“You wouldn’t suspect that there was such a thing as a soul if you went to Detroit. Everything is too new, too slick, too bright, too ruthless. Souls don’t grow in factories. Souls are killed in factories-even the niggardly ones.” — Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare “Then he meets Molly. Molly is just a whore. You’ll find another Molly in Ulysses, but Molly the whore of Detroit is much better. Molly has a soul. Molly is the milk of human kindness.” — Henry Miller, The Air-Conditioned Nightmare

Detroit, Michigan — “I’ll suck your dick for five dollars,” she said, without emotion and without conviction. I sat next to her on a dirty couch in a dirty apartment. There were holes in the filthy walls and the room was sparsely furnished with a couch, a small table, and a lone straight-backed chair. It looked like a movie set made to look exactly like what you’d think a shitty apartment in a shitty neighborhood would look like, but it was exactly a shitty apartment in a shity neighborhood.

“Uh, thanks, but I’ll just give you five dollars. It’s fine.” She smiled at me broadly like I had done her an incredible kindness. I knew she’d use it to buy crack, but the payment was as much to bring a close to the situation as it was to avoid the offered blowjob. I gave her the five, which, at that time, was very likely the only five dollars I had.

“Thanks, hon,” she said, and gave me a peck on the cheek. “I’ll be right back.”

The man who had left the room came back in and sat in the same chair he was in before. He leaned forward. “What are you doing down here, man? Do you even know where you are?”

How did I get here? This was Cass Corridor, Detroit, circa 1992. I went to see a show with some friends. I don’t remember exactly, but I think it was a female punk band playing one of the go-to small venues in the Corridor. It may have been the Gold Dollar, a landmark venue, and no less than the place where The White Stripes played their first show. I had no car and this was before cell phones, so where I was, for the most part, was meaningless. Where you were, in any given neighborhood in Detroit in the 1990s, was, for the most part, meaningless.

Cass Corridor in the 1990s was a shithole and certifiably dangerous. I, in the 1990s, was a naive country boy let loose in the “big city”. I didn’t know to look over my shoulder or how to spot a scam outside the fact I’m naturally inclined toward skepticism and mistrust of other human beings. Sure, I had lived in Atlanta when I was young, but I didn’t have the street savvy to navigate the Cass neighborhood at 18 years of age. I didn’t even know what Cass Corridor was except that my friends had told me it was bad before we had gone in the club.

Not surprisingly, as a frequenter of shady Detroit institutions and neighborhoods while in college, I was also a smoker. During the show, I needed to run out to find some cigarettes. I was sure there was a corner store within a block in any direction, so I left without telling my friends, thinking it would be a five minute trek. Apparently, I went somewhere other than any direction, because within a few minutes I found myself in a desolate and run-down part of town. Nicotine is a powerful motivator, so rather than turn back, I went forward.

“Hey! Hey, excuse me!” A woman was crossing the street toward me. Black, thin, possibly in her 30s, but it was dark on this block and hard to tell. Even where there were street lights didn’t mean the street lights were working.

“Do you have a light?”

“I do.” I lit her cigarette. “I’m looking for smokes. Do you know where I can get some?”

“Of course, hon. Come with me.” I followed her across the street and we walked for a block or two. She didn’t say much, but she told me her name. It may have been Molly. We entered what looked like a house rather than a corner store, walking down a corridor filled with men standing around. We entered a room which served as a makeshift shop, and very doubtfully a legal establishment.

“Ronny, you got any cigarettes?” she asked the man behind a desk.

He looked me up and down. “No, I don’t have any.”

“Bullshit. You always have cigarettes. Come on, baby, we’ll go somewhere else.” You could tell she was miffed. Either she was frequently rebuked by Ronny, or felt Ronny was fucking up her opportunity. We went out the way we came. I could feel the eyes on me. I was already way out of my element, but I didn’t feel like I was in any danger. I decided to roll with it. Here I was, 18 and punk rock, so how could I not follow some adventure on the street?

