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The National Desk

Crack Rock City

This week, Detroit’s new emergency manager released his first report on the city’s dire affairs. But residents have long been accustomed to life in what’s essentially a failed state. A native author meets the motorcycle men working hard to save Detroit, one fiend at a time.

Hallie Bateman for The Morning News

One afternoon, my friend Corine called to see if I felt like taking a walk. Corine was a Dutch photographer who’d been living in Detroit for nearly 10 years. Recently, she had moved to South Poletown, one of the city’s most desolate neighborhoods—in Detroit, this was saying something!—and her new street (literally, a single block) had been colonized by a quirky mix of hippies, urban farmers, artists, and grassroots activists.

We started walking in the direction of Chene Street, an especially blighted former commercial strip. We passed a “No Standing” sign overgrown with weeds and vines, and Corine pointed out a towering, multi-story warehouse that some kids from San Francisco had apparently bought for 20 grand, to turn into an art space. The sidewalks were overgrown, too, with unruly weeds sprouting from the cracks—overgrown enough so that, with each step, grasshoppers exploded into the air, as if we were triggering miniature claymores.

On Chene, we passed a gray metal electrical box attached to the base of a lamp post. Someone had used a black Sharpie to scrawl across the box’s front cover:

Like the junkie you are you destroy everything you touch

Below that, someone else had written:

I’ll call you

Down the block, we spotted my friend Pastor Steve, the proprietor of a storefront church on an otherwise entirely decimated block. After moving back to Detroit, I’d driven past his church a number of times, noting the motley assortment of characters hanging out front and the unruly garden taking up much of the vacant corner lot next door. Eventually I’d stopped by and introduced myself. It turned out that most of the folks out front were struggling addicts and prostitutes and criminals from the neighborhood. Pastor Steve had gone through his own dire period of felonious hard-living—heroin, pills, booze, glue-sniffing, bank-robbing—before being saved and ultimately called to the ministry. A rangy white guy in his early sixties, Pastor Steve’s obvious love for a certain era of counter-cultural accoutrement had somehow managed to survive this spiritual journey intact. Normally, this would manifest itself in some variation of the “Hippie Jesus” look popular in the ’70s. Pastor Steve’s version was more like “Outlaw Biker Jesus.” He had a bushy handlebar mustache and flowing gray hair, the curly ends of which spilled to his chest, and he favored cowboy boots, earrings with topaz beads, and the sort of silver rings you might buy at a Native American souvenir stand. On his motorcycle, a parishoner had painted a mural of Chief Joseph—“who was one of the main, awesome Indians,” in Pastor Steve’s words. He continued, “After we’d been here awhile, I got stories coming back to me that people in the neighborhood thought we were a motorcycle gang. They saw me, saw the Harley, and they thought the building was filled with weapons and we were here to take over.”

Along with his church, Pastor Steve ran a couple of halfway houses for recovering drug addicts, the Jesus House for men, the Mary House for women. For some reason perhaps having to do with Biblical notions of temptation, the Jesus House was located across the street from an actual crack house. On this particular afternoon, Pastor Steve was loading a moving van parked in front of the Jesus House. Another white man who, like Pastor Steve, resembled an aging biker, was helping him.

Pastor Steve greeted me warmly. When I introduced Corine and mentioned she was a photographer, he pointed to his helper and said, “Oh, well Al right there is a photographer, too.”

Al looked to be in his sixties. He had stringy, shoulder-length hair and a comparatively trim beard, both the yellowing white color of nicotine-stained teeth. His own teeth had been reduced in number by a brutal rate of attrition. The only lower teeth remaining looked like the ravaged pilings of a sunken dock. He wore a soiled blue mechanic’s shirt and a cap that read “Jesus Is My Boss.”

People like to talk about how bad Detroit is. This city is under a demonic spell.

Corine said, “Oh yeah? What kind of stuff do you shoot?”

“Mostly 35 millimeter,” Al said. “But I’ve been having trouble getting it developed, so I switched to digital.” When Al spoke, he made eye contact with seeming reluctance. He mostly stared over his shoulder, as if on the lookout, on some distant horizon, for some approaching horde. Occasionally, without turning his head, he would allow his eyes to drift back in the direction of whomever he happened to be addressing. This had a creepy effect, and gave him the air of a crazed Old Testament prophet, or old etchings I’d seen of John Brown.

“I live in the most photographed place in the world,” Al said cryptically.

“Al lives in the Packard Plant,” Pastor Steve said.

