Inside his one-bedroom apartment a block-and-a-half off Jefferson Avenue, the main east-west stretch of asphalt that snakes through downtown Detroit, Ernest Wagner Jr. sits in a black highchair at his dining-room table, a few feet from an off-white wall where photographs of his past hang – five photographs, all of them black and whites, all framed in black metal. Easing out of the chair, Wagner ambles toward the photographs and, using his right index finger, points to a basketball player in a team photo: “That’s me there.”
In the photo, Wagner stands in the middle, his arms behind his back, dressed in the short-short trunks, long socks and white Chuck Taylors worn by a basketball player during the 1950s. He was a Harlem Globetrotter back in the day, back when he was younger, back when his 6‘2 frame didn’t tilt forward like a branch in a stiff breeze, when he didn’t teeter as he walked. He was a handsome man, a man whose reddish-brown complexion and slim, athletic build appealed to women. His looks brought him girlfriends then – and wives, too.
What Wagner does now is save souls, and in the down-on-its-fortunes Motor City, souls are there to save
Wagner, his full head of hair now speckled with gray, the skin on his face showing a few of the deep recesses of a black man speeding toward 80, takes no pride in his infidelity, nor in the other horrible things he once did. All his wrongs are behind him, he says. Now he lives to follow God’s orders, and God ordered him to help the children. No, he isn’t “paying back”; he detests that term. He prefers to say he’s “paying forward,” trying to ensure boys and girls don’t trace his path, that they find a haven to keep them away from the Cass Corridor and other places where misadventure brews – and that they don’t trade athletic glory and a star-spangled ’Trotter uniform, as he did, for the drab garb of an inmate, number 07232-039.
What Wagner does now is save souls, and in the down-on-its-fortunes Motor City, souls are there to save. Yet before Wagner could save anybody else’s soul, he had to first save his.
In a roundabout way, Wagner got from there to here through basketball. He can sequence the events that hooked him on hoops: When he was 13 and coming of age, his father, Ernest Sr., left the family for the street life. “I didn’t know nothing about hard times,” he says now, “’cause my father was a pretty good provider.” But absent a daily male influence, Ernest Jr. had to decide if he wanted what “Big Wag” wanted: the nightlife on Hastings Street, the Technicolor bazaar of black Detroit. It was an enticing place to many of his peers, and the street life might have lured Ernest Jr. in, too, if Gus Finney had not stepped into his father’s breech.
Finney was a former Globetrotter who had quit the nomad’s life to settle in the same neighborhood as the Wagners. His job with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department brought him into contact with Ernest Jr. and his best friend, Johnny Kline. Befriending the two boys, Finney cautioned them about the evils on Hastings Street, schooling them on the choices they had, preaching books and basketball. The boys listened, particularly to what he told them about basketball.
Wagner and Kline spent so much time in the gym at Balch school that Finney could have put them on the Parks Department payroll. “Everything was organized, even when we went into the gym,” Wagner says. “We didn’t just go in there and play; we had to line up. Like guys in the service, he had us line up and count off. When we grew up and got older, he had a social night -- on Thursdays he had a dance, and he’d be there to supervise so we'd know how to act with the young ladies. All of that came into play with Gus."
They often filled the playgrounds with onlookers and packed fans into gyms
Wagner and Kline chased girls hard, though not as hard as basketball. Playing in Sunday leagues at the Brewster Center or at the court outside Balch on Ferry Avenue and Hastings Street, they blossomed. So did their reputation. They often filled the playgrounds with onlookers and packed fans into gyms, even Olympia Stadium, “The Old Red Barn” on Grand River Avenue where the Detroit Red Wings played hockey. Heading into their senior year at Northeastern High, a school with an overwhelmingly white student body, the two friends were among the region’s brightest stars. While racism was as naked in the late 1940s as it had been before World War II, Wagner and Kline, along with the other blacks, the Poles and the Italians at the high school, made peace because coach Art Carty’s team had a Public School League city championship to win. Wagner and Kline ensured the Falcons brought the title home.
