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.
Another 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. He 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.
I love Black Friday. I never buy anything, but I never come home from the stores empty-handed. Or should I say empty-headed, because my noggin’ is chock full of scenes squirreled away as I plow through the crowds of consumers who may as well be wearing camo and greasepaint as if they were hunting for buck Up North.
Let me start with the big, big guy imparting his wisdom to the little, little lady about the early lull before the deluge. “It’s like this,” he said in his best philosopher’s/bullshitter’s voice. “The folks are either regurgitating or recovering (from Thanksgiving).” Too polite to call the lummox on his profound nonsense but not dumb enough to adopt it, she replied, “Must be. Or else they just haven’t yet arrived. It’s still early.” The big guy didn’t realized he’d been owned and mustered a lusty “See?”
It was Def-con 1 at the local Walmart, hours before the official start of Black Friday. The troops scurried to set up crime scene tape from the front clear to the back of the store, delineating the expected lengthy checkout queues. Men and women ran around like SWAT team members, armed with two-way radios, clipboards and earnest faces, ready to intervene during the inevitable wrestling match between customers fighting over the last 99,000-inch TV on sale for $1.50.
I’ll move on to an antique mall in Jackson, Michigan. That’s about 90 minutes west of Detroit off I-94. Somehow we ended up out there because it was a sunny day and it seemed better to take a drive then look for parking spaces at the mall. Now for those unfamiliar with Jackson, it’s main “industry” is home to a group of state prisons. I always thought a catchy little slogan for the town would be, “Making a Living Off Lifers.” Just never caught on. Anyway, we hit two antique malls. At the first, a sprawling one-story affair, a guy kept wandering into every booth we were in. He seemed legit except for him constantly telling us, “I got one of those.” It hurried our pace. We did find a few bargains if you count some old doilies and other stuff made of fabric my wife uses for crafting. There was a pot of free coffee, but it looked like an antique too. I mean..is coffee supposed to be solid?
About a mile away the second place was much bigger. Three floors of old stuff including a can of Liquid Wrench, which looked like the one I still have in my garage. The featured “guest” in this episode was the barrel-chested gray-haired guy wearing a University of Arizona jacket, pushing a stroller that would accommodate two toddlers. Psych! As he pushed the buggy through the tiny aisles I could hear women screeching little baby-waby-cutey-tooty things in voices of such high frequency it would compromise the integrity of bullet-proof glass. Those must be cute babies, I thought. So I waited until the guy made his way towards where we were standing and man, those babies were brothers from another mother…a mother with four legs! They were twin tea cup shitzus! Yeah, they were cute as hell and the guy was cool. We got talking to him because my wife and I are both University of Arizona alumni, which made him instantly cool. Had a nice conversation, gave each other the obligatory “Bear Down!” and moved along. As we thought about it, we figured the guy didn’t really want any antiques. He was one of those folks who wheels around their adorable pets to elicit squeals from others sane people.
I’ll wrap this up with today’s early morning trip to the mall. Wasn’t in the market for anything. It’s just a lousy, rainy day and it’s a place to walk and absorb. The big crowds hadn’t yet arrived, as most of the stores still were not open. What caught me attention was the kid getting the Cinnabon stand ready. The lights were out, but he was near the window so I could see what appeared to be a desperate young person apparently freebasing frosting, perhaps to get that kickstart for what would be a challenging day.
At that point it was time to escape. A nice line of cars followed me to my parking space which I was more than happy to relinquish. I have to admit though. I was a bit surprised at the initial lack of shoppers in the mall. Maybe they were just regurgitating, or recovering.
I hate waking up to idiocy, but today I did. It was a story in the Detroit Free Press discussing so-called “death wobble” in Jeep Wranglers. The story is based on testimonials from some Wrangler owners that if you hit a bump at a high speed the steering wheel will shake. At least the story correctly explains the Wrangler has a solid front axle which is less forgiving than the independent front suspension. The Wrangler is equipped with such an axle because the Wrangler is designed to be a superior off-road vehicle and solid axles perform better than independent front suspensions when a vehicle is taken off road.
