Coulda been me

Feb 4, 2009 at 12:00 am

What I thought, when I saw the now-famous picture in The Detroit News, was that, apart from the white socks, it could have been me. The feet appeared to be about my size, and wearing the same black classic Reeboks that I wear around the house.

Could have been me, except that he was frozen solid up to his ankles in a pool of dirty water and garbage, and I was eating oatmeal in a suburban house a few miles away, about to drive to work.

I had another jolt two days later, when they thawed him out enough to identify him. Johnnie Redding not only shared my taste in shoes, we were born the same year. He was thinner and better looking than me, according to the family pictures the newspapers printed. He had a family. We differed mainly in that, sadly, Redding had a bad jones for drugs and alcohol that I've managed to avoid.

So there Johnnie was, dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft, in an abandoned ruin owned by our local billionaire, Ambassador Bridge and Urban Blight King Matty Moroun. Evidently a bunch of people knew about the body, homeless people, who saw no need to make waves or trouble for themselves by reporting it.

Finally, Charlie LeDuff, one of our town's best and most energetic reporters, heard about the body and went to look at it. According to LeDuff, he made a number of calls to 911 and the cops without success, until he finally got the Fire Department to come and find the body, which was finally removed. (The cops dispute that they dragged their heels, but do say they showed up once and were unable to find the body, which sounds just as incompetent.)

Nobody yet knew, as I wrote this, whether he fell or was pushed; whether he was rubbed out for a nickel bag of dope or slipped into the darkness all by himself some night.

Nobody may ever know just when Johnnie died, or exactly how, or whether he knew that a fellow black man had just been elected president of the United States. Nobody knows if he cared.

What I do know is that it is very likely that he isn't alone. The day before LeDuff's story appeared in print, I was at a radio station news meeting. We were discussing the 93-year-old Bay City man who had frozen to death inside his house after the city turned off his electricity for nonpayment. "Haven't there also been a lot of 'bumsicles' this year?" one veteran reporter noted.

"Bumsicle," if it isn't obvious, is newsroom slang for frozen homeless person. I think it is a frozen lead pipe cinch that there are more frozen corpses in other buildings in the ruins of Detroit. This has been a terrible winter, and there are, according to one estimate LeDuff cited, something like 19,000 homeless in the city.

The definition of "homeless" is a little dicey. (Redding's family claimed he always had a place to stay with them.) But however many are actually homeless, there are thousands more down on their luck. Some, like Johnnie Redding, may have "chosen" this lifestyle, or made bad choices that got them there. But we don't do much to give them a chance to survive, or a place to stay when it is as cold as it has been lately. Such shelters as there are boot people out at dawn and tend to make many downtrodden prefer abandoned buildings.

What appalled me about this story was the public reaction. Most of the discussion I heard involved people complaining about "that picture," the one on the front page Thursday, Jan. 30, that showed what LeDuff saw: the man's legs protruding from the ice.

Running that picture was a public service, and the newspaper should get some kind of an award for it. This is reality, people; time to wake up and smell your society rotting. We've been living, most of us, in a world that has allowed us to mostly insulate ourselves from reality.

No money? Get another credit card. Borrow from the Chinese. Borrow from the future. Party like it was 1999, when Ford was throwing billions away buying companies like Land Rover and Jaguar, and General Motors actually was still making money.

By the way, they recently discovered another man you should know about, a man in a very different block of ice. His name is John Thain, and he is about three years younger than Johnnie Redding. Unfortunately, Thain is still sucking air. Here's what he did: He was the former chairman of Merrill Lynch, the financial firm that had to merge with Bank of America last fall when the Wall Street crisis hit.

Thain, who had been chairman less than a year before his firm went belly-up, hid billions in losses from his new employer. However, he did find more than a million bucks of the company's money to redecorate his office, decorations which included a $35,000 "toilet." Then, when the federal bailout money started pouring in, he dispensed billions — billions — in bonuses to his friends and cronies in December, even though his new employer was having financial troubles, and millions of ordinary humans were losing their jobs.

Thain could get away with that, because Merrill Lynch was still technically an independent company till January. Thain had aroused suspicion among his new bosses at Bank of America, however, by showing up on Dec. 8 and demanding a $10 million bonus. (Merrill Lynch paid him $83 million in 2007, by the way.) When B of A found out the truth last month, they made the extremely poor decision to allow the bastard to resign, instead of firing him and having security frog-march him out of there.

What everyone needs to do, when they think about the Wall Street bailouts, and those who defend them, is to think about John Thain. The day may be coming when a lot of people considerably more respectable than Johnnie Redding are going to be ready to take the John Thains of this country to an abandoned elevator shaft of their own. And if so, these scum will have only themselves to blame.

News flash: Unemployed man gets job! Ken Hreha, a 51-year-old house painter from Dryden, went back to school later in life and got a degree in journalism from Oakland University. He then set out on a quest to get a job in his field. He got absolutely nowhere, though he did help the postal service by mailing hordes of applications. Finally, he gave that up, and for the last few years has been trying to get some kind, any kind of professional job.

He has applied everywhere, deluged everyone from Gov. Jennifer Granholm to me with letters, without success. Last year, he says he made a grand total of $12,000. "I haven't worked since early October," he wrote the governor Jan. 18. "I have no unemployment compensation, suspended by Blue Cross/Blue Shield coverage because I cannot afford the premium. It's very difficult these days."

Then, last week, his luck changed. He got a job in one of Michigan's few growth industries. "I was offered the position of unemployment examiner, which I cheerfully accepted," he told me. "I'm just so happy that I will be able to put my Oakland University degree to its fullest and best use serving the public interest." Here's betting he won't run out of work anytime soon.

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