Corine and I exchanged glances. The Packard, spread over nearly 40 acres, had closed in the ’50s and remained one of Detroit’s most iconic ruins. Al apparently ran an auto repair shop out of one of the only parts of the facility that remained intact, also living in a little room in the back. His friend had owned the building, an old forge room, for the past 30 years. After Al’s house had been foreclosed upon, he’d moved into the place, and now he was part-owner. “You know what a forge is?” Al asked me. I said I did. He gave me a skeptical look.

Then Al said, “You read the Bible?” We both shrugged noncommittally. “It talks about backbiting,” Al said. “That’s what happened here. People like to talk about how bad Detroit is. Now we’re falling into Biblical times. This city is under a demonic spell. One of the first indications of the death of manufacturing was the closing of the Packard Plant. The 1967 riot—you know what that was about?” His eyes shifted over to mine. I nodded. He said, “What was it about?” Not expecting the question, I stammered out something about police brutality, the raid on the blind pig on 12th Street, years of pent-up racial tension. Al cut me off and said, “It was about money. The workers had to hand over their checks right away to the stores on 12th Street, and they wanted them back. It was not a race riot.”

Al said he’d been living in Madison Heights, a Detroit suburb, at the time. “Twenty miles from the front,” he said. Still, he could remember the sound of people racking their shotguns up and down his block.

 

Across the street, someone had set up a church bench in an abandoned storefront’s alcove. It fit so perfectly, it looked like it belonged there. At certain times of day, you might see a pew full of raggedy looking people sitting there like it was a bus stop, only a special kind, where instead of picking you up, the bus driver just gave you a bunch of heroin. One of the regulars was an old man with his nose tubed to an oxygen tank on wheels.

This afternoon, only Larry Stone was sitting in the pew. A resident of the Jesus House, Larry had terrorized the neighborhood for years. He robbed people, scrapped houses and abandoned buildings, boosted cars. He was trying to get clean now, but when he was using, he would snort a bundle of powdered heroin every day, along with a couple of eight-balls of coke, 10 or 20 Xanax, two or three fifths of vodka, maybe 10 40-ounces of malt liquor. He could stay up for seven, eight, nine days at a time. He was a white guy, Polish descent, but Pastor Steve said he remembered seeing Larry around the neighborhood with skin as black as a chimney sweep’s, from burning the plastic sheaths off the copper wiring he’d steal. Sans plastic, copper is graded no. 1 by scrapyards and worth more money. Larry would burn the wiring in a fire pit in his backyard, early in the morning, so he could be at the scrapyard by seven. The neighbors never said anything; they were scared of him. He would call the dopeman from the scrapyard and arrange to meet him nearby. Days, he mostly hid out inside his house—the cops were looking for him.

Larry also used to hang out in front of the liquor store—they’re called “party stores” in Detroit—a few blocks up, along with other crackheads and junkies. When people from the suburbs drove in, looking to cop dope, they knew to pull up there, and Larry would hook them up, call his man, be back in eight minutes, adding his own fee. One afternoon at the party store, some guy had been fucking with Larry recently. An unfamiliar car drove up; Larry thought it was the guy’s friend. He walked over to the car, but it turned out to be Pastor Steve’s son Jeremiah, who also preached at the church. They knew each other from the neighborhood.

Larry said the neighborhood had been an Empowerment Zone since he was a kid. Once again, he did not laugh wryly or give any indication whatsoever that he’d meant to stress the irony of the remark. This time, I kept my face equally solemn and just wrote down what he'd said.

“What’s up, Larry Stone?” Jeremiah asked.

“You’re lucky, man,” Larry told him, “because I was about to tell you what was on my mind.”

From there, Larry had moved toward the church, in the direction of getting straight. Corine and I joined him on the bench. He seemed happy to see me, though it was hard to tell with Larry. Some combination of the details of his appearance—the perpetual moistness of his pale blue eyes, his pockmarked skin, the loose, vaguely institutional feel of his hand-me-down clothing—contributed to his seemingly conflicted affect, at once dangerous and fundamentally broken. He spoke with a black urban lilt, not overly pronounced. He often asked if I knew what he was saying. Larry was 37 years old. This afternoon, he wore a white V-neck T-shirt and gray sweatpants.

We sat out there, and Larry, who had grown up in the neighborhood, began pointing out everything that was gone. Furniture store. Pharmacy. All of the meatpacking plants closer to St. Aubin. The Gentleman’s Club, between Kirby and Ferry, which had been owned by the Chambers brothers, notorious ’80s crack kingpins—they were the inspiration of the film New Jack City—who, according to Larry, catered to suburbanites, with guarded parking lots at their dope houses, just like downtown nightclubs. People from the suburbs liked to feel like their cars would be safe, even when they were scoring crack. The Chambers, Larry also claimed, would pass out ones and fives to old people and children in the neighborhood, laundry baskets full of them, because they got sick of counting the small bills—that’s how much money they were pulling in those days. Larry used to mow lawns for them, when he was a kid.

