Parked in the Motor City
The reaction from my mother made no mistake about her feelings. “Who did this to you!?!” she shouted over the phone.
I calmly replied no one “did this” to me. I asked for the transfer from Atlanta up to Detroit. It would be a big promotion. She still wasn’t happy since my parents had only retired to Florida from NYC the year before, putting them a lot closer to us and to two of their grandchildren.
It was 1989. I had worked at CNN since November, 1981 in Atlanta, first as a producer on the launch team for what was then called CNN2 and is now a far different network called HLN. Over the next 7 years I moved over to CNN as a producer, supervising producer, correspondent and fill-in anchor but what I really wanted to do is run a bureau. In the spring of ’89 that opportunity opened up when the incumbent Detroit Bureau Chief-Correspondent won his long-sought transfer to the bureau in Rome.
Not many people wanted to move to Detroit. They feared being murdered immediately upon arrival or finding their cars, wheel-less perched on milk boxes. Not me. I grew up in NYC. I loved cities, their energy, cultural mix, history and odds of covering some important and exciting stories.
So I applied…and got the job. It didn’t disappoint me. As a regional bureau we covered all of Michigan, Ohio, eastern Canada and wherever else the national assignment desk sent us. The Detroit Bureau staff was welcoming and we worked together very well.
This month marks 30 years since we hauled our kids and our stuff up I-75..and parked in Detroit.
My introduction to some of the players in Detroit, however, was, well, not quite as smooth as my start at the bureau. I was asked to give a talk introducing myself to the public relations community at a luncheon. If you know me, you know I’m a pretty short guy. Well..the fellow who introduced me was even shorter! Me, being the wiseass I am, came up to the mic, next to the unfortunate guy, looked down at him and cracked, “I think I’m gonna like it in Detroit!” The audience got the joke and laughed. My fellow shrimp did not, and promptly sulked in his seat. OK…note to self: “Detroiters are height-sensitive.”
It wasn’t long before the late, great J.P. McCarthy invited me onto his morning show on WJR. He promptly took me to task for what he felt was the national media’s obsession with beating up on Detroit I explained CNN had no such obsession, but you couldn’t simply ignore what was really happening. But things took a more positive turn when he asked me to tell an anecdote about Ted Turner, since there were a lot of bigwig corporate executives in his audience. I told him about Ted showing up in the Atlanta newsroom in his blue terrycloth robe on a Saturday morning and cajoling with the staff. We all loved him. J.P. liked that story and over the years invited me back a few times and I was very honored to be a guest during his last week of programs before he retired. Each time, he wanted another Ted Turner story. I always came prepared.
I also love Detroit because the folks are not only welcoming, but blunt in just the right way. My first week in Detroit I was assigned to an auto sales story and was scheduled to interview the head numbers cruncher at Ford. He was weeks way from retirement and feeling a little feisty.
“You know anything?” he barked at me.
“I’m new on the beat so I’m open to learning,” I humbly replied.
“Well, listen to what I say, report it accurately, don’t write any bullshit and we’ll get along fine. So ask me some questions and they better be good ” he, um, advised.
A year or two later I ran into the gentleman at a press event and he smiled as he came over to me and said, “I gave you serious shit when you were new but you more than proved yourself.”
“Thank you very much, sir.”
We always thought Detroit was just another stop on the road. My wife and I met at college in Oswego, N.Y., got married a few months after graduating and had lived in Central New York State while I started my broadcasting career at a couple of radio stations, then we took off for Tucson, Arizona to earn our Masters degrees and where I got my first TV job at KGUN, first as weekend weather guy, then reporter, then producer, until I got the tip about the job at CNN.
We loved Atlanta and were actually looking for a larger house as our family grew, but then Detroit happened. Sure..three-year contract for the new position, then who knows?
But CNN renewed me a few more times until they closed the bureau in 2001 and I was laid off along with about a thousand other people. What to do?
Well, there was zero talk about leaving Detroit. We actually lived in the suburbs but we loved the area, Michigan and the people. We became avid fans of all the sports teams, attended games and took advantage of all the area had to offer.
