The Courage of Detroit (cont.)
And then they really want to scream.
Because what they see -- what all Detroit sees -- is a nation that appears ready to flick us away like lint. We see senators voting our death sentence. We see bankers clucking their tongues at our business model (as if we invented the credit default swap!). We see Californians knock our cars for ruining the environment (as if their endless driving has nothing to do with it). We see sports announcers call our football team "ridiculous." Heck, during the Lions' annual Thanksgiving game, CBS's Shannon Sharpe actually wore a bag over his head.
It hurts us. We may not show it, but it does. You can say, "Aw, that's the car business" or "That's the Lions," but we are the car business, we are the Lions. Our veins are right up under the city's skin -- you cut Detroit, its citizens bleed.
We want to scream, but we don't scream. Still, enough people declare you passť, a dinosaur, a dying town, out of touch with the free-market global economic machine, and pretty soon you wonder if they're right. You wonder if you should join the exodus.
And yet I had an idea once for a sports column: Get the four biggest stars from Detroit's four major sports together in one place, for a night out. The consensus cast at the time (1990) was clear. Barry Sanders was the brightest light on the Lions. Steve Yzerman was Captain Heartthrob for the Red Wings. Joe Dumars was the most popular of the Pistons. And Cecil Fielder was the big bat for the Tigers.
All four agreed to meet at Tiger Stadium, before a game. I picked up Dumars at his house. He was alone. No entourage. Next we went for Sanders, who waited in the Silverdome parking lot, by himself, hands in pockets. When he got in, the two future Hall of Famers nodded at each other shyly. "Hey, man," Barry said.
"Hey, man," Joe answered.
At the stadium Yzerman, who drove himself, joined us, hands also dug in his pockets. As conversations go, it was like the first day of school. Awkwardness prevailed. Later -- after we chatted with Fielder -- we sat in the stands. The hot dog guy came by, and we passed them down: Lion to Red Wing to Piston. And when Yzerman put his elbow in front of Sanders, he quickly said, "Excuse me."
Somehow I can't see that being duplicated in Los Angeles. ("Kobe, pass this hot dog to Manny") or New York City ("Hey, A-Rod, Stephon wants some mustard"). But it worked in Detroit. The guys actually thanked me afterward.
Stardom is a funny thing here. You don't achieve it by talking loud or dating a supermodel. You achieve it by shyly lowering your head when they introduce you or by tossing the ball to the refs after scoring a touchdown. Humility, in Detroit, is on a par with heroism. Even Dennis Rodman didn't get really crazy until he left.
And yet we live among ghosts. Over there, on Woodward Avenue, was Hudson's, once America's second-largest department store; it was demolished a decade ago. Over there, on Michigan and Trumbull, stood Tiger Stadium, home to Ty Cobb and Hank Greenberg and Al Kaline and Kirk Gibson; it lasted nearly a century, until the wrecking ball got to it last year. Over there, on Bagley, is the United Artists Theater, which used to seat more than 2,000 people; it hasn't shown movies since the 1970s. The famous Packard plant on East Grand Boulevard -- the birthplace of the auto assembly line -- used to hum with activity, but now its halls are empty, its windows are broken, and its floors gather pools of water. On Lafayette Avenue you can still see the old Free Press building, where I was hired, where those letters once arrived in a mail slot. It used to house a newspaper. It doesn't anymore.
Any mature city has its echoes, but most are drowned out by the chirping of new enterprise. In Detroit the echoes roll on and on, filling the empty blocks because little else does. There is not a department store left downtown. Those three casinos hover like giant cranes, ready to scoop up your last desperate dollar. We have all heard the catchphrases about Detroit: A city of ruins. A Third World metropolis. A carcass. Last person to leave, turn out the lights.
For years, we took those insults as a challenge. We wore a cloak of defiance. But now that cloak feels wet and heavy. It has been cold here before, but this year seems colder. Skies have grayed before, but this year they're like charcoal. We've been unemployed before, but now the lines seem longer; we hear figures like 16% of the labor force not working, Depression numbers. I read one estimate that more than 40,000 houses in our city are now abandoned. Ghosts everywhere.
And yet we remember when the streets were stuffed, a million people downtown at a parade, as our hockey team was given a royal reception; every car carrying a player was cheered. This was 1997, and the Red Wings, after a 42-year drought, had once again won the Stanley Cup. Players and coaches stepped to the microphone and heard their words bounce back in waves of sound and thundering applause. Yzerman. Brendan Shanahan. Scotty Bowman. A hockey team? Who does this for a hockey team? Hockey is an afterthought in most American cities. Here, we wear it as a nickname. Hockeytown. We know the rules. We know the good and the bad officials. We sneak octopuses in our pants legs and throw them onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena.