Luke Bergmann, Getting Ghost (New Press, 2009)
Despite its recent Academy Award for Best Picture, Slumdog Millionaire is not without its detractors. Critics have called the film overrated, over-hyped, exploitative, lacking in substance, and wholly unrealistic. Surveying the critical response, the most universal response to the film, however, seems to have been one of shock to the plight of the Indian slums. Unfortunately, this new awareness of poverty seems to be mostly directed overseas; few people seem to acknowledge that there are communities in America that have fallen into conditions nearly as desperate as those in Mumbai.
Luke Bergmann’s debut book, Getting Ghost: Two Young Lives and The Struggle For the Soul of an American City, seeks to illuminate the desperate lives closer to home. The work takes place in Detroit, the once proud Arsenal of Democracy that has more recently been described as America’s only “third-world city.” An internship at a Detroit juvenile detention facility led Bergmann, a sociologist, professor and native Michigander, to begin research on a project revolving around the efforts of the incarcerated youth to reintegrate themselves into society; however, Bergmann soon realized that a more interesting project would be observing and documenting the lives and trades of these young drug dealers.
Getting Ghost primarily revolves around two of these dealers, Rodney Phelps and Dude Freeman, and their attendant friends, families and colleagues. Dude’s story begins at age 16 during his seventh incarceration (on charges of a concealed weapon) in the juvenile facility and follows him from his release until his subsequent trial, a few years later, for the accidental shooting of a neighborhood fixture named Walker. Rodney’s story begins in the same facility and details his life following his acquittal and release until its tragic ending on the street corner where he once plied his trade and was trying to construct a new life for himself.
The stories of both of these young men share many similarities; Bergmann’s conversations with their friends and relatives detail additional links and also explore a number of contradictions in the attitudes and lifestyles among the denizens of Detroit’s inner city. From a sociological perspective, one of the more interesting distinctions among these dealers is the difference between a “spot” and a “house.” Spots are designated as areas where drug dealing takes place; these “spots” can take the form of abandoned houses, empty lots between buildings (deserted public places that Detroit’s implosion has made numerous) and, in one prime example, a fast food eatery co-opted by Rodney and his friends as a spot to deal heroin. Houses, on the other hand, are primary residences, places where people and families live. This is not to say that no dealing takes place at houses—the distinction seems to purely revolve around whether the location in question is used as a residence by anyone. Ruby, Dude’s mother, seems particularly wrapped up in these semantics; she has seemingly spent most of her life trying to ensure that her house is not used for dealing. (However, Ruby has her own contradictions; while she refuses to condone the selling of illegal narcotics in her house, she herself sells her “legal” prescription medicine in order to make ends meet.)
Another interesting facet of Bergmann’s tale centers on the attitudes of most of the dealers towards gangs and the culture of gang life. The prevailing attitude among both Dude and Rodney’s cliques is that gangs are juvenile enterprises, usually drawing in the young and foolish. As several of Bergmann’s subjects relate, anyone with sense recognizes that gangs are not a means to an end. Unlike dealing, being a gang member confers no special status and has no financial incentive. Many of the dealers interviewed have higher aims in life and hope to break out of the inner-city life to become professionals, lawyers and architects and the like, but the lucrative drug trade offers them the only possible means to afford higher education and to someday “get ghost,” that is, to leave the trade and begin a semblance of a more normal life.
Getting Ghost, though a fascinating examination of a subculture rarely given attention, doesn’t offer any solutions to the travails of these youngsters. One is left wondering what Bergmann, with his personal insight, might recommend as far as helping to alleviate the plight in Detroit’s innercity. Could the legalization of drugs be a solution? As Bergmann notes, many of the customers buying drugs from Dude and Rodney are neither from the inner-city nor African-American; most come to Detroit to get their fix and then head back to greener parts of Michigan, leaving the Dudes and Rodneys of the world to fight for their turf and their lives. Getting Ghost thus reminds us that as much as we’d like to ignore the slums inside our own borders, we all have had a hand in creating them.