I WAS SITTING IN THE TELWAY DINER around the edge of midnight. The Telway is a story in itself: a chrome island built during the 1940s, floating on a blighted stretch of Michigan Avenue. Telway is staffed by the Appalachian whites who long ago moved to Detroit for work and, more recently, to the suburbs to live. It's open 24 hours and nothing costs more than $2.25. I ordered a fish sandwich and had the place to myself, except for the short-order cook, the waitress, and the cashier. A pair of bulky night workers stood in the vestibule and asked for hamburgers, heads framed by the take-away window. Then an ambulance pulled off Michigan Avenue and parked on the sidewalk outside. A stocky, balding EMS worker with reddened skin and tired eyes came in.
"How much time you got?" he asked the powder-faced redheaded woman working the counter.
"How much time you need?"
"I just watched the cops beat the shit out of somebody," the EMT said to all of us. "He was being stupid."
He ordered a large coffee with double cream, and proceeded to tell us the convoluted story. He spoke with a flat affect and blank eyes. It was a robbery/assault at some house "by the train station." He'd waited outside with the woman who had called 911. She kept telling him to go inside and help the man who'd been assaulted. "'He's spitting up, you gotta get in there.' And I told her again," he said, "'I can't go into a violent situation before the police get here, so we'll have to wait for the police.'"
It took the police over half an hour to get there, and so they waited on the sidewalk while the woman grew steadily more agitated, railing about it being the EMT's duty to save lives. She said, "I'm going in to get him! If he dies while we're waiting and you aren't helping him, I'm gonna sue the city." The EMT replied, "Well, that's a great idea, ma'am. Because in case you haven't heard, the city's broke. They don't have the money to pay my pension. They're taking away retirement benefits. I'm suing the city. So you can just get in line."
"That's Detroit," said the lanky blue-eyed counterman, with a laugh. He had white hair and was probably of the first generation of Appalachian migrants to come to the city.
The young, pale fry cook, who seemed a bit slow-minded, started saying something about a stabbing that had happened around the corner earlier that night.
"When?" asked the EMT.
"Wonder where we were ... The other day we went out to Harper and Cadieux," he said, naming an intersection clear on the other side of town. Detroit takes in a sprawling 140 square miles, just under 30 percent of which is vacant (the emptied properties alone occupy an area nearly the size of San Francisco); emergency services here have the worst response time in the nation because there aren't enough staff to cover the ground. "A guy'd been shot with an AK-47," the EMT continued. "Lying in the middle of the street. They waited half an hour — half an hour — to call an ambulance."
Fry cook: "That guy isn't alive anymore."
EMT: "Well I had better get going ... "
He took his cup of coffee, paid absently, thanked the waitress, and left without explaining how the first story had devolved into the police beating the man in the house.
As he drove the ambulance back off the curb, the woman said, "I seen him on TV."
"He's the union rep," the older, gap-...