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Archive for July, 2008

On a mission

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

They were an odd sight — two clean-cut white kids wearing black pants and white shirts with neckties, wandering through the rubble of a burned-out house in the middle of a littered field on the east side of Detroit.

The pair, who go by the names Elder Porter and Elder Sturzenegger, are full-time missionaries sent by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from Utah to spread the word far from home, sometimes in dangerous places. On a sunny morning they were in a shell of a Detroit neighborhood near Van Dyke and Harper, momentarily sidetracked.

“We were just taking a picture of ourselves across there,” says Porter cheerfully, as he stands on a clump of black cinders. “I have like 516 pictures. We see some pretty interesting stuff, and so I’m always like taking a picture, sending it home to my mom and my dad.”

They’re referred to as “elder” per Mormon missionary tradition, despite being all of 20 years old. The title replaces their first names — Porter’s is Blake and Sturzenegger’s is Matt — symbolic of identifying with their station instead of themselves. Their mission is to tell the world that there’s another set of Christian scriptures, revealed to founder Joseph Smith Jr. in the 1820s in the form of tablets that only he could decipher. These form the basis of their church.

With their dark suits, close-cropped hair and name tags, the two look like door-to-door insurance salesmen from the 1950s. They’re polite, old-fashioned, and always smiling — flush with the earnest inner happiness that spiritual certitude sometimes grants believers. Missionaries just like them can be spotted around town on bicycles or walking through neighborhoods most outsiders wouldn’t even drive through, always in twos, always in those dark suits.

The young men’s task is to knock on the door of every home in a given neighborhood, including the crack houses, the homes of the deranged or violent, the squatters’ dwellings, homes where shut-ins hide and, sometimes, the home of someone with a sympathetic ear. Their day lasts from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. with a two-hour lunch break, seven days a week. That’s 63 hours of explaining their beliefs about Jesus to occasionally friendly, hostile or puzzled inner-city residents.

“In this area, of course it’s poor, but a lot of these people are humble so they’re more willing to listen to what we have to say,” Porter says. “Whereas if you go out to some of the richer areas, they’re more content with everything, so it’s harder to talk to them about something new.”

Not that it makes much difference when it comes to actually making converts. The young elders speak of only two during their time canvassing for new believers.

They have no car. Home is an austere little apartment at Gratiot and McClellan, where there is no TV, no computer, not even a radio; only the Bible and the Book of Mormon and a little basketball hoop on the wall to play Pig. They’re given just enough money in allowance for basic necessities like food and rent. Both have been in Detroit about a year so far. They’ve got one more year to go in their assignment here.

“Nothing surprises us anymore,” Porter says, smiling. “Back where I’m from, you didn’t get a lot of the things that go on here — gunshots a lot, peeing in public, you see fights, drug deals go down. I remember back home I never saw that. I don’t know; it’s pretty funny.” Moments later, six quick gunshots pop off a block or two away. His face lights up. “There you go!” he says excitedly.

Walking through blown-out neighborhoods has its perils. “The other day we got robbed,” Sturzenegger says. “A guy came up with a gun, actually pointed it to us, but you know it’s funny ’cause we’ve heard other things happen to just regular people around here, they get shot afterwards, but to us that didn’t happen; the guy just took the money, just four bucks, so it was cool.”

“Yeah, we’re poor anyways,” Elder Porter adds, laughing.

They and their fellow elders in Detroit have been attacked by wild dogs, shot at and robbed. They’ve developed a calm fearlessness, earned by time on the streets and emboldened by the conviction that they are being protected from above. During the spring, someone stole their bikes right in front of them. Porter gave chase, found out where the thieves lived from an elderly neighborhood snoop who tipped him off, went to that house and personally took the bikes back. “It was amazing,” he says, grinning.

A large man from the neighborhood crossed the field, and gave the pair a frowning stare as they poked through the field rubble for souvenirs. The two smiled and said “Hi!” He kept walking.

“I’ve actually started a bullet casing collection,” Sterzenegger says. “There’s a missionary that’s up above Six Mile, and he’s got over 200 of ‘em. It’s pretty crazy. You just find them in the street. We have a contest going. He’s winning, of course.”

When their mission is up, they say they’ll head back home to Utah, go to college, find girls to marry, go back to a comfortable life that’s nothing like the squalor they dive into every day, as they put their beliefs to the test against the worst of the real world.

“But it’s cool,” Sturzenegger says, smiling broadly. “It’s fun. I love it.”

This article originally appeared in the Metro Times.