Their basketball skills got them into Wayne State University, a big deal only a few years after Jackie Robinson had integrated Major League Baseball. Together, they spent a whirlwind three years on campus, excelling on the court: Kline, the skilled forward; Wagner, the ball-handling guard with a deadeye shot. He knew he was good, the team’s best player, so some people told him. Better than Kline or Charlie “King Snake" Primas, the team’s other star. “There was a lot of things I guess people seen about me that I didn’t see about myself,” Wagner says. “Sometimes, I really underestimated myself.” He laughs at the thought. “That’s a shame, ain’t it?”
The greater shame, however, was his cavalier attitude toward his books, which caught up with him and Kline in 1953. What should have been a glorious junior season, with Wayne State breaking into the Associated Press Top 20 for the first time, ended with two of the team’s best players academically ineligible. “That was an honor to me,” says Wagner, his face unable to mask his disappointment, “because we were somebody.” Being somebody? That’s never what drove Wagner, not really. He was the son of “Big Wag,” a country boy from Albany, Ga., a hustler whom other men crossed at their peril – a man who thrived in the big city. Had hustling been what “Little Wag” wanted, his father’s reputation could have opened doors to that life for his son, But that wasn’t him. Not really. He wanted to chase the game, running after it and letting basketball drag him wherever it might. He loved playing basketball. Was it gone now?
The days after Wayne remain difficult for Wagner to sort through. He knows flunking out of college did him little good. He married and had a child before he was ready for either, and joblessness didn’t pay the rent. But he had friends. Somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody – their names long forgotten – talked the Milwaukee Hawks (now the Atlanta Hawks) into giving Wagner a tryout. The Hawks liked him, but they had a problem: The team had one black player, and coach Red Holtzman told Wagner an NBA team couldn’t have two. It was the mid-1950s, and dammit if post-Jackie wasn’t markedly better than pre-Jackie. A black man still had limits placed on his dreams.
he made the team and had his eyes opened wide to the world
Nothing tethers a man to one spot if he believes in himself the way Wagner did. He had a trump card he could play: Finney. He got Wagner, 21, a tryout with the Globetrotters. While the NBA was appealing, the ’Trotters weren’t a bad alternative, and the $500 a month paycheck, an embarrassment of riches for the era, paid a lot of bills and left plenty for the nightlife. Along with Kline, he made the team and had his eyes opened wide to the world.
The first time he flew was as a ‘Trotter. The team took a bus to Rochester, Minn., and then boarded an airplane to Madison Square Garden. No bus ride, an airplane. The propeller plane took off and Wagner had butterflies, but he wasn’t afraid. He had never been afraid of adventure. As a boy, he would hurry to amusement parks with friends and jump on the fast rides. None frightened him. “It was something different seeing that plane take off,” he says. “I couldn’t believe when we got above the clouds the sun was shining. I didn’t imagine that.”
Nor could Wagner imagine the world that would open to him. Traveling often with Goose Tatum, Hallie Bryant and Meadowlark Lemon – he played one season with Wilt Chamberlain – Wagner sampled a bit of everything, including more women than he could count. While he wasn’t one of the team’s headliners, he was dependable and often participated in the popular seven-man warm-up routine, performed to the tune of Sweet Georgia Brown. It wasn’t a spot everybody on the roster got to fill.
In his 11 seasons, the ’Trotters flew him to Europe, Asia and Australia. He met celebrities like Sydney Poitier, Sonny Liston, Roberto Clemente, Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Joe Louis, and he visited Paris, Rome and Berlin, Sydney. But Wagner liked his trips to the Far East best. “I always looked forward to it, because it was a chance to visit Hong Kong, Japan and China [Taiwan],” he says. “I did a lot of shopping in those countries for clothes. I liked clothes.” He also liked the women.
In Bangkok, he was in a Thai nightclub one evening with other ’Trotters, drinking and having a good time. Wagner had a woman on his arm when another approached.
“I wanna be with you,” she told Wagner.
“Don’t you see I’m with someone?” he said, acknowledging the woman next to him. “I don’t care; she’s gotta go.”
Wagner told the woman he and his teammates were about to leave for Australia, and she asked if she could go with him. Her question made him laugh. He told her he didn’t have money to take care of a woman. The remark meant nothing to her. She was a hustler, a woman who didn’t need a man to care for her. She just needed a man, and she chose Wagner.