We walked for a bit. “Come on, I need to stop by my place and then we’ll find you some cigarettes.” Sure, I thought, let’s see where this goes. Besides, I didn’t feel like I could just run off. We walked up on a row of houses, all of which looked abandoned, and went up the stairs to one of the few which seemed to have a light in the corridor. We went in and she knocked on the first door on the left. A man answered and let us in. Now I was getting nervous.

She sat down on the only couch in the room. “Come sit next to me, hon.” So I did. She slid close and put her hand on my leg. The man sat down in a chair on the other side of the room facing us. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“I came to see a show and went out looking for cigarettes. That’s when we met.”

He nodded. “I’ll be right back.” He left the room. My thoughts started racing. Was he getting other people? Was he checking to make sure no one was around?

I decided small talk was the best course of action. Show my naivete and good intentions without showing what a scared little boy I actually was. Molly told me she had two kids. It wasn’t clear where they were or whether she lived in the apartment she had taken me to. Her relationship to the man who had just left also wasn’t clear. Co-conspirators, I thought. Whether through my inexperience or her casual and rather kind demeanor, I could not suss the situation. She was jittery, twitchy, nervous, but not dressed in a way that made me think she was mentally ill or homeless. Other than her rapid-fire speech and quick motion, she also didn’t seem like she was high, but if it wasn’t acid or marijuana, how would I know what drug someone might be on?

That’s when she propositioned me. And that’s how I got here.

The man sitting across from me. Before I could answer, my friend came back and sat on the couch next to me. “Leave him alone, he’s alright.” I think she knew he had said something even if she hadn’t heard it herself. Sure enough, she pulled out a smoky glass pipe and loaded a rock into it. I’d never seen crack before. It looked like quartz crystals. She lit the pipe, inhaled, and blew out a thick cloud of smoke. It smelled cold and metallic like the condensation which escapes a freezer when it’s first opened. The smoke seemed to sink and was visibly different than cigarette smoke. She leaned back. I didn’t exist.

I looked at the man across from me. The deal was done, transaction complete. “Uh, well, I better get going.”

“Oh, you sure, baby?” She snapped up and looked at me. “I’ll walk you out.” We both got up. I couldn’t get to the door fast enough short of running. We went into the corridor, out the front, and toward the street. “You know which way to go, baby? That direction.” She pointed vaguely in the way I thought we had come from and pecked me on the cheek again. I turned and started walking quickly in the direction of the club. I looked back and she was gone.

I found my way back to the club, no cigarettes and five dollars poorer. All three of my female friends were on me in a second. “Where were you? Do you know where we are?”

I told them I had watched a woman smoke crack in a desolate neighborhood rowhouse and that she had offered me a blowjob for money. They were incredulous.

“You’re an idiot. You could have been robbed or killed.”

“It’s ok. I know where we are now.”

Years later, I really knew where we were. I knew I got to waltz out of there with no trouble because I was not of it, had never been of it, and was free and clear to walk out of it with no strings attached. No past to weigh me down. No deck stacked against me. No failed school system to spit me out on the streets. No endless urban, burned-out, bombed out wasteland without jobs or housing or prospects. I was a poverty tourist, I just didn’t know it yet. I got to walk out of there, but Molly had to stay. Her friend-or pimp, or bodyguard-had to stay. All those men standing around in the market that was not a market had to stay. The burned out Victorian houses and the broken street lights and the overgrown empty lots and the apartments with holes in the walls and the vacant streets and the ghosts who wandered them all had to stay. They all had to stay, but I got to leave. I got to meet a mother who would offer herself up to whomever she found, watched that same mother smoke crack, and got an eyeful of the other side of a life I had never lived for five dollars and the loss of something inside me. That all had to stay, but I got to leave.

I know where we are now.

Originally published at http://theairconditionednightmaretoday.wordpress.com on July 15, 2020.

Ahren E. Lehnert is a native of Michigan and now lives in Oakland, California. He likes traveling, photography, and swimming.