Chapter 13 excerpt
Burning Down the House
The fires started in late March of 2010, around the time Flint residents typically start fantasizing about the spring thaw. Like any city with widespread blight, Flint had an ongoing arson problem, but this was different. Sitting at my kitchen table in San Francisco, I watched a seemingly endless stream of shaky YouTube videos featuring Flint houses in flames while crowds watched from the street and neighbors frantically hosed down their roofs. I talked to nervous Flint residents who told me the sight of smoke plumes was now commonplace, along with an acrid, charred smell that wafted through the city. A friend of mine named Guy was one of them.
I met Guy through Flint Expatriates. He left insightful, depressingly funny comments on a few posts, and we started exchanging emails and phone calls. He was born and raised in Flint. Although Guy’s grandfather had been a prominent Flint doctor, his father landed on the line at Chevy in the Hole, took to drinking, and ended up living in an apartment above Vechell’s Lounge, a well-known bar near the factory.
Guy learned to play the organ and the piano growing up. He landed gigs at various VFW and union halls around Flint, found work in a band down in Houston, and eventually made his way to Las Vegas, where he joined the house band at the Dunes. The pay wasn’t bad, and he had a room with two king-size beds at the casino hotel, but he saw no future in it. He returned to Flint and got a degree in psychology from the University of Michigan with nearly perfect grades. He took a creative writing class, and the professor was so impressed that he urged him to apply to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. But before long Guy was drinking heavily, just like his dad, and his marriage was on the rocks. He bounced around, living in Lansing for a while before returning to Flint in 1993 with his new wife, Maggie. He got sober, and they bought a 750-square-foot house on Arlington Street on the East Side, just a couple of blocks from Saint Mary’s, the grade school I had attended.
Guy was a salesman at a mattress warehouse making seven dollars an hour, plus a little money on the side designing websites, a skill he had picked up on his own. He didn’t have enough money to move. “I’m trapped on the East Side,” he said during one of the long phone conversations we had when things were slow at the mattress store. Flint had a way of intruding on our talks. One day a woman showed up at the warehouse. Guy thought he had a customer, but she was selling frozen meat out of a cooler in the backseat of her car, most likely stolen. “You wanna buy some steaks?” she asked.
“Do you accept plasma as payment?” Guy joked.
She didn’t get it and left quickly. I guess when you’re selling contraband T-bones, you don’t have time to kid around.
“Man, that encounter pretty much sums up Flint,” Guy said.
Guy thought of himself as someone who didn’t scare easily. After all, he’d seen some weird happenings in the neighborhood. There was the time the previous summer that a speeding car crashed into a neighbor’s house, knocking it off the foundation. The male driver was draped over the engine block. His pregnant girlfriend was strapped into the passenger seat. They both survived, but the unborn baby did not. Guy detailed a host of other misfortunes that had befallen his street: a little boy drowning in a backyard pool, instances of child abuse in plain sight, neighbors drinking and fighting.
“When we first moved here, there were some GM retirees and a few other people on the block who kept their homes immaculate,” Guy said. “But all those ‘normal’ people—for lack of a better term—either died or moved away. There’s almost a complete absence of middle-class homeowners now. Almost everyone’s renting, and it’s like they’re feral people. On warm summer days the street is a cacophony of profanity. It’s just amazing how quickly the street declined.”
There’s no doubt Guy would have liked better neighbors—or the money to move—but he still maintained a large measure of sympathy for his fellow East Siders, even if they were making his life miserable and all but eliminating any value left in his house. “There’s a prevalence of hopelessness coupled with contempt for authority in the neighborhood,” he said. “There’s just a lot of disillusionment. They never got a real piece of the American dream. And the piece they got is getting increasingly smaller.”
Guy had a highly personal take on the arson spree. He and Maggie had been asleep one morning when they were awakened by pounding on their front door. Groggy, disoriented, and naked—Guy volunteered that he’s not fond of pajamas—he jumped out of bed, thinking it was a break-in. “I’m not a gun nut, but I live on the East Side, so of course I have a shotgun,” he said. “I was wondering if I was going to have to defend myself.” He threw on a pair of boxers and headed for the door. He could hear someone screaming for everyone to get out of the house. Guy opened the door, walked onto his front porch, and discovered that the two-story house next door, just fifteen feet away across the driveway, was fully engulfed by flames. Burning debris was floating down onto his house. He could feel the fire. It was so hot he smelled his hair starting to singe. A drunk man in his fifties had banged on the door. He was riding his bike home from a party and saw the fire. He had probably saved Guy and Maggie’s lives. “Armageddon’s happening on the other side of the driveway, and I’m in there sawing logs,” Guy said. “Our bedroom window was open, smoke was billowing in, and we didn’t even notice.”
Maggie quickly joined him on the porch. Standing in his underwear, a wave of anxiety washed over him. He and his wife had three Chihuahuas, two cats, a blind Cocker Spaniel, and a German Shepherd named Buddy they had found on the street and nursed back to health. They were all in the house. He needed to get them out. And what about his computers? If they went up in flames, so did half his income. And there was the fact that he’d just paid off the house four months earlier and canceled the homeowners’ insurance because it was too expensive. “I just had this overwhelming feeling that I was doomed,” he said. “Everybody and their brother had just been laid off from the fire department, and I had no insurance. We were going to lose everything, and it was my fault. I was going to hate myself for the rest of my life, if I had one when it was all over.”
Maybe all that time in Vegas had earned Guy a little luck, because the drunken bike rider had managed to call 911 on his cell phone. Guy could hear sirens in the distance. They were getting louder. The city’s beleaguered fire department was on the way, which was hardly a sure thing in Flint. When the trucks rolled up, the neighbor’s place was too far gone to save. The goal was to contain the blaze. Big sprinklers were used to soak Guy’s house. He pulled himself together and jumped in his burgundy Dodge Dakota with bad bearings, baking in the driveway, and saved it from the fire. All his property was safe.
Guy knew how close he had come to losing everything, but it didn’t give him a new outlook on life in Flint. “The fact that they saved our house and no one died is just amazing,” he said. “But when people started burning down every empty building, it’s still shocking. No one’s more afraid than me. I live in fear all the time, because there doesn’t appear to be any end to this. I don’t see this getting better. Ever.”