Tagged: observations

Parked in the Motor City

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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.

“Yessir.” 

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.”

Detroit. Awesome.

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.

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Clucking Over Stampede for Chick fil A

chicksandwichI woke up this morning to read about a stampede of sheep lining up to eat chicken. Here in Detroit people are used to working hard to put food on the table but I would suggest, the meal they got yesterday wasn’t worth the laborious multi-hour wait in line for a breaded chicken sandwich.

 

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I truly believe it’s Atlanta’s lingering revenge for the work of General Sherman. He burned that southern city long ago, and now it’s returning the favor to us Yankees by luring us away from work, play, families and good health with the scourge called Chick fil A.

For a few hours Wednesday the chain of chicken joints opened a pop-up version in the lobby of the Chrysler House–a downtown Detroit office building. Long before the doors opened the lines began to form with those who had never sampled the stuff along with those who are addicted to it. Only two cashiers were on duty to handle the hundreds of hungry Chick fil Afficiandos.

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Detroit Free Press Photo

 

I lived in Atlanta for 8 years and yes, we stopped at Chick fil A from time to time but we much preferred a chain called Mrs. Winners for our chicken fix. The biscuits were as big as cat’s heads and the chicken was to die for, since the greasy, delicious barnyard bird would surely hasten one’s demise, but who needs to live that long anyway, right?

Let’s get real. A Chick fil A sandwich is a breaded piece of chicken with a pickle on top on a very ordinary bun. The chicken does taste pretty good, but worth wasting one’s limited time on Earth waiting for it? I don’t think so.

In Chick fil A’s hometown, the lines were about the same as you’d see at any fast food place. Here in Michigan, at the very upscale Somerset Collection mall, the lines at the Chick fil A in its food court inexplicably snake around and around while other vendors sadly sit with no one to serve. I’m always tempted to hang around with a camera hoping to catch someone in imagined rapture after taking that last bite, sighing, and lighting up a Lucky to complete the act.

I have another beef with aforementioned chicken place. When I lived in Atlanta and working for CNN, there was a Chick fil A in the commercial atrium at CNN Center. Many of us belonged to the health club on the lower level. Since I worked overnights when I produced the morning show, I would hit the gym when I got off the air at 9am. Did my exercises, swam my laps, knocked myself out playing racket ball, gettin’ real healthy, right? But the fumes from the damned Chick fil A wafted down the stairs, into the gym and after showering and dressing and being hypnotized by the aroma we followed our noses back up the stairs straight to the Chick fil A and promptly ordered two chicken biscuits and waffle fries. A sincere workout gone straight to hell.

Aw..what am I saying? Writing about it has my olfactory working overtime.  It was damned worth it. Gonna head to Somerset Place and get in line.

My Groovy Cheapass College Education

la-1552449455-ctwg8rk8vm-snap-imageReading about the celebrities and other rich suckers who shelled out fortunes to get their lil’ darlings into prestigious universities through illegal means I can only think about what my parents did to get me into college.

Here’s how it went down. In 1969 my old brother was going to medical school. That’s expensive. Being four years younger, I was about to become a freshman someplace else, which my father stated plainly “would be much cheaper.”

There were two choices. As a resident of New York City, I could go to a city college. A new one had opened called York College. At the time it was no more than a glorified trailer park since the real campus was under construction. The tuition would be a backbreaking $35 a semester. Seemed like a good deal. I could hop one bus, transfer to another and be there in 30 minutes. I wouldn’t drive because there didn’t appear to be any place to park.

There didn’t appear to be any athletics or night life to speak of, unless you consider hanging out at the nearby falafel stand after the sun went down for some “after hours chickpeas.”

I didn’t end up at York College because my parents were concerned I was hanging around some “bad kids” and should therefore be sent to a school many miles away. Not as cheap as York College were the schools in the State of New York, or SUNY, system. I was accepted at Oswego State, about 30 miles north of Syracuse and built along the shores of Lake Ontario. Sound idyllic? Perhaps 2-3 months of the year, definitely. The rest of the year it was a windblown, snow-covered Siberia with an annual snowfall of at least 120 inches.

