The dead zone

Death brought the birth of this little west side enterprise. And death sustains it.
Bryant's consists of little more than a crumbling old house and a man's little home next to it.

After his wife of three decades died five years ago, owner Richard Bryant, 62, turned the couple's home into a resale shop. When that house filled up, he bought the abandoned house next door and stocked it with junk to sell. What you see is for sale.

"Look at whatever you want," he says. "You're at home when you're around here." The furniture, the wall paintings, the pots and pans and dishes — almost everything can be taken for a very small price. "Whatever you want I can give you a deal," he says.

The things he sells belonged to people who recently died. When death comes to the old and lonely, and they have no friends or relatives to collect their belongings, Bryant gets the call.

"I work for this real estate lady," he says. "Now, she be calling me every two weeks — 'Richard, we got a house over here, we got a house over there, we gotta be there to clean it out.' So we go."

In exchange for clearing out houses, Bryant gets to take home and sell whatever he finds inside them after they've been picked over during estate sales. So he winds up with salvaged knickknacks and bric-a-brac, things like framed Jesus pictures, souvenir ashtrays from vacation spots, kitschy salad bowls, old lamps and toy trains, keepsakes straddling the line between junk and antiques. What can't fit in his two houses he spreads out in the front yard on tables or across the lawn, part of an ongoing, year-round yard sale.

After years of having to look at the boarded-up, broken-down house next door, he purchased it from the city for next to nothing. Its windows are still covered with sheets of plywood, but he gave it a new front door that locks. Inside are stacks of old window frames, wood doors and boxes full of the treasures of the dead.

His houses are on a run-down street in a run-down part of Brightmoor. The block's missing homes in spots, and those remaining aren't holding up so well. A group of sallow-faced winos sits at the street corner, as they do daily, drinking time away on old couches under a tree. Neighbors clutching bagged beer cans drop by to hang out on Bryant's front porch, as the sun shines high in the early afternoon sky. His customers get curious stares. They're strangers here.

And Bryant's as alone as those who died in the houses he cleans. His five children live in other states.

"I'm a lonely man," he says. "I be to myself. Everybody gone and left me." His only companion is a wiry yard dog out back who's part pit bull, part boxer and all muscles and teeth. Redbone hops on and off the roof of his plywood dog house, ready to pounce at anything that moves if not for the chain holding him there.

To fill days after his wife's death, Bryant got the job clearing homes and selling their contents for a buck or two. "I'm an old man now," he says. "It's just something for me to do. I'm not trying to get rich; I'm just giving it away 'cause I get more."

Bryant came to Detroit from Alabama in 1969, and he still speaks in a thick Southern country drawl. He worked at the Dodge Main plant for years, until its 1980 closure. Since then he's done odd jobs such as tearing down old garages, painting siding, patching drywall — just about any kind of handyman work.

As he shows off the house again — its interior decor looks completely different after a few new hauls of stuff — he goes over rows of framed photos arranged throughout the rooms. "This is my family in Alabama, this is my mama and all the boys, that's my little granddaughter," he says, pointing out figures in photos. "That's my uncle," he says. "I'll sell it though. I don't need all that stuff now."

He appears unsentimental, detached, yet he softheartedly points out an old picture of him and his wife — he'll do this no matter how many times you've been there, no matter how many times you've seen the photo. "That's me and her ..." he says fondly. The 1970s shot shows the couple in Afros, big collars and wide smiles. It dates to older, happier times, when neither imagined him one day living all alone, selling unwanted items from abandoned houses to pass the days.

One item definitely not for sale is a framed certificate from the Siena Literacy Center. It's a five-year-old Excellence in Spelling award that he's evidently proud enough to hang high on the wall. Bryant's from a time when a man from the rural South could still get an auto-plant job in the North and make a good life for his family, without ever learning to read well.

He's getting older, and his son in Atlanta tries to talk him into moving down there. "They're trying to get me to come down there to stay," he says. Sometimes he considers it, but says, "I'm not gonna leave here. I don't wanna go. I like this little house. I like what I'm doing."

Detroitblogger John scours the city for hidden gems. Send comments to [email protected]
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