“I was a piece of pure hell, dude,” he told me. “I ran these streets for years.” Larry’s real last name was Sych, but everyone in the neighborhood called him Stone. “Because my heart was a stone,” he said. I smiled, assuming he meant to get an admiring chuckle out of me, talking in rap lyrics that way. But his face remained serious, and he seemed more melancholy than ever, thinking about what he had been.

A man walked past our bench holding a single cucumber.

Larry told us he could get what he needed out of a car in less than five minutes: 30 seconds to steal the car, and then all you had to do was move it and snatch out the catalytic converter, which was all he wanted, the platinum inside of it. If he stole eight or nine in a day, he could make a thousand bucks. “They used to call me the Copper Chopper,” he said, speaking of his scrapping days. Larry said you would see scrappers scaling the light posts like monkeys around here. They used ropes and wire cutters. It was dangerous, though: A guy fried himself at one of the old plants a few blocks away. Hit the wrong wire. Later died. Larry himself had been badly electrocuted while cutting into a transformer at an old box company. He fell 15 feet. “Lucky I didn’t break nothing,” he said. But his hacksaw melted in his hand, the hair had been burnt off his face. He staggered to his buddy’s place. The guy had a bottle of Christian Brothers sitting on the porch. Larry killed the entire pint.

Now, perhaps doing coke in the morning before work points to a budding substance-abuse problem wholly independent of any accidental heroin sale, but in any case, Larry said, “My head felt like a pumpkin.”

“I was a pure piece of hell,” Larry repeated.

A young, pretty black girl in a baseball cap walked by. She was drinking a beer from a paper bag and smoking a cigarette.

“How y’all doing today?” she asked us.

“You all right?” Larry said.

“I ain’t wrong, that’s for sure,” she said, and kept walking.

Larry itched his back against the church pew. Before he got hooked on drugs, he used to work, first at a machine shop, later as a painter. His stepdad taught him to paint. Then one day, he bought what he’d thought was powdered cocaine, but the dealer had accidentally given him heroin. Larry thought, “What kind of coke is this?” He assumed it must have been re-rock. He ended up nodding out en route to work, before he even got to the freeway. Now, perhaps doing coke in the morning before work points to a budding substance-abuse problem wholly independent of any accidental heroin sale, but in any case, Larry said, “My head felt like a pumpkin.” After that, he couldn’t stop. As he spoke, he burned the tip of a half-smoked cigarette with his lighter, spinning the butt with his fingers, staring at the flame as if he were cooking a rock.

“I was shot, robbed, had my head cracked,” Larry said. Larry said another of his nicknames was One Hit ‘Em Quit ‘Em. I found this nickname slightly awkward, but also kind of excellent. “I’m pretty good with these,” Larry said, raising his fists like a boxer. “I’m not gonna lie.” Shortly after reconnecting with Jeremiah, he actually ended up kicking cold turkey in prison, after being busted with eleven hundred pounds of metal. Detroit continues to have such a serious scrapping problem that, as of 2004, the police department possessed its own Copper Theft Squad. As with most things in government at all levels, there was a monied push behind this new effort—big telecom companies, whose infrastructural wires were being liberated of their copper marrows. But at any rate, Copper Theft started sending undercover guys into the scrapyard; as soon as Larry put the metal down, they busted him. Shortly after he got out of the joint, Larry moved into the Jesus House. Once his probation is through, Larry told me he wants to move to North Carolina.

“All my friends are gone,” he told me. He said the neighborhood started going to fields around ’99, probably. “All there is now is crackhouses and churches,” he said.

Larry said the neighborhood had been an Empowerment Zone since he was a kid. Once again, he did not laugh wryly or give any indication whatsoever that he’d meant to stress the irony of the remark. This time, I kept my face equally solemn and just wrote down what he’d said.