Nope..not the Ivy League! Closer to the Icy League!

oswegosnow2This would all cost more that York College, but much less than Yale. All-in, tuition was $440, and room and board $1,139 a semester. Still a bargain. My dorm was right on Lake Ontario with a million dollar view overlooking the water–much cooler than a bunch of stringy, clingy ivy. It was also a kick wondering what it looked like on the far shore over in Canada where the beer was much stronger. One day I would imagine rowing to that far off land in my blow up raft that I had bought at Kmart for 7 bucks. Such is the effect of substances available to “serious” academics such as myself.

oswegolakeMy quality of education for that bargain-basement investment? Well..my first class was Sociology 101. It was in a giant lecture hall with Doc Richmond presiding. Remember, this was 1969 and everything was extremely groovy. When the esteemed professor said he really wished there were urinals for women, the rapt/stoned class duly nodded and remarked how exceptionally groovy Doc Richmond was. What a great college!

What I didn’t expect was to find both a career and wife at Oswego. The former helped begat the latter. During an especially raucous party where many beer kegs were tapped dry and upper classman informed me I had a real knack for making strange voices and would therefore be a natural to work at the campus radio station. Talk about groovy! The next day he took me to the station and told the guy on the air I should be a DJ. The guy yawned, told me to show up the following Saturday and I’d be on the air for a couple of hours. From that day, for the next 40 years, I was on the air somewhere from various radio and television stations to CNN.

The finding the wife part came from a group of comely co-eds (they said that back then) who became regular listeners to my show and called in requests. It turns out the upper classman who dragged me to the radio station was a mutual friend and set me up with one of them. It was love at first keg party and we got married six months after graduating. It’s worth noting that several years after our wedding at a catering hall in suburban Rochester, NY, we returned to find out the place had become a topless joint. Made sense.

The point of all this is that it’s not worth the effort to break the law and fork over all sorts of big money to get into a fancy school. Let’s face it, these celebrity offspring were probably too dumb to get in on their own which means they may have flunked out anyway, making the whole idiotic, and illegal scheme worthless.

Personally, I’m glad I was able to go to a school that didn’t break my parents’ budget, making it possible for them to have the great retirement they deserved. I got just about the amount of education I needed to get through life, a fine career and a great wife–all for a few grand a year. Now that’s pretty freakin’ groovy!

The Divorce is Final-The Painful Split From a Famous Brand

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It’s true. Divorce is difficult, heartbreaking, life-changing, expensive. But sometimes, well, it’s just the right thing to do. The relationship has broken down. Trust. Oh, trust. When that’s no longer present, everything else just doesn’t seem to matter anymore. On this day I must reveal I’ve completed the process. I’m OK. Don’t worry. It was my choice and I’m totally good with it. You see, the breakup was years in the making.

jeepgumpWe first got together in 2000 when I decided to move on from a previous relationship because I knew I could do better. Was I selfish? Not at all. I dreamed of soft leather caressing my bottom, plus I needed the cargo space and 4×4 ability.

Yes, that 2000 Patriot Blue Jeep Grand Cherokee was my first. We were together for six glorious years. I loaded my first kayak on her roof and rejoiced in checking its status through the moonroof glass. Ah…the boat was still secure. Awesome. Let’s go paddle off a dirt road the Grand Cherokee would have no problem negotiating. But then things took a turn. At 141,000 miles my wife and I smelled smoke coming from the hood as we waited in the customs line to enter Canada from the Ambassador Bridge. The smoke became heavier, my wife considered bailing out for fear the engine would explode. We managed to limp through the line just long enough to clear customs and then, well, she died. It took a tow truck to haul our blue, burnt-out baby back across the border and then another 26 miles to the dealer where mechanics who appeared to have had deep, deep experience, as deep fry cooks said they had patched her back together and charged me $2,000.

A few months later we attempted another border crossing from Ontario into New York State at Niagara Falls. Niagara Falls!!! Yes, our hot-blooded Grand Cherokee repeated the act she pulled the last time we attempted an international crossing. Smoke, heat. But I was able to coax the bitch the last 70 miles of our trip by repeatedly pulling to the side, letter her cool and adding anti-freeze. I was patient. Every relationship has its tough periods.

