With quick drug money as their goal, they're stealing and selling every bit of aluminum, iron, brass and copper they can cart out of city buildings

THE METAL MEN

September 03, 1995|By David Simon

Kenny wipes his mouth, passes the wine and stares into the shopping cart, his mind managing a quick calculation. Five or six lengths of good No. 1 copper. Those cast-iron security bars. A window grate.

"Enough for a run," he tells his brother.

"I want to finish this length of pipe," Tyrone says.

"Man, we can come back on that."

But Tyrone is already shaking his head, tossing the bottle, stepping back through the rear door with his hacksaw. Get the metal now or someone else comes behind you to grab it. He disappears into the wreckage of the broken Fulton Avenue rowhouse, emerging minutes later with pieces of a light-steel gas line. By then, his brother has the cart balanced for the run.

"Let's get paid."

They shoot down Fulton and cross Fayette where the corner boys are touting a fresh heroin package. The two shout to each other above the rattling wheels, talking about dope and coke and a couple of radiators that Kenny has his eye on. There's no way to sense the speed involved unless you're with them, cantering beside a full shopping cart, making for the scales in absolute earnest. The scrap yards close at 5; wasted time means one less run at the end of a day.

"With the copper," says Kenny, guessing at the weight, "I'd say $20."

" 'bout that," agrees Tyrone.

* * *

Behold the ants.

Step back a moment and see that there are dozens upon dozens of them -- hundreds, in fact -- spread across the city, rattling back and forth with their metal carts, each in the service of the same elemental economics. No. 1 copper brings 80 cents a pound. Aluminum gets 33. Cast iron and steel offer $2 if you can find 100 pounds of it.

Day after day, they rattle back and forth with their shopping carts, crowbars and mauls at the ready, devouring Baltimore bite by bite. And where once they confined themselves to vacant rowhouses, stripping them bare of pipes and radiators, wires and windows -- anything the scrap yards would buy -- now their world has been broadened.

Right now they're taking the downspouts from Westport's public housing, and the metal handrails from Wilkens Avenue rowhouses. They're ripping security grates from homes in Union Square, and cast-iron manhole covers from Central Avenue. On Lafayette Square, there's a church that closed one Friday with copper flashing adorning the roof; come Sunday, it rained in the house of the Lord.

And it's cash money they offer at the scales; not some punch-the-clock paycheck that means nothing to the men hunting a chemical blast. An alcoholic can't wait for a Friday check stub; an addict needs payday to come every other hour. For them, there is Baltimore's pay-as-you-go delivery metal game, so that within minutes of leaving the scrap yard, a man can be up on the corner, turning dollars into vials of coke or heroin or both.

For $10 or $20 or $25 a run, they're out there every day, breaking apart the housing stock and ripping through the old warehouses, tearing the city down in slow motion, cannibalizing block after block for a few dollars more. You see them struggling in the slow lanes, stumbling at the fringe of city life, a step or two from oblivion.

"When I first started, people was laughing at me," says Elmer, a scavenger for four years. "Ain't nobody laughing now. They see this hustle makes money."

The private landlords and developers aren't laughing. Leave a house vacant for more than a day or two and it's as good as gutted. And Baltimore's housing officials, they're not smiling over properties stripped bare so many times that the damages are in hundreds of thousands -- if not, millions -- of dollars.

Four or five years ago, they were an irritant, a random, occasional happenstance of urban life. Four or five years ago, the metal men -- some call themselves harvesters -- were finding good copper out there and fewer souls to compete for it. Back then, it was easy money.

Now, with so much of the inner city's physical plant reduced to empty brickwork, city housing officials are beginning to confront the disaster. Now there are written warnings to the scrap dealers -- who police say blindly accept much of the stolen material -- meetings with police commanders, and a few early attempts at criminal prosecution.

But the metal men know that it's late in the game -- that the neighborhoods around the scrap yards have been stripped bare of the best stuff. Now, a good afternoon's work can be dragging a pair of 250-pound radiators for 12 blocks in the hot summer sun. But still, that's $10. And $10 will get you a vial of heroin and a cap of cocaine to go on top.

The ants are here; the picnic is us.

* * *

On Frederick, they rumble past a garage with aluminum duct work bolted to a side wall.

"Got my eye on that," says Tyrone, who like other metal men interviewed, is willing to allow a reporter along only if full names are not used.

"Mmm hmm," agrees Kenny.

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