Detroit mojo

[Ed. note: I couldn’t write it at the time, but this was my experience just after an interview at the Detroit News. Not an experience you want to haunt an interview.]

“You see that?” The Detroit cabbie said as I got back into the car.

I had asked him to go to an ATM after getting into the cab. He had hand-drawn cartoons posted on the dividing window that indicated credit was extended only to passengers older than age 65 traveling with grandparents. He later admitted that he’d drawn them.

We pulled into a Bank One parking lot a few bumpy blocks away, and I pushed the door open and walked up to the ATM booth. Because the door to the booth was locked, I went inside the bank.

“Is there another ATM? This one’s locked,” I said to the tellers inside.

“It’s a security door,” one replied. “Just slide your card.”

Back outside, I slid the card through the slot, and the door buzzed like the entrance to an apartment building. I pulled and felt the sun-warmed air rush at me from inside.

I slid my card again, punched my code and withdrew $60 – cursing under my breath at the $2 service fee.

Back in the leatherette seat, I craned my neck to the left and right to see what held his attention. From where I sat in the rear passenger side of the car, I saw nothing.

He eased the cab back about 10 feet, pulling out from the parking stall in an arc, and looked behind his left shoulder. I followed his glance.

Laid out across the parking lot, chin down, sat the head of a deer. But wait, it gets more gruesome. The length of the unfortunate doe’s sun-baked spine trailed from the head.

“What the HELL?” tumbled from my mouth. “How on earth does that happen? I mean, hunting season is in, like, October or November, isn’t it?” I groped for sane justifications as we struck toward the DTW airport, and failed to reach any.

Poachers? Belle Isle, not three or four miles away, has a deer herd. (Other than that deer are rare in the downtown, I suspect.) But, why would a poacher dump only part of a carcass? And why in a bank parking lot? Did a strange cult butcher it in a bizarre ritual? Where’s the rest of her?

No explanation could quite get at the obtuseness of the scene. The cabbie shrugged it off, but listened patiently as it sank in for me. I changed the subject, but couldn’t – and still can’t – subdue it in the back of my head.

At the departure terminal curb, he handed my bag to me from the trunk. I paid him, and turned to walk into the building. Remembering the receipt, I dashed back. “Jerry” he signed the ticket, along with the date and amount, and handed it to me.

I dragged the suitcase inside, wondering if the sight Jerry and I shared showed a twisted bit of bad mojo.

Then again, it might just be Detroit.

The American laundrette

I recently changed laundromats, and I find myself fascinated with the personality each one holds.

The character of the old one spurs descriptors such as “ghetto” and “prole.” Tiles line the floor – in a muted shade of 1973. I once heard two women there talking about a mutual acquaintance as a “rat-trap ho.”

The manager there enjoys a Fonzie-style relationship with the machines: It is common for him to offer a little jab to greedy washers whose doors refuse to open. When not reuniting wet clothes and their owners, he walks around with a cigarette dangling from his mouth (despite the emphatic sign: Please no smoking in front of driers thank you mgmt). He talks with his favorite patrons, casually slinging platitudes in his thread-bare tank top.

It sounds awful, but I patronized that laundromat, in its chunky brown strip mall with a labor-ready work-by-the-hour office and and a foam cushion outlet, for 18 months.

Halfway across town, the new-to-me laundromat survives on an anemic crew. Two of every three washers and driers bear “out of order” signs, insistently written in Sharpie and taped to their Plexiglas faces. Even the change and soda machines have notes introducing themselves: For patrons only; Please do not put taped bills in machine – thanx mgmt; Please do not put dimes or nickels in soda machine it jams thank you; Quarters only.

The TV, mounted in an upper corner of the room, bears the verboten warning “DO-NOT-CHANGE-TV.” On it, a cavalcade of John Wayne movies and Mr. Ed episodes wanly offers background entertainment.

This one sits almost invisibly in a low-lying strip of stores. I drove past it dozens of times before the sign jumped into my attention.