But how could she do this to us? We took loving care of her, changed her oil regularly, had her regularly inspected, but no good. It was time to end the relationship. I steered her into the nearest Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership in suburban Rochester, N.Y. and told the salesman I wanted to trade her in for another Jeep. He couldn’t understand why I just didn’t wait until I returned to Michigan, but I told him my mother-in-law had bought a car at his dealership and was happy, so maybe slip her 50 bucks for a referral fee. Uh..ok. so I drove off with a new silver 2006 Jeep Commander. Jeep love was again in bloom.

Yes, yes, I know, the Commander did not have a successful run but I loved the damned beast. In six years it never disappointed me, except for the fact I got about half a mile to the gallon. When fuel prices rose, it was time for another difficult breakup. But I remained loyal to the Jeep brand. Why? For one, I always dug Jeeps. For two, I worked for the carmaker that built Jeeps for almost 11 years and I got a hefty employee discount. That’s also why I bought my wife a 2009 Jeep Patriot. You see, we were in a very happy three-way. Jeep, my wife and I.

I traded the Commander in for a 2013 Jeep Wrangler Unlimited Moab Edition. Totally cool. Gave and got the “Jeep Wave” and received plenty of compliments on the black beauty.

jeepkayakMeanwhile, my wife’s Patriot broke down and it took $2,000 to have it fixed. A few days after paying the ransom at the dealer, my wife reported a funny noise. Back to the dealer. I was told it needed another $2,200 in work. I told him to forget it. That’s when the first move towards divorce occurred. We traded in the Jeep Patriot for, well, something from a competitor. Now there was just one Jeep vehicle in our garage.

Now, only four months since that day, I was on my way home from playing hockey, 25 miles from my house. I heard a whining sound, then the gears stopped meshing and I smelled burning. It was the Wrangler’s last rodeo. Another Jeep. Another tow truck. Another big bill. This time several grand for a new transmission. It was time for the ultimate breakup.

Jeep. You and I are through after a 19 year relationship. The trust. It just isn’t there. I just can’t depend on you anymore. I tried. Damn..I tried! I stuck with you through four models and only one of you actually gave me little trouble. The one you discontinued! My loyalty was not repaid with dependability.  You took it for granted. Yes, you look incredible and can drive over and through almost anything…but only for awhile..and then..well..you can’t…won’t.  It’s time to move on…under my next vehicle’s own power.

I guess all along it was a Jeep thing. I understood it. Lived it. Loved it. But I could no longer afford it. I’m just happy we were able to settle out of court. I paid that final exorbitant repair bill. My ex-Jeeps got to keep all the parts and service. I got to keep, and use, their incredible trade-in value. 

Yes..they say divorce is all about moving on. I look forward to it…without a tow truck.

Memories Of Covering Tonya Vs. Nancy 25 Years Later

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I can’t believe it’s been 25 years since Tonya Harding’s idiotic posse teamed up to whack Nancy Kerrigan on the knee at Detroit’s old Cobo Arena as she came off the ice after practicing for the U.S. Figure Skating “nationals.”  But my brain was similarly whacked into “distant memory phase” by a story in today’s Detroit Free Press marking that event since, for the first time since it happened, the nationals are back in the Motor City, although they’ve moved to the new Little Caesars Arena.

I remember the event because I covered it for CNN. I actually started the day in Lansing, stuffed in a holding room with several dozen other members of the media, awaiting a court ruling related to suicide doctor Jack Kevorkian. At some point a local TV news reporter got an urgent call from her assignment desk. “Holy shit!,” she yelled to the room, “Nancy Kerrigan’s knee got whacked! Who the fuck is Nancy Kerrigan?”

No one answered at first, and then, sheepishly, I had to come clean and inform her Nancy Kerrigan was one of the top U.S. figure skaters.  My fellow reporter was not impressed. Remember, this was 1994 and in a room of hardened journalists not known for their personal filters. “Why do you know that?” she hollered at me. “Are you fuckin’ gay?” See? No filter.

