Motown Meltdown (May 28, 2012)




I want to talk about something in a politically non-partisan way. It’s true I am a liberal Democrat by stripe and spend part of my freelance writing life as a hard blue columnist for a popular left website. But I am a human, a woman and an American first – in that order – and sometimes I witness scenes that make me wonder how anyone from any vantage point can believe that this country is on the right track.

This past Memorial Day Weekend I ventured with Steve by Amtrak to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan. It is here that my partner spent his formative years. He attended college in the late-1980s at Wayne State University in the heart of the city, holding down various jobs before he migrated to Chicago in 1996. I traveled with him to the Motor City, the once-glorious birthplace of the automobile, the R&B Garden of Eden where Berry Gordy established Hitsville, USA and launched the Motown legend. In the 1930s, Detroit was christened the “City of Champions” owing to its successes in the sporting realm. During the first two-thirds of the 20th Century, Detroit was Americana, the symbol of society’s mechanization and social evolution.

But then the Motor City fell on some famously hard times, troubles that date back several decades. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s population fell by 25%, plummeting in the ranks from America’s 10th largest city to its 18th.  The 2008 housing bubble burst delivered some of its loudest pops in Detroit, where a perfect storm of unsustainable subprime mortgages, crushing unemployment and falling home prices left behind scads of abandoned buildings and lots, often as far as the eye can see. Opportunistic investors can still take advantage of foreclosed homes that cost hundreds, rather than thousands of dollars. The sinking ghost town is a breeding ground for drug activity and violent crime, further eroding home values.

It’s true that White House policy over the last four years salvaged the auto industry, Detroit’s remaining lifeblood when combined with tourism/casinos and hospitality. But with local budgets strangled and plagued by red link, there are simply no resources left to level the rampant blight that welcomes visitors to town.

I was astonished when I alighted from the city’s Amtrak station last Friday evening, a structure no bigger than your average two-car garage, aesthetically dull and devoid of concessions or any comforts beyond a restroom. The station was constructed in 1994 as a replacement for the former Michigan Central Station, which closed in 1988. A quick Wikipedia search of the Central Station revealed more glory come decay. The previous structure was once identified as the tallest rail station in the world, with some 200 trains traveling in and out each day at the outset of WWI, while 3,000 workers held jobs inside the station’s office tower. Today exactly six scheduled Amtrak trains enter and depart the city each day, while less than a handful of workers enter the minimalist station.

There is no doubt that the Motown Museum is an impressive tour and a fabulous bargain at $10 per entry. But when Steve and I went in search of food after our Saturday afternoon excursion, we had real trouble locating anything more than a KFC here, a unserviceable Subway outlet with reinforced bullet proof glass protecting the counter there. I suppose I take for granted that when I walk out onto almost any Chicago street, multiple culinary options await.

And oh the heartbreaking destruction of the streets and architecture, the abject poverty, the lack of pedestrian and vehicle traffic that evokes the classic Kurt Russell film, Escape from New York.

I do not fault the citizens of the Motor City or even the local government for a failure to resolve what must seem an insurmountable mountain of challenges. It is possible that Detroit’s most glorious days are simply in the past. But that is no excuse at all for our failure to deal with the conditions of this piece of our collective history on a national level. I found myself wondering at several intervals over the course of a three-day visit, “If a tourist from another land decided to stop in Detroit, what impression would it leave of the country as a whole?” Is Detroit’s decline a metaphor for the decaying American dream, the death throes of a dynasty that can no longer sustain its promise?


Stranger in the House (May 24, 2012)

I haven’t ventured this deep into a steady’s territory since January 2007 when I met my now ex-husband Eddie’s parents on a visit from Mumbai. I fared alright at the time but that was five years ago. I know it’s rote and passe to write in such pedestrian terms but I was, quite literally, a different person then. Or maybe I was exactly the same but I had no grasp of what that shape that ought to take.

I have evolved now – for better or worse. I have come a long, long way in a yet to be completed quest to accept my fractures and quirks, though somehow the incremental certainty has made me less rigid and more relaxed. I’m learning to accept that I might not be everyone’s cup of tea and that “everyone” might include traditional sources of unconditional love, but so what? I deserve to sleep at night however unconventional.

And so I take this new and fragile self-awareness to the suburbs of Detroit, Michigan this holiday weekend in an effort to get acquainted with my partner’s family. We’ll journey by Amtrak, fulfilling a long-felt desire to travel by train in the process. He makes things happen for me that way.

I’ve been present for phone call exchanges between my mate and his people and it’s a heartbreakingly loving experience, from parents to siblings. He is a good man and it follows that he’s a fabulous hybrid of nature and nurture. Time was when I would feel oppressively strained and skittish: entering into a situation in which I felt so out of my element, the product of the most unhealthy of environments.

I mean no harm. I’m just a little feral sometimes. A well-meaning superior at the office told me that I’m likable but “need time to grow on people.”

But whatever. I have spent too many years psyching myself out of enjoying the moment. I make him laugh. I can make them laugh too right?

Sucking Air (August 10, 2011)





American Airlines is the nation’s largest carrier, having gobbled up competitors such as TWA in the Aughts, and despite flirting unsuccessfully with the acquisition of US Airways in late 2009. According to Wikipedia, American “is the world’s third-largest airline in passenger miles transported, passenger fleet size, and operating revenue.”

As a child growing up in the 1980s, I could sing the airline’s commercial jingle in my sleep, “We’re American Airlines, something special in the air!” A ticket to board an American Airlines flight must have been something magical! When I was a grown-up, I would find out by God!

