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Chapter 3: “Do yourself a favor and let me help you.”
March 21, 2014
The house rested in the middle of a block, which was a shadow of its former self. Like many, this neighborhood had once provided a comfortable lifestyle for auto workers who fled the south in the 1920s chasing the promise of Henry Ford’s high wages and fleeing the oppression of Jim Crow. The once well-paved neighborhood roads were now pockmarked with potholes and littered with paper bags and broken pop bottles. The dingy, snow-lined streets told stories of muggy, riotous afternoons of the 1960s and their aftermath, which inspired white flight to the suburbs and ushered in the flow of narcotics and the activities that surrounded them.
Like many neighborhoods in the city, it now stood half-populated, and the casual observer would have thought it was totally abandoned. Many lawns went uncut in the summer months because homeowners had left long ago during the first wave of auto job cuts, or had walked away after their adjustable mortgage rate doubled.
Brenda Harris-Stein’s powder blue, one-story house, and the quarter acre that surrounded it, was one of the few glimmers of order that remained. Even during the months she had spent in hospice, Solomon made sure he stopped by to mow his mother’s lawn, trim the hedges, and water the annuals that framed the edge of the house during the warmer months. She took such pride in the house, always reminding Sal about how far she’d come since her childhood in the Frederick Douglass apartments.
Sunrays leaped through the white-trimmed bay windows and danced over Solomon’s massive patchwork quilt. He lay buried in a large lump, creating a cozy cubbyhole where he soundly slept. After a long night, there was nowhere he would have rather been. He always turned the heat just high enough to keep the water pipes warm. Heat costs money, and lately, money was a rare commodity.
Time to make the doughnuts, Sal thought to himself as he fought the covers’ coaxing and slipped out of bed, his thermal socks padding onto the frigid hardwood floor. He took six steps into the bathroom, and yawned as he released his full bladder into the pink toilet. Pink was Mom’s favorite color, but when he was able, the first thing Sal planned to do was to change the bathroom décor. Unfortunately, he had bigger fish to fry.
Sleepily, he staggered into the kitchen just as the automatic coffee maker beeped and started dripping. The red 8:11 glowed brightly on the side of the stainless steel contraption. A large stack of bills sat adjacent, waiting to be opened, and he gritted his teeth at the sight. He’d let them stack for a week before he’d finally buckle down to read them. It wasn’t like they’d reveal anything new. The banks didn’t have his cell phone number, so he didn’t have to worry about the calls, but the multicolored delinquency notices arrived daily. Pretty soon, he’d be getting knocks on the door like he’d watched his mother’s neighbors receive years before.
Next, the pink slip would be on the door, then the belongings would be on the curb. Some of the neighbors just left the homes vacant, letting the pipes freeze, and the water would flood the place. Months later, the mold would be the only resident of the house, and the toxic air would make it uninhabitable by humans. Sal’s mom had given her life to purchase this home, working multiple shifts to save enough money to escape that cramped, dank, one-bedroom apartment that she had rented from the sex-crazed landlord, Mr. Louis.
In the following years, she was adamant about paying the house off so their family would have a legacy. “A family’s got to OWN something,” she’d say emphatically. So, when she made that final payment seven years ago, it may have been the happiest day of her life.
Unfortunately, cancer has a way of disregarding goals. Once the insurance ran out, the home equity was all they had to pay for chemo treatments. She considered just letting the cancer run its course instead of going back into debt, but the doctors had said she had a high chance of survival, and Solomon promised her he would work to pay off the house again. Temporarily satiated, she signed the refinancing documents, and the deal went through.
Five years later, and the medical bills had erased the thirty years of work she’d put in to pay off the home. Five months after that, she took her final breath. The end of her battle signaled the beginning of Sal’s. Now the house belonged to him and he dared not dishonor her memory by letting it suffer the fate of the others on her block. He was determined to keep his promise.