The old woman who manages the new one has the charm of Mussolini. On my first trip there, I held up a $10 bill for her and asked for change. “Where’s your laundry?” Apparently burned by the rash of ungrates who get change and go elsewhere with the clothes, she made me bring in my laundry from the car before she pointed me to the change machine I hadn’t seen tucked away in a corner.

The contrast is startling – to me anyway. Laundromats are not exclusively American. Still, I’m amused at the shades of America found in them.

My brush with Moore-ness

It’s 1998, and time idles while I slog a public relations job.

The boss would spend more time away from than in the office and I, a recent journalism graduate, slummed alone through writing press releases.

The office remained silent, save for my pecks on the keyboard and the occasional drama of the fax machine. Fax lists for each of our clients included that number. On Sept. 24, the machine lit up, and it spit out a memo from Manpower, the quasi-employer.

It read, in part:

We wanted everybody to be aware of an incident that occurred today in the downtown Los Angeles office. A group came into the office when only the Service reps were present and indicated that they had permission from Home Office to film our operation. The group indicated they were from a television station and filming for a program hosted by Michael Moore.

The memo, dated Sept. 9 and just working its way to Michigan, went on to advise “Service reps” on how to handle such situations. “Keep in mind that we only look bad if we allow ourselves to be provoked,” it read. “Staff should not allow themselves to be bullied or intimidated into cooperating with such a group.”

The fax included tacked-on and related memos with a few different dates, representing comments added as the document worked its way around the company.

Moore’s avant populism appealed to me much more at the time, and I snatched the thin paper off the machine and stuffed it in my book bag.

Two days later, I emailed Moore through his Web site. Tia Lessen, as assistant at the time, emailed me back immediately to express interest. Moore himself emailed me before long, apparently quite eager.

Thank you so much for your e-mail. I was wondering how long it would take Manpower to catch onto what I was doing!

Would you please fax those three pages to me at my personal fax? No one will know about this correspondence between us. My fax number is [omitted].

I’ll stay in touch with you and let you know how we fare!

Thanks SO much for helping out.

BTW, we pay $700 for story ideas we use so that means I want to send you $700. How should I do this, keeping in mind the confidentiality concerns?

Take care,

I wrestled with it for a few days before making a decision I don’t think I’d make now, six years later. As I said, I was a recent graduate; that kind of money buys a lot of Ramen.

On Oct. 1, I walked into a Kinkos, document in hand, to fax Michael Moore. I waited nervously at the counter while the man waited for his machine to print a confirmation slip. I had included a brief note reminding Moore of our email exchange, and giving him my address so he could send a check.

That was the last I heard of Michael Moore – no check, no thanks, no nothing.

Not that I’m angry about it, or hold him in vile esteem. Moore has his place; I appreciate him in the same way I do the populist lean of Mother Jones or the stodgy English conservatism of The Economist. I know the information sources, and their strengths and weaknesses. I know what I’m getting from each source.

And I know, after six years, I’m probably not getting my $700 from Michael Moore.

Back to Iraq, pt. 2

[Ed. note: This is the second, and last, installment of my interview with Christopher Allbritton, reporter, editor and publisher of Back to Iraq 3.0. He left for Iraq on May 12.]

War stance

Christopher Allbritton shies away from support of the current war in Iraq, and mentions that fact often through his dispatches. He aims for the ideal of transparency, rather than objectivity.

Creeping bias, he said, is inevitable.

“I think that it’s a fallacy to expect people to believe that doesn’t happen,” he said of bias bleeding into reporters’ prose. “So, be open about it, let them know. Let them make the decision whether to trust you or not based on that bias.”

Thorough, fair reporting earns respect from readers, he believes.

“I’m credible not because of my background or who I am. I’m credible because my readers have decided I’m credible.”

He has seen support come from a spectrum of viewpoints, despite his stated stance against the war. He says he even got a commendation letter from Lucianne [Ed. note: corrected to ‘Lucianne’ from ‘Lucian’ 5/19/04] Goldberg, whose name history inextricably links to the Bill Clinton impeachment, after last year’s Iraq trip.

