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THE METAL MEN 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 BALTIMORE SUN

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.

A junkman learns to see the metal, to pick it from the background in a way that other people never do. He walks through the world with an extra sense for aluminum, copper, light steel and brass. That downspout in the alley off Mount Street? Need a ladder for that $5. The storm door on Bruce Street? Twenty-five, maybe 30 dollars. It becomes Pavlovian, a free association between the metallic sheen and a warm heroin rush.

And the best days are long remembered. Rolling down Frederick, Kenny and Tyrone talk about the blessed time a motorist rammed one of those new overhead light poles on Monroe Street, felling $90 of good aluminum: "We carted it away before the police come," says Kenny, laughing. "The driver was trying to tell them he hit a pole that ain't there. Police looking at the man like he crazy."

They turn at McPhail Street to join the usual crowd in front of the Franklintown Metals and Cores Co. the metal men and their carts are near the gate, save for Big Wayne, who has a sledgehammer out at the curb, breaking the ends of some cast-iron pipe to free the brass fixtures. For days now, Wayne has been bringing in pieces of an industrial sprinkler system.

"Got me a warehouse," he tells anyone willing to listen. "Took all the copper pipe the first day. Came to $700 worth. Rented myself a place with that. I'm tellin' you there's more back there suspended from the ceiling. I just need a ladder is all. . . . "

A younger junker joins the line with a silver roll of roof sheeting. Aluminum pays and Kenny is impressed. "Got more of that?" he asks.

"Been working a store roof for two days," the younger man says. "This the last of it."

It's a rule: No one gives up a good score, no one shares information. If you've found a Comstock Lode of copper, you shut your mouth, hide your cart in the back alley and don't let anyone see you go in and out.

Kenny takes the few pieces of copper pipe up to the warehouse where the more valuable metals are weighed. His brother waits in a longer line with the rest of their bulk-metal load. The path to the lower scale is an alleyway of pure mud, wedged between a huge pile of discarded tubs, engine blocks, steel piping -- everything a metal man can carry -- and the junk shop itself.

Tyrone struggles through the slop, then empties the cart's contents. It comes in at 200 pounds. Four dollars. Up top, the copper weighs out for $10 and change, making nearly $15 on the run. Enough for one and one -- a vial of coke and a cap of heroin -- if they bargain down the corner touts.

They walk the empty cart back up Hollins, where they begin bantering with each other, bickering as brothers and business partners often do. Kenny has a pebble in his shoe and sits on a curb to fish it out. Tyrone is impatient, hungry to spend their take.

"You is the stoppingest person."

"Just lemme have my share," snaps Kenny.

"I can hold it. All these years I know you and I can't hold your money?"

"Not as well as I can."

And Tyrone laughs.

* * *

Brian Devlin walks through the gutted shell of 1124 Proctor St., staring down at the rancid clutter that says shooting gallery -- soiled clothes, fast-food wrappers, syringes.

"There's no point in trying to restore this block," he says, stepping into the emptiness of what was once a kitchen. "For all the money we put into it, there's only one house that's not gutted."

The 1100 block of Proctor St. says it all. Mr. Devlin's nonprofit cooperative, the St. Ambrose Housing Aid Center, spent about $200,000 over the last several years to rehabilitate four rowhomes in this East Baltimore alley block. Now, every one of those rental units is a vacant shell: "Right here is $60,000," he says, pointing to 1101 Proctor. "By the time we even knew the people had moved out, the house was trashed."

For the Brian Devlins of this city -- those who labor in the hope that the problems are not insurmountable, that an urban environment can be salvaged and restored -- what is happening is not just sad, but a little bit shocking: "I understand that these people are coping with substance abuse, which is a problem we see all the time in our own clients," he says. "But to destroy houses that have been repaired for people who need housing is a step beyond."

Proctor Street is now empty, but over on the west side, St. Ambrose has managed to keep its Bruce Street rental units largely intact by switching from aluminum to vinyl window frames, and from copper to plastic piping. It has learned to put storm doors on houses only after a family has been moved in. It puts alarm systems in houses under construction. Most important, perhaps, it has had to reconsider the location of its rowhouse renovations, choosing streets and settings that are, well, defensible.