However, Sal had one big problem. He and Dante had made other plans. Sal had quit his job at the auto shop, the European tour was booked, and they were going at this rap thing full time. It was one thing to perform for the love, but the game changed when your art became your profession and it had to keep your stomach full and cover a mortgage payment.
The coffee’s rich aroma filled his nostrils as he poured the steaming liquid into his mother’s favorite Detroit Zoo mug and took a long sip. The morning potion was like gasoline to his groggy engine. As the warm stream traveled through his body, he opened the freezer, pulled out an orange box of French bread pizza, and sat it on the kitchen table. He slumped in the worn dinette chair, coffee mug in hand, reached into the box, and retrieved a frosty Ziploc bag that contained his cut of last night’s door revenue. He cracked open the seal, then went into a trance, deftly separating the hundreds, fifties, twenties, and tens and setting them in a separate pile. He then systematically dealt the singles in a neat pile, counting as he went.
When the last George was counted, he stacked the Abes in a similar pile placed perpendicular to the first stack, and continued alternating the stacks until the last Benjamin was accounted for. $1,523.00 . . . not a bad haul, given the cut had been split three ways. He owed the bank twenty times that sum, plus interest and late fees. He made a little money on the side, repairing and rehabbing cars, but the money wasn’t steady enough to count on. Sal was aware that his eggs were placed solidly in a single basket with a worn bottom suspended above a hot frying pan. He had two choices at this point. Make moves, or make an omelet. He’d never been one to over-stress, but the spot he was in made it hard to be picky about a record deal. It was about time to really get paid.
A knock at the front door interrupted Sal’s thoughts. Like a Vegas card dealer, he calmly collapsed the pile into one stack of parallel bills, folded it, then placed it back in the bag and the box. Once the box was secured in its original hiding space, he moved into the living room, toward the door.
His mother had always kept the blackout blinds firmly shut for reasons Solomon never really understood. In the summer, she had claimed they kept the heat out so the air conditioner didn’t have to work so hard. However, she had never opened them in the winter either, so the logic didn’t quite connect. Like many of her habits, Solomon preserved this practice as if changing her routines would extinguish her memory. Sunlight streamed into the tomb-dark living room as he flipped the deadbolt and cracked the door. The chain lock jerked, and the cutting wind invaded the living room as Solomon peeked out.
A middle-aged man stood on the porch with a leather briefcase in tote. Despite the frigid weather, he wore a simple blue pinstriped suit, starched white shirt, blue polka dot tie, and black leather driving gloves. His tanned face suggested he wasn’t spending much time in Michigan this winter.
“Solomon Stein?” the man asked.
“Who’s asking?” Sal answered cautiously.
“Roger Roth, Strigiform Agriculture. May I come in?” He passed Sal his business card through the cracked door.
Sal examined it carefully. The card looked official, but personal computers with graphics packages did wonders these days.
“What do you need?” Sal asked.
“I just need a minute. My company has been helping your neighbors get out of bad situations and into better ones. I’d love to tell you more, but I’m out here freezing my ass off.”
“I guess you should have worn a coat,” Sal smirked. “Or, you better get more specific real quick.”
Roger’s steel gray eyes shot Sal a serious look. “Sir, I’m here to offer you $500,000 for your house.”
Sal didn’t flinch. Years of being teased had taught him to control his emotions. On the playground, appearing affected by taunting only intensified the barrage of jokes that were directed at him. Solomon’s poker face was a valuable weapon mastered over the years. He’d also learned to think on his feet and his instinct said to think fast. He casually gazed over Roth’s shoulder at the platinum Audi A6, parallel parked on the street. Half a million dollars was a larger sum than he’d even seen at once in his life. He could buy ten A6s with that kind of money. But if this guy was for real, Sal might be able to negotiate for more. How could he put a price tag on his mom’s house, though? She’d turn over in her grave at the thought.
“That’s quite an offer,” Sal said. “So, why are you buying up all these houses anyway? There are a thousand rundown neighborhoods in Detroit.”
