For one particularly irksome neighbor, he had to obtain a veterinarian’s needle. He drilled a little hole in the guy’s headlights and used the long needle to fill the lights with kerosene. Voila, flamethrower headlights. It was almost too easy…”
by bill carney
Like a lot of people from the south, the Reed family came up to Detroit during the Great Depression. Because they hailed from Kentucky, their neighbors called them hillbillies, even though they were from Lexington, and Frank Reed had worked in shoe repair, not moonshine. They settled on the east side, near Gratiot and French Road in an area filled with Polish, Italian, and German families.
There weren’t too many French people left in Detroit, even though the name Detroit was a French word meaning “the straight” and a lot of the streets like Gratiot, St. Antoine, Beaubien, and Livernois had French names. French Road was not, strictly speaking, a French name. In fact, the city grid had been laid out by the same French guy who re-designed Washington D.C. after it burned down, laying out broad boulevards like spokes on a wheel. Detroit’s design was a half-wheel starting at the river. A fair amount of Detroit would burn down later on, but they kept the French names.
There were all kinds of elections and questions put to the citizens, but they never asked whether Detroit wanted to get back with the French. The truth is Detroit had done much better under French rule than under the Americans. The greatest of all French adages, “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” was disproven in Detroit. Maybe in France, things stayed the same.
Detroit was still doing okay when the Reeds arrived. Frank found work at the Ford River Rouge plant. When the auto empire collapsed or moved to non-union parts of the country, Detroit never found a replacement industry. The city planners dug a series of expressways through the city that destroyed a lot of old neighborhoods, including the black area at the foot of Gratiot called the Black Bottom or Paradise Valley. As the black population expanded from their now destroyed neighborhoods, the whites took off for the edges of the city and mushrooming suburbs. They went to places like East Detroit, Warren, and St. Clair Shores. In fact, the whites felt so divorced from Detroit, that the residents of East Detroit changed the name of that town to East Pointe to suggest that it was somehow allied with the Grosse Pointes, a group of tony suburbs east of East Pointe. I guess West Pointe did not sound right.
The Reeds never joined the massive white flight from the city. Frank and his wife bought a trailer in Ft. Myers, but their son, Charlie, stayed in their little bungalow. It’s true that Charlie had a city job and was required to reside in the city as long as he kept that job, but by now he was the only white guy left on his street. He stayed there in ’68 when the riots swept through the east side and tanks from the 101st Airborne and the Michigan National guard patrolled the street. He stayed there in the ’70s when the Dutch Elm disease deforested the entire city like a neutron bomb for shade trees. He was there in the ’80s when the Devil’s Night phenomenon descended on the city like some biblical plague. On the night before Halloween, formally a time of teen mischief, the pranks took a sinister edge. Teens torched the many empty and run-down HUD homes on the once-crowded blocks or burned the many abandoned cars that remained on Detroit’s streets in the years between elections. And still, Pharaoh’s heart remained hardened.
By the mid-eighties, the Reed bungalow was worth about $4,000 when the mayor announced his plan to turn Detroit into a convention center/tourist mecca. He had the small City Airport near Charlie’s home expanded through the power of eminent domain into an adjacent graveyard. For the former residents of Gethsemane Cemetery, it was now a semi-final resting place. He used federal mass transit money to build a monorail which traveled a two-mile circular loop among the many abandoned and vacant downtown buildings. He tried to convince the Marriots, Ramadas, and Hiltons to build hotels to house the putative conventioneers. He placed a casino gambling referendum on the ballot five times, but the black churches always shot it down. Charlie decided to stick it out, because there was talk the airport might have to expand further, right to where his house was, and there would be a big payoff from the city to relocate him.
Charlie wasn’t just the last white guy on his block, but he was strictly “L7,” from squaresville, with his clunky police-type shoes, sansabelt slacks, short-sleeved white shirts, buzz cut, and horn-rim spectacles. He was so retro, he almost looked hip, but there wasn’t one whit of irony about it. A lot of the young black kids in the neighborhood used to look at him like he was nuts.
