Everybody's Gonna Move Their Feet, Everybody's Gonna Leave Their Seat

Of all the characters in Charlie LeDuff's Detroit: An American Autopsy, Detroit City Councilmember Monica Conyers is one of the best. LeDuff, who grew up in Detroit and returned to be a reporter for the Detroit News, features her throughout the book, as a sort of catch-all symbol of gross political negligence and tin-ear stupidity.

Conyers made a national name for herself after a verbal altercation with the city council president during a council meeting in which she called him "Shrek." I'm assuming it was based on his looks and not his character, because the character of Shrek actually seems like a pretty decent guy.

LeDuff then set up a meeting with Councilmember Monica Conyers and some eighth graders in a sort of public post-mortem about her calling the president of the Detroit city council "Shrek." The subtext is clear: When adults act like children, let's let children take the adults to task. It's funny, a stunt, and also something more at home on the Daily Show, which is kind of LeDuff's style, just minus the satire. Also, how does a newspaper get away with this? The video is here. You can see pertinent part of the video here. I can't embed it because they disabled the embedding feature. I'm not totally sure why.

One of the students does indeed take Conyers to task and Conyers, because she is apparently incapable of good political sense, proceeds to take the child to task. Suffice it to say, Conyers comes off like a huge moron. You can read about the event here, except that it's a Wall Street Journal link, so if you click it from here, you'll hit a paywall. If you Google the title, however, you should be able to access the story, which is titled "Detroit Politician Gets Lesson In Civility From a 13-Year-Old." I'm not totally sure I understand why it's somehow better for the Wall Street Journal to have people access stories behind a paywall via a search engine versus through, say, someone's email, but that's what they do.

Newspapers do a lot of stuff that is understandable only to people who work in newspapers. And with that, I just sort of effortlessly rolled out with the kind of knowing, faux-folksy aphorism that Charlie LeDuff likes to indulge in. I mean, I guess I understand the value of a soft paywall — maybe old people won't bother with Googling stuff and will just pay the subscription — but that kind of on-the-one-hand-on-the-other balance just gets in the way of a good story.

Which is kind of what I circle back to when I think about this particular incident: LeDuff agrees to meet Conyers at a cocktail lounge off of Eight Mile Road (you might remember "Eight Mile" from Eminem) because Conyers apparently can't prevent herself from repeating the negative. On the way he decides to stop off and visit the 13-year-old and her family. It's a great detail in a story, but it's too perfect. And it's too perfect in part because your gut tells you that he wanted to stop off on the way mostly because it's a detail that would make a good story. I can similarly see Aaron Sorkin "swinging by" the Lincoln Monument or, I don't know, Buzz Bissinger "happening upon" a high school football game: The detail flows seamlessly from head to steering wheel to eye to head to word processing program. And that's when writers become slightly sociopathic.

(As an aside, in the genre of non-fiction about dead or dying cities, Bissinger wrote his own about Philadelphia in the early 1990s, focusing on the achievements of Mayor Ed Rendell. This perspective makes Bissinger's A Prayer For the City seem much more hopeful. But there doesn't seem to be an Ed Rendell on the horizon for Detroit, and as Jen points out, Philadelphia always had advantages Detroit lacks: It's connected on the I-95 corridor with New York and DC, it has many universities, etc. Maybe it's the era — post-Iraq, post-whatever, people just think the world sucks shit — but Detroit — the book, not necessarily the city — is just a downer through and through.)

It's a small detail but it's something that for whatever reason I glommed onto. There's something about people who navigate their way through the world knowing that whatever they're doing would make for a good story. This of course happens all the time — if you're friendly with people who like to write, you'll hear them say it. And not just "this is good fodder" (look up the dictionary definition of "fodder" — it's illuminating), but making life decisions based on the output of said fodder (which, according to the definition would be the excrement of domesticated animals). I'm sure The Devil Wears Prada isn't the most egregious example of this but it feels like a watershed one that begat hundreds, if not thousands, of stupid fucking notions about what could become a book.

Which is all well and good (and with that, I just effortlessly rolled out a meaningless transition meant to soften the barb at the end of the last paragraph), but if you take a second to consider what these people are like in real life, they come off like zombies. If John Howard Griffin came into my store or if Gregory Peck sauntered into my country club, I'd be like, "fuck you." Because that stuff begat the asinine Quiñonesism we are left with today.

And, sure, are we all guilty of in some way wanting to convert personal reminisces to literary gold? If you write on the internet, of course. It's just people need to go back to being embarrassed and fucked up about it. Less Foer and more semen-slurping macaque.

So anyway, I digress (and with that, I just effortlessly rolled out a sorry-ass excuse for going wildly off topic).

I say all this in part because Detroit is good. The book, I mean, not the city. After reading the book, the conclusion you're left with is that Detroit (the city) should be converted to either farmland or a giant national historical park about America's industrial past. Or maybe just left to rot like portions of Auschwitz. LeDuff was on Bill Maher just after the book came out and Maher asked him if Detroit could come back. He said yes. But after reading the book, I'm not sure why.