So when the ’Trotters arrived in Sydney, the woman was there; when they moved to Perth, the woman was there; when they moved on to Melbourne and Brisbane, the woman was there. For the entire month the team spent in Australia, Wagner practiced and played games as the woman waited for him before and afterward.
A player has to look for a career after the cheering stops
“When I first went with the ’Trotters, this was great,” he says of the women and the fast life. “I was enjoying myself – for three or four seasons. I liked my job. People don’t know how it became a job. Every night you have to put on and take off the uniform. It was a business. You didn’t have a lot of time to yourself, because you were always preparing for the next game. We didn’t get to do a lot of things but play basketball.”
Basketball wasn’t forever, though. Not then and not now, not for anyone. A player has to look for a career after the cheering stops. For Wagner, he had to start looking once his knees gave out in 1965.
He was 34.
Thirty-four was a lifetime ago for Wagner, but he shakes the dust off the years and recounts what his life was like after leaving the ‘Trotters. He doesn’t see a handsome sight. Wagner returned to Detroit and found a disaster on the home front. Travel had cost him one marriage, and now his second marriage was a wreck. His sister Vivian and his mother died a few months apart, and his wife Betty became pregnant. To compound his headaches, he had no idea what he wanted to do, although the idea of coaching crossed his mind. Through friends, Wagner landed a job as a city recreation supervisor, a job close enough to coaching to satisfy him awhile. But he had crisscrossed the globe, danced in the hippest nightspots, drank the finest liquors and slept with some of the prettiest women; he wasn’t ready to settle for work as a recreation supervisor. “I said one day, ‘Shit, I’m gonna get mine,’ ” he says. “I tried; I tried to be straight and do right. But I’ve been doing wrong all the time.”
He had a woman named “Baby” on the side, and once Betty walked out, he had no reason to play the family guy. He then met a woman named Barbara. “I kinda liked old Barbara,” he says. “But she was another fast broad – pretty fast for me, man. She wasn’t a bad-looking girl, you know. She had some good looks. I always liked nice-looking women, too. That was no problem.” He moved into an apartment off Mack Avenue with Barbara. Her old boyfriend had been involved in the drug game. She knew how to play it and introduced Wagner to heroin.
His day job wasn’t bringing in anywhere near the money he made as a Globetrotter, and Wagner soon needed other ways to feed his habit and to keep his pockets fat with cash. He teamed with Barbara and “Seed,” a friend from the neighborhood, and started moving quarter-spoons of smack from an apartment the three of them shared. Seed then decided to go solo, leaving his customers for Wagner and Barbara to service. Wagner saw no big dollars in selling retail. He needed to find a supplier who sold bulk at rock-bottom prices.
One day in 1970, Maurice, a friend from the Globetrotter days, called from New York City. Maurice had tickets to the Muhammad Ali-Oscar Bonavena fight in December, and one of the tickets was for Wagner. Barbara told him to go. While in New York, Maurice introduced Wagner to some of his drug connections. Wagner didn’t make a deal on that trip, but in March 1971, one of Maurice’s contacts called. The man was coming through downtown Detroit and wanted to know if Wagner would like to make a buy. The price per kilo: $13,500. He didn’t have enough to make the buy on his own but borrowed $2,000 before meeting Maurice’s man at the Greyhound terminal. They completed the deal there.
Back at Barbara’s place, Wagner poured the heroin on the kitchen table. Fumes shimmered through the air, a sight he compared to the air that comes off asphalt on a hot summer day. The smell wafted through the house; the heroin was the purest he had ever seen. “I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “I knew we were gonna start making real money with this madness.”
“Madness” is how Wagner now refers to the drug trade. He says he was moving some of the best smack around. With no shortage of customers, he and Barbara decided not to flood the market, which kept them off police radar. The money they made off this madness they pumped back into buying more product. One kilo at a time became two kilos at a time and then three and then four and then … “The product was so good it would sell itself,” he says.
Wagner was now a significant player in Detroit’s heroin trade, and he dressed and acted the part
Wagner was now a significant player in Detroit’s heroin trade, and he dressed and acted the part, resembling lead actor Ron O’Neal’s character in the blaxploitation movie “Super Fly.” From his wide-brim hats to his polyester bellbottoms, Wagner had the look of a “pusherman”: the cash, the Cadillac and custom suits. He indulged his excesses, quickly turning that original $13,500 into $100,000. “That wasn’t nothing,” he says. The money kept coming, and he once buried $600,000 in the ground.