Fading away

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

Some places are like ghosts, not quite dead, not quite alive, but lingering between the two as faded shadows of their old selves.

Paul’s Diner on Michigan Avenue at Cabot Street, less than a mile from the Dearborn border, looks at first glance to have died. It rarely has customers, there’s no listing for it in the phone book, and its hours are erratic. The only thing keeping it going is the will of the man running it.

“It used to be just all the old-timers,” says owner Paul Jones, 65, a curt, doleful man with slumped shoulders and a rare smile. “I’ve lost all my business right there. They’re either dead or invalids.”

The diner, housed in a century-old building, is barely noticeable from the street, being little more than a time-worn facade: a battered door, a faded sign and an unlit, filmy window crowded with houseplants.

Jones bought the place 15 years ago. “I’m very attached to it now,” he says. “I put a small fortune into this thing. I don’t have a note; I paid this off a long time ago and I sweated blood to do that.”

He lives in an apartment above the diner where he spends most of his time. He holds court at the end of the long lunch counter; his cigarettes, bills, address book and prescriptions are spread out in front of him as he sits and chain-smokes. An old cocker spaniel, half blind and mostly deaf, rests quietly at the foot of the counter at his feet.

The air is smoky, and the décor is faded. The booths were bought second-hand years ago from a McDonald’s. The place has the usual elements of a diner — plain coffee brewed in an old machine, ceramic bowls and plates in stacks, boxes of crackers and napkins on a shelf, daily specials scrawled in chalk on a hanging blackboard. In addition to the usual soups and breakfasts, they serve peculiarities like a lamb loaf sandwich or a hillbilly loose burger.

“We could make this hoppin’ if we wanted to,” Jones says wearily. “It’s mostly my fault for not advertising. I’m just tired. I drink too much and I’m tired, bottom line. I’m not going to lie about it.”

Usually the only ones in here are Jones, his girlfriend, Kathy Darby, and a cross-dressing neighbor. Darby, 44, works here too, and lives upstairs with Jones. They react with surprise when somebody actually comes in for a meal.

“Business for the area is way off,” Jones says. “When you have something like this there’s no such thing as a stable income, so you scrounge every penny, and if you don’t you’re fucked.” They barely get by, he admits.

The couple met when Darby, a recent widow, took offense at Jones’ gruff demeanor one day as she walked by while he lingered in the doorway. “I walked by and said, ‘Good morning,’ and he stuck his nose up in the air. It pissed me off so much I went out of my way for the next three months just to piss him off and come by.”

He eventually warmed to her after becoming gravely ill with a fluid build-up around his lungs. “He basically was the walking dead,” she said. “What was wrong with him was the same condition my dead husband went through. The doctors in the hospital couldn’t tell him what it was but I knew what it was.” One day, as he languished in a booth at the diner, she came in, put a water pill in his mouth and ran out the door. “Four or five hours later I was up and about,” he says. They’ve been together ever since, about a year now.

From their vantage point here, they get a prime view of Michigan Avenue and all its wildness. “Michigan Avenue has always been Michigan Avenue,” Darby says suggestively. “Always has been and always will be.”

“Half these assholes don’t even live here,” Jones says of the customers who visit the drug dealers, strip clubs and prostitutes. “They come down here to be assholes. They don’t dare do it in Dearborn or Redford, ’cause they’ll get their ass locked up and their ass beat.”

Things are calmer now, but in his time here Jones has dealt with aggressive bikers, gangsters and strong-arm robbers, for whom he has baseball bats stashed around the joint. “They try to muscle you and take money,” he says. “I’ve been through it. I’ve never lost. I’ve got my ass beaten, but I never lost.” He’s like an old junkyard dog, tired and quiet, but ornery and easily riled.

Sometimes the couple considers moving up north and closing the diner for good. “We’re not sure right yet,” Darby says. “We’ve both been through a lot in our lifetimes, and both are from this neighborhood, and it’s like, what do you do? Do you just walk away from it or do you try and make an attempt to make it better?”

Outside, traffic slowed as the day passed into the evening. “Michigan Avenue should be roaring, and the only reason it’s not is because it’s a bunch of poor people like us trying to survive,” Jones says. “It’s not easy down here sometimes. It’s tough. Not many people are going to come down and do what I do to survive.”

He takes a long drag on his cigarette. “But considering everything, I’ve got a good life,” he says.

Paul’s Diner is located at 8740 Michigan Ave., Detroit. For more information call 313-846-0921.

This article originally appeared in the Metro Times.