What the story doesn’t talk about is the fact that many Wrangler owners should not own one. So I’ll do that. Oh, thousands of folks aspire to a Wrangler because they look cool and when you pass one on the road the driver will often give you a little wave. What anyone who covets a Wrangler must do before buying one is drive one and know it does not, and is not designed to, provide a cushy, comfortable ride. I know. I own a 2013 Wrangler Unlimited Moab Edition. Some members of my family called it the “back breaker,” while others have dubbed it the “jaw rattler.” When I pull up to give them a ride, you can see their faces drop knowing they will be experiencing a journey destined to churn their insides and maybe loosen the change from their pockets. I’ve made a few bucks from all the quarters I find under the back seat!
“Why? Oh why did you buy this shaky buggy?” I’m asked. It’s easy. I like to drive where I like to drive and obstacles, rutted dirt roads and remote two-tracks amuse me. My kayaks look cool when I pop them on top and my skis and hockey gear fit nicely in the back and I can take them wherever the hell I want. I don’t care much about shiny vehicles. I do like to have fun, and mud on the fenders and gook in the tires are evidence I just had some. Floating on air is not my style. I like to feel the road.
I knew this going in. This is my fourth Jeep, but my first Wrangler and the only one I consider an actual Jeep. I drove one around for many miles and the more bumps and dips I felt the bigger my smile got. That Wrangler has more rock and roll than Cleveland and as much soul as Motown.
So if you’re looking for a smooth, comfortable ride, do me a favor. Don’t buy a Wrangler. Let it sit on the lot waiting for someone who appreciates what it is and what it isn’t. Death wobble? Ha! That’s the Wrangler saying “let’s have some fun!”
The other day I had lunch with someone who had been a good source for me. The first thing he said when we sat down was “where ya been? I don’t see you on Facebook anymore!” I could only smile as I replied, “well, I’ve been everywhere…just not on Facebook.” It’s a little sad to think a person would deduce you disappeared from the world just because you disappeared from a social media site. I wasn’t hiding. I just was playing on a different field.
Two years ago I abruptly posted a status update on Facebook that I couldn’t face it anymore and would be hanging up my status-updating spurs. I had a good time for about six years cracking jokes, baiting those on the opposite side of the political spectrum from me to get all upset and silly, catching up with long lost friends, acquaintances and co-workers and using the site to promote this blog. But then it stopped being fun. Good-natured disagreements devolved into bitter rhetoric. It started feeling more like work to keep up with expectations of an unspecified number of funnies, or at least near-misses each day. So I quit. But I’m not gone.
Yes, every once in awhile I’ll lurk and read what’s going on at the CNN Alumni page. Too often it depresses me when I see the latest notice of one of the extended CNN family has passed away. I only actually posted when my very favorite former boss at the network died and offered some personal thoughts. Actually it was a link to a blog post.
Once a year I’m humbled by the number of people who wish me a happy birthday and I attempt to thank each and every one individually. If they took the time, then I can too.
I thought I’d miss it more, but I don’t. Aside from the total time-suck, I’ve made room in my brain for other thoughts and ideas, instead of scanning all sorts of news sites for funnies fodder. Now I read the news…to learn the news. There are enough jokes in government who are walking punchlines. Some deserve to be simply punched.
I still get friend requests. I’m not rejecting you. I’m ignoring you out of respect, because what kind of a friend would “friend” you then never interact with you. I’ll save my ghosts for Halloween.
Will I ever go back? Not a chance. People who need to find me know how. Besides, I don’t trust Facebook with my personal information and if I want to be targeted, I’ll have a bullseye tattooed on my ass. It’d be hard to miss.
And if I do think I came up with something funny, I’ll probably just torture my family or a friend in person. They won’t have to post a comment that says, “wow, that sucked!” They can just tell me face-to-face, and then we’ll pour some Jack on the rocks and have an honest laugh..together..like real friends.
Reflecting on a week where California endured yet another mass shooting and unyielding, untamable, fatal wildfires and this nation’s Chief Executive gave convincing evidence though his behavior and deeds that evolution may be merely a theory, I encountered a gentleman that gave me hope me this world is better, much better than the miscreants dominating the headlines.
