- daily career advice
Stolen License Plate Tags, Unlawful Arrests, Hookers, Drug Dealers, and Looking for the Positive
By Harrison Barnes
During my summers in college, I rented an apartment in a really bad neighborhood of Detroit. When I say it was a bad neighborhood, I am not exaggerating. Right in front of my window, hookers literally walked back and forth on Jefferson Avenue. It was like being witness to some sort of post-apocalyptic end-of-the-world party. On the one hand I could watch my television set–and on the other hand I could look out the window and really see hookers, drug transactions, arrests, people sleeping on the street, and more. It was pretty unbelievable, and as you might guess, I often chose the latter for my entertainment.
It was during my first summer living in this apartment that I learned one of the most important lessons of my life.
One day I heard a hooker screaming outside my window, trying to get my attention. I ran outside and she told me that a guy had hopped the fence and was stealing somebody’s license plate tags. This woman was one of the older prostitutes who never appeared to have much luck. Hence, she was busy paying attention to other things and had become familiar with the rhythm of the building. I ran towards where the cars were parked and as I was screaming “stop,” a man, who appeared to have superhuman powers despite weighing no more than 100 pounds, grabbed on to some rings atop the fence and, to my astonishment, threw himself over. I inspected the damage: within a few minutes, using some very powerful scissors, the guy had managed to cut the license plate tags off my car and several others.
I drove that car for the next year with the lower piece of the license plate missing. When I got to the University of Chicago the kids all asked me about this and after a while I explained to them that it was simply a “Detroit thing”. If you drive around Detroit, you are bound to see plenty of cars with pieces of the license plates missing. It is very common actually. The license plate renewal tags are sold and traded on the street just like drugs; otherwise, the only other way for people to get hold of the tags is to prove they have insurance, and to pay registration fees and taxes. It is much easier just to purchase a “hot tag”.
There is always a lot of weird stuff going on with automobiles in Detroit. I remember, at the end of one summer I decided I wanted to store my Chevy Suburban in one of the industrial lots that was around the apartment building where I lived. I was met with an incredible amount of hostility from various people, including the owner of a recycling plant.
The first guy I had discussed this with, described how someone like me had come by a few years ago and wanted to store a couple of mobile offices on his property. “After agreeing,” he said, “the man reported to work the next morning and found that his mobile offices no longer had aluminum siding on them. When the man arrived, he was met by a line of at least 10 people holding parts to the trailer. It took him over a week to put the trailers back together. The vagrants actually resisted giving the man his trailer parts back until I threatened not to do any recycling business with the vagrants anymore.”
“But they can’t steal the siding off a Chevy Suburban!” I told the man who owned the lot.
“It doesn’t matter!” he said. He pointed to several charred cars sitting on his lot. “If they cannot steal it, they will light it on fire!”
I heard the same story from numerous men who owned various lots. It was the most incredible situation imaginable. However, I finally found a nice old Greek man that had a refrigerated warehouse with thousands of cow and pig carcasses hanging in it, who finally took me up on my offer to store my Suburban. He and I had a long discussion about how he wanted to appeal to the “young urban crowd” and was planning on developing loft apartments above the dead animal cold storage.
One day I was back in school and getting ready for the day’s activities, when my roommate brought me the phone. I heard the man’s urgent voice:
“They stole my fence!” he was screaming.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They stole your truck and dragged 100 feet of fence with it. I followed the scrapes of the fence on the road for over 2 miles but they stopped around Cass Avenue! That’s over $1,000 in fence!”
The Chevy Suburban that was stolen had the logo for my asphalt company, Michigan Industrial Asphalt Services, right on the side of it. Incredibly, over the next year one of my workers would every now and then see the truck being driven around Detroit with a group of guys in it. I did not believe the stories until I was dropping this employee off at his house one day and standing in the front yard talking to him. Suddenly, right then and there, it drove by. It was as if my suburban was making rounds to do asphalt work–right from the dead. The guys riding in the truck looked sufficiently menacing and vicious that, like my employee, I had no interest in approaching the truck and thought it better to just let them have it.