Luckily I had a pretty good reputation in town and I quickly won the National Auto Writer position at the Associated Press, then was recruited by The Detroit News to be the General Motors beat writer and jumped to corporate when the head of PR at DaimlerChrysler started a blog and wanted an autowriter to ghost write and manage for him. Sweet job! That job morphed in an 11 year stay at the automaker where I was the first head of digital communications pioneering the concept of “corporate journalism” with my wonderful, creative team.
In 2016 I decided to retire, but leave Detroit? Leave Michigan? What the hell for? All the things our family enjoys are right here…so we sold the home we had lived in since 1992 and moved exactly 2.5 miles away to another house that had a lot of the features missing in the old one. I’ve been blessed with just enough freelance opportunities to keep me sufficiently out of my wife’s hair and around enough to be of use when called upon.
The bottom line is America has Detroit all wrong. It may be the country’s best kept secret. Great people, culture, major league sports, awesome restaurants, any kind of recreation nearby..even fowling. Look it up. For us, it’s been home for 30 years and we hope to remain here until the grim reaper comes calling….or the Detroit Lions win a Super Bowl. Hmm. Here to stay.
Detroit’s secret Amazon ingredient
One of the great things about my little job at Automotive News is my workspace faces a window that looks out on downtown Detroit. Ford Field is just across the road, GM headquarters looms to the left and I have views of Comerica Park, Little Caesars Arena, Greektown Casino and Hotel, the historic Penobscot Building, and even the Wayne County Jail and a glimpse of Canada, just across the Detroit River. It’s a wonderful view but doesn’t show one of the key reasons I think Amazon should decide to locate its second headquarters here.
There’s been talk about the need for rapid transit, access to a ready labor force and adequate housing. But to me, what Amazon needs the most…are boxes. Millions and millions of boxes. I’ve researched this and discovered that Amazon, of course, has several suppliers for those boxes that get us giddy when they appear on our doorsteps or in our mailboxes. But let’s look to the future. The more Amazon’s business grows, so will its appetite… for cardboard boxes.
Guess what? I found more than a dozen cardboard box companies in Michigan. In fact, Michigan Box Company is smack in downtown Detroit. You gotta love the image on its website’s home page. A nice, friendly, happy, eager dog just ready to please and play…and yes…deliver!
There’s a company in the Downriver area called ThePackline Co. You know how many different boxes they can come up with? Their website claims 1,500 different kinds of cardboard boxes in their catalog. Hell, Amazon could ship everything from prosthetic elf ears…
To a scale to weigh your dog, goat, pig, sheep or calf …
So sure, mass transit is nice for moving people, but Amazon’s bread and butter is moving stuff to its gazillion customers…in cardboard boxes! It’s hard to imagine Amazon ever having enough cardboard boxes since at some point brick and mortar merchants will run up the white flag in surrender to the online sales behemoth…after ordering one from Amazon and having it delivered in..a cardboard box!
So Amazon, please look past the folderol other communities may be passing your way such as pretty pictures, smiling people and promises of a fun and stimulating lifestyle. Oh yeah..we have all that…recreation, culture, technology, hardworking and ready labor force, amazing suburbs, major league sports and an international border. That’s all great. But we also have plenty of what you need the most. Yup…Detroit not only shapes up…but we have the boxes so you can ship out. Can’t wait till you land on our doorstep.
My Best Spent Buck
I gave a guy a buck on Friday and what I got in return was a little bit of quiet shock, a plaintive question and some sincere words of thanks.
No, it wasn’t a panhandler or even anyone who asked for a handout, or actually, anything at all.
Here’s what happened. I was attending, for work, the Autorama show at Cobo Hall and pulled into a nearby parking garage. It was one of those where you needed to park two-deep. There was an attendant on each level to direct you to the next spot and take your keys in your vehicle needed to be moved if it was blocking in someone wanting to leave.