The money and the drugs brought him woman after woman. Barbara was still around, but Wagner was never a one-woman man. He was playing the field when a friend introduced him to a caramel-skin woman he couldn’t resist. Her name was Denise Hall, and Hall, 19, was gorgeous but hooked on smack. “When I first met Denise, I was gung-ho,” Wagner says.
Wise to the streets, Hall didn’t know if she wanted to get involved with a man twice her age. But his smooth talk drew Hall into his bed and then into his heroin trade. He put her up in an apartment, took her to New York and to the Kentucky Derby. He was more likely to be seen with her than with Barbara, another complication he didn’t need: a string of women to please, a thriving heroin business and a growing reputation among the wrong crowd. His gangster wardrobe – 80 pairs of shoes, mostly Bally’s, and 40 suits, furs and long leather coats -- a ’72 Coup de Ville and his freehanded spending led to talk on the streets. The cops heard it. “It was just the way I was looking,” he says now.
As Wagner’s business grew, he came under increasing scrutiny. He had all a man of the streets could have. Yet, he says now, he had nothing – nothing that mattered, not the Cadillac, not the cash … nothing. He felt empty.
Wagner’s life was a mess. Using and selling at the same time left him vulnerable. While he roamed the streets one day, thugs broke into one of his homes to rob Barbara. His friend “Tiny” dropped by, spotted what was happening and snatched one of the stickup men. He took a bullet for his troubles. The robbery angered Wagner, who put out a reward for those responsible. “Word got out that I was giving $20,000 for the niggahs,” he says. Cops found out about the bounty. Bumping into Wagner at a poolroom, they warned him about putting out contracts. What they were really doing was beginning to place his drug activities under a microscope.
He was safe as long as he dealt wholesale and bought his product in New York City, where he had connections through William “Goldfinger” Terrell, part of the notorious Nicky Barnes crew, but in 1975 and 1976, the heroin trade softened. His New York connections advised Wagner to lay low. He ignored them. Trying to keep his business afloat, he turned to a local supplier. The new supplier intensified the heat on Wagner. One day in 1976, cops busted into one of his houses but found no drug stash. In the kitchen was a plastic bag; it had heroin residue inside. Cops arrested Wagner, who wore a money belt with $10,000 cash and had $100,000 of jewelry in the house. Local cops couldn’t make the drug charges stick, but the Feds had different legal tools. Wagner hadn’t paid taxes in three years, and his lifestyle did more than suggest he had income. Yet he beat that rap, too. But it cost him.
Busted on five drug counts, this time he couldn’t beat the rap
With the two legal cases chipping into his resources, keeping a harem of women in style and feeding his heroin addiction led Wagner to take risks. He befriended dope dealers he couldn’t trust, local men who offered inferior heroin at a discount price. They proved his undoing. He got caught in a sting. Busted on five drug counts, this time he couldn’t beat the rap. He went to prison in 1977 bitter and broke. “I looked around and had nothing,” he says.
He spent 18 months in Michigan prisons, and the only good that came from hard time there was he kicked his addiction – kicked it cold turkey. When he was released in 1978, Ernest Wagner Jr. had no skills, no job prospects and no money. What he had was Denise Hall, a woman who stood by her man. He was 45.
Heroin was only one of Wagner’s addictions. Now that he was out of prison he had to kick his addiction to the fast life. “I didn’t know how I was going to survive,” he says. As addictive as drugs the only thing he knew, aside from basketball, was the street. He had to find legitimate work. His probation officer demanded it. Yet do what? He had no more to offer an employer now than he did when he flunked out of Wayne State two decades earlier. There was no market for a 45-year-old former basket ballplayer just released from prison. Sales experience? What could he tell an interviewer he had sold? Wagner tried to play it square, he says, and he did – for a while. He and Denise both did. But staying straight is not easily done when a man has lived as Wagner had.