The company now uses the tagline, “We know why you fly.” However, if my experience of this past weekend is any indication, the carrier must think the purpose of my travels is to experience a frustrating lack of communication and a desire to sleep on the floor of Boston Logan Airport on the eve of my 33rd birthday.

In other words, to put it academically, American Airlines sucks.

Sunday morning I awoke in my high school chum Euridice’s apartment in Medford, Massachusetts to the soothing sounds of light rain. Though the showers intensified somewhat as we enjoyed a leisurely brunch downtown, followed by some mall walking (insert old fart joke here), I was only minimally concerned about flight delay. There was no accompanying lightening or thunder and though, like Pavlov’s dog, I have been trained to have my time wasted by airport security and airline personnel at the slightest provocation, I expected I would be on my way back home at some hour close to the 6:50 PM scheduled departure.

I arrived at Logan’s Terminal B in plenty of time to check my bag and wade through security procedures, only to discover as I started the self-check-in process that my flight had been cancelled. Five hours earlier. And in a surprise twist, the cancellation was due to equipment failure, rather than Mother Nature.

Let’s get over the fact that I am an American AAdvantage member and the bureaucratic apparatus of the carrier sent me neither email nor phone call nor text to make me aware of this schedule change. Let’s try and sidestep the disheartening news that American had no other flights from Boston to Chicago that evening and that they swore the best they could do was put me on a 2 PM plane the following day.

What really irked me was the mass confusion, poor customer service and utter lack of willingness to issue refunds or assist with accommodations for the night. At 6 PM I was staring down the barrel of having to ring in a birthday, which I already bore a humbug attitude toward, drunk (because really, what else could I do?) and alone on the cold, industrial floor of an East Coast air travel hub. Can you imagine anything more pathetic? No, then how about the scene of weeping mothers and fathers, forced to call their scattered homes to inform children, spouses and parents that they were unable to return, in some cases, before two days following? I haven’t witnessed so much misery first person since my sister Jen finally realized at the age of 10 that there was no Easter Bunny.

As a former corporate travel agent, I was aware that there is but one carrier that does not share its booking system with any of the other major airlines. That is of course Southwest, the only operation that has yet to institute charges for checked bags, the sole provider of air travel who issues comfy leather seats to all passengers without some other bullshit upcharge, and the only company who appears to conduct customer service training for its call center and onsite personnel. It is not by accident that the carrier is one of few that regularly turns a profit. In May 2011, Southwest Airlines was ranked as one of the top ten companies in MSN Money’s 2011 Customer Service Hall of Fame, and its flight completion record is currently 98.8 percent as of first quarter 2011.

Why do I highlight all of these distinctions? Because unlike at the American counter, where I and my fellow strandees were treated like gum on the bottom of a shoe and provided zero resources in our time of hardship, after running three terminals over to the Southwest vestibule, I encountered something like human compassion.

I had the forethought to book another flight by phone (where I was pointedly wished a “happy birthday” by the friendly rep who assisted me), but was advised to go to the counter afterward to try and get standby on a yet earlier flight. The customer service representative was unable to grab me a seat herself as it was too close to flight time.

Did I mention that this last minute one-way ticket cost me a mere $330? That’s not chump change to a struggling writer, but more than worth it in the long run to get home to my cat Jordan, my work and my life before an additional 24-hours elapsed. Compare this to a figure of $618 for a comparable ticket on American.

Southwest’s flights were delayed that evening, but they did take off. Icing on the cake: the fees for alcoholic beverages were waived once my plane finally taxied off the runway. The flight crew knew we had all suffered enough, were feeling quite cranky and a little liquid calm was bound to make everyone’s experience just a bit less stressful.

At the risk of sounding like Andy Rooney, I am forced to bemoan the perceptible and lengthy decline of airline service. It’s not just the endless delays, lack of food and nickel and dime surcharges for EVERYTHING. It’s not the increasing invasiveness and dehumanizing effects of airport security, for which the carriers issue yet another fee. It’s that we pay so much, and are hassled so incessantly, for the privilege of being treated like shit and shoehorned into a seat we would deem capital punishment in any other environment.

If I must fly, and at this point, I would prefer Amtrak, or even dare I say it, Greyhound, it won’t be as an American Airlines passenger. Think I am alone in my aversion to the carrier? Check out these links:

  2. My personal favorite:

Southwest, thank you for making a pretty terrible night just a tiny bit easier to swallow – with a red wine chaser.


How Flying Will Suck Even More (December 26, 2009)

So now this crazy bastard from Nigeria creates headaches for the rest of us, just in time for the post-holiday airport rush. What a humbug. Among some of the new hassles mentioned in the above report are extra pat downs, more restrictions on carry on permissions, and a new rule that keeps passengers in their seats for the last hour of the flight, no matter what the conditions. I suppose I understand why this has to be after what that loser tried to pull, but it doesn’t chafe me any less. Air travel was already no joy as it was.

One of the possible new restrictions mentioned last night on CNN is the outlawing of snow globe souvenirs in carry on baggage. As it happens, KK keeps a pretty impressive snow globe collection, largely made up of gifts I have brought her from the various countries and cities I have visited. It’s one of our things. Now this harmless and cute hobby between an aunt and her niece is imperiled. The day a terrorist uses a snow globe as an object of blunt force trauma, humanity has really lost its way.

I think I am switching to Amtrak, at least for domestic travel. It’s very freeing and the only real way to see the landscape.

Will the new rules and regulations affect the way YOU travel?