July 9, 2007 at 1:00 am

Elmore Leonard's Woodward Avenue

His life and books are woven with street's grit and glory

It was 7 cents to catch the streetcar to the base of Woodward Avenue, all the way to the river, and then a nickel for the ferry to Windsor.

They'd stay on the boat, Elmore Leonard says; what could sixth-graders do there that they couldn't do here? It was just chug across, turn around, come back to Woodward and pop over to the Vernors plant for a free ginger ale.

That was a fine afternoon. And that was the past.

The present finds Leonard in the living room of his house in Bloomfield Village, working in longhand on what will become his 42nd book. Or maybe 45th; after some short story collections and a kids' novel, he's not sure how to stack them up.

The latest is a sequel to "Out of Sight," which introduced Jack Foley -- the George Clooney character from the movie version -- as a bank bandit who heads to Detroit to rob a shady businessman in the northern suburbs.

And there was Woodward again.

"In the living room with the vodka," Leonard wrote, "Maurice passing out knit ski masks before they left. Now in the back end of the big van filled with plastic pipe and equipment: Kenneth driving, flying up Woodward Avenue past miles of dark storefronts and lit-up used car lots, snow piled in the median, the road wide open to them this time of night."

Leonard has been an advertising copywriter, a screenwriter, a studied and influential writer. He's been an inquisitive kid and a regularly published octogenarian. The connecting rod for it all, between real life and fiction, between moving to Detroit at age 9 and being a hometown legend at 81, has been Woodward.

"Woodward is the yo-yo string," says his good friend and sterling researcher, Gregg Sutter, 56. Relocated to L.A., Sutter grew up on the east side, and when he catches the red-eye to Detroit "it's like taking the Woodward Avenue bus."

"Woodward is Elmore's 'Heart of Darkness.' It's 'The River Runs Through It,' " Sutter says, building up steam and literary allusions. "The street runs through all his stories, his consciousness from child to now."

Leonard won't put it so directly, or so ornately. This is someone who chuckles to himself when reviewers find themes in his books; he's just sitting down and writing stories.

He'll tell you that his Woodward didn't go much farther north than the fairgrounds, where he could hear the streetcars turn around after his family moved to Palmer Park -- a detail noted by a character in his latest book, "Up in Honey's Room," which made the New York Times bestseller list in May.

He'll point out that everything looks different now, that the Woodward of his memory exists only there.

He'll say the changes don't bother him, and he means it. "That's just the way it is. I have no feelings of nostalgia."

But there's a scene in "Touch," published in 1987, where the main character insists on the slow route downtown:

"They drove down Woodward instead of taking the freeway -- Juvenal's idea -- from the suburbs down through the wide, main inner-city street that was going to seed. Not something you'd show the outside visitor. But look, there's life, Juvenal said. What would you rather look at, people or cement?

"He said he liked big cities and all the crap and confusion. He'd spot things out the car window -- a black hooker propositioning a white guy out front of the Cathedral of Most Blessed Sacrament -- smile and make mild comments."

OK, he's not nostalgic. But the affection shines through like sunlight off an empty bottle of Mohawk gin.

A boy's playground

Leonard's father worked for GM. He moved his family to Detroit when Elmore was in fifth grade, unpacking at the Abington Apartment Hotel on Seward between Second and Third. Tommy Bridges, a Detroit Tigers pitcher, lived there, too.

It was 1 1/2 blocks to Woodward and then 1 1/2 miles north to his elementary school. Run out to the safety zone in the middle of the avenue, pick up a streetcar, and a boy could go anywhere.

"As the conductor would call out streets, I could recite them with him," Leonard says. He starts to list the intersections and finds himself stuck. It doesn't matter, but he pulls a local atlas from the credenza behind his desk and flips to a map: "Rosedale, Belmont, Trowbridge, Harmon "

Just past Harmon was a saloon called the 4-Mile Bar. A character ditches a stolen Model A in "Up in Honey's Room," then has a shot of whiskey there. In the old days, a billboard stood at Woodward and Harmon, and near the foot of it the boys played a game they called Hot CooLoo.

First, they picked a spot as home base. Then a kid hid a belt somewhere near the sign, usually in the underbrush. The others looked for it. The one who found it didn't let on right away, not until there were other kids close enough to pounce on.

Then he'd show the prize and holler the name -- "Hot CooLoo!" -- and whack everybody he could reach with the belt as they ran, laughing, back to the safety of home.

A writer's tapestry

Leonard played baseball just off Woodward and had his first date along it, at the Highland Theatre. He was in seventh grade at the school behind the cathedral, and Helen Roach was in fifth.

Eventually, the Leonards moved west, near University of Detroit Jesuit High School. He finished high school there, served as a Navy Seabee in the Western Pacific during World War II, and came home to the family apartment in a building that still abuts Woodward on Covington, north of McNichols Road.

When his father opened a car dealership in Las Cruces, N.M., Leonard moved in with a friend in Lathrup Village. Later, he and his first wife -- he's been divorced and widowed, and married a third time, to Christine -- gulped hard and bought a house there for $13,500. The payments were $78 a month.

Leonard sold his first short stories while he was still an office boy at Campbell-Ewald, calling everybody Mister. Westerns were selling then, and when they stopped, he turned to the crime fiction that has made him famous.

Not all of his novels are set in Detroit, but if there are any in Detroit that don't mention Woodward, he'd be stunned.