Brian Devlin's counterparts in Baltimore's housing authority couldn't agree more. With both their public-housing projects and scattered-site units vulnerable, city officials say they probably have lost millions in rental fees, multiple repair work and missing material.

"We actually had a cost-analysis chart done," says Ed Landon, the housing authority engineer, "and you could look at it and see that after a week vacant, the average repair cost per unit would be $7,000. Two weeks and it was $14,000. And so on until you could calculate how long for a house to be completely gutted."

No one has ever come up with a total amount lost to theft and vandalism in the city agency's 18,000 public units, but anecdotal tales of disaster can be had by visiting any housing project: "We're spending $37,500 just to replace the gutters and downspouts in Westport," says James Douglas, who supervises that project. "Almost all of it's been carried off."

Likewise, a city-owned unit in the 100 block of S. Mount St. was victimized last winter by a metal man who ripped out the basement waterline without bothering to turn off the water valve: "Flooded out half the block," says Timothy Glenn, who supervises the city's scattered-site housing.

Contractors have taken to putting dogs in units under construction, or bedding down with a sleeping bag and a shotgun inside a half-finished rowhouse. But for both sides, the learning curve is a constant. In houses where developers have substituted plastic plumbing pipe for copper, the scavengers have taken to ripping out electrical wiring and burning off the insulation to extract copper. Similarly, officials tried using an aluminum window disguised by an outer covering of cheaper vinyl. "They figured it out in a week," says Mr. Landon.

The men and women of the shopping-cart brigade aren't the only people stealing from city properties. More sophisticated crews with access to trucks and vans -- including a few rogue subcontractors -- will strip newly renovated houses down to the furnace. But such thieves can drive anywhere and the resulting destruction is more diffuse. The addicts and their carts are by necessity limited to the area surrounding a scrap yard.

The carnage in those neighborhoods persuaded Housing Commissioner Daniel Henson to undertake a $25 million crash program in which contractors were offered no-bid contracts to restore as many scattered-site housing units as possible in the least amount of time.

The no-bid logic made some sense to housing officials familiar with the vandalism. Federal procurement regulations created an eight-month delay before a contractor could get into a unit; the no-bid process cut that to weeks, officials say. But the new initiative soon had the city spending more than twice the going rate for renovations, paying for work not performed and giving millions to firms run by relatives of officials, according to a scathing U.S. audit. A grand jury is probing the matter.

Despite such problems, housing officials insist that more money is saved by rehabbing and reoccupying units before they can be destroyed: "We have a unit on West Fayette Street that was vacated as a result of a drug raid," says Mr. Glenn. "And the original estimate for repairs was $20,000."

But 1625 W. Fayette is only blocks from the McPhail Street scales. Every metal man in the area saw the tenants evicted and marked the spot: "Not much left in there now," says Gary, a five-year veteran of the metal game.

Mr. Glenn agrees. Renovation costs for the West Fayette address are now put at more than $60,000.

* * *

Blame it on the Metal Kings, the scrap-yard owners, the people behind the scales.

That's what Gary does. Kenny and Tyrone have an alternative view of the damage done. Kenny figures that they're doing the city a service, clearing all that nasty, ancient metal from broken-down, empty properties. "They should pay us," says Tyrone.

But Gary has been scavenging metal long enough now that he's not willing to fool himself. The houses aren't all so broken-down. The properties aren't always vacant: "I mean, it's tearing the city up," he says. "It's destroying houses -- good houses -- places where they just finished remodeling, places where anyone would want to live. You got people out here who take everything: the pipes, the window, the stove, the kitchen cabinets."

No, Gary is the rare metal man. He won't lie about any of it. Fact is, when he's sated with chemicals and the nausea is gone and he can think about things for a few minutes, he's genuinely ashamed: "We tore up the boiler in this school for $70 in copper," he says. "For $70, we did like $10,000 in damage."

Gary would blame himself, but he's an addict and the world has got to know by this time that he's about getting high and nothing else. No, he assures you, real guilt lies with those making real money. Like George Dykes, owner of Franklintown Metals and Cores on McPhail Street, which was found guilty in July of failing to maintain proper purchase records. Or the boys at Baltimore Scrap or Industrial Metals, which were found guilty and given small fines as well. Or the biggest and richest of them all -- United Iron & Metal. There they take just about everything -- even cars, if your game includes making an auto disappear for $60.

