeman, formerly known as Albert Cleage. The executive ranks of the fire department and Kilpatrick’s chief of staff were worshippers, as were various local commissioners and Kilpatrick appointees, recipients and perpetrators of no-see, no-bid municipal contracts and favoritism.

In fact, Kwame Kilpatrick himself was raised in the church, his parents having met there in the 1970s.

The founder, Cleage, had threatened to burn the rest of the city down following the devastating riots of 1967, and by the looks of things, he hired the job out. The church’s colonial steeple was collapsing into the street, the paint was peeling and some leaden windows along the nave were boarded up. The buildings surrounding the church to the west and north were charred and broken, like a forgotten row of tombstones. I found it curious that the center of black power in the city should look so awful and dilapidated.

A few blocks farther on was the New Bethel Baptist Church, founded by the Reverend C. L. Franklin, who was a great friend of Martin Luther King Jr. and the father of soul legend Aretha Franklin.

BOOK: Detroit: An American Autopsy
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