SHINING CITY ON A HILL
I guess there's a point in most children's lives when they believe that their hometown is the worst place in the world. Well, those kids can choke on it, because I actually did come from the worst city in America—a fact certified by one of the largest publications in the nation. When I was growing up, Money magazine ranked the major cities in the United States from the perspective of which was the best place to live. My hometown of Flint, Michigan, ranked at the absolute bottom. I must admit, even I was surprised by that. Second to worst, maybe. But the worst of the worst? Wow. The townspeople of Flint made a big show of burning the magazine in effigy, but no one could credibly argue our case.
Flint became internationally famous in the documentary Roger and Me, directed by that self-appointed spokesman for working-class outrage and future millionaire Michael Moore. The film chronicled Flint's economic decline after the one company that had been keeping it alive, General Motors, packed up most of their automobiles and sputtered out of town. It wasn't the smoothest departure the world had ever seen. Basically, the company broke up with Flint by e-mail and then changed its phone number.
I was born in the heart of the city to two liberal teachers. My dad, Maurice, was born while the country was still reeling from the Great Depression, and he was the first boy in his family to go to college. He had thick jet-black hair and looked vaguely like Ricky Ricardo. My mom, Larcia, was the second of ten children and didn't have a single enemy in the world. During my childhood, Mom had round glasses and a brown beehive hairdo that she painstakingly wrapped up every evening with tissue paper. Sometimes I'd wake her at night when I had a scary dream. She'd shoot up in bed with white cream on her face and her hair wrapped like a mummy. (I think that's where my troubles began.)
My parents lived in Flint several years before I was born. When I was about one, they adopted a baby girl. My sister, Jennifer, was born on an Indian reservation in Canada. One of the first things I did when I was young was kick her in the eye. Otherwise, we were very close.
We grew up in a neighborhood filled with people of many different income levels and races. There were abandoned homes a few doors down and vacant lots where you could always find trouble. Everyone in our neighborhood knew where the drug houses were. There were at least two within a block of our home. It wasn't uncommon to hear police sirens at all hours of the night. Once on my way home I was stopped by the Flint police. They put me in the backseat of the squad car and started demanding proof that I lived in the neighborhood. I was young, white, with a nice car. I think they suspected I was on a drug buy.
We had a beautiful brick Tudor-style house with five bedrooms. If it had been built in any other city, it would have been worth more than a million dollars. In Flint, it was worth about $50,000. But whatever Flint's problems, my parents were stick-it-out types. Even if our house had exploded, Mom and Dad would have sat in the rubble and camped out with tents.
My parents often invited random people to come to stay, sometimes for months or years at a time. When my sister and I were very young, Mom and Dad brought foster children into our home. For most of my childhood, young men would move into our house as our temporary brothers. Most of them had been abandoned or abused by their biological parents and, understandably, had severe emotional problems. One guy who shared my bedroom used to hide under a blanket while wearing my sister's bathing suit. Another guy took apart our electronic equipment—cameras, remote controls, VCRs—to see if he could repair them. He couldn't. One day I was sitting with him at the breakfast table when our cat, Mindy, walked by. His eyes darkened, then he pointed at her. "You will pay for your actions," he vowed. (Didn't ask. Didn't want to know.)
Another day one of the older guys who lived with us disappeared. Years later, he showed up with a garbage bag. He was slurring his words and acting strangely. He put down the bag and said he'd come back to ask my dad for my sister's hand in marriage. We weren't sure if the bag was part of a trade (we never opened it). Dad, of course, had no intention of entertaining the offer. "Hey, Dad," I whispered, "let's hear the man out." No one else thought that was funny, especially my sister. Dad took the man for a ride somewhere, and we never saw the guy again. (Didn't ask. Didn't want to know.)
