Land of the lost

Helen Turner has a mean scowl on her face. Always. It's the look she gives customers at the diner where she works. 

"I don't take no shit off of nobody," she spits in an Appalachian accent.

She's behind the counter at White Grove Restaurant, a tiny, genuinely retro diner on Second Avenue near Charlotte, in Detroit's skid row. Her customers are the city's underclass — addicts, prostitutes, the homeless and the insane. They spend their days aimlessly roaming their neighborhood here like zombies, slowly killing time and themselves, waiting for the next handout or the next quick score. 

And nearly all of them come into the diner at some point, trying to pull a fast one.

"The attitude around here is, ‘I don't have anything, so I'll try anything. What have I got to lose? I'll try any trick,'" says Linwood Martin, Turner's co-worker. "It's like they spend all of their time trying to conceive trickery. They're predators, vultures."

Martin and Turner have worked at the diner for decades, long enough to view everyone who walks in with suspicion. Both are in their late 60s and live nearby. Both have a dim view of the locals after their years among the crazies and the crooks. 

"It's all mental cases around here," Turner says. "Ninety-nine percent mental cases. Might as well talk to that ceiling up there, you'd get more sense from it. And 95 percent of them are up to no good."

The diner opened in 1948. Its neighborhood, already rough back then, became the city's home of the homeless over time as the destitute flocked to the area, drawn by each other and the many social agencies that sprang up to service them. 

"All them lunatics seemed to migrate down here," Martin says. "It had a big impact on us." The eatery's longstanding 24-hour policy was trimmed back to closing before midnight a while ago because things became so unruly. 

But there are swarms of them no matter the hour. They gather on curbs and corners, stumble around the middle of the road, lay down for naps in the grass or just stand around, like the ragged man in front of the diner wearing an old coat, staring inside with a face contorted by what can only be described as madness. 

"When they bombed the trade center in New York with the planes, do you know that these people down here weren't aware of it?" Martin says with astonishment. "And if they were aware of it, it didn't shock them. You think you'd be shocked about a thing like that, being an American, being in the United States, right? Didn't faze them at all. I was amazed by that. Nobody talked about it. Nobody cared."

White Grove is a kitschy throwback, with six round stools at its narrow countertop, four at the front wall. An antique scale tells your weight and your fortune. The food is classic American diner fare: burgers, breakfasts, soups and fries, prepared by a cook in the back, out of sight. There's a large plate-glass window facing the street, covered in a metal grate. It gives a front-row seat to the show outside. They're always out there, in the snow and rain, in heat waves and cold spells, seemingly unaffected by their environment. 

"They're so wrapped up in themselves, they don't notice anything around them except themselves and what they want," Martin says.

Most customers who wander into White Grove don't necessarily want food; free meals are brought into the area every day by social organizations, churches and volunteers. Instead they usually ask for a handout or a cigarette, or they try to sell employees and customers something they've found or stolen.

"They're petty thieves," Martin says. "Really, they'll steal anything. They'll get it out of the garbage can." Sometimes they bring in anything shiny or metallic, figuring it must be worth something. "They come to me with this stuff, they don't even know what it is," he says.

If someone orders food, they'll usually pay in nickels and dimes, sometimes all pennies. A few will try to jump over the counter to snatch money from the cash register when it's open. Turner stops them cold. "I got somethin' for them," she insinuates, making a trigger-pulling gesture with her finger. 

The staff's aggressive demeanor keeps a lid on most trouble. Martin says he's been robbed at gunpoint only once, a surprising number, he says, considering the area. The gunman was a teen, maybe about 16 years old. What the kid didn't know is Martin had a gun of his own and was weighing in his mind at that moment whether to pull it out and end the boy's life. "I could've killed him," he says. "But I said what the hell. He was just a kid. I told the lady here to give him the money." 

Little human touches accent the diner and soften the tense atmosphere. A shelf behind the counter holds odd little figurines and quaint knickknacks — "dust collectors" as Turner calls them — that customers have given them over the years. Childlike depictions of meals hang on the wall below the block-lettered menu board, marker drawings on construction paper done by a woman who lives in the neighborhood. "She does all that fancy drawin' and writin' and stuff," Turner says.

As the cold afternoon rolls on, the customers come in waves, alone and in groups. 

A haggard looking, middle-aged woman walks through the door and asks for a light. She's given matches and staggers out, dazed. 

A vagrant bounds in, eyes red and speech slurred, offering to sell for $3 the free toiletries bag he just got from a church. But everyone around here has the same one. He gets no takers and leaves. 

A trio of thugs drift to the stools, acting strange, scoping things out, until Martin snaps, "You gonna buy something or not?" They dither and leave reluctantly, but loiter outside. "They're waiting to see how much money you take out of your pockets," Martin says to a visitor. 

A known dope dealer named Charles struts in and Turner instantly recognizes him. He works the corridor of old Chinatown on Peterboro. He mumbles something to her. 

"What's the problem, punk?" she barks back, facing him square. "You think you're a real pimp now 'cause you got that new truck, right?" Outside the window is a battered, used pickup he just drove up in. She threatens to shoot him. "I can kill you, and then you'll die," she says. 

"I can take you wherever you want to go now," he replies with a stoned laugh, pointing to the truck. 

"Go on down on the corner where you belong. You go down there and be the boss," she says sarcastically, staring him hard in the eye. He leaves.

Of a dozen people who come through, only one buys anything — a bowl of soup stretched out with fistfuls of crackers. He's a regular, a gentle old man. Visits from such customers allow Turner to let her guard down. Her face even softens while he's there.

But most of the time, nobody's eating and most everyone's scamming, and Turner's had to be on guard all the time, 10 hours a day, seven days a week, for a good part of 30 years. It's kept her on edge, ready to bark. Attack as defense. It's how you have to be here, in maybe the craziest neighborhood in town, where nearly everyone preys on everyone else but nobody's got anything worth taking.

"People are like damn fools around here," Turner says, lighting a cheap cigarette. She looks at the man who's still standing out front, looking inside the big window with those wide, crazy eyes, and she says, "You got to be observant at all times."

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