Kenan Thompson’s character on Weekend Update was uncannily right. Charlie LeDuff has a piece in Vice about the carefully hidden unhappy ending after the happy ending to the story of Detroit “walking man” James Robertson:
“I just believe a man should work,” he told me. “Work takes care of your soul. The rest takes care of itself.”
This outlook may have made Robertson rich in spirit, but it has not made him rich in fact. He can’t afford a car; he clears only $320 a week, and auto insurance can top $5,000 a year in Detroit. His landlord charges him $220 a week for the room.
When it’s all said and done, there’s nothing left after groceries and bus fare. That’s how it is in Detroit. Like running on quick sand.
The local newspaper got hold of his story a couple weeks ago. And then the TV. And then the internet. Pictures of a humble, raggedy man shambling through 14 inches of snow. A working class hero. The story went viral.
And that’s when the trouble started.
More than $350,000 in donations poured into a GoFundMe account set up for him. A local Ford dealership gave him a flaming-red Taurus loaded with options. But the well-meaning dealership may as well have painted a bull’s-eye on the hood and attached a vanity plate that screamed: Come get me! I’m rich!
This story is a powerful indictment of suburban ignorance about the realities of life on the ground in Detroit’s ghettos. Of course the ghettos are poor. Detroit has suffered not only rampant white flight, but also rampant black flight. The city’s historic middle classes have been doing everything in their power to get out of Dodge for decades. They’ve left behind two entrenched underclasses: a peasantrified working class whose members have exceptionally strong work ethics but would be bewildered by the modest levels of prosperity that the middle classes take for a birthright, and a chronically, sometimes generationally, unemployed welfare class with no prospects and nothing to lose by turning to a life of violence and crime. The closest I’ve been to Detroit is the airport, and I’ve been aware of this for years. There’s something well and truly fucked up about the bougies in Detroit’s suburbs if they can’t grasp any of this.
Robertson’s neighborhood is a cauldron of the poor, the defeated, the desperate. A landscape of charred houses, vacant lots, and busted bottles. It’s only a half-mile from the new light-rail line that will connect Midtown college kids with the revitalized downtown and its casinos, $12 cocktails, and lofts of young white professionals who still register their cars at their parents’ homes in the suburbs because insurance there is cheaper.
The rail will stop a half-mile short of Robertson’s Detroit, and it won’t connect him or the rest of the city to the bus terminal. In Robertson’s Detroit, the school year began with 100 children in a single kindergarten class. In Robertson’s Detroit, 18,000 families are in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure this year because they can’t afford the property taxes. In Robertson’s Detroit, unemployment hovers around 40 percent. There are no miracles here. That is, until Robertson went viral.
After that, everybody knew him. And everybody wanted something. The neighborhood started showing up on his porch with their palms out, though Robertson has yet to receive any of the money. His girlfriend — the one who owns the house and charges him 200 bucks for the bedroom — demanded a payout, he said. So did her ex-husband who lives with them. So did her adult son who lives with them. So did the other dude who lives with them.
To make it worse, the day after Robertson received his new car, he clipped the neighbor’s house (he accidentally goosed the accelerator while on his snow-covered driveway). Now the neighbor wants to get paid too.
Everything about this story is twisted to hell in a way that Bougie will never experience or understand. Robertson has been paying the equivalent of $942 a month for a single room, apparently with a shared bathroom, in a cohousing arrangement in the ghetto with people who started demanding money from him the moment they heard he had some. Driving again for the first time in ten years, Robertson had trouble maneuvering in snow and caused property damage in a minor accident, putting him immediately back behind the eight ball. Meanwhile, in the gentrified Downtown-Midtown core, much, much wealthier yuppies routinely commit insurance fraud by falsely registering their vehicles in other municipalities where they have family in order to save on insurance premiums. On top of their incremental free riding in the auto insurance pool, the downtowners have prevailed upon the federal government and various private foundations to devote something like half a million dollars to the construction of a three-mile streetcar line along Woodward Avenue, a white elephant that will serve a tiny, affluent part of the city, disjointed from the rest of the already disjointed regional public transit system.
Anyone who has paid attention to stories from the ghetto understands that just dumping a whole bunch of money on some poor bastard is a terrible way to try and fail to improve anyone’s lot. From time to time a story emerges of some housekeeper or grocery store cashier who turns out to have saved up a quarter or half a million dollars over the years while living in a rented room in the ghetto or a tarpaper shack in rural South Alabama. These people don’t become so financially well off by flaunting their cash reserves. The whole point is that they don’t draw attention to themselves. These stories usually involve some old spinster or bachelor who has been living on pork and beans like everyone else in the neighborhood, in fact, probably more pork and beans than the neighbors, since McDonald’s costs so damn much money. Some of these people probably received generous gifts from their employers, but if they did, they sure as hell don’t make a scene about it.
