A pot of stolen greens was boiling on the stove and Williams Curtis was drinking a beer at the kitchen table. Beer and popcorn, he said, by way of advice, are the two best things to eat when you don't have much money for food because they bloat your stomach.
"The kid's got a paper route. He makes $11.60 a week," said Curtis' cousin, pointing to a 12-year-old leaning idly against the kitchen sink. "We had to take the money away from fim to pay for food."
Curtis, 30, has been laid off from the Chrysler Corp. for nearly two years and all his unemployment benefits have run out. His cousin, a laid-off bus driver, claims credit for the stolen greens. "I'm what you'd call a self-styled Robin Hood," he said. "I steel from the rich and give to the poor, which is me."
Curtis is one of three unemployed auto workers among 17 families on Avon Street, an integrated middle-class block in Northwest Detroit. The story of Avon Street, where stolen greens exist side by side with seemingly secure jobs on the police force, is a microcosm of Detroit, the worst recession-hit big city in the country.
Here, as the Republican convention delegates gather downtown in the elegant Renaissance Center, lunch at waterfront restaurants, and meet in the city's giant Civic Center, unemployment in the neighborhoods is 18.4 percent -- more than double the national average.
Curtis was making $8.32 an hour as a forklift driver at Chrysler's Mack Avenue stamping plant when he was laid off. First, his supplemental Unemployment Benefits ran out, then his federal trade readjustment act payments vanished. Finally, the state unemployment money disappeared.
Now he spends his time throwing bill collectors out of the house and hustling -- "a dollar here and a dollar there" -- mostly from soda and beer bottles he finds on the street and returns for deposit money.
He has applied for more than 30 jobs without success.
Curtis' neighbors on Avon Street would be astonished to know what goes inside the small white house with the neat hedges on the corner.
It's the kind of street most of Detroit's workers grew up on -- a row of boxy, white frame houses that were punched out of the same architectural mold during the post-World War II housing boom, the kind of neighborhood that you can still buy into for $20,000.
Among the families who live there, three are laid-off auto workers and three are still working in the plants. There are two families on welfare and one retired widow. There are two police officers, a social worker, a truck driver, a secretary, an accounting clerk, and a schoolteacher.
There are also two boarded-up homes. One was abandoned in the middle of the night by a family that couldn't meet the payments. The other was the scene of domestic chaos from which the husband walked away and the wife was finally evicted.
The three laid-off auto workers on the block are in the worst shape. One of them sat talking in his living room the other day, a slim man of 25, dressed in lemon-yellow slacks and an orange shirt. His wife and child have left him.
He doesn't want his name used because he has taken a part-time job at a local food store and the $30 extra he makes a week would jeopardize his $119 weekly state unemployment benefits.
He will get a check for two weeks unemployment in two days. It will be enough to cover the $207 house payment with $31 left over. The $31 has to last him two more weeks. The refrigerator right now holds four hot dogs and seven pieces of bread.
"I cut back to the bitter bone," he said, despairingly."I've got such headaches and problems. My wife, she couldn't handle it. . . . She miscarried with twins two months ago . . . I told her that it's not us, it's the system that is causing us problems. But she took my son and went back to live with her mother."
"I had to apply for food stamps," he said, rubbing his palms across his eyes. "I hate it. You go into the grocery store and the clerk looks at you like you're running a con game."
He's been laid off from Ford Motor Co. Stamping plant since last September and it's unlikely that he will be called back.
"I was trying to get somewhere, you know, do something with my life," he said. "I got myself this house, a little bit of furniture. I wanted to break out of being poor. I was tired of running the streets. And now, all of a sudden, I'm nothing."
He gets up every morning at 5 a.m., by force of habit. "I drink my coffee, then I look around," he said. "I go see about my dog. Then I clean up until I can't clean up no more and then I just sit around."
Down the street in a look-a-like white house lives another laid-off auto worker. This one had 14 years' seniority with Chrysler Corp. when he was bumped in May.
"I could see the handwriting on the wall last winter," said Michael Brown, 31, who has a wife, Linda and two young sons. "We made a New Year's resolution that we were not going to charge any more stuff, period. And we started closing out all our accounts."
Linda Brown says she feels more depressed than her husband does.
"You get used to your husband bringing in the money," she said, softly. "There's just so many changes going on in our lives now. He's around the house all the time now. And my three-year-old, he knows that daddy is not working. I think he's less secure, too."
Brown's sister, Eileen Wojtas, and her family live next door. Both she and her husband were laid off from Chrysler during the 1974 recession and only the husband, after four months, got his job back.
"It was really devastating," said Eileen Wojtas, 29 who was pregnant with her third child at the time. "We never fully recovered from those four months when there was no money coming in."
She dreams of moving away. "I really think we're going to have severe problems in Detroit this summer," she said. "There's so many people out of work, there's no telling what's going to happen."
On the other side of the Browns lives Derrick Anderson, a Detroit policeman who seems secure about his future, despite threatened layoffs in the department.
"We're not saving anything," said his wife, Robbie, 27, "but we're not going without the things we want."
The Andersons have four daughters and their mother says "They're still getting their ice cream off the truck, you know, they're not deprived of anything."
Across the street, Gearldine Harper, 35, who is raising three children by herself, told a different story. "I'm just barely surviving," she said. "I can't keep the house payment up. The car payment's late. I try to save a little here and there for the house payment but I usually can't pay it until the middle of the month and I get trapped in this cycle."
Harper has worked at the Ford Motor Co. Wayne assembly plant for the past six years but during the most recent six months, she's been laid off briefly several times. Now she's home for a month while Ford retools the plant for new production.
"All I'm doing is just holding on and hoping that the new model we make catches on and I get some overtime."
A few houses away lives a woman with two daughters. Her husband walked out the door two years ago, while she was pregnant with her second child, and never came back. Now she lives on welfare. Across the street live a couple and their two children. The man has lost his last three jobs. They're living on welfare too.
Next door is a 60-year-old divorcee who's lived on Avon Street for three decades. "I'm not doing too badly," said Rita Hogan as she pulled weeds from her front yard and inspected the new sycamore tree next to the side walk.
Her job as an executive secretary in a small suburban firm is secure and both her home and car are paid for in full. "I don't put that much money away in the bank," she said, "but I'm not worried."
Across from Hogan, in a home ringed by red geraniums, lives another 30-year veteran of Avon Street. A month shy of 79, Frances Davis is a retired widow who has three children, 20 grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
"I manage okay on my Sociel Security and my pension," said Davis, who was a riveter at Chrysler's bomber plant during World War II.
"It's the street that worries me now," she said. "I used to be beautiful. Everybody knew each other. Now I try to give cookies to the children and their parents won't let them come visit me."
"The whole world," she said, "has really changed."