Remember honesty?

Feb 9, 2005 at 12:00 am

It was an astonishing story with a headline that stopped me cold.The Detroit News, Friday, Feb. 4, 2005: “$1.2 M? Thanks but no thanks”

It was the banner headline, even played above the papers’ daily Super Bowl story (but not, of course, important enough to knock sports off Page 1 altogether).

At first glance I guessed that the Kilpatrick administration had let another grant application deadline pass unmet, or looked another schools-endowment gift horse in the mouth, or simply refused to accept a donation to chip away at Detroit’s enormous deficit because the city, of course, can handle everything just fine without outside assistance.

Or, as an apology for all the time I’ve spent on hold waiting for tech support, had Bill Gates finally decided to contribute to my retirement fund and, tragically, found the wrong guy, some hairy ascetic who had long ago spurned mammon to sit in a blue cloud and live a simple, contemplative life high atop Mt. Elliot?

Or had some absentee slumlord finally been located, offered a mighty tidy sum for his burnt-out crack house in south Midtown and laughed it off, holding out for more?

No, in the greater scheme, the one that includes an American ethos that is devoid of ethics, one that has seemingly everybody constantly on the hustle and looking only for more — legally, illegally or extra-legally — it was a much bigger story.

There was a rail car fire and chemical leak downriver in July 2001, forcing the evacuation of residents on Grosse Ile and in Wyandotte, Riverview and Trenton. Now, after four years of litigation and attorney fees that could be as much as $467,000, those living in the affected communities have their turn to take a piece of the $1.2 million settlement in the case. All they had to do was sign a statement saying they’d been home at the time of the leak, and collect $550 per family member.

But as The News’ David Shepardson reported, at least 30 of them have turned it down, in some cases simply because they didn’t feel they had it coming. Lawyers from both sides have even admitted that nobody would have checked up on claimants to see if they in fact had been home when the noxious cloud settled over their towns.

So, are they nuts? Has the American ethos cracked or have a limited few ethical, moral people been discovered hiding just downriver from Detroit, Mich.? It appears so.

“I looked at it this way,” Shepardson was told by Trenton resident Thelma Diemer, a retiree with a limited income. “Nothing happened to me, and when I left home [to shop during the leak] the birds and squirrels with their little tiny lungs were fine and when I got back, they were fine.

“I didn’t feel I was being honest accepting the money and you have to think about the hereafter, especially when you’re 86.”

What a sucker, huh? We all know we’re constantly getting ripped off by the government, businesses big and small, lawyers, telemarketers, televangelists, anyone offering anything for “free,” panhandlers whose families are stranded around the corner and just need bus money to get home, credit companies, the oil industry, professional sports organizations, Ticketmaster, car dealers, just about anybody involved any way in health care, wireless phone companies and the produce guy who turns the bad berries down in the basket. So why wouldn’t we gets ours when we can? Especially when we know we can get away with it?

Don’t know about you, but I know that from now on, Thelma Diemer will be whispering in my ear, reminding me of the hereafter with tales of birds, squirrels and tiny lungs.

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