I got a call from a banker who knows Robertson; he’d noticed him walking over the years and occasionally gave him a lift to work. The banker explained the obvious: It was only a matter of time before the car was stolen. Or worse.
So I called the local police captain. The captain let Robertson park the car at the station house, and then he called a landlord in the city who had an empty apartment for Robertson to use while he and the banker figure out what to do with the money.
The captain sent a handful of cops over to the house with Robertson to protect him while he gathered his four bags of stuff. The girlfriend wasn’t home, but she knew Robertson was leaving and furiously called a half-dozen times.
“She ain’t happy,” Robertson said. “But I don’t belong here no more. To tell you the truth, I never did.”
Robertson’s old neighborhood is so bad that he has had to go under police protection while vacating his room and park his car at a police station for safeguarding when he wasn’t using it. He’s quite lucky, and probably savvy, to be in touch with the banker; many people in his position would get cleaned out by friends and family and have nothing left to put into savings. He’s lucky to have been in touch with Charlie LeDuff, who seems to understand the rough parts of Detroit very much better than any of the other journalists who have been on the James Robertson beat and is well connected enough to call in favors with local police commanders.
Here’s the thing: Robertson has trustworthy, savvy people looking out for him, he recognizes that he’s gotten into a bind with all the donations he’s been given and is willing to take what advice and help he can get, and even so, he’s surrouned by hungry neighbors with long knives. His neighborhood chews its residents up and spits them out, over and over again. With rare exceptions, throwing money at the locals won’t do any real good. The same amount of money will do a lot more good if it’s invested in public transit or infrastructure or job training and recruitment, but no there’s little popular interest outside the ghettos in doing anything of the sort. In fact, there’s strong popular hostility outside the ghettos to bringing public investment in the ghettos up to par with public investment in wealthier neighborhoods. A main purpose of the James Robertson story is to convince Bougie and Whitey that this doesn’t matter, since the good ones will always find a way and, more tacitly, the rest of them can be damned.
The very day Robertson’s story was pinging across the globe, an 86-year-old man was found under a tarp in an abandoned Detroit house, stabbed to death. His sin? He was rumored to have hit the lottery for 20 grand, though the state lottery commission says if he did, he never cashed the ticket. Either way, he’s dead.
Do you still support gambling as the proper way to raise state revenue? If you do, you may be a psychopath. This is the kind of destruction that gambling leaves in its wake in neighborhoods where the payouts are one or two orders of magnitude higher than the median household net worth. If they’ll stab an old man to death over the rumor of $20,000, they’ll surely kill for $350,000. This is a place where a Powerball winner would need to leave town and go into witness protection before cashing out.
There are ways to help poor people in the ghetto, but these don’t include publicly cash-mobbing a guy because he sounded like a poor bastard with a cool human interest story and then retreating back into the woodwork when he is inevitably extorted by those close to him. That sort of stunt isn’t about helping the ghetto poor; it’s about aggrandizing the hearty feelings of the sheltered affluent in the suburbs. Few people who aren’t stuck in the ghetto themselves actually give a damn about the ghetto poor when push comes to shove. The unnamed banker, police captain, and landlord in Charlie LeDuff’s story give a shit. They’re willing to lift more than a mouse-clicking finger to help a poor bastard out instead of sitting behind their computer and television screens, feeling good about themselves for contributing to some viral cash mob. Charlie LeDuff gives enough of a shit to network with his contacts on behalf of a guy he sees getting screwed over by idiots and desperate thieves.
The rest of the people who insinuated themselves into this mess? It isn’t exactly an exaggeration to say that they can go to hell. They were so fucking eager to make a difference that they didn’t give a moment’s thought to whether the difference they were about to make would be helpful or destructive. The more functional parts of the Detroit metropolitan area are crawling with people who won’t hire applicants from the ghettos who are trying to get somewhere with their lives, refuse to help pay for basic public services in the ghettos, and, all too often, are glad to hose ghetto residents with crushing property taxes to pay for the redistribution of public funds to their own wealthier neighborhoods. These asshats think that one guy winning the cash mob lottery is atonement for their ongoing sins against minorities and the poor. It is not.
Jeremiah Wright wasn’t very far off base to ask God to damn America. We look pretty fucking bumptious to ask for his blessings when we treat our own poor so shabbily. They will be with us always, and many of us like it that way. But, you know, it’d be a buzzkill to ask for mercy, or to meaningfully show any to those who need it. Shriller members of the clergy pray rhetorically for their country’s damnation. The rest of us beg for it with our very actions.
Christian nation my fat white ass.