I had the honor last week of being interviewed by Detroit Public Radio for the 25th anniversary of the word “carjacking,” which we coined at the Detroit News in 1991.
The request stunned me. As did news that Wayne State University even had this copy in a file somewhere (and that WDET found it). Thank you to both.
For more than a decade, I’ve worked as a film critic. And have plenty of useless TMZ-like celebrity anecdotes with which to bore strangers. But to this day, few outside the family believe that the story above was the first time the word “carjacking” had ever been printed, or that I who wrote it. The interviewer, though, did her homework. Her questions were sharp, and raised urban myths I didn’t even know existed, like that the word was a riff of New Jack City, the movie that came out the same year.
I admitted I’ve still never seen the movie, though I know it was a hit. In truth, the word was just a riff of hijacking; We needed something catchy, as the Detroit Police Department referred to the crime only as R.A./U.D.A.A. (Robbery Armed/Unauthorized Driving Away of an Automobile). The editors said I was free to do the project — as long as we had something better than R.A./U.D.A.A. It’s a mouthful to type, let alone say or read read.
But during the interview, I realized that the catch-phrase not only made my career; it helped helped me leave it.
Before we wrote the story, Detroit was already seeing a spike in the new crime. I mapped FORTY in one week. Then a kid, 21-year old Jerry Borieo, became the crime’s first official homicide victim. Six days later, a 22-year-old woman, Ruth Wahl was murdered for her Suzuki. We scrambled to turn the story. Slapped a copyright symbol on the article, splashed it on the front page, and skipped our way to catch-phrase infamy, network TV interviews, even a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
And I was beginning my skip away, period. I realized, as we spoke in the radio interview, that the story marked my first step away from crime. How much of my life had been spent preying on the grieving: mothers of dead kids; witnesses to to the merciless; atrocities embodied? The greater their grief, the greater my story.
So as the Detroit News gained gravitas for recognizing — and nicknaming — another city-borne plague, I was craving the intentionally trivial: entertainment. I used the story’s cache to join People magazine as a freelancer to cover movies, a business that measures disaster in box office and claims as art Pauly Shore and Electric Boogaloo 2.
But it was the antidote to the palpable…sadness. And remains so. I’ll take the inane over the insane, any day. It’s a lot easier, I’ve discovered, to ask a studio exec why his movies suck than to ask a grieving mother how she’s feeling
Wrapping up the interview, the producer asked if I missed the city, nonetheless. I told her terribly: I keep spare Detroit Tigers bumper stickers as tribal symbols and emergency adhesive. I miss the Renaissance Center (from Windsor, it looks like Detroit flipping Canada the bird); Greektown (which has very few actual Greeks); even the financial black hole that remains the People Mover (it only moves you in a small downtown circle).
But I especially miss the people who deal with real life, everyday. Like my oldest friend and his boy, who live there still.
There was an elderly woman I once interviewed at the News, known in the neighborhood simply as Ms. Hattie, who owned the last standing home on a crime-decimated block. I asked her why she refused to leave. She told me her mother gave birth to her there. That her love of that home was a helluva lot more powerful than her fear of thugs.
That’s Detroit. No matter what catch-phrase you give it.