“I think of objectivity as a transparency of method,” he added. He likens journalism to the meme of politics being like sausage: It might prove tedious to see how it’s made, but making the process available benefits all.

He suggests that journalists, in their Web forays, take advantage of the medium and post transcripts and audio recordings of interviews. Such strategies for transparency, he says, boost credibility.

Perils of self-publishing

Self-publishing is a line drawn from one point. Allbritton tries to overcome the lack of editors in his model of journalism through extreme care.

His mother, an avid reader and editor, and his spell-checker catch the minor errors, he says.

“Other than that, I just have to be really careful,” he said. “And I sometimes have to slow down a little bit.”

“I mean, I no longer try to be first. I know that, when I try to be first, I get into a rush, I make mistakes or I write weirdly structured sentences or, you know, get names misspelled. … And I try to bring more depth to it to make up for the fact that I’m not breaking it.”

Web reporting, then, is an evolving creature. Reporters get as close as they can to “truth,” and post their material. Readers help them vet it.

“You hope that people look at the Web site, and will forgive you your minor sins for your greater virtue,” Allbritton said.


Independent reporting also pressures journalists more when balancing sources.

For example, Allbritton says that Iraqis have a culture of exaggeration – part of the national character to a degree. It is also a vestige, he says, of dealing with the brutal former regime and the false witness often associated with trauma.

At the same time, Coalition Provisional Authority officials, he says, have an interest in favorable portrayals of events in Iraq.

“How do you reconcile the two? You just report as fully and honestly as possible … and hope you get somewhere close to the truth.”

“You’re probably not going to hit it exactly. You’re going to get some things wrong. … But, you do the best you can, and you hope that with an accumulation of stories and facts from other reporters all competing against one another that you have this kind of ‘media Darwinism’ that kind of gets the truth to funnel up.”

This trip

Allbritton says this trip begins in Baghdad, and he’s not sure how much latitude he’ll have beyond the capital city.

“The roads are really, really unsafe,” he said. “It really depends on the security situation to see which areas I can travel to. I’ve been hearing from people that it’s just almost impossible to get out of Baghdad.”

But, unlike many other in-country journalists, who have editors to remind them of insurance costs, Allbritton has the option to leave the Green Zone.

“The only thing stopping me is concerns for safety, and that’s the call I have to make. I don’t have an editor, in that sense.”

In light of recent unrest and direct targeting of Americans, Blocletters wishes Christopher Allbritton a safe return to Iraq. Use that concern for your safety wisely, and keep us informed.

Back to Iraq, pt. 1

Cleverness, skill and luck collided to create the Web site Back to Iraq. Now in its third iteration, Christopher Allbritton’s site for war dispatches continues to display cleverness and skill.

And the luck will have to continue, too, as he heads to Iraq for his third reporting excursion this week.


Inspiration for Back to Iraq hit Allbritton in 2002. The former New York Daily News and Associated Press reporter financed a trip to the Middle East.

“I went to Iraq originally in 2002 basically as a fishing expedition for commercial freelance. And when I got back, I came up empty, and I wasn’t really getting anything. So I decided to put it up on a Web site.” hosted the first humble version of the site. Before long, Allbritton decided to take independent reporting further – to reader sponsorship. He drew inspiration from such sites as, which a New York woman used to raise money to pay credit card debt.

“I thought, well I can do better than that,” Allbritton said. “I’ll have people donate, and I’ll actually report for them. I’ll actually give them something more than warm and fuzzies.”

Back to Iraq 2.0 was born. His fund raising proved meager at first. But a Wired News article in mid-March 2003 spurred donations, and he headed to Iraq just in time for the war.


Allbritton’s novel form of journalism may prove an important facet of the profession’s future. The basics, however, stay the same.

“I’m a reporter,” he said. “I’m a journalist; I just use blogging the same way that people use laptops. It’s just the easiest tool to get the job done.”

