The Arms Dealer Dearborn
by Brother Theo
I remember the day I learned the most important lesson of my life the first day of school in Dearborn, Michigan. It was, as the Hoi polloi say, a day that changed the rest of my life. I had just turned thirteen, and my family had moved from Cedar Rapids Iowa to Dearborn Michigan. Personally, I hated it. And why shouldn’t I? My dad had been an executive in an accounting department at Kellogg’s, and we lived in a nice house. It was a nice neighborhood too, and there were lots of kids my age, or close to my age living there, and most of them were my friends. It was great! My friends and I played baseball nearly every Saturday during school when the weather was nice (couldn’t play in the winter much, because of the clothes. Try to play winter baseball in Cedar Rapids in baseball clothes and you’d freeze your acorns off, as my uncle Wally used to say.) But nearly every day during summer, it was game on. And the truth is, We had a pretty good team.
Some of the fathers came and coached. Some guy at Kellogg’s even bought us some good uniforms, you know, the kind the pros wear? That way when we rode our Schwinns to the crappy neighborhoods like hells angels in formation to play ball we’d look good. Forget that, we looked great, like a division of Panzers rolling into some Polish slum. Mostly we’d play ball with the kids whose dads worked in the manufacturing and warehouse divisions of Kellogg’s along with the families of paper mill workers, truck drivers and other workers Plato referred to as deltas and epsilons, and uncle Wally referred to as the losers. He wasn’t uncle Wally, but sometimes Plato could put the nail right in it.
Anyway, even though we usually kicked those losers asses (a lot of them couldn’t put together a pickup game without using girls and little kids!), every once in a while we got beat. Some of those black kids could sure play ball. That’s something I learned when we got to Dearborn too, because it seemed to me that nearly everybody in Dearborn was black. At least the ones that went to my school.
See, when we moved to Michigan it was because my dad got a promotion, and he got that promotion on account of the guy whose desk chair Pop’s butt was soon to be warming had croaked, and they needed dad there yesterday. Which is on account of why Uncle Wally stayed there in Cedar Rapids to sell the old homestead, and we had to hoof it quick to a rented house in Dearborn that was in a neighborhood that, like Dearborn itself, was an armpit. It was so bad in that first house that my mom had to put down boards for us to walk on until she had some people in to scrub the cooties off the floor! And the school? All I can say is two things about the school; one is, don’t give me your sob stories about prison, because that school, Edison intermediate school, was where kids went to train for prison. Our basketball team was even called the Gladiators! I always tell people that I learned everything important in gladiator school, and that’s not far from the truth.
The second thing is, that school is where I learned that Plato didn’t make wide enough use of the alphabet. Where had American DNA gone so wrong? None of these people were ever going to do anything but employ cops and prison guards, and half the girls there had another future convict bun in the oven!
So there I was a soft white rich kid in a predominantly black junior high school fresh out of the sixth grade. Fresh meat. I would learn what that meant too. Ok, so my life changing moment. You should give me a sign when I get off topic like that. Sometimes I sound like that peckerwood, Brother Theo as he calls himself, down in Texas.
What happened is this: there was this older guy named Devon, need I mention he was black? He’s going with this girl his own age, seventeen I’m pretty sure, who’s going to high school over at the Carla B. Ford school for disadvantaged girls. Sounded like a real homecoming queen. I saw her later, and she scared me worse than Devon. Soon it came to pass that Devon and a few of his buddies scared the bejesus out of me the second week I landed in that cesspool. I had my head in my locker between Mrs. Murray’s English class and Mr. Eppinger’s math snooze when it happened. I wasn’t paying any attention to what was happening because between the boredom of Mrs Murray’s voice, which was like verbal chloroform, and the terror I was feeling what with being a piece on a giant Jumanji board, I didn’t realize until too late that big hands were ripping everything out of my locker. I was then violently shoved into that small space. I heard the padlock click shut. It sounded like a prison door
slamming shut behind me. I was trapped upside down in my locker, folded in half like a taco! I fought the feeling of being suffocated alive by thinking how proud Mrs. Murray would be of my comprehension of the word claustrophobic. I listened to the sounds outside in the hallway; the hallway full of people just a few inches away. If anyone noticed they didn’t say anything. Upside down and facing the wall like I was, I couldn’t budge, or cry out! Heck, it was everything I could do to breathe. I listened as the noises in the hallways dwindled. I heard the sharp metallic buzz summoning all us kids to class. I heard the late bell and wondered if I would be in trouble. I heard my uncle Wally’s voice say in my head, “Of course you’re in trouble bucko, you’re walled up just like that brainless idiot in that story you like called “The Cask Of The Amontillado” and the boys who put you there are blacker than Othello ever dreamed of being”. That was a strange but significant after thought.