One benefit of the particular building I lived in was that it had a giant and formidable iron fence surrounding it. For the most part this kept unwanted people out. In addition, the building had cameras everywhere. It was an old warehouse where tires had been stored for what used to be the largest automotive tire plant. Around ten years back, the tire plant had been ripped down and in its wake a giant warehouse was left across the street. I could read about the location where I lived practically anywhere in the world–it was that historical. I remember being in Chicago and reading about my building in the papers on an ongoing basis because it was apparently under some massive litigation with the EPA. The EPA was alleging that the tire company had polluted the ground in its 60+ years of making billions of tires on the site.
Because the man had stolen a piece of my car (albeit, the license plate), I decided that I might try and get the police involved. Right next door to the building there was a Southern Barbecue restaurant that was very popular with policemen. I ran over there in a panic of sorts and approached a policeman sitting in his car eating.
“Settle down!” he barked at me. “I’ll take a look as soon as I finish up!’
“But he might be getting away!” I screamed.
The policeman was visibly annoyed with my interest in tracking down the license plate tag fugitive, and he told me to go inside the restaurant and have a seat while he finished his meal. I was really amazed at what was going on, that the policeman appeared to have no interest in this crime that had just occurred. I remember the restaurant had no Diet Coke, just regular Coke. So I ordered a Coke and took a seat at the lunch counter.
I waited for several minutes and then I heard a quick chirp come from the police car. I looked outside and the policeman was wiping his mouth and motioning for me to come back outside. When I got there he sighed.
“Ok, what does he look like?” he asked.
“The best I could tell he was wearing jeans and a polo type shirt. He was pretty thin I think. He jumped over a tall fence. It was incredible.”
“Ok, I’ll go find him. Which way did he go?”
“I pointed down Jefferson Avenue towards Detroit.”
To my astonishment, armed only with this little bit of information the policeman drove off. At around 10 miles an hour looking side-to-side as if he was hunting a gazelle in the wild. It was as if everything was in slow motion, or in some sort of different dimension.
I walked back to my apartment and the hooker was smoking a cigarette in front of the apartment. She was amazingly chipper, especially for a woman her age working at a dangerous street corner. I never understood why but she was always wearing a winter ski coat, even though it was the middle of summer.
“Did you catch him?” she asked.
“No. I found a policeman; however, he did not seem to care.”
“No, they do not care!” she said smiling.
I turned on the television once I got in my apartment and for the next few minutes sat there wondering what I was supposed to be doing. Then I decided I had better get in my car and go look for the policeman, to see if he found my license plate tag. Since he had not taken down any information, I figured that this was the best thing to do. A few minutes later I found the officer in front of a grocery store. He had a guy in handcuffs and was leading him towards the car. The man did not appear to be resisting arrest at all and the two men were walking towards the police car as if they were rehearsing on a movie set, perhaps just before the final take.
When I pulled up the officer looked happy to see me.
“Hey! Is this the guy?” he said. It was not the guy.
“No,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
The police officer unlocked the guy’s handcuffs and the guy shook his head and walked over a patch of grass where the policeman had apparently emptied the contents of the man’s backpack all over the grass.
Although I hadn’t noticed it when I originally pulled up, the policeman had another catch in the back of his car.
“Hey, come check this out. This might be him!” the policemen led me over to the police car and sitting in the back was another guy he had apparently “nabbed” as well. He was also not the guy.
“Be absolutely sure!” the policeman said. I was sure. He then let that suspect go as well.
The policemen then said something about knowing where to look and again, without taking down any of my information, he drove off.
What happened on my drive back to the apartment was so bizarre that it is hard to believe, still to this day. Never before or since had I ever been stopped by the Detroit Police. They simply have better things to do. But sure enough, I was just about two blocks from my apartment when I saw flashing lights of a police car behind me.
“You are missing a registration tag,” the policeman said when he eventually approached my car.
