The fossil show

Since I am not an automotive insider, there are some things I just don't know; for example, how to lose $3 million an hour, which, the last time I checked, was the current rate at General Motors.

I also don't understand why they hold the North American International Auto Show in January, a month when no sensible human being in Detroit wants to go outside if they can help it. To attend what mere mortals still call the "Detroit Auto Show," one has to try to navigate the potholes, the ice, the potholes filled with ice, and then try to find an affordable parking lot downtown. After that, all you have to do is walk however far on salt-studded and pitted streets, before getting into Cobo Center.

People who live in this climate should hold auto shows in late May, or September or early October perhaps, and have much of it outdoors. But no, we would rather make our already gritty experience a little more so. (The New York Times last weekend noted that when it comes to Detroit, "gritty is a nice way of saying, 'hellhole.'") Actually, some expert once did explain to me why we hold our auto show in January. It was a reasonable explanation, having to do with the timing of other shows, etc., etc.

The real reason, of course, is that they can get away with it. The powers that be (whoever they are) calculated — correctly — that we are such a car-mad city of fools that we would, indeed, show up for an auto show in January. Yea, verily, put those cars out there with a few busty models in skintight sequins, and we will come. Even if we have to drive down from Clarkston in a blizzard to do it.

Things are a little different this year, however. The auto industry, to put it delicately, is on life support. A month ago, we actually didn't know if there would be a Chrysler or General Motors around for this event. Fortunately, Uncle Sugar lent them $17.4 billion at the last minute, so they could go to the ball. However, things ain't the same.

The papers last week were full of doleful musings by the media as to how this was going to be an austere and grim auto show. Most upset was Nolan Finley at The Detroit News, who moaned that the usual "rocking two-week party that breaks winter's dreary hold on Detroit," wouldn't happen this year, because of those bad old Washington bureaucrats who are into "sacrifice and smugness." There was a lot more of this sort of stuff, but to his credit, the Free Press' Tom Walsh hinted at the real reason so many reporters were upset: Their swag has been cut off, or at least sharply curtailed.

"Apologies, immediately, are in order on behalf of Chrysler LLC, the automaker formerly known as DaimlerChrysler and especially beloved for providing free burgers, booze and a boisterous gathering place for credentialed media in an old firehouse across from Cobo Center," Tom wrote, with tongue somewhat in cheek. Chrysler did that at Christmastime too — I've been to a few of those parties. Alas, this year the tap has been turned off. Chrysler is alive only because it got $4 billion in taxpayer dollars last month, and the feeling is that it might be unseemly to use any of it to throw a lavish party, especially for a bunch of reporters who might drink Chrysler's booze, eat their food, and then say and write snotty things.

No wonder the reporters are glum. The mood among local civilians is rather dispirited as well, perhaps because the Detroit area seems to be heading into something more like a depression than a recession. (Today, the word "depression" is way more taboo than "fuck," though we are likely in one and have had the other done to us.) Indeed, sales of tickets for the auto show charity gala were running way off normal levels. Organizers feared attendance at the auto show itself (regular mugs are allowed in Jan. 17-25) will be down too, only partly because of the current Sarah Palinesque weather.

However, I actually think I might go to the auto show for the first time in years, and not just because I have been thinking of replacing the 1927 Bugatti convertible Wayne State issued me. No, I think this might be a really fascinating year, somewhat like a trip to the end of the Cretaceous Era, when the dinosaurs were on their way out, but not quite extinct. Most people's attention would be drawn to the surviving giant lizards, still stomping and thrashing around. But I would go to see the primitive mammals.

They would have been mainly little rat-like things, nondescript, but they would have been the future, much like the hybrids and electric cars are now. My analogy isn't perfect: The dinosaurs, scientists now think, died almost all at once, thanks to a meteor or a comet, sort of that era's equivalent of a Republican-controlled Senate. Vehicles powered only by petroleum will be with us for some time. But it is not at all clear how long any of the Big Three will last; the experts don't expect a stand-alone Chrysler will make it to 2010,

But there will still be cars of some sort, and the next generation of hybrids will be on display, as will further examples of the supposedly soon-to-be-available electric cars. Some of these things will flop. Others may not.

The future will be on display at this auto show, as well as cars that belong to the industry's profligate past. We are clearly at a historic moment in the industry that put the world on wheels, and in the town that has done more than any other to make that possible.

Somehow, this all makes me think of that famous scene in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Atticus Finch, the noble lawyer, walks out of the courtroom after doing the right thing and losing. "Stand up, your father is passing," someone tells his little daughter.

The auto industry as we knew it is passing. Most of us are here because of this industry, in one way or another. The least we can do is stand up and see it on display, even as much of it is probably passing forever.

Speaking of warming the heart: Last week, Michigan's Supreme Court Justice Elizabeth Weaver broke ranks with the three lockstep Republicans on the court to help elect Marilyn Kelly the new chief justice. That's the best thing to happen to this court in a long time. For years, Michigan's Supreme Court has had a well-deserved odious reputation as the most partisan in the nation. The so-called Gang of Four right-wing Republican justices existed mainly to do the party's bidding, as when they approved the clearly unconstitutional arrangement that would have given the voting records of last year's primary to the political parties, but not to the general public. (A federal court quickly reversed them.) Fortunately, the voters dumped former Chief Justice Cliff Taylor, the leader of the gang. Betty Weaver, who has a mind of her own, sometimes voted with the Democrats, and as a result came in for lots of insults from her fellow Republicans, especially Taylor.

Last week, they were again shocked when she changed sides to install Kelly. The rest of us should thank her. Marilyn Kelly is a class act who has a judicial temperament, and whose reasoning and decisions are known for integrity. For once, the good guys won.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]