The attendant on Level 5, where I parked, took my key and placed it on hook #5. “Five on five, is you…that’ll make it easier to remember,” he said. He seemed very serious about his work. When I returned I noticed my Jeep Wrangler had been moved, and moved to a better spot, right in front of me. “Five on five,” I said to him and he smiled and gave me my key. At the last second, I decided to stick a buck in his hand. Wasn’t really sure that’s what you do, but it happened.
At first he looked shocked, then quietly asked me, “what’s this for?” I told him I appreciated him taking care of my car and it was just a small token to show it. “Besides,” I added, “I just want to. I’ve had a good day. So should you.”
“That’s really nice,” he said, “thank you so much. No one does this.”
I tell you this story not as a means of self-aggrandizement. It was only a buck, which is what I had in my pocket at the time. I tell you this story to put the thought out there that amid the anger, frustration, disappointment and dismay ruining the national morale, if we think more about helping each other through even the smallest gestures, we can pull through together. The fact is that even a simple gesture of appreciation has a long shelf life in the recipient’s psyche. It might be just enough emotional fuel to get them through a bad day, or run of tough luck. Makes the benefactor feel pretty good too. I’m so glad that on a cold Friday in Detroit, my buck stopped into the right hands.
Motor City Gladness
Some auto thoughts and recollections coming off another smashing media preview week at the North American International Auto show.
I had a friend in high school named Neil. He owned a brand new light green Pontiac TransAm, while I drove a ’62 Pontiac Tempest my dad bought for $25. No one loved my Tempest. Everyone loved Neil’s TransAm. One night, a bunch of us who were admitted “Neil’s TransAm Disciples,” gathered in his driveway and watched him install a set of Thrush mufflers that gave the car at least 5 extra sets of balls when Neil nailed the accelerator. Only Neil was allowed to nail the accelerator, or touch the steering wheel or deem to sit within the holy walls of of Neil’s TransAm…without Neil’s permission, of course. Besides, it had a white almost-leather interior and who needed the mortification of marring the chemically-produced cloud?
Honestly, I never gave much thought about cars after the gang scattered to universities across the country.
My first new car was a groovy red, 1974 Chevy Vega, which went through three transmissions in the three miserable years I owned it. Many years later, as the GM beat reporter for The Detroit News, I interviewed a union officer at the Lordstown, Ohio plant that produced my red lemon. He said to me “You owned a Vega? Well on behalf of all the men and women here at Lordstown, we sincerely apologize!”
As you can plainly see, I was less than an automotive aficionado…otherwise I might have settled on a Gremlin or Pacer, the Vega’s partners in the 1970’s Triad of Dreck.
My automotive ambivalence changed drastically when CNN transferred me from Atlanta to Detroit to be the bureau chief and correspondent there. Back then the bureau was in the basement of the PBS station, WTVS, two blocks from the former General Motors headquarters. I was told Ted Turner directed the bureau be located there because he wanted to be close to the biggest company in the biggest, most important industry in the country.
My education into the auto industry was swift and brutal. I was sent to interview Ford’s chief numbers cruncher for a sales story. He was three months from retirement and didn’t suffer newbies lightly.
“Sit your ass down, listen to what I say, learn from it and don’t ask any stupid questions. Got that?” How could I not?
I actually found the men and women of this great industry to be very understanding about my learning curve and as long as I didn’t act like a cocky dipshit, they were happy to help my learn the ropes.
Indeed, there I was, in a conference room with the great Lee Iacocca at Chrysler’s old Highland Park, MI headquarters. He strided into the room with a big cigar, handed the big, wet thing to his PR guy, shook my hand, smiled and asked “what’s on your mind?”
Yeah, I was starstruck because I had just read his memoirs before moving up north.
I told him I was new, and apologized if my questions seemed simple or naiive.
He gave me another big smile and said, “don’t shit your pants, ask me anything you like and I’ll make it easy for you…and welcome to Detroit.”
That was 1989. This is now. Detroit’s always been welcome to me and my family and I can’t think of a reason to hop in my jet black Jeep Wrangler Moab Edition and leave.