I was out for a bike ride through Palmer Park on a sunny afternoon. I thought I'd take a look at the apple orchard that some folks are complaining about potentially attracting rats and causing their property values to plunge. I spotted Mulenga Harangua pedaling along on Pontchartrain Drive. He was on an old balloon-tired bike with a big basket in front carrying some plastic bags full of what looked like vegetables. I hadn't seen him in a few months, so I called out and pulled over to a picnic table to chat.
"Mulenga, how are you doing? You look like you lost some weight."
"Yeah, ever since I started this gardening thing a couple of years ago I've been evolving my diet, more of this green stuff and fewer potato chips and fast food." He pointed toward his plastic bags, which on closer inspection seemed to be mostly greens of some sort. "Plus I've been getting around on this old bike I pieced together from scrap parts. You get a lot of exercise riding one of these things."
"So what are you doing over this way?"
"I'm making my deliveries."
"Yeah, deliveries. I've got a few people I sell produce to. Right now I've got spinach and spring greens ready. I've bagged them up and I'm making the rounds of my customers. Once I finish selling these I'll have about $25 in my pocket. Despite the man trying to keep a brother down, I'm figuring out ways to make it."
"How'd you start with the produce delivery?"
"You remember that pregnant girl I was helping last year? She moved in with a family over this way and got them to start getting a few things from me. Well, they had a few friends who were interested too, so now I come through when I have something. "
"That sounds pretty good. Maybe you can get yourself a stall at one of these markets that are popping up around town."
Mulenga gave a practiced look over his shoulder as though he were checking for someone creeping up on him before he spoke. "No thanks. I don't want to get into all that overhead and paying taxes and whatnot. I like to keep things close to the vest."
"So you want to keep your business on System D."
Mulenga grinned at the suggestion. "What's that, some kind of special Detroit thing? It sounds cool — System D." He started to do a little dance, "I'm rolling in the D."
"System D isn't something specific to Detroit. It's a term that the writer Robert Neuwirth uses to refer to the shadow economy, or informal economy. He published a book last year called Stealth of Nations: The Global Rise of the Informal Economy. System D refers to a sort of black market economy where people do business off the books. No reporting, no taxes. It's like when you do some work for someone, say paint the garage, and they pay you cash."
"I do that all the time. I didn't know they had a name for it. ... System D." He said the last two words slowly, like he was savoring the way they felt as they rolled off his tongue.
"Neuwirth took it from the French term débrouillard. It means someone who is self-reliant or ingenious. In former French colonies in Africa it came to refer to the street corner type business, l'économie de la débrouillardise."
Mulenga gave me a big, wide smile. "So it's an African thing. I can get next to that."
"It's also an illegal thing. This is business off the books. It can be anything from drug dealing and prostitution to paying illegal immigrants under the table. It can also be as simple as babysitting, lawn mowing, or ladies who do their friends' hair on the back porch."
"So I'm part of a pretty big thing?"
"Neuwirth claims it's a $10 trillion per year economy — $1.2 trillion in the United States alone. I couldn't find out anything about Detroit. Nobody answered the telephone at the city Finance Department when I made a couple of calls there, and someone I got hold of at the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation said she didn't even know how you'd track that. But I did find an estimate that 10 to 20 percent of Michigan's economy is in the shadows."
"Well, I'll tell you that System D is big in the D. I pick up scrap metal sometimes and that is all off the books with those guys. Whenever I do odd jobs they're cash only. I certainly don't report when I sell a few bags of greens. If it wasn't for System D I would be out in the cold."
"I don't doubt that System D was made for you."
Mulenga surveyed the area near where we sat. "What's with all those little trees that look like they were just planted?"
"That's the apple orchard that People for Palmer Park planted a couple of months ago."
"I heard about that. Isn't that the one that some folks around here are all upset about? They went to the City Council saying that it's going to draw rats and stuff."
"But there are rats all over the city. It seems like they could be attracted to an orchard."
"Do they come into your garden?"
"From time to time, I have to keep an eye out for them and don't leave ripe produce lying around. I definitely have to keep them out of my chicken coop."
"That's what you have to do. Actually, I called up the Michigan State University Extension Service Hotline and talked to a horticulture agent named Gretchen Voyle. She says that any orchard that is properly cared for shouldn't be a problem. Rats don't climb trees to eat green fruit. They eat fruit that has fallen to the ground. As long as they pick up all the fruit, there shouldn't be any problem beyond any other kind of tree in the park. I got a message from PFPP saying that they plan to pick fruit and leave none behind."
"Think they'll do it?"
"That's another question entirely," I sighed. "They might do it this year; they might do it next year. The question is: Are they going to do it perpetually? This orchard is part of some kind of 25-year plan they have. But sometimes things that start out with the best of intentions go off track."
"So what are they going to do with the apples?"
"They plan to donate them, sell them, let folks pick them and feed them to the Mounted Police horses that are housed at the park. Now Gretchen Voyle says that feeding any significant amount of apples to horses is not a good idea. It causes colic."
"What did the City Council say?"
"Council told them to talk to each other and come up with a compromise. I hope they can. With all the community gardens in town and various plans for urban agriculture, the issue is going to come up again until we get this all settled."
"I guess this could affect me and my garden."
"I don't think it's going to be an issue for you as long as you are on System D. It's when you come out of the shadows and go legit that you have these issues."
"Well I am on System D but sometimes I dream about having a real farm."
I watched a rat nosing around some nearby bushes. None of those apple trees had produced fruit yet, but we have rats regardless.
"I got to get going," said Mulenga. "Before all this lettuce wilts in the heat. Nobody wants wilted lettuce."
As he pedaled away I thought, even on System D you have to worry about quality control, inventory and servicing your customers well. It's not so different from the regular economy.
Larry Gabriel is a writer, musician and
former editor of Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.