See, in my whole life, I had never even seen a black person. Between one thing and another I guess I never got around to it. So when we moved to Dearborn, I was like those animals on the Galápagos Islands that had never seen a human. Like the dodo bird, I didn’t know enough to be afraid. I guess when we did move, a change took place in the house we were living in, and without knowing what was happening, the seeds of racism were receiving their first rainfall. Today, there would be a torrent. After they took everything from my locker up to the second floor boys room and divided it up, the boys, men really, came back, pried me out of my locker, took everything from my pockets and told me to follow them.
It was the first day of my life I ever played hooky from school, and beneath the electric current of fear I felt (I was pretty sure even uncle Wally would be wetting his pants in this situation), I felt the first tendrils of excitement which accompany acts of conspiratorial malice. In time this excitement would grow, and become a part of my character, becoming a reward in and of itself. Sitting inside a short outlet tunnel of the concrete drainage ditch that ran through this ritzy part of my new hometown I met Devon and his gang.
And they WERE a gang, something that had only bounced around in my teenage skull as an amorphous combination of the cast of West Side Story, and those old Batman villains with their legions of henchmen. But surrounding me on that day, the day that changed my life, were five of the scariest looking thugs that I might have imagined during one of those terror filled walks I sometimes made in the darkness on my way home from a late baseball practice; the ones where I would imagine the wolf man treading on soundless, deformed paws behind me. It’s lips would be pulled back over horrible fangs, and rending claws would be reaching for my vulnerable neck. It would be identical to the plastic model of that Hollywood horror which resided on the stand right next to my bed! On those nights I could swear I heard it’s hungry growl and the skin on my arms and back would stipple with goose bumps as I broke into a full run that did not slow until the front door of my house was safely shut behind me.
But then no one like Devon or his minions ever lived in my old neighborhood in Cedar Rapids. Hell, they couldn’t have gotten within miles of that neighborhood, but here I was, squatting in their neighborhood like one of the three little pigs, with five big bad wolves surrounding me.
“Now, I ‘magine you sittin’ there thinkin’ me and Smiley and the rest of us done you wrong today” Devon said this leaning forward on his corded forearms. Squatting on his haunches before me, his shadow enveloped me completely, and I noticed that bristly hairs sprouted from his forearms in a way that reminded me of the clumps of thistles that grew in the unused lots all over this part of Dearborn. Smiley, a name I never once saw him earn, nodded sympathetically at these words and the others looked at me concernedly.
I wanted to say “What, me? Not at all, why would I feel that way?” But my tongue felt like it was stuck to the roof of my mouth by a big old glob of sticky peanut butter. And even if I could have said anything I wouldn’t have, because some primitive instinct made me be still, like a rabbit under the hawk’s shadow.
Devon’s merciless eyes searched mine, and in that long, endless moment I realized I was on trial for my life. “What’s the matter little peckerwood? Cat got yo’ tongue?”
Not knowing what to say I shrugged and managed to say, “I guess I don’t talk much.”
Devon stared at me in disbelief and then threw back his head laughing so uproariously that the sound bounced up and down the cement walls of the riverbed, but it’s echoes pulled the last of his humor with them. “That be the
first time I ever hear of a peckerwood that ain’t got much to say”. The rest of the gang chuckled. After another searching gaze he stood up. Gesturing for me to stand, he put a heavy arm on my shoulder, and we walked back toward the school.