The years from 1978 to 1985 were a blur. He fought to stay clean of heroin, or at least from selling it. He settled in with Denise and tried to put order into his life – not the life he once knew, but the life a man can dream of when his mind is clear and when he sets goals to keep him on the right side of wrong. Wagner had a difficult time with the latter. He never resumed dealing heroin on the level he had before prison, but the evidence suggests he never got out of the trade altogether either. How could he, when the trade was all he knew? So Wagner worked the edges. He saved some money and opened a poolroom and an after-hours joint on Chene Street. They produced income, but not the kind he made before prison. They also left him hanging around hustlers, pimps, dope dealers and other men who lived the outlaw’s life. One of those men was Denise’s uncle, Earl “Buddy” James, a hustler and a felon. He convinced Hall to let him stay with her and Wagner, but it was a ruse; James was working undercover for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Using his wrongs to leverage better deals in court, James set a trap for Wagner and caught his niece in it, too. Through James, the Feds built a narcotics case against Wagner. Armed with the strong antidrug laws the Reagan Administration put in place, the DEA charged Wagner with conspiracy to possess with the intent to distribute, aiding and abetting the distribution of heroin, and distributing. Hall, her sister and Gloria James Canales, James’ sister, faced similar charges.
Wagner claims the Feds never found a speck of heroin and had no case if not for the faith they put in a snitch like James. His lies were the entire case. Neither he nor Hall, his common-law wife, testified at the trial. On Dec. 24, 1985, a U.S. District Court jury convicted Wagner and found Hall guilty but acquitted her sister. Canales pled guilty. “The court sent me to jail the day of Christmas Eve,” Wagner says. “The judge wouldn’t even say, ‘Well, we’ll give you a chance to take care of your business and then you can come back for sentencing.’ Took me off the street, they locked me down.” Wagner got 20 years. Hall, who had five-month-old son, got a lighter sentence – five years.
The thought of that Christmas Eve haunts Wagner still. Because of his bad knees, he was first imprisoned in the Federal Medical Center hospital in Rochester, Minn., a town he remembered from his travels with the Globetrotters, the site of the Mayo Clinic and the place where he had first flown in an airplane. The low-security facility was no Alcatraz or Sing-Sing; the former mental institution housed 120 inmates, all in single cells, behind two razor-wired fences on its perimeter, which allowed the men to look out and see people walking around town, to see freedom, but not experience it. The place wasn’t hell, but it wasn’t heaven either.
“I’m bitter enough to kill this man, because he done took me away from
How did he get here? That was the question he could not answer.
“I’m trying to figure out how did this really happen to me,” he says of how he spent his time there. “I went as far as to start trying to blame the system and everybody but myself for what had happened to me. I was really bitter, because I thought about James; I thought about him being instrumental in me coming to prison. Never thinking that my lifestyle also helped me come to this point. It wasn’t all Buddy James -- the informant, that uncle. Yeah, I’m blaming him. I’m bitter; I’m bitter enough to kill this man, because he done took me away from my family.”
A man doesn’t discard bitterness easily. The process is slow, and it can eat at him, stoking emotions inside that can do him harm. That’s how Wagner felt about his circumstances. Prison would give him time to access reality. He was doing 20 years, long enough for a man his age to know he might not leave – not leave alive, anyhow. He didn’t know if he’d ever see or touch Denise Hall again or get to know the child she bore three months before he went to prison.
Deciding to put his prison time to good use, he started taking classes and got a job working in recreation. His background with the ’Trotters opened the latter for him, and he used the job to organize activities for the inmates, many of whom were like him: deep into the street life. His early days in prison exposed him to a lot, including religion. He had known religion as a boy -- his mother had put the church into his life -- but like many in God’s flock, he had strayed.
In Rochester, Wagner found himself around true believers. He met and befriended Muslims and Jews and Christians, inmates who had found salvation and were unafraid to speak about it. Wagner listened. Two months into his sentence, he started to attend chapel, though he wasn’t a regular attendee. Still, his mind couldn’t shake the injustice that put him behind bars, prayer or not. He told inmate Eddie Jackson, a drug dealer turned jailhouse lawyer, how much the injustice angered him.
“I used to be talking about: ‘The guy lied, the guy lied,’ ” Wagner says.
“That don’t mean nothing,” Jackson told him. “Everybody lies on the stand. They swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and they be lying.”
