- Illustration by Lee DeVito.
Mulenga Harangua and I stepped out of Nandi’s Knowledge Café into the weak afternoon sunlight in Highland Park.
“That was good,” Mulenga said, pulling a toothpick out of his pocket.
“It sure was. About twice a year I need some fried fish, and this is the place to get it. I don’t eat it often, but I sometimes need a letter from home.”
“Plus the knowledge,” Mulenga laughed. “I just like sitting around all those books and stuff.”
“Let me know when you actually read one.”
“Hey, I show up for the poetry readings once in a while. I don’t have to wear my eyes out just to get some knowledge.”
I gave Mulenga a playful poke in the ribs and dashed over to my car. We got in and headed north on Woodward. The sun was shining, and it felt good that spring was finally creeping in. We weren’t going anywhere special, just passing time and enjoying the sun and each other’s company.
“Still living in that igloo?” I asked.
“No, it’s melting now with the weather finally warming up. It’s just a big pile of ice back there now. But it was nice while it lasted. I’m back in the house now, trying to get my seedlings started for the spring planting.”
I turned on the radio and Pharrell sang, “Happiness is the truth” through the speaker as I swerved to avoid a pothole.
“It’s the truth that I’d be happy if they fixed these damn potholes,” I growled. “Everywhere I go I’m swerving and bouncing in and out of these things.”
Mulenga clapped along with the song. “At least you didn’t drive into a sinkhole. There was one on Linwood the other day big enough for two cars to get into.”
“I heard about that. I don’t know what’s up with the roads around here. You can’t even blame it on Detroit government. They’re everywhere I go in the suburbs too.”
“They let you go out there?”
“Why not? My money is just as green as anybody else’s. You know, whenever I go out there expecting to be the only black man around, I see plenty of others. We’re everywhere.”
We rolled past Model T Plaza, site of the old Ford plant where the first moving assembly line put us all on wheels. Mulenga rolled down his window, punched the button to turn off the radio and slid his harmonica out of his shirt pocket. He played the “da di du di damp” riff of Muddy Waters’ “I’m a Man,” but improvised his own lyrics about the Model T factory.
“Presses a pounding all around me”
Da di du di damp
“I’m just building a Model T”
Da di du di damp
“When my money gets right gonna buy me one”
Da di du di damp
“Then me and my gal gonna have lots of fun.”
We were coming up on Palmer Park. Although it was warming up, the greenery hadn’t popped out yet. It was still all gray and brown. Most of the buildings across from the park on Woodward were raggedy and decrepit-looking. I spotted the flashing lights where a police car had pulled someone over. As we passed, he was putting the handcuffs on a brother.
“He didn’t know it was wrong!” Mulenga yelled out the window as we swept past.
“Man, don’t be hollering at the police from outta my car! I don’t need to attract their attention.”
“He didn’t even look up.”
“Still I don’t need the attention. It always costs money when you come in contact with them on the street … and a lot of time.”
“I know but I was just reacting to the rich kid in Texas who got off with probation after getting drunk and killing a bunch of people in a car accident. The judge said the way his parents raised him that he didn’t know any better.”
“I heard about that. By that reasoning, probably half the brothers who get arrested in Detroit should get off. ‘Officer, I didn’t know it was wrong to jack somebody’s car. I needed to get to my girlfriend’s house.’ Sounds like a potent legal defense to me.”
Mulenga laughed. “Yeah, I didn’t know it was illegal to sell weed. Everybody I know sells weed.”
“Even when you admit you’re wrong, if you have money, you can get off. I saw a story the other day about a man, somebody from the Du Pont family, who got off with probation after admitting to raping his 3-year-old daughter. The judge said that he wouldn’t ‘fare well’ behind bars. Hell, I wouldn’t fare well behind bars either. Kwame Kilpatrick wouldn’t fare well behind bars. I don’t think anybody fares well behind bars. That’s sort of the idea, isn’t it?”
“You mean this cat admitted it and he still didn’t go to jail?”
“Well there was a case right here recently with a guy who admitted to raping a 16-year-old girl with Down syndrome. He apologized, and the girl’s family asked the judge to send the guy to treatment at a mental health facility.”
“What did the judge do?”
“Sent him to prison.”
“I guess his name wasn’t Du Pont,” I said. The bridge over Eight Mile Road loomed a few blocks ahead.
“No, it was Sanchez. He was over on the southwest side.”
“Oh, a Hispanic brother.”
“Yep, there’s not much mercy on that count,” Mulenga chuckled. “Actually, some guys in the neighborhood handed out some justice. Before Sanchez was arrested, the word got out about him and they beat his ass out on the street. One guy wore his legs out with a baseball bat. Then some others decided to use him as a soccer ball.”
“Vigilante justice: I’m not sure I can get behind that. There are too many times the vigilantes get it wrong, and after somebody is dead there is no way to set it right.”
“I know, but sometimes it seems like that’s the only way to deal with this shit.”
“I know. It’s a tough issue.”
Mulenga blew a riff that sounded more country than blues-like. “Hey, you know you’re getting ready to cross Eight Mile, where you headed?”
“Nowhere, I’m just cruising.”
Mulenga thought for a minute as he noodled on the harmonica. “I think I’ve got a new song.”
He began singing:
“Dreaming on Woodward Avenue
Cruising along and moving slow
If I don’t get where I’m going
It’s ’cause I got nowhere to go.”