“Um, my wife and I kinda follow figure skating, and if this is true it’s a big fuckin’ deal,” I replied. See? No personal filter and reporters like to use the term “fuckin’” a lot.

Moments later, we all got paged, yes, paged (1994). We called the numbers on our little devices and were all ordered by our various news organizations to scramble back to Detroit (90 minute drive)  and follow this breaking story.

There wasn’t much to get at first except a few accounts from people who may have been near the scene of the whacking, and get statements from the Detroit Police Department and the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

The next day we covered a news conference held in an area of the concourse Joe Louis Arena, where the actual competition was being held. Nancy Kerrigan would be saying a few words and taking some questions along with her coach and USFSA  officials. Before the newser could begin, we almost had another incident to cover that had the potential to be even more cataclysmic than the assault of a prominent figure skater. A still photographer from one of the wire services pulled over a chair that she could step on to get an unobstructed shot of the speakers. At that moment some lackey from ABC attempted to get her to move saying “I’m from ABC and we own this event and you can’t be there so you have to move.” The poor guy didn’t know who he was dealing with. Well known among the Detroit press corp as a no-nonsense shooter, she casually replied with “I’m not moving. This is an open press event and if you come near me I’ll probably kick your skinny ass. Now..I’m working…you fuckin’ (see?) moron.” He disappeared without a word… ostensibly to change his pants.

Figure skater Nancy Kerrigan smiles as she takes hThe news conference was carried live on CNN and my wife was watching. Kerrigan was wearing a blazer with a unique tweedy-checked pattern. When I got home my wife was not happy. “I was gonna buy that same blazer from the Spiegel catalogue. Now I can’t. Everyone will think I’m copying her.”

I think I stayed on the story for maybe a day or two more and then, as CNN is wont to do, moved me to something else. Besides, we had three local affiliates in Detroit who were obsessed with the story and we could always grab stuff from them. This freed me up to be sent all the way to International Falls, Minnesota to do a story on “the coldest town in America.” Turns out that on that day, Detroit was 10 degrees colder. Fuckin’ CNN.

New Years Convolutions-The Week “Between”

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This time of year I look neither behind nor ahead. I look forward to the black hole known as the week between Christmas and New Years. Many folks use the week to take a nice vacation, escape winter or embrace the season and ski or sled or skate or roll around in the snow doing their spastic squirrel routine, which often follows ingesting many ounces of Yukon Jack.

For those of us who remain home, the holiday interregnum is a time to take a look around our houses, take in all the seasonal stuff we plastered everywhere, consider, in our case, both the tree and the menorah, and saying to ourselves, “holy crap. We have to put it all away.” It’s imperative to strip one’s abode of all signs of celebration by New Years Day, lest we be labeled “Holiday Lingerers.” You know who you are. Those people who leave their Christmas lights on their houses past Easter. Guess what? The Easter bunny doesn’t appreciate being greeted by another holiday’s gear. Not only does it piss him off, he swaps out chocolate eggs for ones made of nasty carob. That’s putting all your dregs in one basket!

For those of us who also celebrate Passover, a tardy decoration takedown yields a knock at the door from an incredulous Elijah the Prophet who testily asks, “what? you couldn’t get that schmuck Morty to move your holiday chazerei?”

During normal times when we don’t have lunatic as President there’s not much news to follow either. The POTUS and family go somewhere warm, members of Congress try to remember where they actually live and the government is basically shut down..because employees are on vacation…not locked out of their jobs because the Prez is taking a Twitter tantrum, telegraphing to the world he is, in fact, dumber than any episode of any TV show involving Tom Arnold.

I normally use the week to sort my stacks of Post-it notes, doing a jigsaw puzzle that makes a picture of air, and asking family members to fill in the blank for the sentence: “When I look at my ass in a mirror it reminds me of _________.” That’s a perennial favorite and generally elicits hilarious responses such as “Trump’s head with no hair,” “Two Half Harvest Moons,” and “New Hampshire and Vermont… if their edges were a little more rounded.” I can’t wait to hear this year’s responses. Don’t worry. I won’t share them with you…unless you beg. My readers always come first.

