Just like hipsters and Scientology, the city of Flint is one of those things that’s easy to make fun of. Often referred to as “America’s murder capital”, it saw 66 murders in 2012, tying with its all-time high from just two years before. Not too shabby when you consider that equates to 65 murders per 100,000 people, a figure that tops that of Detroit or even Chicago.
There’s a strange polarity when it comes to Flint-targeted sentiment. People who’ve never even stepped foot in the city get a kick out of its reputation, dickishly boasting how they never had to worry about locking their doors in their hometowns and how they knew their neighbors and blah, blah blah… Yet, others—like Davison High School grad Michael Moore—who grew up in Flint’s more wholesome suburban hamlets try to represent Flint as if they grew up there.
My first year at Michigan State University I landed a dream job pressure-spraying carcinogenic rat shit out of cages at a medical research facility. My boss introduced me to another guy—a fellow student labor camper named Clayton—who claimed to be a “Flintstone”. My first clue that he was full of shit was that no one who’s actually from Flint ever refers to themselves as a “Flintstone”. When I asked Clayton where he had gone to high school he answered, “New Lothrup.”
“New Lothrup? That’s like, way north or south or something,” I said. “Actually, I don’t really know. All I know is that we used to beat you guys in hockey.”
Visibly deflated, he asked where I had gone to school.
“Flint Northern. Sucka.”
With the exception of a few summers spent living there between semesters, you can pretty much say I left Flint in 1993. In years hence, my visits back to the Motherland became less and less frequent. Inevitably, its charcoal-colored streets began to lose their familiarity. Its memories had faded and I was beginning to lose track of all the places I’d racked up ban notices from. I’d made the move from Flint to Lansing which, when I thought about it, simply meant trading in one smoky, rusted skyline for another. If there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that people just love to complain. I don’t know how many times I’ve had to endure one person after another bemoaning Lansing’s “skyrocketing” crime rate. Lansing’s ground zero for crime was—and still is—pretty much centered around one chintzy little south-side neighborhood. At least in Flint, you have every reasonable expectation to meet your demise most anywhere you go. I missed Flint. I missed how alive I felt being alive there. And so, years after having tugged free from its gravitational pull, I felt it was time to reacquaint myself with my hometown.
In July 2012, my friend and colleague, Matt Horcha, and I spent a 24-hour period driving around the city, randomly crisscrossing Flint’s 34 square-mile terrain like a pair of wayward German tourists. Armed with a tape recorder, notepads, and my .40 Glock, we toured its streets and neighborhoods, interviewed its residents, sampled its culture and surveyed its ruins.
We’ve decided to make downtown’s The Torch Bar & Grill our base of operations. Over a platter of burgers and fries, we discuss our mode of attack for the next 24 hours. We’ve divided our itinerary into four parts: Sightseeing, Socializing, Memory Lane and Recreation. We’ve also established some rules for the assignment:
- Adhere to the journalistic standard of ethics—mostly. Since the Society of Professional Journalists lists like a gazillion of ‘em, we decide to adhere only to the ones that seem the least restricting.
- Don’t get killed. Sure, nothing says street cred like a toe tag, but if it’s all the same, we’d like to end our assignment in the same physical state in which we’ll be starting it, albeit with some major sleep deprivation.
As if flying bullets weren’t bad enough, if you’re planning on taking a stroll through the downtown area you might want to pack yourself a hardhat. Slabs of Genesee Towers’ crumbling concrete façade have been raining down onto the city’s streets. By one engineer’s estimation, there’s an “imminent danger” that whole sections of the façade—weighing up to 5500 lbs.—could fall at any time. We hike the couple of blocks over to the site to see if we might be able to collect a piece of the building for posterity only to discover that the now-vacant building has been enclosed by an 8-foot fence. The Towers had an eight-story parking garage that coiled through its interior like a tract of dead intestine. At its cloaca was a small dingy metal-and-Plexiglass parking booth that they’d built without the feature of a bathroom. For six years—from high school and into college—I had worked the weekends there absorbing condescension and collecting parking fees from the building’s tenants all while finding creative ways in which to answer nature’s call.
The sun is banking lower in the west and up and down Saginaw Street loud bass thumps from tricked-out, slow-moving cars. Citing the loud bass as an audible laxative, Matt demands that we stop someplace with a restroom. We happen across a party store on Carpenter Road. The storeowner, a distrusting-looking man of indeterminable ethnic origin, not just declines our request to use the store’s restroom, but does so with visible annoyance. But after melting his heart with purchases of Red Bull and Doritos, he relents.