At all of these places, the metal men say, they can generally sell their haul without worrying about questions, concerns or careful scrutiny of required IDs. Show up with a half-dozen aluminum window sets from the Lexington Terrace high-rises -- each purchased for $240 by the housing authority; each ripped out and broken down for $12 by the scavengers -- and the employees at United simply read off the weight and cart it away. It's the Metal Kings who make the rules; to Gary's mind, he's merely a soldier in service of their crown.

"They takin' in so much. They makin' billions on scrap metal and we gettin' paid peanuts for it. They can even cheat us at the scales and we can't do anything about it."

Time and again, Gary has walked away from the pay window at United thinking that he deserved more, that the scales are off. Time and again, Gary has told himself that he can make money some other way, that he won't have to come back. But the man behind United is the king of kings and he won't be denied. In Gary's mind, he stands atop the scrap mountains down on Wilkens Avenue, singing like a siren, calling his army of dope-fiend conscripts down to his scales.

"He must have a mansion out in the county," says Gary. "He gets paid big-time."

* * *

Actually, his grace resides somewhere in Ohio. Or maybe Amsterdam.

A family-owned Baltimore business, United Iron & Metal was sold to the David J. Joseph Co. four years ago, an Ohio-based scrap conglomerate with annual sales of about $500 million. The Ohio company has been owned since 1975 by SHV North America Corp., an affiliate of a huge Dutch holding company. Plant officials acknowledge that the majority of United's scrap comes from commercial sources; the walk-in business is a relatively small share -- though they would not provide exact figures.

Yet, to the community's dismay, the company accommodates the metal men. "They don't care about the destruction," says Mary Bontempo of the neighborhood association for Mill Hill, where the United yard is situated. "They'll take anything, and it's so immoral and destructive to the fiber of the community."

Local laws require scrap dealers to inventory all purchases and require photo IDs of anyone selling metal, and beyond that, there is the standard legal obligation not to purchase anything known with certainty to be stolen. But when a reporter accompanied one metal man to the United scales with a new load of copper pipe -- store stickers still attached -- employees there asked no questions, though a theft from a job site is the most probable reason for scrapping freshly bought pipe.

When the metal man failed to produce identification on that occasion, a United employee arranged for another scavenger to substitute his ID and sign the log book. On another occasion, a United employee expressed concerns that a reporter might be a police officer. On a third visit, a scavenger and a company employee had a prolonged discussion about the nearby warehouse that the metal man had been tearing apart.

For their part, officials with the David J. Joseph Co. say they are concerned to hear about such incidents, adding that they have in the past turned down material thought to be stolen and have worked with police on theft and vandalism cases. They say that they are willing to consider limiting walk-in sales.

"We take our connection to the community seriously," says Alan Crouch, a vice president with the Joseph company and general manager of the Baltimore yard, adding that after receiving a letter about the problem from the mayor's office, he had contacted city officials but had yet to receive a call back. "If there's something more we can to do help with this, we'd like to know about it."

At Franklintown Metals, George Dykes initially refused to take new copper, then asked other scavengers whether the reporter was a police officer. Later that day the scrap yard owner was told by one metal man that the new copper had been stolen from a job site and was sold at the United scales after he refused it. He was also assured that the reporter was not a police officer. The next day, Franklintown employees accepted a load of new copper.

"If they did that, I didn't know about it," George Dykes says later at curbside in front of his yard, where Big Wayne continues to break down pieces of his sprinkler pipes. "I don't take anything new like that and I don't take what I know to be stolen."

Asked about the possible origin of, say, a commercial sprinkler system, brought in one cartload at a time over a period of days, the owner explains that "a lot of this is stuff lying in the street." He declines to comment further.

City officials say they have no illusions about how many metal window frames, copper pipes, water heaters and storm doors have disappeared from the city's metal yards: "The outlet for these materials has often been scrap dealers," says Mr. Henson, the housing commissioner.

And while police and housing officials have recently been meeting to plan their response to the epidemic, some police commanders predict their agency won't be much help. "Manpower is a concern," says Col. Ronald Daniel, who heads the detective division.