I always knew Mom and Dad would be there for me when I really needed them. But when they got home from work they had to prioritize. My "crisis" over getting a B on a homework assignment didn't rate quite as high as one of the foster kids threatening to burn down our house, being accused of indecent exposure, or breaking into the house next door. So I tended to fend for myself. I did household chores without being told. And I did well in school, at least academically. I even taught myself to read. Socially, well, that was another story. For most of my young adulthood, I was a classic nerd with thick glasses, cowlicky hair, and pale skin. I was shy and quiet, and could go for hours without saying a word. In first grade, everyone in the class made papier-mache puppets of ourselves. Mine didn't have a mouth.
To add to those woes, I was really overweight. But I finally beat my weight problem the old-fashioned way: by becoming a subject of total humiliation. I was with my parents, my sister, and one of our foster brothers on a summer vacation in the Pocono Mountains. We all decided to go horseback riding, which was the most exercise I'd had in my entire life. My usual workout routine was trying to get as many scoops of ice cream as I could before The Dukes of Hazzard came back after commercials.
As we waited to get assigned horses, another vacationing family waited with us. They had two kids, a girl and a boy. The boy was about my age and extremely overweight. I felt bad for him. The horse people brought out horses for everyone—my parents, my sister, the other kids' parents, his sister. Finally, it was down to the fat kid and me. As we stood there, I saw them bring forward the biggest horse I'd ever seen, the T. rex of the equestrian world. I overheard the workers talking on their way over. One asked which one of us he should give Horse-zilla to.
"Give it to that fat kid," the other worker replied.
I felt so terrible for the boy standing right next to me. He could hear them too. How awful. Then they brought that giant horse right up to us and handed the reins...to me. They'd been talking about me! From that day forward, I never drank a glass of regular pop again. I started walking and running. I lost thirty pounds over the next two months, and I did it completely on my own. I was becoming a believer in the power of self-sufficiency.
While my family and I were facing these and other challenges, Flint was facing several as well. Our valiant civic leaders always seemed to have some new scheme certain to pull us out of our Depression-like doldrums. The biggest of these brainstorms was AutoWorld. AutoWorld was, in the wisdom of our leading citizens, a no-lose proposition: an amusement park that would be a tribute to the auto industry and its origins. Except, as it turned out, there were hardly any rides and not a single roller coaster. Instead the "attraction" was a walk-through history of Flint. Come one, come all, to hear about the famous Sit-Down Strike and the birth of the United Auto Workers! All the family will want to listen to a mannequin of town father Jacob Smith talk about Flint's founding! Did you enjoy building dioramas in high school? Now you can actually walk through one—and come back to walk through it again and again. AutoWorld was going to cost millions to build, but everyone was sure it was going to be Flint's salvation. The city tore down homes to build large parking lots for the overflow crowds that would certainly teem in. The Hyatt Regency built a hotel downtown to host all the expected guests. City officials went to the trouble of installing signs on highways and streets to help guide the expected tourists. "What if too many show up for the opening?" the local newspaper fretted.
Predictably, every prominent politician in Michigan rushed to glom on to the AutoWorld magic—and free publicity—on opening day. Governor Jim Blanchard, who was rumored to be considering a run for president, offered his typical bromides. "This is a great day for Flint," he said, "but it is also a great day for the entire state of Michigan!"
"AutoWorld is a magnificent dream come true," Senator Don Riegle gushed. "And many of you dreamers are here tonight."
Not to be outdone, Flint's mayor compared AutoWorld's opening to America's decision to declare independence from Great Britain.
My parents took me to AutoWorld—once. I didn't really care what an assembly line looked like or how an engine was built. I attended for one reason only: to see the Cosby kids. Somehow, AutoWorld had lured Theo and Rudy Huxtable from the hit TV program The Cosby Show. What those two had to do with the world of automobiles I didn't know. They weren't even old enough to drive. But I wanted to see them. So did a whole bunch of other kids. All of us were behind a fence staring at little Rudy, who was five or six years old and probably a millionaire. Some beside me were screaming: "Hi, Rudy!" "Little Rudy!" "Come here, Rudy!" Rudy clung to her fake brother, Theo, for dear life. The crowd was so frenzied that if either kid had moved a millimeter closer to the fence, it would have been all over.