These same kids, in fact all of Charlie’s neighbors, drove him crazy. They were so loud. Why couldn’t they just come home from work, drink their beer and watch HARD COPY quietly, like everyone else? The most annoying thing was the kids in front playing basketball by the streetlight at night. They drank their forties, played their horrible music and bounced that ball, loudly. They did not give one flying fuck about Charlie Reed.
Charlie complained to the city, but the city couldn’t even pick up the trash and certainly did not have the time to help some cranky white guy. Charlie thought about how he had tried to do things the right way and nobody cared. He thought about it, then he ordered a high-powered pellet gun from a magazine ad. Charlie was an expert marksman in the service, and now he was on the police reserve shooting team. He ran the goddamn range. He got the most expensive pellet gun you could buy, equipped with a scope and “compressor,” since silencers were illegal.
One night Charlie crawled into the field next to his house with his pellet gun. One shot put out the streetlight. “Let there be darkness,” Charlie proclaimed. When the city replaced the lamp, however, it was made of a tough plexiglass material. It took Charlie five shots before he got a shot at the bulb inside. He was a little concerned about wasting ammo. Fortune smiled on him a few days later, when he discovered the Electric Company’s generator for the neighborhood. He pulled a chain from the back of his truck, tossed it on the generator’s positive and negative terminals and short-circuited the whole thing. It blew up like a huge roman candle on the Fourth of July. It cost the city about seventy grand, but to Charlie it was worth it. He now knew he could do whatever he wanted and never get caught. Nobody cared. Or they were too stupid. There was a new sheriff in Dodge City, and he didn’t like midnight basketball.
He felt good. He got a business card attesting to his extraordinary self-help skills. He went to a bar in the northern suburbs, but the band sucked something awful. Charlie liked to buy drinks four at a time, so he wouldn’t have to wait to be served. Now he had four drinks and one shitty band. He went outside and located the transformer on top of the bar. He pulled out his trusty chain. When the power went out, the bar owners were dumbfounded and felt so sorry that they lit candles and stood drinks all around. They fired up the jukebox with a portable generator, and Charlie put in about fifty quarters.
Feeling more civic-minded than before, Charlie decided to do something about a rash of burglaries that had occurred on the block. The burglars were apparently using the alleyway behind the houses to load up their car with loot. Charlie built a kind of tiger trap for cars, a pit covered with planks which would immobilize the car’s wheels. He placed it near two steel poles, so the car doors could not be opened in the narrow alley. One day he caught a car, and as the guys crawled out the front windows, Charlie began firing pellets in their asses. A neighbor said, “This neighborhood is a whole lot better, lately.” Charlie basked in the glow of admiration, until he mistakenly caught a telephone company van.
Charlie’s kingdom was still not completely peaceable. If the lion had laid down with the lamb, it was still making too much fuckin’ noise for King Charlie. Car radios remained a problem. An informal competition among inner-city teens had arisen to see who had the largest and loudest stereo system. War-lorded and low-riding Japanese jeeps and pick-ups were merely delivery systems for mind-numbing sound systems. Charlie “fashioned a device” that could deliver 225,000 volts and completely fry a vehicle’s electrical system, when he simply touched the car’s antenna with the little wand attached to the device. After one of his midnight sorties, he saw the look on the offenders’ faces the next morning as they tried to start their cars. It was good to be the king. His lordship’s minions would have to learn to please His Majesty, or they might end up with their asses smited.
Indeed, Charlie’s heart remained hardened, and he was about to rain down another plague. He believed a lot of the teenagers did not drive around with much fuel in their tanks. He brought forth a plague of locking gas caps, which he placed on the vehicles of his enemies during a midnight spree, before throwing the keys down the sewer.