I’ll start with Dave Cantin. We met in the same building that once housed the restaurant where Jimmy Hoffa was last seen. It’s another restaurant now and we both were confident we’d arrive at our next destinations safe and sound. During my interview with Dave for a Forbes.com story, I learned his father abandoned his family when he was just 9, his mother suffered from depression and he basically raised himself. Despite that, Dave Cantin says he never once felt sorry for himself. In fact, he told me, he learned at that tender age how to develop what he called “self-motivation.” Oh, he was motivated alright. After graduating high school he answered an ad in an Asbury Park, N.J. newspaper for a car salesman. When he arrived at the dealership the sales manager told him he was too young, too inexperienced and to get lost. Instead, Cantin says he sat down, said he wasn’t leaving until he got a fair shake and stayed put for four hours until the boss relented and gave him a job. Good move. Cantin’s positive attitude and incredible work ethic moved him quickly up the ladder until he said he had to leave the dealership after a couple of years because the only job left to aspire to was his boss’s and he liked him too much.
Cantin went on to become a wildly successful car dealer in partnership with ex-New York Giant Brad Benson, then became interested in the car dealership merger and acquisition business. Last December he started his own company, Dave Cantin Group, and is already the nation’s biggest auto M&A firm. Dave’s gunning to be world’s biggest.
Sound like a rich guy solely interested in amassing money and toys? Not even close. Oh yeah, he’s wealthy, but here’s the twist. In 2011 Cantin was diagnosed with leukemia. Cancer. He used that long-honed self-motivation and positive attitude to beat the disease. Cantin says he was supposed to be in the hospital for three months, but not only checked himself out after 16 days, he went out and ran the Boston Marathon. Good for him, right? Aha. Cantin’s all about good for others. Aside from his successful business ventures, he’s devoted his life to the treatment and elimination of pediatric cancer. Why? Here’s what he told me:
“All of my companies we give back a percentage of every acquisition towards fighting the fight and in 2011 I said at the New York Auto Show, I stood up and said, I will not stop fighting this disease until one day no child has to hear those three scary words, ‘you have cancer’ you can bet your ass I will not. That is the most important to me in life. We don’t raise money, we don’t accept contributions. Everything we donate is from earnings the company makes.
We are on track this year to hopefully donate close to a half-million dollars. My goal is to get his ticking where we’re donating a few million dollars a year, just for pediatric cancer.”
Now that’s a real person. That’s a leader, that’s role model, that’s someone who’s truthful, humble, unselfish, thankful and kind. That the kind of person you want representing your great country. Not a lying coward who can’t even brave a little rain to honor soldiers who lost their lives defending the freedoms that, ironically, made it possible for that utter waste of protoplasm to ascend to this nation’s highest office, and defaces it daily with the lowest form of human behavior.
I woke up to the news that notorious, self-style “corporate gadfly” Evelyn Y. Davis had died. The last time I saw her was when I covered the General Motors shareholders meeting in 2004. I saw her, and heard her, and avoided her, but alas, stuck in the pressroom at Wilmington, Delaware’s Hotel DuPont I was a sitting duck and she had her verbal shotgun locked at loaded. Screaming in her Dutch-German accent she took me to task with, “Ed Gaaaahhhsten! Why aren’t you talking to me. I am a verrrrryy, verryyyy important person. More important than (then GM CEO) Rick Wagoner!” The other reporters found excuses to visit other parts of the building knowing they could be next.
You see, we had a history. It got off to a decent start, when, having just been transferred to Detroit by CNN as its new bureau chief and correspondent, I would cover my first GM shareholders meeting, then held a block from our bureau in Detroit’s Fischer Building, near GM’s original headquarters. Our assignment manager knew of Ms. Davis and her antics at various shareholders meetings and booked time with her for us to do an interview for an eventual profile. The morning of the GM meeting we met her in her suite at the what was then the Westin hotel in the Renaissance Center. She had a spread of danish, bagels, juice and coffee ready for us. We enjoyed a bit of that and conducted the interview which was, in itself, a meal of outrageous and self-aggrandizing statements, but television gold.