"You almost can't do it," he says. Woodward has the grit and the landmarks and the access. His characters might venture north to commit a felony, but Detroit is the place they run to when someone hollers "Hot CooLoo."

In "Up in Honey's Room," set in the late days of World War II, Honey Deal works as a buyer in Better Dresses at Hudson's. In "The Switch," a character named Louis decides to steal a car from the valet at the Paradiso Cafe, one of Leonard's old favorite restaurants.

"Seconds later," Leonard wrote further on, "they were cresting the overpass at Eight Mile Road, moving north into the suburbs. The Salem cigarette billboard against the sky, higher than the overpass, told them it was exactly 1:55."

If you live here, the Salem billboard in that spot told you it was Detroit.

From author to tour guide

Actors and directors come to town sometimes, pitching projects based on Leonard's books. Kathy Bates, who won an Oscar for "Misery." Steven Soderbergh, who directed "Out of Sight." The late Sam Peckinpah, best known for "The Wild Bunch."

Leonard and Sutter take them down Woodward, from Bloomfield Hills to Jefferson Avenue. It's geology, the exposed canyon wall of Detroit.

Birmingham. Boston-Edison. Highland Park. Opulence and abandonment. A grate covers the entrance to the long-dead 4-Mile Bar. A new Sunoco station stands at the corner of Harmon.

That's the Woodward Avenue that is, the one where Leonard will stop occasionally at the Union Street Saloon and then go across the street to the Majestic or the Magic Stick to catch some rock 'n' roll.

Years ago, after church sometimes at Holy Name in Birmingham, he'd offer to show his kids the Woodward that was.

He'd take them to his old apartments, 70 Highland and 700 Seward. Show them the old ball field and the boarded-up theaters. Describe the din of the streetcars.

"For the most part," he says, "they were bored." He couldn't blame them.

Life moves on. Traffic flows, the same way plots do. There's always a next chapter. You can wrap yourself in the past, or you can turn the page.

Woodward excerpts Up In Honey's Room, 2007

Honey was a buyer now in Better Dresses at Hudson's, moving up in her world from a flat in Highland Park to a one-bedroom apartment on Covington Drive, a block from Palmer Park where she'd learned to ice skate in the winter and play tennis in the summer. At night she would hear the streetcars on Woodward Avenue turn around at the fairgrounds and head back six miles to downtown and the Detroit River.

Split Images, 1981

They rode in his Cadillac Fleetwood behind dark glass. Walter, silent, taking them north on Woodward Avenue. Angela looking at the city being downtown for the first time, not asking what's that or that until they passed between impressive stone structures, the main library and the art institute, and Bryan told her what they were, pointing out Rodin's "The Thinker" in front of the museum, saying that was it until they passed the golden tower of the Fisher Building. Angela said, well, it's bigger than Tucson.

Out Of Sight, 1996

Maurice didn't say anything to him until a couple of miles down Woodward Avenue -- the streetlights making it weird-looking with the snow coming down -- they turned onto Boston Boulevard, a street of homes bigger than Maurice's, the van sideswiped a parked car, bounced off it, and Maurice said, "What's wrong with you?"

The Switch, 1978

Woodward Avenue didn't look any different to Louis, the same bars, the same storefronts with grillwork over the show windows, a few more boarded up. It was a strange deserted big-city downtown with everybody staying out in their neighborhoods.

"Crime," Ordell said. "People afraid to come downtown; but there's no crime here. You see any crime in the streets?"

"Only the way you're driving," Louis said. "You're gonna get stopped for loitering."

Pagan Babies, 2000

He knew it wasn't Africa she wanted to talk about but maybe would get to it by way of Africa -- driving up Woodward Avenue now to Bloomfield Hills, a five-mile strip where, Terry said, serious Motor City cruising used to happen, only it was called Woodwarding. Deb said it was before her time.

Freaky Deaky, 1988

Robin and Donnell were at the Gnome on Woodward Avenue, a new-wave Middle Eastern restaurant that featured jazz, the McKinney brothers on piano and bass.

He told Robin he was here in '84, right after he got out of Milan, when they tore down the old Hoffman building, Woodward at Sibley. They blew the charge and the building just stood there till four hours later it fell the wrong way, right on top of the bar next door.

Fifty-Two Pickup, 1974

"Nothing. I'm talking about Leo," Alan said. S---, he was more worried now about the way Bobby was driving in the fast-moving stream of night traffic on North Woodward. Bobby was up, gunning it away from lights, keeping up with the rods and muscle cars heading out to the drive-ins or for some street racing, past the flashy neon motel signs and used-car lots.

The Big Bounce, 1969

"I don't think my dad ever ran a streetcar. What I remember, he drove a Woodward bus. It'd say RIVER going downtown, you know? And FAIR coming back."

"Sure. I've ridden it."

You can reach Neal Rubin at (313) 222-1874 or nrubin@detnews.com">nrubin@detnews.com.

Writer Elmore Leonard, 81, on Tuesday sits at the corner of Woodward and ... (Donna Terek / The Detroit News)
Above, Elmore Leonard in 1972, when he wrote the screenplay for the movie ... (Detroit News, Associated Press and Leonard family)
Leonard, above, stands in front of the Detroit Police headquarters in 1978 ... (Detroit News, Associated Press and Leonard family)
Leonard and his family moved to Detroit when he was in fifth grade. (Detroit News, Associated Press and Leonard family)