Wagner never thought of it this way – about all the lying. His mind was closed to the lying. He expected truth to win out, not the lies, and he could not reconcile the contradiction on his own.
He had completed his work shift one day when a friend told him about a Bible reading at the prison chapel. A former inmate, a white man, was visiting to fellowship with the inmates. Wagner decided to attend. Even now, he can’t say why he did. When the man finished reciting scripture, Wagner felt God’s spirit, something more powerful than heroin, or women or even basketball. He thought about his mother and his sister, about what drove him to the drug culture. Tears started to stream down his face. The scripture had touched him, although not as much as what the man said next.
“Is there anybody you wanna forgive?” the white man asked. “Write the name on a piece of paper.”
Wagner wrote the name Buddy James.
“Now,” the man said, “fold it up, bring it up here and drop it in the basket.” Wagner followed the man’s instruction. At the front of the chapel, he crumpled the piece of paper and threw it into a basket: Swish! “It looked like the whole world lifted up from me,” he says. “I had an experience that I felt the bitterness and everything else just disappeared.”
Ernest Wagner Jr. had reclaimed
After chapel, Wagner returned to his cell, and the first thing he noticed was the King James Bible. It had always been there, but Wagner never bothered with it. He picked the bible up and opened it. The scripture he came to was Jeremiah 17:9, and it read: The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? The verse spoke to Wagner. He never wanted to hurt anybody, he says. All he wanted was a friend – a good friend. He had now found that friendship in the Lord.
Ernest Wagner Jr. had reclaimed his soul.
For the next seven years, he bounced around the federal penal system, the model inmate. Wagner prayed; he plopped himself down most days in the prison’s library; he counseled younger cons; and he surrounded himself with others who believed in the “Word,” cobbling together a prison history that had no blemishes that might delay his parole. On Aug. 20, 1992, prison authorities in Terre Haute, Ind., freed him with a third of his sentence behind him. They gave Wagner a few dollars, bought him a bus ticket, put him on a Greyhound bus and sent him home to Detroit. “All I could think about was I was on my way home, man,” he says. “What am I gonna do now?”
He was 59.
Wagner recalls little of his four-hour bus trip from Terre Haute to the Greyhound terminal in Detroit. “It was a scary situation,” he says. “I was shaky; I had no place to stay. I didn’t have no clothes. I didn’t know how I was going to survive.” He did have Denise Hall, who was at the terminal to welcome him. She had not abandoned her man. After her parole, she visited him, but she hated seeing Wagner sitting behind bars. “As much as we have had and all that we’ve done in life, I’d give it all back if I could get you out of here,” Hall had once told him. Her words brought Wagner solace. He was pleased the woman he cared about was willing to start fresh, to forge ahead and not dwell on their past.
Settling into a halfway house, he thought often about their future, praying to God for guidance, and His answer was: help Him save souls. God told Wagner to do His work. God’s work started with getting right with Hall. “I knew I couldn’t stay in her place with she being negative and me trying to be positive,” Wagner says. “I wasn’t about to let her drag me down. You see, God had already showed me you can’t save nobody; you gotta try to save yourself first.”
To save himself, he needed a job. The conditions of his parole demanded he find work. Wagner wasn’t afraid of work. He also had an easy manner and a quick tongue that allowed him to build friendships. Those friends grabbed Wagner’s hand when he asked for help. They introduced Wagner to people who ran the Fairweather Program, which provided jobs, housing and support for adults in Detroit with mental health issues. Program officials had concerns about hiring a felon and needed somebody to vouch for Wagner. John Kline did. “I had no choice but to stand behind him,” says Kline, the boyhood friend, Wayne State teammate, former ’Trotter and ex-junkie who had gone on to earn a doctorate in education. “That’s like asking me if I’d stand behind my brother.”
On Kline’s say-so, the program hired Wagner, who went to work inside one of its residential centers. His job was to oversee six men, making sure they were taking their medications and building toward being able to care of themselves. He worked there for nearly six years. He finally divorced his second wife and married Hall, who had cleaned up her life. Wagner also brought the Lord into Hall’s life. He stayed true to the religious tenets instilled in him while in prison.
