Wide awake: Aching for sleep on Detroit’s streets

RonnieRonnie can’t sleep.

The first time I saw him, he was sitting cross-legged outside the Magic Stick. He asked for a cigarette, and I didn’t have any, but I was wondering if he wanted something to eat.

“Sure,” he replied in a voice that rustled like newspaper. “I ain’t eat all day.”

I returned with two slices of pizza. I decided to sit with him rather than ride my bike to McDougall-Hunt at 11 P.M. on a Friday. We ended up talking halfway through the night.

At 1 A.M., he asked me to buy him a beer – a 40 oz. Schlitz Bull Ice. What the hell. If I was going to do nothing else with my ten or so bucks and depleted calendar, I’d sit and listen to Ronnie. This was white guilt. This was loneliness. This was self-pity. This was better than anything else I had to do.

Sitting on the sidewalk with the breeze from the Woodward corridor moving in little eddies, Ronnie seemed OK, but he was tired. Ronnie’s been tired a while, he said.

“I can’t sleep for days most time,” hanging his words low above the ground.

“How do you sleep?”

“Drink beer.”

“How long does that work?”

“Few hours.”

Even with beer, Ronnie doesn’t always sleep. He hasn’t slept most of the nights he’s been an adult. He has trouble sleeping because he suffers from a dumbfounding list of ailments. He started with his body.

“I been stabbed,” he said, lifting his shirt to reveal a large patch of blood-spotted gauze across his stomach, which sagged loosely off his body The blood on the bandage still looked fresh and I asked him if he’d just come from the hospital.

“Yep,” but he didn’t have antibiotics, he told me. Ronnie had recently been discharged from Detroit Receiving after the dressing around his wound didn’t stop the bleeding. He said the stabbing had occurred a week or so before. One of the things I quickly learned about Ronnie, though, is how much trouble he has with time.

Ronnie said he’s worn a brace on his right forearm for cerebral palsy for five years. Five years was also how long since he’d last worked with COTS to get help. Ronnie has no hard sense of time for a lot of different events: Days of the week and specific months aren’t distinct, and decades of memories are blurred into an undefined epoch of “five years ago.”

When Ronnie walks, he’s slow and staggered. Cerebral palsy has affected Ronnie’s entire right side, leaving his gait as a hesitant shuffle. His arm is weak, gaunt and unable to bear weight. He sketched an outline of living with a woman who’d thrown him out a few months prior, to receiving both Social Security and food stamps at a check cashing store.

We walked south on Woodward from the Majestic to a heating platform across from orchestra hall, where a middle-aged black woman and an older black man were curled up sleeping. At about 2:30, we sat against the wrought iron fence in the shadow of a midtown office building, careful to keep from getting too hot from the vent platform.

Since I felt like I was paying for his time and exhaustion, I asked him how he dealt with not sleeping. He shrugged.

“Get tired. I been tired my whole life. I remember being tired my whole life.”

One of the worst reasons he can’t sleep, he told me, is that he saw one of his brothers kill another brother.

“Why did he kill him?” I asked.

“Don’t know.”

Court records show his brother’s murder conviction is real. Ronnie told me the rest of his siblings all are dead except his brother Robert, who he thinks is in prison. That leaves Ronnie alone.

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Ryan Healy

Ryan Healy cleans a house for his money but writes for a living. He lives, eats, and sleeps mostly in Detroit.

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