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Lester Sloan

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Trup: From the Detroit Stories

Posted: 08/29/09 01:23 PM ET

It had been raining about an hour when the locksmith rang my doorbell. I went to the door prepared to put his mind at ease. If you didn't know, Detroit is like that. Nowadays delivery men, telephone installers, utility personnel, even the mail carriers are suspicious when entering a private dwelling. It makes no difference where you live; if you are a black male living anywhere, you are suspect.

A flourishing drug trade and a faltering economy have had a leveling effect on one's expectations. I had already gone through this with a telephone installer. He was a tattooed, pumped up white guy that one would expect to find at any truck stop. His Aryan Nation markings prompted me to take down his license number the first chance I had. We're all guilty of urban profiling.

Nowadays, Blacks can live just about anywhere their money will take them, and many whites believe that drugs and Blacks go together. In my case, it may also have something to do with the season and the surrounding neighborhood. I had returned to my home in Indian Village, a Detroit enclave of English Revival, Bungalow, Arts and Craft and Tudor homes built around the turn of the century. This historic district is surrounded by less affluent communities. It was also the time of the year when I sometimes dressed like an urban warrior in order to blend in with my extended surroundings.

"Sloan?" The locksmith greeted me with no sign of trepidation. But from the tone of his voice I could tell that mine was not the face that he'd expected. His work requires him to stand in the open door, a hop, skip and a jump from his unlocked van. He looked like someone I could trust, a sub 6', 60-plus white guy with no apparent tattoos.

"This is the place, anything you need--an extension cord, available outlets?"

"No. I have a battery powered drill and everything I need right here in my bag outside the door."

I went to the living room and hit the auxiliary button on the radio. Within a few seconds the music from my favorite Pavarotti CD warmed the chill walls. This was mainly for me, but it seemed to have a calming affect on the locksmith as well. It was winter, but with the front door wide open, I gave up on the idea of putting a couple of logs in the fireplace to take the chill out of the house. We moved around each other a little easier, talking about the city of our youth. He knew the history well. But we talked a lot about things that didn't matter. Race, politics, religion and crime were no, no's.

"Looks like you're doing lots of work on this house," the voice in the door shouted out to me.

"Yea, it's a never-ending job. I'm told you do lots of work on these old houses in the area."

"Not as much as I used to, but enough to keep me busy."

He explained that he had gone to high school with Fred, the owner of the locksmith company.

"Where was that?" I asked.

"Denby High School. Class of '59."

"We beat you guys 13 to 12 in '58," I boasted.

"Where did you go?" he asked, looking in my direction with a handful of parts from my new

lock.

"Eastern, which used to be on the Boulevard and Mack."

"You still remember the score from the game?"

"You bet! It was a huge upset," I replied.

What I didn't tell him was that both the students and their parents stoned our bus as we pulled out of the school parking lot after the game. There was such an outpouring of hatred that we sat momentarily in stunned silence. By the time we cleared out of the school lot, we were hurling our own racial slurs out the open windows.

There is a part of me that likes to think that things were different back then, better than they are now with blacks and whites tiptoeing around each other. My buddy Rodney and I used to shovel snow and rake leaves in this neighborhood. I didn't admit it at the time, but I always wanted a house over here in Indian Village.


As kids we lived on a street just four blocks away on Baldwin, in a working class neighborhood of black and white factory workers, plumbers, and electricians. Black and white alike, we went to school together, played together and, to some extent, dreamed together. It all seemed to come to a screeching halt in the late 50's and early 60's.

Long before Rodney became my running buddy, there were Angelo Nucci, Patrick Neapolitano and Johnny Balfuri-- mostly Italians, like the woman I would eventually marry. I can still close my eyes and hear Angelo calling out, "Lester! Lester! Can you come out?"

"What's your name?" I asked the locksmith.

"Matt. Matt Trupiano. My friends call me Trup."

"I'm Lester, Trup."

We were in a groove, Trup and me, inside a protective cocoon of selective memories that allowed us to let our guard down. Was it Pavarotti singing Nessum Dorma? I can't be sure, but it didn't hurt.

"As a kid I used to go to Belle Isle a lot," Trup volunteered.

"I used to run there," I told him. "I'd leave our house on Baldwin, jog across the river to the beach and go swimming... then run back again. I was a little crazy then."

"You?" He said. "I bet my buddy that I could swim across the river."

We discussed the nature of this feat, considering that the Detroit River has a very strong tide.

Then, Trup changed course.

"Did you know that Harry Houdini died here? His body was laid to rest at a Funeral Home on Cass Avenue. I have a copy of both his birth certificate and his death certificate, all kinds of memorabilia. He was the reason I got into the lock business."

The great escape artist last performance was at the Garrick Theater in Detroit on October 24, 1926. Published reports say that he had a fever of one hundred and four. Despite a diagnosis of acute appendicitis, he went on stage. He passed out during his performance and was later admitted to Grace Hospital in Detroit, where he died.

Trup was born 18 years later. As a kid, he too had a little magic act going. He wanted to learn more about locks, so he started an apprenticeship at an Ace Hardware store on 14th and West Warren, right across from the Twenty Grand.

"You remember the Twenty Grand?" Trup asked.

"Of course," I said. "Is Houdini the reason you decided to swim across the river?"

"Could be. My buddy convinced me that I should tie a rope around me, just in case. It's a good thing that he did. I didn't make it to the first pillar, before the tide was sweeping me under. That rope saved my life."

Trup was finishing up. He went to his van and made me a couple of extra keys then asked if he could come back inside to make out a bill. He sat at my desk under a couple of pictures of Woody Strode and Joel Fluellen, two black actors from the 40's to the 80's.

"You recognize these guys?" I asked, testing my buddy-to-be.

"The cowboy looks familiar."

"You ever see a movie called Sergeant Rutledge?"

"No."

"What about Spartacus?"

"Was he the big guy who fought Kurt Douglas?"

"Right. The last film he was in was Cotton Club. Joel, the guy in the other photo, starred with James Earl Jones in The Great White Hope".

"Was the Cotton Club the place in Harlem where blacks could perform, but not go?" Trup
asked.

"Yes."

I explained that a good friend of mine worked on Cotton Club as a still photographer. He said the day Woody showed up on the set there was pandemonium-- shooting stopped as people gathered around asking for autographs. Strode was an icon: an all-American athlete who was one of the first black professional football players. He was also a real cowboy.

"Did you know him well?" Trup asked.

"We spent some time together. I interviewed and photographed him around his home in Southern California. He was seventy-eight when that picture was made."

The legendary director John Ford told Woody that he would make him into a great character actor, and he did. John Wayne got credit for being a great athlete and cowboy, but he couldn't carry Woody's shoes.

"You know how much he made for Spartacus?" I asked Trup. "Eight hundred dollars. And he did all of his own stunts."

He later went to live in Italy for ten years where he made spaghetti westerns and gangster movies with Sergio Leone, the great Italian director.

Trup had told me about his hero, and I was taking time to talk about some of mine. Blacks actors such as Woody and Joel were escape artists as well, but the locks from which they escaped were of another type: the social, economic and racial barriers that ensnared blacks in the lower rungs of the food chain. Both of them refused to yield. Listening to their inner voices, they clawed their way to the outer rim of their own golden chalice, one that allowed them to maintain their self-respect, while paving the way for those who came after them. I suspect that Trup, when given the opportunity, could appreciate the Houdini in the both of them.

"We should stay in touch man," I said, "There's lots to talk about."

"Sure Les, let's do that."