For one particularly irksome neighbor, he had to obtain a veterinarian’s needle. He drilled a little hole in the guy’s headlights and used the long needle to fill the lights with kerosene. Voila, flamethrower headlights. It was almost too easy. Charlie felt he was dealing with children. He tried a variation where he filled a basketball with kerosene and left it on the corner basketball court. He could only imagine the fun when some kid bounced that ball.
Despite the many improvements he had brought to the neighborhood, Charlie was not satisfied. This is what separated the greats from ordinary mortals. One rainy summer night, some of his neighbors were watching TV on their front porch, where it was simply too loud. It was time to apply the rod of correction once again. He crawled out with his pellet gun and shattered the picture tube with one shot. The neighbors, who had been drinking, blamed one another for the busted TV. They fell out, screaming and hitting each other. Although their carrying-on was noisy, Charlie enjoyed it tremendously. They should stay inside when it’s raining, he reasoned.
The last section of the empire that remained untamed was the park behind the block. There was a liquor store across the way, and these guys, “derelicts” as Charlie called them, would cut through the park to get to the store. Number one, Charlie did not care for derelicts cutting though the park. Number two, he did not care for derelicts cutting through his park. Charlie felt a proprietary interest in the park, because that is where he went everyday with his dog. As he whiled away his time blasting bottles with guns (a not-so-subtle message to the neighbors that the house was a virtual arsenal, although the plastic explosives and “good stuff” was up north at the cottage), most of the neighbors agreed it was Charlie’s park.
The derelicts, however, were coming through a hole in the cyclone fence. Charlie arranged the broken glass so that only a narrow, winding path led to the hole. On the other side, there was a sea of broken glass. As if to prove Charlie’s point, a bum came through with no shoes on. The bum carefully negotiated his way up to the fence, seeing the liquor store just across the way, unaware of Charlie’s bottle graveyard until it was too late. He bravely tried to make it to the liquor store, but it was no good. “That man hollered to beat the band,” Charlie said with just a touch of regret.
One night, Charlie was driving back from the hockey game where he had worked as a police reservist, maintaining peace among the rowdy Red Wings’ fans. After the game he went out for a few beers with his partner Norbert. They didn’t bother to change, because the uniforms looked good. Charlie was driving down the Ford Expressway in his V-8 Magnum Force pick-up, headed home to French Road, when some dumbbell in a Caprice refused to get out of the fast lane. Feeling no pain, Charlie decided not to pass him right away but to have some fun first. After all, his truck was the more powerful vehicle. He bore down on the guy’s bumper and tailgated him. Charlie imagined he was drafting at the Daytona Speedway, King Richard Petty fucking with some nobody, but the Chevy driver seemed non-plussed. Finally, Charlie decided to wheel around the obstructing weeny, but the Caprice cut in front of him.
Charlie had not gotten really upset in years, but he was beginning to get a little hot under the collar. He gave the guy a blast of his horn and a little tap on his bumper, a warning shot across the bowline. The Caprice pulled over to the slow lane, and as Charlie passed by him slowly to give him his patented evil glare, he saw the guy had his window down. The booger looked like he could be Charlie’s brother, same dirty-blond buzz cut and pasty, bloated, inbred face. He even had that cool and crazy sideways grin Charlie considered his trademark, but the guy was wearing a Detroit Police, not a reserve, uniform. It was a look Charlie had never seen before, but he recognized it instantly, the look of someone crazier than he. No amount of fronting or business card flashing could change that. He also had a big gun in his hand. For the first time he could remember since the riots, Charlie felt scared. The head that wears the crown would not sleep lightly tonight.
(This article originally appeared in Lurch Magazine)
Bill Carney is a founding member and contributing editor to the late, lamented Lurch Magazine. He is also the leader of not one but two renowned New York City bands: Les Sans Culottes and Bill Carney’s Jug Addicts. In addition to his many literary and musical endeavors, he maintains membership in several secret societies and is a master when it comes to cooking with curry. More from Bill Carney can be found in the Vault of Smoke.