“Yes, I know I am. It was just stolen and I was out talking to another policeman about it just now. ”
“What was his name?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ok, did you file a report?”
The policeman then asked for my license and registration and told me to wait in the car. Five minutes later I looked in my rear view mirror and he appeared to be laughing very hard while talking on his CB Radio. A few minutes later he came back to my car and handed me the license and registration.
“It’s cool,” he said, and then walked off.
In my apartment building, I lived next door to a very beautiful stripper and her boyfriend. When I first moved in that summer, I remember sitting down and having a conversation with the boyfriend for about an hour, and I was very impressed with him. He was a minor league hockey player who was hoping to win a place on the Detroit Red Wings Hockey team in the near future. He told me he was also considering opening a Subway franchise, which you could do for about $35,000 at the time. The guy was also very interested in the fact that I was an asphalt contractor because he had done similar work at some point in his life.
I was feeling pretty good about him as a neighbor until a few days later I was leaving for work and he chased me down as I was walking by the apartment’s pool on the way to the parking lot. By the way, something odd about this pool was that there were giant posters all around it that said “No Urinating! If You Urinate in the Water it Will Turn Purple Around You!” These signs really took any enjoyment one could possibly ever have out of using the pool.
“I wanted to let you know I can get coke if you want some,” he said when he finally reached me, all out of breath.
“I can get blow. I also sell it on the side if you need some.”
“Oh, no that’s cool. Thanks though. I’ll keep that in mind.”
I have never used drugs, so the guy’s offer really took me by surprise. I was a little disappointed to learn I was now living next door to a drug dealer and a stripper, but I left it at that.
When I left the apartment building my first summer there to return to school, I called the manager of the apartment to ask for my $700 security deposit back (two months’ rent). This was a lot of money at the time. The manager was very rude to me over the phone and told me to watch my mail. A few weeks later I received a check in the mail for $10.00.
“What’s this about?” I asked her when I finally got her back on the phone.
“We had to repaint the entire unit,” she said. I knew what she was talking about was a scam. I had scarcely been there the entire summer and to the extent I was, I had not done any damage whatsoever.
“At this point I cannot talk to you any further,” she said. “If you want to discuss this matter further, you are going to need to contact our legal office and take it up with them.”
I was so angry that the apartment had stolen my money that I sat down and considered writing a long letter to the management of the apartment building. I wanted to tell them about
But I did not do any of those things. After considering the matter for an hour or so I decided against all of it. Instead, I sat down and wrote a letter to the management company about all of the things the manager had done right that summer and I listed everything I could possibly think of. I said nothing about the bad things that occurred and talked only about the positive things. I made the letter as positive as I possibly could. I concluded with an observation that the apartment building was so well run that it was clear the manager herself was leading a “Detroit Renaissance,” and the city was obviously on its way up.
I had a FAX machine in my room at my fraternity house, and I faxed the letter that morning to the company that owned the building, and cc’d the manager of the building in a separate fax. I did not think anything of it, and at the time when I wrote the letter, my thought was “I might as well make the most of a bad situation!”
The next morning one of my fraternity brothers woke me up and told me that I needed to sign a letter that was being delivered downstairs. It was the Federal Express guy. I opened the letter and inside was a check for $690 and a post it note that said “Thank you,” signed by the manager.
The next summer I called up the manager and asked if she had any vacancies and she told me she did. For a cheaper price than I had paid the summer before she put me in a unit that was twice the size. I knew it was because of the letter.
One day I was walking through the building on the way to my apartment and a maintenance guy stopped me.
“When you sent that letter, you really changed her life,” he said about the manager. “In the entire time she worked here, a resident never said a positive thing about her to the owners of the building. When they got your letter they gave her a raise and she posted the letter in the break room. It made all of us that work here feel like what we are doing was being noticed.”
What I learned is that sometimes rather than fighting, it is best to notice the good, and to compliment people on what they have done right. Compliments do a lot more good and help people far more than criticisms and complaints.
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