Monday, November 24, 2008

Our perspective...

Y'all know I'm from Detroit. You can probably guess that the majority of my family does or has worked for the industry. I like to talk about it, & I have been. But you wouldn't know that because it's been actually speaking, not typing, because I've had a nasty bout of food poisoning. Better now. But as I was saying...

My mom's mom divorced her husband after they had raised six kids because he stood up on Christmas Eve, in front of whole family, & bragged about the women he had all over the country. It was not a common, or heck, even accepted thing back then. I remember Gram taking me to Mass & how most people in the parish did not speak to her, but through other people to her. It was a sort of communicated excommunication. It wasn't just because she divorced her husband, but then she dared to remarry, without an annulment, therefore outside of the church, a Baptist. (!) She met this new husband at the job she got, in Plant 9 of the Pontiac Assembly Plant. He was a General Foreman, who worked his way up, when he moved to Michigan from Arkansas at age 15, lying about his age to get a job on the assembly line. I remember as a kid watching him leave for work in his Johnny Carson sport coats & wide ties. I remember him talking about the people he oversaw with a furrowed brow. He worried about their kids, knew their names. He got angry from time to time about someone not pulling their weight. When he retired our family threw a party for him at a little community hall that burst at the seams. He asked me perform a dance as part of the entertainment. (I took dance lessons from age 3 onward & knew I was the apple of my Gram's eye.) The first time I heard the expression "bee's knee's" was after I finished my dance at that party & it was used to describe me personally. I made a mental note to use it on one of my own kids one day.

My dad's father came to Detroit from Massachusetts, where he did his apprenticeship as a tool & die maker with Bethlehem Steel after coming back from the Pacific Front. He had an amazing ability to just know how to put things together. When I was an architecture student he was the only one who could explain how to calculate tension or compression to me, becuse he knew how my brain worked, too. He worked in various shops all over Detroit over the years, with shops slowly closing down into the 1980's as those jobs were replaced by computers. Now, it does suck, but I told him he should just think of it as validation that his brain was a machine. 

When my parents were first married, my Dad worked at Detroit Diesel in southwest Detroit. He developed an allergy to diesel fuel & had to find work elsewhere. Years later, when he moved back downstate from Petoskey, he became a journeyman & worked in the foundry in New Haven. I don't believe there is a more fundamental relationship between the auto industry & the foundry where they make metal molten & form it into engine blocks. When the foundry closed down a few years back, my Dad became a truck driver. He ran routes for dedicated Chrysler, Ford and GM & was considered an asset not only because he was a model employee, but because he understood the big picture of how what he was hauling fit into the economy.

When my mother was getting burned out from the work she did in the juvenile justice system, she too began to work on the assembly line, first part-time, at night. Then when she saw a posting for a salaried position she thought she was qualified for, she moved up. She became an auditor for the CPC (Chevy, Pontiac, Cadillac) division, travelling all over the country. I remember how our lives changed when this happened. I remember my mom going from wearing jeans to work to suits. 

Biggie is a Car Salesman. Before that, he was a Mechanical Engineer. He isn't interested in the status quo that has been available to him working in Detroit. He'd rather be with people, weighing the pros & cons of different vehicles. When we got married he worked at a Chevy dealership. When one day every single car that he took on a test drive malfunctioned in some way, he decided he needed to move on. Now, to their credit, a lot of the malfunctions were due to a lack of maintenance by the dealership. For example, cars that sat for so long their batteries would go dead & no one would have checked them. But there were other instances of door handles coming off in customers hands that made him finally leave after over 3 years. 

We both drive imports. We both take criticism from my uncles about not supporting the economy, but truthfully, both of our 'foreign' cars were manufactured in large part in North America, if not the US. Certainly more than their domestic counterparts. 

I used to look at the Renaissance Center, the large black building usually featured as a defining building, in the Detroit skyline & glower. The building was built by Henry Ford as symbol of the rebirth of the Motor City. Now it's the headquarters for General Motors, who used to have one of my favorite buildings of all, built by a firm I used to work for, as their headquarters. I hate the Renaissance Center. When I look at it all I can think of is how many people I love, or how many people that I love love, have given of their lives for this industry. My own father, who is now gone, who poured the very hearts of so many engines. My own city, who made so many sacrifices for & allowed itself to be taken advantage of, for this industry. When you stand in front of the damn thing you can't even see the Detroit River. I don't think I've ever been in the building & not gotten lost. Then there's the fact the same exact building is in both Atlanta & Los Angeles. Like we don't even deserve our own symbol of rebirth. 

Excuse me if I don't get a little defensive when you talk about the 'lazy union man'. It's a lot bigger than you know, people.  That Gram, who MiniMe is named after, left high school at age 15 to work at Willow Run constructing B-24 airplanes because she realised that if the Allies didn't win World War II America would never be the same. My grandfather came home from liberating Auschwitz to find her in the barracks, nearly fatally ill with rheumatic fever. It's a sweet vision I have of my Grandpa, who looked like the actor Van Johnson, swooping in (in my mind, he's in his Army uniform) whisking Gram off to the hospital. The auto industry is what made it possible for the United States & the Allied Powers to defeat Hitler, people. The moniker 'Arsenal of Democracy' was coined for a reason, & a city.

My point is this: I'm just one lady. There are millions of us out there. Want perspective? The recent dip in the economy has been a 0.3% reduction in our GDP. The auto industry is 4% of our GDP.

Go over to read . He's saying it all much better than I can. 

1 comment: said...

The auto industry is certainly an important industry in the whole scheme of things. It employs many of our workers and keeps America moving. Different parts of the auto industry get hit at different times in the life of the economy, but everyone, in this day and age, needs a car so the industry just keeps chugging.