“Sure,” Roth said flatly. “But we chose this one. As you said, I didn’t dress appropriately and I’m freezing. Tell you what. This pamphlet outlines what Strigiform plans to do here. If you have questions, you let me know.” He handed Sal a glossy brochure through the door crack. “I know your situation here, Mr. Stein. Do yourself a favor and let me help you.” He turned on his heel and walked away. Solomon watched the man step into his car and silently drive away.
Five-hundred grand, Sal thought to himself. That kind of money could change his life. He unfolded the pamphlet in his hand and examined it closely.
Strigiform Agriculture was a business that sought to purchase blighted Detroit neighborhoods to create a large urban farm in its place. This would not only eliminate abandoned lots and vacant houses, but they planned to teach hundreds of Detroiters how to plant their own food and to employ hundreds of citizens to work on the farms. Strigiform would also pay property taxes, thus increasing tax revenue for the perpetually cash-strapped city. Ever since Sal could remember, the city had been cutting costs to meet ever-tightening budgets. Detroit could definitely use the money.
Selling the house would not only help Solomon’s financial situation but it could help the city as well. His house was one of the only ones not abandoned in the neighborhood, and many of the abandoned houses were now home to drug dealers, addicts, crooks, and stray dogs. The idea sounded better the more he thought about it, but this was no easy decision. He had to get away to think, and he knew just where to go.
The V8 engine roared down 7 Mile Boulevard. The new Firestone FR380s hugged the curves as Solomon skillfully navigated past the road’s imperfections as if on autopilot. Deep in thought, Sal stared at the Stang’s circular dashboard instruments. He knew that when he arrived at L&M Auto Body, it would provide the escape he needed. If hip-hop was Sal’s obsession, rehabbing cars was his religion.
Sal had spent many of his high school days in the thirty-year-old auto body shop, and though he was initially paid to work there, he would have worked for free. In the garage, he was God. He could resurrect a dead car with the power of a deity, and his “blessing” was second to none. Baby James, the shop owner, would assign Sal his most difficult rehab jobs and watch him revive the vehicle with ease. Though Sal no longer worked at L&M full time, James would contract him on jobs and throw him a couple extra dollars, hoping that when this rap dream failed, his valuable employee would return.
Sal hoped that day would never come. He was tired of Detroit. His travels abroad had opened his mind to all the possibilities and opportunities the world had to offer. So many of his friends disguised their close-mindedness and resistance to change as “love for the D,” but Sal was different. As soon as he hit it big, he was jumping on a bird and flying to a city called Anywhere But Here.
As he slowed at the amber traffic light, then stopped at the red, his eyes drank in the depressing scene around him. Dingy, snow-covered, boarded-up shops that had once fueled a bustling city economy were now canvasses for bootleg graffiti artists and gang tags. Small clusters of men stood on the corner, huddled together, thick breath visible in the brisk winter air, passing mystery packets back and forth. On the opposite corner, a homeless man held a cardboard sign letting the world know that he would work for: EVERYONE PREACHES HATE 611.
Huh? Sal thought to himself. The words were clearly written on the cardboard sign, but it was nothing like the usual pleas carried on homeless signs. That wasn’t the strangest part. This was the second time in less than twenty-four hours that he’d seen cryptic messages in random places . . .
ONNNNNNNNNK! ONNNNNNNK! The car blared behind him, forcing him through the intersection. He craned his neck around to make sure his eyes weren’t deceiving him, but the homeless man and his sign disappeared. Sal turned around just in time to turn into the auto shop. He pulled up to the sheet metal garage door and honked three times. The automatic opener hauled up the dull silver garage door, exposing a handful of workers hunched over cars, changing oil or shooting sparks out of sanders.
He pulled up to his usual bay, parked, and stepped out of the car. Instinctively, he threw his beige coat against the wall where the coat hook caught it like Velcro. He nodded at Baby James, who was stationed in his back office, cussing like a sailor to whomever was on the other end of the phone line. James gave Sal a brief wave and turned his back, deep in conversation. Then Sal turned to the Stang and got to work.