Before adopting its stage name of “Devil’s Lake”, the 19-acre amoeba-shaped body of water located at Flint’s extreme north end once enjoyed the more regal-sounding name of Flint Park Lake. Just like Otis ‘Red’ Redding—Morgan Freeman’s character in The Shawshank Redemption—Devil’s Lake can get you anything: Grocery carts, car batteries, pianos, industrial waste, dead animals, acres of tires, hypodermic needles, cars, bloated human corpses. Dreams. Souls. You name it; it’s likely been dredged up from its murky waters at some point.
We sit along the lake’s south shore and watch the evening’s redness gather in the west. The summer evening dance of fireflies has begun and in the cooling breeze the leaves rattle softly like gentle applause. We have to remind ourselves that we’re still in Flint for we could be anywhere at this moment. There’s beauty here. A gracious embrace of nature that’s dampened only by the lake’s sad and tragic reputation.
It’s hard to believe that opera was once performed here. Back in 1919, farmer Matthew Davison deeded the property to the Flint Park & Amusement Company provided that only “high class” entertainments be conducted on the site with “no questionable amusements…permitted”. And so, they danced here. They played baseball here. Storied musicians—including Ella Fitzgerald—accepted invitations to perform here. Once upon a time, the whispers and kisses of young lovers were exchanged here in the privacy of Ferris wheel cars. But it’s as if the ground opened up and swallowed it all. 10,000 years passed within the span of a half-century. The few people we observe walking in the streets do so aimlessly like extras in a George Romero film. People still live here, though it’s impossible to tell which houses might be inhabited for they all look wraithlike. Dead.
I bum a cigarette from Matt and watch the sun dip down below the horizon. Hungry, we decide to go and grab a bite to eat. Besides, the mosquitos are out and everyone knows mosquitos carry AIDS.
Back at The Torch the crowd has swelled considerably. Since I’m packing, I sip a Coke and catch up with some old friends I haven’t seen in years. But as anyone will tell you, being the only sober one in a crowd is like being the only atheist in a church. Gleaning every stereotype they’ve ever seen on television, people do the math for themselves: cop + not drinking = recovering alcoholic. I play this up to some extent, just to get them off my ass about taking shots with them.
Suddenly, I’m grabbed from behind and lifted upward into a bear hug. “FLORIDA!!!!!!!!!!!” the person screams, referring to me by an old nickname. When he sets me down, I turn around to see that it’s “Anthony” (not his real name); an old friend of mine that I haven’t seen since high school. Back in the day, we had some pretty engaging late-night conversations on the phone talking about everything from space, to girls, to Cheech and Chong, to theories on how the world would end. He was always a funny, clean-cut, rail-thin kid I enjoyed spending time with. Over the years however his heavy drinking had bloated him to Chaz Bono proportions. Sporting a Moondog Spot beard and wearing dingy, oversized clothes, it’s as if he’s just walked over from the rescue mission just a couple of blocks away and when he talks, his words spritz my face.
“HOLYYYYY SHITTTTT!!!!!!!!!” He wraps me in his arms again. Then he spots Matt and does the same to him. “HOLYYYYYYYY SHITTTTT!!!!!” he keeps saying and spraying.
“Hey, Anthony,” I laugh. “Good to see you, man.”
“It’s been a long time. How’ve you been?”
“I’M GOOD!!!” he shouts, and for a moment it looks like he might be ready to have a normal conversation. But then his face clouds over with the same intense, alcohol-fueled enthusiasm and he gives me another hug.
“Okay, Anthony,” I say, patting him on the back. When I push away from him, I see that he’s already looking over and talking to someone else. Excellent. Taking advantage of the distraction, I slip away and move to another part of the bar.
Other friends are here and it’s great seeing them. One in particular is another guy I’ve been close friends with since the 5th grade. He’s a Flint city firefighter now.
“How long you going to be in Flint, Johnny-boy?” he asks.
“Just until to—ooooommphhh!”
There’s no questioning the guy’s intentions, but I’ve had enough hugs for the night and I politely tell him to stop.
“I’M JUST SO HAPPY TO SEE YOU!!!”
“Thanks,” I answer. “I’m happy to see you, too.”