In addition to keeping tabs on 16 city scrap dealers, the colonel's seven-man pawnshop unit is responsible for monitoring transactions involving more than 400 pawnshops, antique dealers, secondhand stores and precious-metal licensees. "And the priority is going to be given to violent cases," says Detective William Hilseberg. "Homicide or armed-robbery cases in which items are taken and resold."

The patrol division is equally burdened. Murders, shootings, robberies, drug sweeps -- that's what occupies the Baltimore department. With city crime what it is, searching the shopping carts of grizzled addicts and alcoholics is not likely to become a priority. And, of course, merely having metal in a cart is not illegal. Some scavenging is legal recycling, with metal men collecting aluminum cans or scrap given to them by people discarding the stuff. Most scavengers say about a third of their haul isn't stolen.

As for the scrap companies, they've already been subjected to a mayoral letter warning them against taking stolen material. Similarly, there are the cases filed against United, Franklintown and four other scrap dealers, charging them with failing to maintain proper records of metal purchases. The United case, which plant officials blame on a computer glitch, resulted in a negotiated plea and a fine of $2,500. Three other companies -- including Franklintown -- received fines ranging from $250 to $800. But beyond those modest penalties, only the ants themselves have managed to mess with the metal kings -- to bite the hand that feeds them.

A year or two ago, Gary took to breaking into the United scrap yard at night and stealing back the metal. His best haul was several hundred pounds of window frames, snatched off the loading dock and resold at Franklintown. Elmer, too, has known this joy, once sneaking off the lot with $400 of shredded copper.

"Why hurt the little man," asks Elmer, "when you can mess with someone big?"

* * *

"This used to be the place," remembers Tyrone.

The wrecked basement once served the neighborhood as an after-hours club, with a beautiful oak bar stretched across the front room and mosaic tile adorning the floor. Somehow, the room still shows a few signs of former glory.

Kenny is at the bar, an innkeeper on post, turning up a pair of soda-bottle caps. He and his brother pull needles, mix the dope and coke, load the speedballs and fire up. Voices lapse, leaving the sound of car traffic.

"Uh huh," says Tyrone softly.

And this is it -- the drug-induced high is the end for one run's worth of water pipes and security grates and windows. This is all anyone needs to know about the metal game. Against this

desire, no moral logic can argue.

The two men talk for a time, lost in haze, their words wandering gently from the quality of the shot to their prospects for the next run. Both are small men -- short, gaunt from the drugs, but at the same time muscular. They're still savoring the high when a noise unnerves them. Through a rear window to the alley, they see two other metal men creeping up to requisition their cart.

"Naw, man," says Kenny, still holding the syringe in his hand, "we using that, you know."

Startled, the other men pull back awkwardly, grunting a half-apology. There's no bluster, no argument, nothing to suggest the possibility of violence. Scratch most every metal man and you find someone incapable of brutalizing anything more animate than an aluminum storm door. These are the ones with too much fear or conscience to stick a gun in someone's face, to break into an occupied house, or to stand on a corner and sell vials. Instead, they've found a hustle that avoids conflict with another human being.

"We out here tryin' to make a livin'," says Elmer, righteously. "We not about robbin' people, or shootin' people, or sellin' drugs."

Tyrone is an auto mechanic -- no certification, but a good mechanic nonetheless -- and when he has a car to fix, he doesn't need to scavenge. Kenny's a body and fender man. If they had the money, Tyrone says, they'd open a garage.

And Gary -- he's a hard-core metal man only in the cold months, when business gets weak at the crab house where he's been working and they cut him back to a day or two a week. Come warmer weather and he's back in the kitchen, where the crab house pays cash every day -- same as at the scales.

They all claim to pull carts because a job isn't available, because the jobs are gone and this is a way to make money from nothing. But in the same breath they admit they can't work for that wait-for-Friday money. These are desperate lives that can stand no structure, though that's not to say there's anything fleeting or temporal about the game itself. Metaling is now a fixed part of the city's drug culture, certain to endure for as long as the scales stay open and the dealers want cash for vials, for as long as some unguarded part of Baltimore can be pried apart.

The ants will see to it. Grant them, at least, some small due for creating wealth by destroying wealth, for going beyond the stereotype that says a dope fiend stands on a corner all day, scratching and nodding. Hard work doesn't scare a metal man.

"Sometimes," says Gary, "getting high is the toughest job there is."

DAVID SIMON is a reporter for The Sun.

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