BY AJ TRAGER
DETROIT — An old brick church sits at one end of a small street in west Detroit. At the other end is a barricade of a couple dozen tires — an attempt to keep people from depositing heaps of trash. Decades ago, the area used to be home to many of the city workers in Detroit before they fled to neighboring areas. Now, only one couple lives on the block, and they are working tirelessly with the city to ensure the area stays clean from waste. Their other tasks include planning a nature development project, caring for stray cats and battling cancer. In addition to the trash, they have another big problem: they don’t receive their mail.
James Lawson and his husband, Theodore Washington III, moved to the area in the spring of last year to conserve money after Lawson was diagnosed with esophageal non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. They removed 40 truck loads of trash with the help of the mayor’s office; that garbage had made it difficult for cars and city vehicles to access their home. But despite their efforts to keep the area clean, their mail is still not being delivered.
“Last year the snow was so bad, the mailman was driving through the snow and around sofas and mattresses to get to us. But when he found out that we are gay, because we are outside cleaning up the street, he decided he wasn’t going to come down here anymore,” Lawson said.
They have two garbage cans. One for their personal rubbish and another dedicated to picking up the street’s trash they constantly clean up from dumpers. They’d like to put in plants that are indigenous to the area and build up the natural wildlife. This isn’t their home forever, but the couple firmly believes in making things grow, wherever they are.
“When the mail stopped coming, we lost half my income, we lost our food stamps, we lost my insurance, we lost Teddy’s income because he was getting paid for helping me, my medications weren’t being delivered,” Lawson lists. “This went on for almost four months. Tracking down our mail became a full time job.”
Lawson had to reissue his state ID and for months it never came. They switched the delivery address to Washington’s parents’ house, and it arrived immediately.
When they called the Department of Human Services or Social Security offices to see where the status of their mail was, the offices said the documents were in the post, had records of transit and referred them to their local post office. Sometimes the post office would stockpile their mail, but usually the documents were sent back to the sender.
So they decided to approach their mail carrier directly and, “He said, ‘Well, you faggots can walk and get your mail. I’m not going down there,'” Washington recalled.
In the beginning, the carrier had the cloak of “this is an inconvenience,” Washington says, that there was too much trash. They then spoke with friendly neighbors in the area who said that he was making derogatory statements to them as well.
“Even the trash guy backs his truck in, gets our trash and backs out,” Lawson said. “He waves at us and says that we’re doing a great job.”
Washington says he has heard nothing but support from his neighbors about their relationship and how they are cleaning up the street. They’ve barbecued together and have even donated food to help everybody out. But the couple is disappointed in the lack of neighborhood leadership and would like to see their neighbors take a more active role in cleaning up the area.
Lawson and Washington spoke with a lawyer who decided to file charges in mid-March against the mail carrier under the First and 14th Amendments regarding equal protection violations.
“It’s been a year with just holding people accountable,” Washington said. “What we hope to gain from the lawsuit is accountability. It’s not just the post office, it’s anybody that has a job that is to serve the public.”
Lawson is a retired master chef and Washington is a pastry chef. But ever since the cancer diagnosis, due to financial burdens and shifting their approach to cancer treatment, they have been forced to change their way of living. Lawson lost 80 pounds from his cancer treatments and says he was on the brink of death and has had three surgeries in the last six months. The extra step of obtaining their mail has complicated their day to day lives.
“In order to get respect, you have to give it. You can’t expect people to walk on eggshells around you. And we know what is around us. We know the neighborhood we are in, we know everybody has to hustle,” Lawson said. “We deserve our mail just like anybody else, like any other couple that is struggling or not struggling. This incident brings awareness that something as old as the post office will even tolerate this kind of behavior. They went through wars to get people their mail. And this guy wouldn’t walk through some weeds and stray cats to come down a street that has been cleaned to bring us our mail.”
“If we tear down the walls of separation, we are all human and we are in this journey together. If people would set aside the idea that you aren’t more than what is on your driver’s license, we could believe that you are more than what society has stereotyped you to be. There’s not a lot out here. Where are the people out here making the positive change and being the examples for these kids?” asked Washington.