I try not to think about work, which is easy, since I’m mostly retired. My two freelance gigs are fun, don’t take a lot of time and I work from home, which means no office gossip or backbiting. walterwhiteI did, however, spread a rumor about myself to the Walter White bobble-head on my desk that I tried to steal pens and Scotch tape from my wife’s desk. I could swear it warned me to “tread lightly.” Scared the crap out of me.

We don’t do anything on New Year’s Eve anymore because, frankly, we’ve seen a lot of old years become new years and, well, all it means is now I have to trash all my calendars and replace them with new ones. Frankly, it makes me sad to say goodbye to my “Pithy Marcel Marceau Quotes Day-By-Day” calendar. But now I can look forward to the “2019 Reasons to Rejoice the End of The Big Bang Theory” calendar. I looked ahead. January 1st? “Don’t have to go to shrink anymore to try to un-see Sheldon and Amy having sex.” 

But that’s all just me. I wish you all a wonderful 2019. Now take down that tree!

Assembly Plant Postcards

 

GM’s announcement this week that it plans to close several assembly plants has me feeling extremely sad for all those affected and I wish them well, and it also has me thinking about some people I’ve met and experiences I’ve had visiting a number of auto factories during my 30 years of covering the industry. 

I’ll start with a couple of the doomed GM plants. First, Detroit-Hamtramck. During my 12 years as CNN Detroit Bureau Chief and Correspondent, we visited that giant factory several times, but were only allowed to shoot assembly line footage once. That was in 1989. That stuff had to hold us for a long time because every time we mentioned that plant or GM production workers, that’s all the footage we had. But as you know, things change quickly in the auto industry and the models being built in ’89 weren’t the same as those moving down the line in subsequent years. In fact, we used that stuff so long we wondered if the line worker featured in most of our closeups was still alive. We assumed he wasn’t, and so that stock footage was named “Dead Guy.” When it was time to use the footage in a piece, we’d just mark on the script, or tell the video editor, “Dead Guy.” Yeah..news people can be cruel.

LordstownAnother GM plant scheduled to close is in Lordstown, Ohio. Lordstown is a big ol’ plant that specializes in building small cars. Ahead of the 2003 contract talks, I took a ride over to Lordstown to prepare a set-up piece for The Detroit News. Got to the local UAW union hall where I was to interview some of the factory workers about their feelings going into the talks and what they hoped they’d gain from GM. After the formal interview I had a side conversation with one of the older workers due to retire. 71_Chevrolet_Vega_Hatchback_CoupeHe mentioned some of the vehicles built over the years at Lordstown including the disastrous Chevy Vega. I told him I had owned a 19474 Vega. The gentleman’s smile quickly disappeared. He clenched his teeth and peered directly into my eyes and his voice took on the tone of someone shocked at hearing of a sudden death in your family as he said, “Ed. On behalf of all the men and women here at Lordstown Assembly, I offer you our deepest apologies.” Apology accepted! We then took a quick moment, started laughing and said in unison, “yeah, what a piece of shit.”

On an assignment to a newer plant down south operated by a foreign automaker I ran into the head of human resources who, at that moment, looked pretty dismayed. The occasion was the Job 1 ceremony for a new pickup truck. I won’t reveal the name of the automaker because my story might cause some heartburn, or at least embarrassment and that’s not my purpose. The plant was fairly new and was still ramping up its staff, including assembly line workers. So I asked the nice HR lady how it was going. She thought for a moment, shook her head and said, in her nice southern accent, “weelll, not so good. Damned idiots forget what they’re doing and keep leaning on the brand new trucks with their stupid belt buckles and scratch ‘em all up!” I asked why they weren’t placing protectors over their buckles as is the practice in every other plant. “Wellll,” she replied, “they say ya cain’t see the pretty buckles if you put ‘em on.”  Cain’t argue with dat. And thus the industry’s belt tightening continues.18_btcom_media_1080x720_marketbuckle