By most measures, that job is a success. His current trip’s fund-raising total is more than $11,000. The site’s donor list numbers in the hundreds. On Technorati, a site that monitors connections among weblogs, a recent check showed Back to Iraq 3.0 is linked to by nearly 500 other sites (mine among them), a sign of respect in the Web world.

Though he publishes his work electronically, the way Allbritton works compares with any print correspondent.

On this trip, he’s taking two small laptops, a pair of cellular phones, a satellite phone, a GPS unit, a voice recorder, a Web camera and a digital camera. He also packs an extra hard drive, for backups.

These items, and uplinks via Internet café, allow him to publish Back to Iraq from the country. They also help him provide extra services for donors. Paid donors get a private listserv, see extra photographs and read additional posts, and have direct email access and participate in hosted chats.

“I’ve always wanted to be a foreign correspondent,” he said. “I got kind of sidetracked for a while covering technology, but this is what I really want to do and this is my way of getting to do it.”

Where’s Columbia?

[Editor’s note: I wrote this February 1, 2003, and it became the centerpiece of a package, posted a few days later, on the Chips Quinn Web site regarding the tragedy.]

The morning came with a thunder that made no sound. I didn’t hear the sonic boom. My windows didn’t tremble.

This morning, the shuttle Columbia broke apart over northeast Texas. News reports told of people hearing sonic booms for hundreds of miles there and in Louisiana. Each chunk of spacecraft warped the air around it into a loud bang as it slowed to under Mach 1.

Here in Ocala, Fla., I heard nothing.

“You can hear the sonic boom overhead,” my cousin Cheryl told me at 9 a.m. when I turned on the news to watch the shuttle land. “Sometimes the windows even shake.”

Columbia would be passing over us on its way to land at Cape Canaveral, Fla., 136 miles to the east. I waited for the shudder of the windows. I heard nothing. At 9:16 a.m., the local newscaster, who no doubt expected another routine landing, began speculating why the shuttle might lag behind schedule.

At Cape Canaveral, the sun shone brightly. “It’s a beautiful day for a landing,” he had remarked, opening his live coverage.

He didn’t know that at about 9 a.m., both Kennedy and Johnson space centers had lost radar and radio contact with Columbia.

At 9:18 a.m., two minutes after the scheduled landing, I called to the other room. “Cheryl, Columbia’s late. I don’t know if something’s wrong, or what.” I heard the pad of her slippers approaching. I sipped my coffee, tasting the bitterness, and mission control finally broke the silence. “A contingency for the space shuttle has been declared,” the voice said. The scene on television showed the crowd gathered, waiting for a ghost.

I wasn’t sure what to think. Shredded wheat bubbled in my stomach. My body knew how to react, but my head trailed behind trying to be rational. NASA officials had been dispersing the crowd gathered at Kennedy since earlier that morning. Expectant families had waited with excited children on cold metal bleachers, and gawkers had scanned the sky with binoculars.

Officials ushered the news crews away.

The local newscaster who had narrated the silence for me still sounded stunned at what he hadn’t seen.

By 9:40 a.m., I had switched to CNN, which confirmed the worst. Trails of plasma plumed across the screen. Three, four, even five of them streaked through the sky, where there should have been just one. The 24-hour news station, filling airtime, repeated the same few-second clips. I held hope that the next time I saw the footage, the multiple streaks would turn out to be a trick of the eye, a glint of the sun.

People in Nacogdoches, Texas, just had finished breakfast and discovered shrapnel in a bank parking lot.

A crash site somewhere between Athens and Rusk, CNN beaconed. But it’s not that easy. The shuttle’s intense velocity didn’t leave a “crash site.” Streams of wreckage were cast across east Texas, Louisiana, even Arkansas.

It’s not that easy.

Later, Cheryl and I tried to make the best of an otherwise beautiful day. “I’ve had too many days like this in such a short life,” I told her.

“What do you mean?”

I paused. Her Camaro sped us down the road toward Marion Market in Belleview, just south of Ocala. Air gushed through the open window.

“Days that I can turn to my kids one day, and say, ‘I remember exactly where I was when…’ “