The sirens go all night in Detroit. Eight hundred homicides the first year I was there. the majority listed as police briefs in the newspaper. Every now and then a killing warranted a separate story.
A 12-year-old Free Press carrier girl was shot to death in a hail of bullets early Tuesday as she delivered a newspaper to a house on Joy Road. Jenny Peach died in hospital, her body riddled with at least 15 bullets. Her father and sister, who were helping her with the paper route, witnessed the shooting from their car. When police arrived at the house, it was empty. Two hours later, in a traffic stop on Cass Avenue, police arrested Goyo Velasco, 23, and charged him with first-degree murder. Velasco, a convicted drug dealer told police he fired the shots because he thought the car that was driven by the girl’s father was that of a hired killer. State police said there was a contract out on Velasco for a botched drug deal.
Sirens directly below my window now. You won’t get me, death screamers! My name is Guido Michelini. I am an alien with a green card in love with America.
I’m lying on my bed in a room on the fourteenth floor of the Jefferson Hotel. It’s really the thirteenth floor. In the elevator the numbers jump from twelve to fourteen. Who are they kidding? As if that would change anyone’s luck in this city.
The Jefferson is a residential hotel on the corner of Bagley Street and Cass Avenue. I have a corner room. Small bathroom, double bed, chest of drawers, two chairs and a table. A window directly behind the bed looks out onto Cass Avenue—the “Cass Corridor,” a surreal strip of sex, drugs and death. There is no screen on the window.
The room contains all I need. No TV. The mind-deadening box is gone, a portable I threw out the window in a state of stoned drunkeness. I’m lucky I didn’t kill someone. It ended up a busted boob tube on the sidewalk. Pedestrians walked around it until a homeless man put the pieces in a shopping cart and pushed off down the street. The absence of the TV gives me a sense of freedom. I just have the Sony radio and tape deck Lynda left behind. Lynda, nineteen years old, long brown hair, slim taut body.
I’m listening to WRIF Rocking Stereo: The soul’s escaping through this hole that is gaping… and smoking a joint. I’m waiting for Barbara to come to my room. Another woman was in the room earlier, Darlene, eighteen, skinny and black like she jumped out of a Motown song. The contrast between our bodies tangled up in black and white was startling in the half-light on the room.
Sirens swirl around in the darkness outside. I look out the window, looking for Barbara, aka Vampira, long black hair, pale face, bright red lips and long red fingernails. She’s a reporter at the News, the evening paper. I’m a reporter on the morning Free Press.
While waiting around for Barbara, I messed up my chances with Lynda. I phoned her around 8 p.m. She’s a reporter in Windsor on the other side of the border. She told me she was on her way out with another guy.
“You’re too late,” she said over the phone. “I’m not going to sit by the phone waiting for you to call at the last minute. Fuck you!” That had been the general idea.
The sirens stop below my window. What’s this? Is the hotel on fire? I’m too stoned to move. Barbara, where are you?
I’m asleep in my clothes when she comes to my room around 2 a.m. We’re sitting on the bed, both still fully clothed for the first time of being on the bed together. It’s lucky we are.
That last siren. We smell smoke and see it coming through a vent in the wall. I jump off the bed and open the door. Smoke filling the hallway. People in night attire running from their rooms. I grab a reporter’s notebook and Barbara snatches two towels from the bathroom and we start running down the hall. Barbara knocks on doors to rouse residents as we head for the stairs.
The stairwell is filling with people and smoke. We run down the stairs with the towels over our mouths. Around the fourth floor the smoke is black and there is a moment of real fear when we wonder if we should keep going down or go back up. We go down.
We reach the ground floor and run outside. A crowd is gathering in the street. Tenants who got out are guzzling beer out of cans and laughing with the sheer joy of being alive. A crazy, drugged, drunken carnival.
Everybody is looking up. Flames are leaping up the Cass Avenue side the building. Faces of people in the windows, a wall of smoke behind them. A woman on the top floor leans out the window screaming. Horror. Fear. Firefighters doing their thing. Ambulances arriving.
I tear a handful of pages from my reporter’s notebook and hand them to Barbara and we start talking to people in the street, emergency workers we can intercept and the assistant fire chief when we get the chance. We run across the wet black street tangled in fire hoses to the Picture Bar and phone our respective city desks with what we have so far and then run back to the scene.
Four people die in the fire. Many others are taken to hospital. I spend the night at Barbara’s apartment.
If she hadn’t come to my room at 2 a.m. I would have been asleep when the fire spread and it might have been too late to escape. I’d be another frightened face hanging out the window. Saved by a slender young woman from the northwest side, five-feet-five, 108 pounds, raven black hair.
It is in this manner that I am introduced to America.