 

Another June afternoon, I stopped by Pastor Steve’s for his midweek church service, which also doubled as a food bank. The church was a cluster of pews toward the back end of a low-ceilinged room that could have doubled for an unfinished basement. Pastor Steve’s son Jeremiah was going to be the one preaching this afternoon, but Pastor Steve—today wearing denim shorts with a jailer’s tangle of keys hanging from a belt loop, a wallet on a chain and a white muscle shirt that read CREATED TO SERVE JESUS—stood at the door, greeting congregants as they filed inside and then giving me the inside scoop on their deal, in the manner of a red carpet reporter. “This guy right here, he’s staying in the Jesus House now,” Pastor Steve said, sotto voce, as an older gentleman with a long, scraggly beard of Hatfield-and-McCoy variety wandered past. “But he’s spent the past 15 years living under a bridge up in Utica.” Spotting another man with a bulbous, almost misshappen drunkard’s nose, pushing a shopping cart and wearing a D.A.R.E. T-shirt, Pastor Steve exclaimed, “You’re still breathing! The devil ain’t killed you yet!” The man, possibly incapable of complex speech, smiled and nodded and shuffled on inside. He was followed by an alarmingly skinny woman with straightened hair, wearing a bright purple shirt, who asked if the food would be handed out before or after the service. Pastor Steve said after. After the woman sat down, he told me the woman rented a room in the rundown apartment complex next door. He said most of the people living there used their welfare checks to pay for the cheap rent and blew the rest on drugs, knowing they could get free food at places like this. He said this week’s service would be sparsely attended, because it was the beginning of the month and people’s checks hadn’t run out yet.

“I’ve had guns and knives fall out of people’s pockets and slide across that floor,” Pastor Steve told me then. “I’ve had a prostitute come up and hump me while I was at the pulpit. ‘Hey, sister! What’s going on?’”

Since I’d met Pastor Steve, my friend John Carlisle, a Detroit blogger, had also independently stumbled upon the church, and ended up writing a cover story for the local weekly newspaper about him. I thought it might have boosted attendance, but things didn’t seem radically different from my past visits. The name of Pastor Steve’s church was Peacekeepers International. The first time I met him, Pastor Steve told me he’d taken over the space about 16 years earlier. Before that, he’d been preaching at a regular church out in the suburbs. But the Lord had instructed him to expand his mission. With someone like Pastor Steve, possessor of a past life rooted so firmly in the ’60s counterculture, the leap from Pynchonian, drug-fueled hippie conspiracy theories to believing the weaver of the worldwide webs of conspiracy was actually Jesus was a short one; for one so predisposed, it was easy to see epic metaphysical fatedness in the tiniest forks in one’s life.

No one was ever turned away from the church. “I’ve had guns and knives fall out of people’s pockets and slide across that floor,” Pastor Steve told me then. “I’ve had a prostitute come up and hump me while I was at the pulpit. ‘Hey, sister! What’s going on?’” Pastor Steve paused to mime his own shock at being humped mid-sermon, though even in the miming, he could not bring himself to emote unmitigated displeasure. Grinning faintly, he went on, “This is a different kind of church, brother—trust me. But these are the people we’re called to serve. We practice true Christianity around here. Christ died for everyone. I don’t care if you’re a serial killer—if you just killed someone and blood is still dripping down your hands, I don’t care. I want you to walk through that door.”

Pastor Steve had grown up in Detroit in a big Catholic family—his dad had sold cars at a Lincoln-Mercury dealership—but Steve had been the family fuck-up. He talked about his drug years with more than a hint of survivor’s pride, clearly on some level cherishing these old memories, like a fisherman who’d had taken his boat out despite warnings of a possible storm and the sky looking hinky and somehow survived an epic hurricane—after that, you’d sort of have to boast about how you thwarted fate, it’s a basic human need, it would seem like bad luck not to. “I was a wicked glue sniffer,” he said of his 12-year-old self. Oh, and the acid he could get, when he was a little older, it’d been the pure stuff, not stepped on—they had a buddy with a connection who was a scientist and he could get it straight from the lab—“and man,” Pastor Steve told me, “you could kiss yourself goodbye.” He snorted heroin for the first time before going to a sock hop. Pastor Steve and his friends developed their own language, most of it having to do with levels of stoned-ness: “Laid to the bone” meant getting extremely stoned, while “getting straight” meant getting stoned so they were “exactly right.” Pastor Steve basically stayed stoned all the time. He found himself in and out of jail, including the time he’d been a driver for a bank robbery job. “Basically, the first time I laid my high school sweetheart, I got her pregnant.” They got married, but they were both heroin addicts and speed freaks, and the marriage only lasted a year. She took the kid when she left him. Pastor Steve said he doesn’t remember the following nine months. That son eventually died of cancer.

That church day, a couple rows of pews faced each other from three directions. Up in a makeshift DJ booth, a man had begun playing loud, synthesized gospel music on a CD player hooked up to a crude sound system. “Ex-heroin junkie,” Pastor Steve said. “Chased him for 10 years.” People stood and began to clap. Pastor Steve had been correct: the crowd was small, perhaps 20 people total. The place smelled vaguely of disinfectant. An older woman in a black dress and heels and a white knit sweater had passed out in one of the pews. Before the church service had begun, I’d seen her passed out in the pew in front of the abandoned building across the street.