Indeed (and with that, I just effortlessly rolled out the worst fucking conjunctive adverb in the history of conjunctive adverbs), some books are like that: Writers come up with a really provocative premise and then when they're interviewed about it, immediately back down. What I wanted Maher to follow up with — and he couldn't because part of the idiocy of interviewing anyone about a specific book is that the interview is (often by design) mostly unaware about what the book actually says — was, "Really? Because what other conclusion are you left with besides the city should be converted to either farmland or a giant national historical park about America's industrial past or maybe just left to rot like portions of Auschwitz?"

Look, Detroit is good because LeDuff is a gifted storyteller. But we use a phrase around here a lot with Jen, and that's "Irish It Up," as in, Meatball's default is to take a mostly correct story and make it much more entertaining. It's not just the Irish: Different ethnic groups do this, of course. On NPR they even have a term for it, which is "David Sedaris." The only thing about these stories is that in the back of your mind there's that nagging doubt that the lady on the subway actually yelled "Tequila! Cointreau!" to her unruly children (what, no "Triple Sec"? Let's make it happen!) (actually, I don't doubt this story — it's just all the other times she's Irished It Up that makes me second-guess it, even if just slightly).

And I'm not specifically second-guessing LeDuff, either. It's just that the consistent tone of Detroit is that of a guy sitting next to you at a bar; it's not that I don't believe you that the term "bullpen" comes from single women in Durham flirting with relief pitchers by throwing them Bull Durham Tobacco, it's just that I want to try to remember to Wikipedia it later. In a book it can be a little frustrating.

Sometimes the tone resembles a treatment for the show Hardcore Pawn. Like on page 78, after his meeting with Conyers: "Where the hell was I? . . . The sign outside said 'Detroit City Limits.'" I don't think I'm being a pretentious dickhead to note that it's not exceptional writing. What it is is a great ending to a story someone is telling you — because if LeDuff is sitting across from you, he delivers that line with whatever appropriate inflection, self-deprecation and whatever other tool a storyteller uses to deliver good line. When a reader reads that line, they might hear something different — Jack Webb as Sergeant Joe Friday, Leslie Nielsen, Kevin Bacon in JFK, The Fresh Prince, Garrison Keillor, their boring old Uncle Pete, whatever. I mean, I like that LeDuff writes like he talks. Sometimes it doesn't always translate though.

Ultimately (and with that I just effortlessly rolled out with another really lazy conjunctive adverb), I am in a position now where I must sum up my feelings about having read this book in the form of a conclusion, preferably a smartly written concise ending to what has stretched out for over a thousand words. Something along the lines of, Ultimately, Charlie LeDuff's Detroit: An American Autopsy proves not only can you come home again but you can parley the sad fate of your hometown into a tidy 286-page memoir replete with gritty first-hand accounts of borderline journalistic impropriety, scrotum-caressing politicians, and subprime chicanery, not to mention flirtations with and near-apologies for spousal abuse amidst a backdrop of urban disaster porn where, amazingly, no one has yet quit smoking.

Posted: April 24th, 2013 | Author: | Filed under: Books Are The SUVs Of Writing | Tags: , , , , , , ,

If LeBron Did Not Exist, Wieden+Kennedy Would Invent Him

In the ongoing list of things the internet does reasonably well — including but obviously not limited to song lyrics, footage of early punk rock shows, the shared experience of watching playoff baseball via an "open thread" on a sports blog and computer help* — here's one more: Coordinating chants at Cleveland Cavaliers games. To be fair, there was a clear and present matter at hand for Cavaliers fans — expressing their displeasure at LeBron James for leaving the team through free agency in a flashy narcissistic way — but the coordinated effort got a lot of press:

We ask for all of you who have been a part of this movement to continue to push in these final 24 hours. It wouldn't be possible without you, and won't succeed unless we make sure the "fourth quarter" of our efforts is as strong as the first three. Get the word out, send the sheet to co workers and friends, print out extras if you're going downtown, hand them out at bars, do whatever you have to. Get Cleveland chanting!

The sheet (.pdf) had instructions for what to chant when, e.g., in the second half of the first quarter "Whenever LeBron has the ball or is at the free throw line the chant is: Ak-Ron Hates-You (Clap, Clap, ClapClapClap)." It went on from there, and was to have culminated with a penultimate "De-Lon-Te" chant early in the fourth quarter, until the Heat stretched out its lead to thirty and LeBron was pulled from the game.

I had to look up the Delonte story because I missed it. Here's what that particular chant was about:

The 'Delonte' chant will be in reference to the reported affair that occurred last season between James' mother Gloria, and his teammate Delonte West. West is now a member of the Boston Celtics, but shortly after the end of the playoffs last season, in which West's and James' Cavaliers were eliminated by Boston, speculation ran rampant that James learned of West's affair with his mother during the playoffs and it caused his distracted and seemingly disinterested play.

No matter, the Cavs_Chants Twitter feed directed the Delonte chant to be moved up.