We later caught up with her as she arrived at the GM meeting where she sought CEO Roger Smith like a heat seeking missile. His already red face was now more crimson than the University of Alabama tide. So I ask Mr. Smith, “is Ms. Davis a pain in the neck to you?” He looked at her, obviously had one honest answer in mind, then looked at me and said, “of course not. She’s an important shareholder.” We held in a laugh, so as not to ruin the obviously less than candid soundbite.
Our intention was to actually turn the piece around that day, but real life events took over, namely the horror of Tienanmen Square in China and just about every other story was killed, including the very trivial profile of one Evelyn Y. Davis.
When she didn’t see the story on the air, Ms. Davis first screeched at me on the phone that we wasted her very “valuable” time and besides “I bought you danish and coffee!” She demanded I send my footage to NBC because she “worked a deal” where they would run the story. Of course, that wasn’t gonna happen, so she took it out of us in her annual publication called “Highlights and Lowlights,” recapping her year’s activities and giving her own analysis of what corporate leaders did right and wrong. I was granted the status of a “Lowlight” for again, wasting her time. It did not hurt my career.
I had several more encounters with Ms. Davis over the years as I moved from CNN to covering autos for the Associated Press and The Detroit News. She gave me crap every time but I would sometimes humor her with a short interview or use one of her outrageous quotes in a story. By the last time we spoke all seemed to be healed.
Evelyn Y. Davis was one of life’s great characters who could be infuriating but at the same time colorful and welcome because no one could shake an arrogant executive from his or her pedestal like her..or even make them actually smile, as in the case of Ford executive chairman Bill Ford Jr.
After saying her piece, several times at the Blue Oval’s meeting in Detroit, she said she had to leave to catch a plane. The crowd applauded..and cheered. But a few moments after walking out the door she returned, interrupting the proceedings hollering, “I can’t get a cab to the airport!” At which Mr. Ford grinned as he told her, “oh, don’t worry, we’ll get you to the airport.”
RIP Evelyn Y. Davis.
I spent a good part of my Sunday filling out my absentee ballot and I must tell you that once you’ve voted this way, there’s no turning back. First of all, they don’t provide/offer/support bringing snacks or beverages of any sort into the polling place, but I had it all as I spread my two-foot long ballot on the counter top in my basement. I’m not complaining about the length of the ballot, but I read the entire Cheescake Factory menu in less time. When you’re faced with considering such important decisions at the polling place you feel rushed and the eyes of those waiting in line piercing your back in hopes of vaporizing your body just so they can use your little booth or enclosure and take their own time filling in the little boxes.
Ah yes…the boxes! Really? In an age where a little camera-car on Mars can be operated from Earth, they can’t come up with a more efficient way to fill out a ballot?
But at home, glorious in my absenteeism, I can have some fun spreading out 14 different pens and Sharpies and choosing different ones for different races…all while stuffing my face with Fritos. This is democracy in action!
In between swills of Shiner Octoberfest I carefully considered the candidates and the issues, although, I honestly had my mind made up beforehand after doing my due diligence, including sensible snack/beverage/referendum pairings.
I probably took an hour to complete my ballot because one simply doesn’t rush such momentous undertakings and I take great pride in my box-filling abilities, never straying beyond the lines.
By the time I was done I felt totally fulfilled, and full….with a bit of a buzz. Don’t get me wrong. I take voting very seriously. I won’t get on a soapbox supporting one party or position, except for the position that voting is everyone’s right and responsibility and should be one of those calendar entries that’s set in stone. Don’t vote? Don’t complain.
However, it was really nice just being able to take my time in the comfort of my home without the old guy at the polling place scolding me about not tearing off the tab or inserting my ballot incorrectly into the machine. “You’re wrong! You’re wrong! Whatsmatterwitu kid!” Yeah..don’t miss that. What I do miss though..is getting that little “I Voted” sticker. But I did vote. And so should you..wherever you are. Absentee or in-person. Just don’t be absent…and bring a good pen.