I went to high school during the long-ago Motown days on the west side of Detroit.
It was actually in a pleasant-enough white suburb of mostly ranch-style houses, a nearby Dairy Queen, a small park and even an ice skating rink at the end of our street.
In those days, downtown street gangs with names like the Stilettos or the Bagley Boys pretty much consisted of tough guys with switchblade knives, brass knuckles, sap gloves, bottles, fists and very few guns. In fact, no one much thought about carrying a gun. The thought never really came up, I guess. Most of the gang members (racially mixed, by the way, white, black & Hispanic) had colorful names like Cockroach, Junebug, Farmer, Cornbread Red, Judo Smith and Jabbo (real name Leroy, but he’d already stabbed more than one person in his young life).
Everyone I just named was a pretty good guy. Really. Even Jabbo. And I have no idea how any of those guys are doing these days. I’m thinking they’re mostly retired now and living in Florida somewhere.
I hope so, at least.
I was never in an actual gang (too consumed with the need to live), but every weekend several of us suburban boys headed out to the Walled Lake Casino, a teen hangout where many of the Motown legends performed (as practice, it seemed) before heading out on actual tours. For a dollar or two, several hundred of us at a time got to see The Spinners, The Miracles, The Temptations, The Contours, Martha Reeves & The Vandellas, etc., etc., etc.
Literally, the entire line-up from Berry Gordy’s Hitsville USA down on West Grand Boulevard eventually showed up.
Another plus in those days: white soul group Billy Lee & The Rivera’s (later known as Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels) performed virtually every weekend, blasting out the place with the best rendition of Shake A Tail Feather (except for the original Five DuTones’ version) ever heard.
And, of course, with several rival gangs from the big city attending, there were numerous fights every weekend, both inside and (more often) outside in the parking lot. It was not uncommon to walk out and see a young man standing on a car hood kicking a rival in the face and, a moment later, see that same young man dispatched with a thrown wine bottle bashing in his head.
As non-gang-members, my friends and I mostly just watched, nodding approval if one or more of the few gang members we’d gotten to know were winning any particular skirmish. In those days, shockingly enough, there were almost no dead bodies left in the street. Or the parking lot. At least, not at the Walled Lake Casino.
In fact, the same guys would show up every weekend, fighting the same rivals, and race away afterwards in hopped-up Chevy’s and Ford’s, with the occasional Olds 442 or Pontiac GTO thrown in. Luckily, we got to travel in my buddy’s bland-looking 1964 Plymouth Belvedere with bench seats, that happened to be hiding a 426-cubic-inch engine with a 4-speed. It was blindingly fast. We won a lot of races on the way to the Dalys on Telegraph Road (known as Bloody Telegraph) in those days.
That was back when Dalys’ fantastic Chee-Chee Sandwich was called by its first name, a melted cheese & chili. It was, and still is, the best and most original sandwich in existence. Believe me, I’ve been in every state in this country and I’ve checked.
Anyway, of all the gang boys and girls (there were a few, girls, 3 blonde sisters in particular known as The Bitches), the single individual titled above truly was the toughest kid I ever knew. That any of us ever knew. That I’ve still ever known.
Danny Wilson (I’m using his name because he was dead at 18) was the most fearsome kid we ever met. In any fight, he was so ferocious he often had to apologize to the person or persons he’d just beat the living shit out of.
A natural leader and extremely charismatic, Danny would often be in the middle of a fight before the rest of us even knew it. I turned around once to say something to him and he was already on the ground, biting some struggling man (not a kid!) who had him gripped around the neck, biting the guy on the chest to get away.
And, the shocker of it all, Danny was all of 5’5” and less than 130 pounds.
Gang boys who stood 6’2” and weighed in at 220 pounds steered clear of him. More than once, we’d see a much larger guy start something with the smart-mouthed Danny Wilson, only to get his teeth kicked in. It was as if Danny would just suddenly be hanging onto the other guy’s hair or shirt, pulling him down and kicking or punching the guy’s brains out.
I never saw him with a weapon. He didn’t need one. No one ever saw him lose.
He was also, I should mention, a career criminal at that young age (16 or so). Danny would steal anything or break into anywhere. We’d met him straight out of the juvenile detention home, when his folks moved into our neighborhood.
To give their downtown kid a better chance at straightening out.
And when I first moved out to Hollywood, a short story I wrote about one of Danny Wilson’s many dangerous exploits (where he and a close friend of mine were almost killed) managed to get me the famous and iconic agent Mike Hamilburg as my first literary representative.
Mike had sold Taxi Driver for Paul Schrader and Helter Skelter for Vincent Bugliosi for big money, so I was more than impressed with the man. This was especially true when we met at the La Cienega Boulevard Norms Family Restaurant for breakfast the next day and he assured me I had a born ear for dialogue. Which he also told me couldn’t be learned, only developed.
As a screenwriter.
That first meeting with Mike Hamilburg kept me going for a very long time in Hollywood. And the Danny Wilson story I’d written and submitted to him was basically true, although fictionized to protect the clearly guilty.
But Danny’s weirdest caper, which turned out to be his last, was when he bent back the large fan blades high up on the cement block wall of the local dry cleaners late one night, climbed up there to break in, and got stuck. The next morning the owner, and then the police, laughed at him before pulling him out.
That crime, and his record, got him sent to big-time and grown-up Jackson Prison at 18 years old. Within his first month there, he was dead.
We were all shocked to hear it, to say the least.
And then his father told us the story he’d heard from a friend of Danny’s who also happened to be inside at the time. The other prisoners learned to be afraid of him soon enough. They also realized he couldn’t be controlled. Not in the least. And so several of them poured flammable cleaning fluids on him and then lit it.
Apparently, it is possible to be too damn tough.