Meanwhile, everything else seemed to work as planned:

Despite being an otherwise meaningless early season game, Thursday night's 118-90 Miami Heat victory was the most anticipated regular-season game in the history of pro basketball. As the national media kept reporting all week, Cavs fans had been waiting more than four months to vent their spleens. And vent they did.

When James first took the court in his No. 6 Miami Heat jersey 17 minutes before the opening tip, he was greeted with a cosmic jeer, soon followed by a raucous chant of "a—hole, a—hole."

Midway through the first quarter, his ears were pummeled by a thundering chant of "Akron hates you, Akron hates you."

Buzz Bissinger recently wrote a book with LeBron James, and wrote an op-ed in The New York Times back in May about how he thought LeBron should handle his pending free agency. His opening paragraph seems like typical Bissinger — we read his A Prayer For The City for book club, about Ed Rendell's first term as mayor of Philadelphia and his tone is sometimes self-effacing to the point of obsequiousness (Bissinger's depiction of Chief of Staff David Cohen in the book is kind of the definition of "beat sweetener"). His LeBron op-ed follows that format:

When I first met LeBron James in 2008, I was in awe. He was 23 at the time and I was 53, yet it seemed as if the ages were reversed. He had been a basketball legend for years. As we embarked on a book project together, he had an affable poise that contrasted with my own babbling efforts to build rapport. I ascribed to him a worldly wisdom.

Then of course he goes on to sound every part the 53 year-old — hollow advice to leave and never look back, et cetera, et cetera and then something about "personal growth." Somehow he decided that James should have gone to the Knicks, which in retrospect looks absurd.

James followed Bissinger's advice to leave and do soul searching or whatever Bissinger's writerly heart wanted James the nonfiction star to do like not at all, which makes the Bissingerian plot line seem that much more hollow:

LeBron James's relationship to his community is profound: he built a palatial house in the Akron area and just finished his seventh season with the Cavaliers. But I believe those roots have become golden shackles. He is too loved, and therefore too coddled and too easily forgiven.

His play in the fifth game of the N.B.A. playoff series this month against the Boston Celtics, a 120-88 trouncing, was bizarre and inexplicable. In missing 11 of the 14 shots he took, he simply looked as if he had given up, astounding not only for James but for any professional athlete competing at the level of the playoffs. It was inexcusable, whatever the circumstance.

In a place like New York, the tabloids would have screamed "LeBomb James!" In Cleveland, there were a few boos, but they amounted to nothing compared to the desperation of the fans to keep him for next season and beyond. In such an atmosphere, human nature inevitably takes over: you stop constantly pushing yourself because there is no real incentive, particularly when you have so many good nights on the basketball court and keep your fans satiated.

. . .

LeBron, take the chance. Just go and never look back. In the greatest city in the world, you will never regret it. It is time to leave home.

You get the sense that Bissinger wanted LeBron to leave the Midwest via a large Greyhound with a duffel bag over his shoulder, the coach bus kicking up dust as it stopped to pick him up on a rural stretch of U.S. 224. I don't know what Bissinger thought about the ESPN special.

(Speaking of which, J.A. Adande seems to posit that it's Soledad O'Brien's fault that the story veered off into some giant debate over race in America . . . maybe Jon Stewart has a point about cable news? Three of us briefly debated this aspect last night while we were watching the Heat-Cavaliers game and in retrospect it seems silly to have done so. At any rate, not worth bringing up again.)

All told, Cleveland's fans were the most interesting part of the game last night (with the exception of this, which is kind of awesome). Some cities are like that. Philadelphia is one place. So is New Orleans, I recently learned — it seems that the entire city jumps up and starts waving handkerchiefs whenever K. Gates' "Black & Gold (Who Dat!!!) Superbowl Edition ft. Ying Yang Twins" is played. Seriously, it's weird — it looks like those scenes in Season 2 of True Blood when the Maryann Forrester character puts the entire town of Bon Temps into bacchanalia trances.

You get the sense that Cleveland fans wouldn't need a "Fan Up" campaign to remind their fans to arrive to games on time and stay until the end. You'd think that players would like that aspect of playing in a city, but that's clearly not the case. In that sense it reminds me of something someone reminded me once about art museums: Museum-goers are under the impression that museums are primarily about seeing art but there's a case to be made that's not the real reason museums exist — rather, museums are about maintaining collections of art, and viewing the art is only a secondary purpose. Some collections are better than others in this respect, but most only show a small percentage of what they hold.

In the same way, maybe the Miami Heat are less a root-worthy team than they are a collection of museum pieces — like a Platonic ideal of "Starting Lineup" (minus the point guard). And instead of winning championships or giving a city something to cheer for, the team simply exists to make overwrought Nike ads.

Of course, without those overwrought Nike ads, we wouldn't have the spoofs:

In the commercials LeBron says "What should I do?" over and over. But for the rest of us taking it all in, it's more like "So what do you do?" — because there's not much else interesting about the story line now except to want to see the Platonic ideal fail.

*See this, this, this and this, respectively.

Posted: December 3rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: The Thrill Of Victory And The Agony Of Defeat! | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,