Sadly, for all their glamour, even the Cosby kids couldn't save AutoWorld. It folded within a year. Hordes of people did not want to spend money to walk through a giant diorama after all. Eventually, the entire building—the "miracle"—was torn down. The Hyatt Regency people, who knew a loser when they saw it, pulled up stakes. All the politicians who had come to AutoWorld's grand opening were noticeably absent at its grisly collapse. It was probably a wise decision. We didn't have much in Flint, but we could still get our hands on tar and feathers. The good citizens of our town would have been better off if they'd just poured all of our tax dollars into lottery tickets.
Even after AutoWorld's fiery crash, city leaders couldn't help themselves—they kept dreaming up other big comeback plans. One assignment that preoccupied them was coming up with a new slogan. The city was dying economically, so of course the solution was a catchphrase. One suggestion was "Flint—that's right, you made the wrong turn." They settled on "Flint: our new spark will surprise you." (If there were any sparks in Flint, it was probably due to arson.) As president, Ronald Reagan talked about "a shining city on a hill." But Flint wasn't it.
I didn't blame Flint's troubles on corporate America or the auto industry, though. I blamed Flint's sad fate on us. We allowed ourselves to become dependent on one corporation for our survival or, failing that, the tender mercies of government bureaucrats. We elected bad managers who made bad choices and didn't diversify when times were good. Then we kept the same people in office over and over again. In Flint, the Democrats, whether competent or incompetent, rule with impunity. The Republicans don't even bother. Our United States congressman had been in office since I was a child. He's still there, and promises that Flint's new dawn is just around the corner.
Every election year, Democratic candidates came to Flint to pay homage to the city's grit and make sure the citizens turned out to vote. Bill Clinton once came to extol the city and its mayor, Woodrow Stanley. "They used to call me the 'Comeback Kid,' " President Bubba said. "You ought to call Flint the 'Comeback City' under Woodrow Stanley." Actually, under Mayor Stanley mismanagement of Flint's debt rating was lowered to the level of junk. An auditor discovered that Mayor Stanley's city budget included "phantom" revenue of $10 million. When a newspaper questioned the mayor's leadership, Stanley defended himself by calling the newspaper racist. The city's voters finally got smart and threw our version of the Comeback Kid out of office in a recall election. But a few years later, Stanley was back—elected to the county Board of Commissioners. He ran for a seat in the state house of representatives—and won. (He reportedly has his sights on higher office.)
As I witnessed the sad fate of my hometown, I came to the conclusion that government largesse, dependence on handouts, and the noble intentions of liberals had achieved nothing. I didn't know if any political party had better answers. But we'd tried it the Democrats' way and got zip. So I looked for something else.
I started getting interested in politics at a pretty young age. The boys I grew up with could tell you the latest baseball scores or recite all the statistics about the Detroit Lions (the most pathetic football team in history). I could tell you how many electoral votes Iowa had or what states Jimmy Carter won in 1980.
I was even excited when former vice president Walter Mondale came to our school assembly in 1984. Mondale was running for president against Ronald Reagan. We were supposed to be enthusiastic about him. All of our parents were, and most of our teachers. Every leader in town endorsed him. He'd recently picked the first woman vice presidential nominee in history—New York congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro—and that was especially exciting. At the school rally, I was handed a large Mondale-Ferraro sign. It was one of the coolest things I'd ever seen—a part of history. (I still have it.)
Mondale gave a pretty bland speech. He had a high-pitched, nasal voice. The kids I was sitting next to were so bored that they were even thinking about going back to class. As Mondale went on and on, I remember wondering, What's he doing here anyway? There wasn't a single person in the auditorium, except for a handful of teachers, who could vote. A few months later, he lost forty-nine states. I remember how disappointed Mom was. Then I started thinking that maybe this Ronald Reagan guy might not be as terrible as everyone said. A huge majority of the country seemed to like him just fine.