Django by Barbara Nadel

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One of the things I enjoy most about being a writer is meeting people. I don’t think I’m blowing my own trumpet too much when I say that because of the wide ranging subjects that I cover in my books, I get to meet a lot of people. And a couple of years ago when I went to Detroit for a research trip, I met one of the most memorable, and best, Django. Yesterday I heard that he had died. So this is a tribute to him and the short time that we spent together.

I met Django via a local Internet forum called Detroit Yes which is dedicated to preserving the history and securing the future of one of the USA’s most fascinating and contentious cities. Before I met Django I’d already been out and about with two of the forum’s most dedicated guides, Dave and Kathleen, but I was told that if I wanted to get into the deep meat of the city I needed to meet Django. So I called him, we made a date and a time and he rolled up to my motel in a car that looked as if it had been on benefits for a while and lived out of food banks. My kind of car.

Django himself was a big chap in his late thirties. Heavy set but fit with slightly mad hair and one normal, one very milky eye. We sped off into Detroit at more of a European than a sedate American clip and turned up at the ghostly structure that is now Michigan Central Station. One of the reasons I had wanted to go to Detroit was so that I could place my Turkish series characters in an alien and yet evocative setting. Detroit, which at one time had the reputation for being the most violent city in the US, was perfect.

Now, I understand, Michigan Central Station is surrounded by a fence to keep people out. But when Django took me there, you could just walk in. So we did. Accompanied by the sound of people, probably homeless, maybe on Crack, arguing, we threaded our way into the skeletal structure while cables carrying God knew what dangled in our faces and water dripped down the backs of our coats. It was cold. Django told me that a few years before a homeless man had been found dead in a massive block of ice in what had once been the old Post Office behind the Station. In the severe Detroit winter, it had taken several weeks for the block to thaw out enough so that he could be buried.

I bought Django lunch at his favourite bar and we got talking. He’d lost the sight in his milky eye when he’d had to make his living as a scrapper. These are people who go into derelict buildings and remove metals like copper to sell. It’s dangerous work as a lot of the buildings are unstable and oxy-acetylene torches have to be used to get the metal out of the concrete. It was one of these torches that had blinded Django in one eye. But then like a lot of ex-scrappers he took it in his stride. In common with most of the people stripping old buildings, Django had a drug habit he had to fund. His life was one big risk.

After several beers we got back in the car and drove along Cass Avenue, through a district known as the Cass Corridor. Typical Detroit, where strange bedfellows are perfectly normal, this then notorious area encompassed a vast and ornate Masonic Temple and Crack houses in wasteland known as urban prairie. I visited one with Django. He knew the people. A mother and son both addicted to Crack and their friends, a couple of old guys puffing on pipes in the middle of a room with no furniture except a few wooden chairs. They talked about their lives, about what they had to do just to get through the day and in return I told them about the work I’d done with addicts in the UK. Django needed to get high and so he did that and we moved on. We talked.

Django’s father had died in Vietnam and his life hadn’t been easy. Other factors, private stuff, also contributed to his addiction to heroin. We talked about the law and about how in the US state law regarding drugs is different across the country. In Michigan, at that time, people were allowed to legally possess and grow marijuana. Crops could be sold to limited numbers of people and so a lot of addicts were taking advantage of that opportunity to get some cash together legally and safely. Django wanted to have a life that was as normal as possible. He wanted a future for his kids and he had ambitions to educate and be educated.

We spent most of the day in old factories. The Ford Piquette and particularly the vast Packard Plant. Scrappers were in evidence and so we had to be careful. I was well aware that Django was my bodyguard as well as my guide. Some of the guys were naturally afraid we could be after their metal and they were desperate. At one point Django had to go to what Americans call ‘the bathroom’ and what Brits call more crudely dub, ‘the bog’ so I was briefly left alone. But I never felt scared as I wandered around what remained of once imperial sized assembly lines, tagged with some of the most amazing art work. Graffiti is big in Detroit and it’s brilliant. Django came back as I knew he would. He was on it.

A man of honour and integrity, Django loved his friends, his family and his dogs and was one of the most authentic guys I’ve ever met. At one point we met a lady in the street who became quite aggressive. She was high, out of control and nothing was real except my foreign accent. She was gunning for me and I was ready to either block her or run for it. But Django got in there and took a punch for me. I felt bad about that and still do because when I thanked him, he said it was nothing. And he meant it.

Wise, clever, damaged but still in the game, Django was one in a million and the world is a poorer place for his passing. Rest in peace, man, wherever you’ve gone and bless you.

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