“Anthony, go grab us a seat. I’ll buy you a drink.”
“ALRIGHT! FUCKIN’ FLORIDA!!!” He goes to reach for another hug when I stop him.
“Cut it out, man.”
His face clouds over with a visible, puppy-dog kind of hurt. “I’m just happy to see you,” he says, no longer screaming. He turns and walks off and for a few minutes I feel sort of bad…sort of. But soon I can hear him screaming over the noise of the place once again as he’s found someone else to wag his tail over. Happy again.
I’ve noticed that in my lengthy exile from the city, the streets and neighborhoods have lost their familiarity. More than a few times I find myself at intersections, glazed with dementia-like confusion. It’s as if some of the old neighborhoods have shifted. Houses are missing. Businesses have either changed names or have been reduced to fire-gutted ruins.
The headlights from the Trailblazer swing across the empty lot as we pull into a strip of old driveway on Grand Traverse near 11th. The only trace of the house that once stood here is the brown, patchy carcinoma of land where grass refuses to grow. But back in 1991, this was the spot where 38 year-old Lucille Bowie owned and operated a thriving, friendly neighborhood dope house. On an August night that year, Bowie and her 14 year-old intern Demetrius Rawls had been toiling at their craft when Ronnie Johns, Abron Shakir and James “Little Bo” Murphy stopped over under the pretense of buying crack.
I’ve got a theory that at 3:00 am, wherever you might be in the world, there’s a rerun of Simon & Simon being aired on TV. Perhaps that’s what was playing when Johns suddenly took out a stolen .44 caliber Ruger Redhawk and demanded all of Bowie’s drugs and cash. Bowie and Rawls, offering no resistance, handed over everything they had but that didn’t stop Johns from shooting them. As he was leaving, Johns shot a sleeping 18 month-old baby in the buttocks. Bowie and Rawls died at the scene while, miraculously, the baby survived. Johns would later brag about the crime, causing him to earn the silent scorn of someone in his circle. A tip was phoned into the Flint Police Department, which had already linked the gun used in the Grand Traverse double-homicide to another drug-related homicide earlier that summer.
It didn’t take long for the police to pick up Johns and his accomplices. Although Ronnie Johns technically meets the FBI criteria for serial killer, the distinction isn’t typically awarded him given that the motive for the murders had been drug-related.
The last time I had seen Ronnie Johns we had gotten into a wrestling/pseudo-fight in the hallway of our high school, which resulted in me giving him a bloody nose. But aside from this one incident, I’d never had a problem with the guy. I vaguely remember Abron Shakir. He was the guy who sat in the back of the class, cackling salaciously at other people’s hijinks between naps. At some point, both had stopped showing up to school; their empty seats being the only noteworthy legacy either of them really left in life.
It’s on. There’s a hum in the air. Something raw and tense and primal and maybe just a little psychotic. The bars and the clubs start emptying out, unleashing patrons out into the world like caged pigeons. As pheromones ooze like tree sap, so does a seething ire.
I’ve heard the city’s budget cuts have whittled the Flint Police Department down to just three or four patrol cars per shift. If those numbers are accurate, then every police officer on-duty is patrolling the Clio Road corridor at the moment. Just a week before, a 20 year-old man was shot and killed while leaving the Palm Tree Lounge. A stray bullet struck a 20 year-old woman who was exiting a nearby liquor store. Back in April, tired and fatigued from a night of boogying-down, a man was shot and killed while leaving the Boogie Down Club down the street. Barely a week later, two more people would be boogied-down while leaving the club.
The cars move slowly up and down Clio Road like parade floats. Every color of tricked-out Navigators and Cadillacs and Lexuses; their shiny metal reflecting the streetlights as they slice through the warm, moist night. It’s both seductive and ominous. One car; a dark-colored Infiniti SUV, slows down in front of a group of people walking on a sidewalk. A face pops out from the passenger seat and words are exchanged. One of the men on the sidewalk begins shouting and is pulled away by one of the women he’s with. But whether it’s because the police are present or cooler heads prevail, the Infiniti drives on and the group quickly vanishes into the night. Soon, the heavy traffic evaporates and by 3:00 am, it’s as if it was never there in the first place.
NEXT WEEK (24 Hours in Flint, The Last 12)
Junkyard Sunrise, Breakfast at the Shooting Range, Yearbook Envy