On the way he explained three things to me. The first was that I wasn’t getting any of my stuff back. The second was that he was going to take anything he wanted from me every day from now on; in fact, I had better find him every morning so he could take it. “That what you white folk call robbin’ when a black man do it, but taxin’ when a white man do it” he explained. The third thing he said was what changed me forever. Not all at once you see, but slow like, as Devon would have said. What Devon said to me was this, as we arrived at the boundary of the school property. “One thing you can count on fo’ sure the rest of yo’ life. If a man can hurt you, he jabbed my chest with a thick forefinger for emphasis, and get hisself ahead in the doin’ of it, he gonna do it certain as I’ll whup yo’ ass the first time you show up with nothin’ fo’ me!”
I nodded dumbly as his gang started forward again. Holding me in place by my shirttail, he waited until they were out of sight. Inclining his head toward the school he said, “ The lie is that you get your learning in there. The truth is, that’s where they tame you, take away your imagination, show you your place, make you the way they want you to be.”
Relaxing his grip on my shirttail he said, “Out here, there isn’t any law a man can’t learn to avoid. In there,” he nodded toward the school again. “it’s ‘crime doesn’t pay,’ and ‘do unto others as you would have them do to you. They’ll teach you that there is a line in front of everything you want, and that you have to stand in it until you get to the head; meanwhile, all the people THEY want, the RIGHT people, well they get cuts. You hearing me?”
Utterly fascinated by his change from racial stereotype to something I had yet to classify, I forgot to be afraid. Time went by, as it does in every life, and here’s what happened. Within a month my family relocated into what would become West Bloomfield. It was kind of a green zone in the Detroit area. During that month I dutifully brought money and things like watches and small bits of jewelry to Devon, and, on his advice to other members of the gang.
“Not too much.” he said to me when he mentioned it, “Just enough to make them forget the difference between black and white.” He also arranged for me to receive several beatings until I learned the difference between victor and victim. I also learned that crime indeed DOES pay, and that selling insurance against loss was a big earner too.
Using his street patois whenever we were within earshot of others he taught me things like, “Firs’ you send in a ringuh, you tell that nigga to go wild. Tell him to break the place up, and then steal somepin’. Not any somepin’, but somepin’ you already scoped out, somepin’ high dollah. Bes’ you use somebody owes you, or maybe somebody you got a grip around his neck; maybe you give him a little dope. But you takes that somepin’ you sent him in fo’. Then, you shows up and says lawdy lawdy, looky here, what done happened here? Then you helps the mark up an’ brush him off, offer to call John laws. While he tryin’ to get his head straight, you says you know somebody can make sure this don’t never happen again, but it costs them twenty a week. Most of the time, they give it up smooth.”
After we moved I would regularly go out with Devon and his gang. I learned the finer points of robbery, strong arming, extortion and best of all, what the black market was, and how to profit from it. To my parents horror, I volunteered for service in Vietnam. Devon and I went in together, and between his fine tuned killing skills, and my parents connections to Vice President Ford, I became first a lieutenant and got Devon promoted to first sergeant. He was actually a great soldier when we weren’t busy stealing, extorting and conning our way through the war. We volunteered for and got high value target assignments, allowing us to make great connections with enemy agents and spooks from the agency. We sent more dope home taped to the back of Kodak photos than other smugglers were in boxes. By the time we got out, I was a light colonel and Devon was a sergeant major. But most importantly, I got a gig in the pentagon as a kind of go between with the agency. Toward the end of the war there were literally hundreds of thousands of munitions and arms blanketing the countryside in Vietnam, and helpfully, Devon and I developed recovery units, effectively stealing thousands of machine guns, small arms, grenades, missiles, and even some mechanized infantry, along with tons of ammunition. Getting our share to a safe place was easy.
Eventually we sold off the whole stash to whoever paid the most, even spreading some of it around dear old Dearborn. I live a pretty good life these days, I don’t sell guns now, but influence and money. Devon tried to go back to the streets and wound up controlling most of the heroin trade in Detroit until he caught cold from a bullet. I think maybe he wanted it that way. For my part, I’ll keep stealing the American dream.
The Butcher Shop