Bum rap

There's a crowd milling outside the Tom Boy Super Market at Second Avenue and Alexandrine in Detroit, even though it's freezing outside. There's always a crowd here.

This spot, underneath the awning over the front door, is where the area's bums, beggars, hookers and drug dealers have gathered for years. This is their hangout.

The store is run by Jitu Patel, 28, whose customers often have to pass through a gauntlet of street people to get groceries.

"This place, I think, it's been here way too long," Jitu says, "so everybody knows if you're going to meet somebody, hundreds of people know about Tom Boy, so meet me over here."

Tom Boy has been here since the 1950s, the last local branch of an old chain. The neighborhood it's in is home to the down-and-out and those who feed their habits. They all wound up here in the city's longtime Skid Row with others who are just like them. And many make their living in the Tom Boy parking lot.

"It can't be stopped, the drug deals and stuff, unless you have police 24-7 in the same spot," Jitu says. "That's the only way to stop it, and that's not going to happen in truth. But the police try."

Though the scene outside is seedy, inside the store the aisles are clean and the shelves are neatly stocked. Thick metal bars block cars from plowing through the front wall for a smash-and-grab. A lottery ticket machine is bolted to the floor.

One of the busiest aisles is the booze section, stocked with 40-ounce beers and bottles of strong apple wine. Boxes of local staples are simply set there on the floor — cans of Vienna sausage, Jiffy Corn Bread Mix, pork and beans. There's a mountain of ramen noodle packages — six for a buck — which sell like crazy toward the end of the month, when people's government assistance checks are mostly spent. A third of the purchases here are bought with food assistance cards.

Jitu owns the store with his wife, his father, a brother and an aunt. They came here five years ago from Kalamazoo, where they ran a Dunkin' Donuts, as they did in Missouri after they arrived from India 12 years ago.

"Most people think we're Arabs," he says. There's a butcher from Syria chopping fatty cuts of meat in the back. "He came with the store," Jitu adds. They also employ a 69-year-old jitney driver named Junior, who ferries customers and their heavy bags from the store to their homes, sparing them a long walk. He often uses Jitu's own van.

A day in the life of Tom Boy Super Market consists partly of stopping people from robbing the place blind.

"There's so many days when I don't do nothing," Jitu says. "My main job is to run the office and I don't have to be here, but I have to come anyway. You don't want to have, like, one person here, and then half the store is gone. We have to have so many people. They don't have to do nothing, but they have to be here."

Some people just grab food and run out the door. Jitu sometimes gives chase, but if thieves are determined enough, they're impossible to catch. "I know some, they can run three, four miles," he says. Many are crackheads and their energy level is unmatched, Jitu notes.

"You can put them out in the cold four days without food, they survive," he says with real amazement. "You or me wouldn't survive two days. Their heart beats so fast; that's why they're skinny. It burns up the energy, but, see, the muscles are really, really strong."

Sunny Patel, 25, works the Lotto machine, kept busy by customers seeking the big ticket out of the Cass Corridor. He works as many as 50 hours a week. The long hours, though, are tempered by the satisfaction of owning a business and working with one's family, right?

"Oh, I hate it, man," Sunny says with a slight laugh. "Every hour it's something. That's what I'm tired of. People come in here, they want to steal stuff, they want to cuss everybody out, they want to start fights. Sometimes they're just looking for trouble, high off the drugs and alcohol and all that stuff, that's all they want to do." He shakes his head. "I want to take a vacation for two years."

He feels sympathy, though, for the scraggly mob outside. "They're homeless, they've got no place to go," Sunny says. "What are we going to do? Kick them out? Where are they going to go? So sometimes it's like, man, just forget it."

Most customers, though, behave respectfully towards the family because Tom Boy is their only recourse. The closest grocery source is a liquor store down the street, but it has fewer food items. Jitu figures 70 percent of customers have no car and walk to the store from surrounding blocks. If the Patels catch someone stealing, they're banned from the store. Some have come back, begging to be allowed to shop there again. The family often lets them.

Fifty-seven-year-old Panama Little lives in a nearby loft. He says the main difference between the pre- and post-Jitu scene here is how few prostitutes work this post now. "They'd actually stand on the corner half-naked," he says. "You could see the actual pubic hairs. Honestly."

Outside, the mob disperses quickly at the sight of Jitu standing in their midst. A prostitute wearing too much makeup leaps from her perch, walks over to an idling car, hops inside the passenger door in a hurry, gets kicked out by the driver, then finds herself standing there foolishly. "Can't I get a ride up in here?" she complains to nobody in particular. She paces aimlessly at a distance. Drug dealers hover along a self-imposed perimeter away from the store, staring as their post is momentarily disrupted.

An amused David Leak, 56, watches the spectacle. He's haggard, has few teeth and lives in a battered apartment a few blocks away. He professes love for the Patels. "I really hated them the first year, though, because they didn't have no beer," he says. (There was a liquor license transfer issue and the store was dry for a while.) "That was rough for me!" he yells.

Leak explains Tom Boy's allure to loiterers. "One thing, the canopy," he says. "Then you got that box to sit on," he gestures towards a newspaper box, "then you got these bars to sit on," he points to the metal grid that keeps customers from stealing shopping carts. "And then in a psychological sense it's preparing them for jail 'cause they already behind the bars," he says with a dry laugh.

The vagrants who hang around here now say that Jitu cleared the lot of those who preceded them. They are clearly irony-impaired. Jitu says little can be done to keep them away all the time. "A lot of time the police give them a ticket, but they already have 60 tickets. Sixty-one don't make no difference. They're not going to pay it anyway. The police don't even give them a ticket anymore because they know it's a waste of time."

He dreams aloud of finding a new store somewhere, someday. "I would love to do it, but I have to have a buyer." There have been no offers so far. The circus of vice in front of the store doesn't help matters.

"Here, half of them is addicts, and the other half is selling the stuff," he says. "I mean, it's the whole neighborhood, the Cass Corridor, so you really can't do anything about it unless you take everybody out. That's the only way you're going to stop it. If you do that the whole neighborhood would be empty."

He looks at the surrounding blocks, a checkerboard of weathered Victorian houses and old apartment buildings, from which the infirm, the criminal and the addled trickle forth every day to gather at his doorstep. "Otherwise this is a great place, other than that."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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