We chatted with a black kid, probably in his late twenties, wearing a matching red shirt and shorts. The kid seemed like he might be mentally impaired, and it was difficult to follow what he was saying. An ugly scar ran across his throat and his voice emerged as a painful croak. I wondered if he’d been shot or stabbed in the neck. After he walked away, Pastor Steve explained that he’d tried to hang himself when he was eight.

Earlier, Pastor Steve had introduced me to the most recent—as in, just arrived that afternoon—resident of the Jesus House, a white guy in his thirties wearing denim shorts and a plain brown T-shirt whom I’ll call Wallace. “He’s been a heroin addict for two years, but using crack since he was 18,” Pastor Steve said. This was surprising: Wallace looked relatively healthy. He wasn’t emaciated, and didn’t have the zombie eyes of a fiend. According to Pastor Steve, he lived out in the suburbs, where he worked as a welder. He had an unironic mustache and hair that stuck straight up in a half-feathered sort of way. He told me that he’d OD’d twice in the past month, and that he’d taken that as a sign he needed to get clean. Then Pastor Steve had escorted him to his new room on the second floor of the Jesus House. The upstairs bedrooms had all been subdivided into cell-like bunk rooms. Some of the guys hung up sheets in front of their beds to give themselves a modicum of privacy.

As the church service got underway, one of the residents of Mary House, a heavyset African American woman, stood up and informed the crowd, “It’s hot in here, but it’s hotter in hell!” Pastor Steve spotted Wallace standing next to a water cooler at the rear of the room. He was chatting with another congregant with a heroin problem. I’d talked to the second guy before service. I’ll call him Heroin Mike. He was also white, with a mustache, probably around the same age as the new guy, but he’d had an unctuous, sidling manner I’d found deeply unpleasant. He’d made some paranoid-sounding anti-tax comments and then gone on a long jag about the shootout at Ruby Ridge. Also, he wore mirrored state trooper’s sunglasses, the sort with blue-black lenses that made you think of an oil spill, and didn’t take them off indoors.

“Game sees game. Why would you want to throw a brick at a glass house?”

Pastor Steve made his way to the water cooler and said something to Mike, who nodded and wandered outside. The new guy sat down in one of the rear pews, eventually putting his head down and running his fingers through his hair. When Pastor Steve returned, he whispered to me, “That guy was throwing moves back there. I had to tell him to beat it.”

Surprisingly, after the service, Heroin Mike was still hanging around outside. I’d told him about my book, and he seemed eager to continue chatting with me. He was leaning against the church van, still wearing his sunglasses and black Ultimate Fighting Championship cap. As we spoke, Wallace came outside, grinning now, and slung his arm across Mike’s shoulder. “Man, get away,” Mike hissed. “You’re being watched!” Wallace stepped back and pretended to be doing something else. Then someone from the church grabbed him and put him to work in the garden, hauling bricks.

Heroin Mike proceeded to buttonhole me, launching into a long, rambling story about his prison time and subsequent meeting of Pastor Steve. As he spoke, he attempted to light a home-rolled cigarette. It took him several tries. He also seemed, during several long pauses, as if he were just on the verge of nodding out. Eventually, he took off.

Larry Stone and another Jesus House resident, a younger kid, probably in his late teens or early twenties, were both fuming about Heroin Mike. They said they wanted to kick Mike’s ass, and that they would, if he continued to bother Wallace. The kid pulled a switchblade out of his pocket and grinned. Another guy, standing nearby, made a joke about spilling blood for the Lord. He had a bulge in his belt, underneath his shirt. Larry looked at the bulge and made a joke about how the kid was bringing a knife to a gunfight. Everyone laughed. Larry said he could tell right away that Mike was trouble. “Game sees game,” he said. Then he shook his head in disgust and asked, “Why would you want to throw a brick at a glass house?”

A white woman came out of the church, wearing nothing but lingerie and carrying a bag of food. Her exposed skin was completely covered in hideous scabs, like the bites of a thousand insects.

Larry stopped talking for a moment as she passed by. He shook his head and said, “That woman is mentally disturbed.”

Mark Binelli is the author of Detroit City Is the Place To Be (Metropolitan/ Henry Holt), which was released in November, and the novel Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die! (Dalkey Archive). He is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone and Men’s Journal and lives in New York. More by Mark Binelli