He started to think about “paying forward.” He was working with youth in an unofficial role through his church when a friend offered him a weekend job at a drop-in center for adults. “I said, ‘How good is God to me?’ ” he says. “It was beautiful.” Having the use of a van, he took the adults to movies, to theaters and to whatever events that might interest them. “I got to the point where I got a little gathering together to read scripture – to talk about ‘the Word,’ ” he says.
He liked working at the drop-in center and planned to stay there until Kline got a $700,000 grant to start a youth program. Wagner accepted Kline’s offer to join the program, where he stayed three years until its funding ended. He wasn’t, however, willing to let his promise of helping youth die. He had an idea: a recreation center, like the one where he found Gus Finney. He has made his life’s work to build a center for the boys and girls in Detroit, a city with a dropout rate that, depending on how it is calculated, hovers around 50-percent and is among the highest in the country. They need a haven to shield them from the streets. He wants to give them one.
To Wagner, saving souls – paying forward – is his life’s purpose. He has spent the past decade begging and cajoling and cashing in IOUs to get a youth center up and running. He wants a place like the old Brewster Center for boys and girls to go and find refuge, find their Gus Finney, a place where he can introduce them to God.
saving souls – paying forward – is his life’s purpose
Trying to build a rec center without money is as hard as saving souls. Both demand unrelenting work. Wagner has had starts and stops – ones like the rec center he opened inside the annex of Faith Lutheran Church in 2009, a place south of Jefferson with a gym, with desktop computers and with a kitchen. But it didn’t last. In the throes of a recession, who has money to keep a rec center open?
Yet this remains Wagner’s dream, to build a place where souls can be saved. He believes it is God’s will. Is it Wagner’s penance? Perhaps. He does owe Detroit for the harm his drug dealing wrought, for the lives he helped ruin. Regardless, he’s pleased with where he is at this stage of his life, the clock winding down toward 00:00. “I want to leave something other than just what I did,” he says. “That’s what I got in mind.”
A youth center is all Wagner thinks about – nearly all, anyway. He’s got children and grandchildren on his mind, too. And he’s got Denise. That is all that matters to him.
Ernest Wagner Jr. sits in the black highchair when Denise walks through the front door fresh from work at Marathon Oil. He pardons himself for a second. He trades small talk with her before he resumes discussing his life as sinner and how he, thanks to God, has remade it. “What I really wanted in life nothing seemed to be what I wanted,” says Wagner, a hint of melancholy in his tenor.
He can now see the madness of his old life with clarity. Age has given him a perspective he didn’t have when younger. He never counted on being like his father; he never wanted to be like his father – a man of the streets, a man who hustled and gambled and stayed a half-step ahead of cops. His father’s life wasn’t his life – rather, it wasn’t supposed to be his. That’s not what his God-fearing mother wanted for her son. It’s not what Ernest Wagner Jr. wanted for himself. Ever.
“This wasn’t my life,” says Wagner. “Kline said, ‘Oh, that was you.’ But I didn’t want none of that. I wanted to be a coach. That was my dream, to be a coach. It was just things I didn’t know how to deal with, you know – life. I mean, who else have not been that route?”
Wagner blames nobody else for why his life unraveled. He’s glad he’s alive to tell about it, something he can’t say for most of the dope men and hustlers from his yesteryear. He hopes the boys and girls he mentors at the church he attends on Sundays hear him – not just hear him but follow his wisdom. He doesn’t want their lives to mirror his. Ever. He thinks the rec center, a place where he can save souls, would help. He’s saved his soul already; the rec center would be for them, a haven for boys and girls, and a place where he can teach life’s hard lessons.
“Even when I was getting all that money and had all those material things, those things were a problem,” Wagner says. “When I look at all those things, look at me and my wife now, we both know God; I mean, we both have more in common than we did before. So I’m more happy because I have changed. I’m really at peace with myself.”
Peace, though, isn’t enough – not altogether. For Ernest Wagner Jr. has work he must finish: God’s work. Building a rec center as a haven for Detroit’s youth remains his obsession, but as his health starts to nag at him, he sees a greater urgency to leave behind some sort of brick-and-mortar structure as his reckoning. The clock is ticking.
He is 79.
“A little more time,” Wagner says. “That’s what I hope God gives me – a little more time.”