The Kibbee Shack

A while ago when I lived in Detroit I worked at FoMoCo in Highland Park. Lunch options were scarce. But, the ones that were there were prrretty, prrretty good.

As you know, Detroit is a car town. No. Make that, THE car town. Detroit, Motown, Michigan: "During the day we make the cars; at night, we make the bars." I was there before Eminem; and I was the shiznit, before there even was a shiznit. You down with that?

I joined Ford right out of college just to have income while I went to graduate school. I applied for a job on the assembly line at a time when HF I's (Henry Ford the 1st) original assembly line factory was making tractors—the Highland Park plant was the first automobile assembly line in the world, turning out those Model T's. The assembly line I believe is Henry’s contribution to the succesful quest to amass a fortune at the expense of the working man. Think of those archival images of Model T’s coming off the line. There's a nice bit of historic video on that plant at the end of this, so stay tuned.

By the time I arrived the place was so old and so dark. Lit with incandescent bulbs and every surface brown/black with oil and the whole place a noisy racket and smelling of dirt, oil, smoke, and perspiration. Once you take a whiff, you know...I don't know what, but you know. A multi-sensory time travel. If the dehumanizing setting weren’t enough, the story goes that Ol’ Henry was such a hump that if you were on the commode he could drop in to see what you were making. Better have something to show the MAN. Later, of course, there were the unions and I am a proud former member of the UAW. When later I worked in the FoMoCo Surface Coatings Division R&D lab, in homage to Henry, the bunch of us crammed into the lavatory stall to get the boss’s signature on an important document. Boys will be...

Paydays, feeling a little flush, the boys would make the bars. Once I tagged along and got introduced to the joys of gin (as in a shot of gin) with a Coke chaser. Tough boys, those car guys. Maybe there's a new trendy drink to try out. Hey, bartender, Gin & Coke, please.

Later, I opted for a salaried post in the quality control lab. There were two sections; one for physical testing, the other for chemistry. I went to the chemistry side and got to do things like carbon content analysis (refractory furnace, ultra-sensitive balance scale), salt corrosion testing (huge salt steam chamber), and monitoring the production line chemical gear plating station. The transmission gears were all phosphate coated for corrosion resistance and lubricity. Then the gear faces were ground (for your pleasure and enjoyment). The test upstairs in the lab was to monitor the various chemical baths to determine that the required chemical concentrations were up to spec. Since the plant was so big I got to ride to my stop at the phosphate station on my very own company bicycle. It was like riding through the Diego Rivera mural at the Detroit Art Institute.

If you are not familiar with the realities of industrial plant production and sometimes wonder how what you get is so different from what it should be, let me tell you. In the lab the tests for chemical concentrations are very precise. Very tidy and determined. On the production line floor, however, with huge, maybe 5,000 gallon chemical baths, it's a bit more free swinging. Next to the station were large bins of loose granulated chemical compounds. Based on calculations from the lab tests I would go down and tell the attendant how many shovels full of this or that to toss into each vat. I would evaluate the outcome of the plating process with a test strip that came back to the lab after processing to measure thickness. Let's say I erred on the generous side. Not better, necessarily, mind you. The system was goldilocks, not too much not too little; they wanted it just right.

Anyway, at the lab on Thursday's it was Hot Dog Day. Each of us would take turns springing for all the fixin's. Hot Dogs, buns, condiments, and—if you were feeling generous and sporting—homemade chili. Since it was a chemistry lab, we had heat and these almost gallon sized glass beakers to cook the hot dogs. Exquisite.(When in Detroit go to Lafayette Street, Downtown Detroit, for the definitive Coney Island Hot Dog. As a lad my record was five —5!)

I was laid off from Ford Tractor and landed at the Industrial Coatings Division. At the time it was located in the front office building to the plant on Woodward Avenue.

That's where we formulated and tested car and truck paints and base resins for the foundry. I got to wear a lab coat and conduct experiments testing paint formulae against an arm's length of variables.

Lunchtime is a highpoint, if not the highpoint, of a working man's work day. One fellow and I shared a very rare gourmet taste. Bologna sandwiches on Wonder bread with yellow mustard. Accompanied by pickled hot yellow peppers and a large glass of milk. Still, quite excellent. I fancied myself quite the cook and every so often I would treat the guys to a pot of homemade New England clam chowder. Is there any other kind? On paydays occasionally we would pile into cars and head off for an "extended" lunch at Buddy's Rendevous (since 1946) on 6 Mile Road and Conant. Since those days, Buddy's has expanded with multiple locations all round town. It is famous for really delicious square pan pizza. And huge goblets of draft beer, we called "shupers". Be sure to add a good slug of tomato juice to the beer. Tastes good, goes down easy. Buddy's is where I was served beer for the first time while I was still under age. The waitress just looked at all of us boys and said, "You're all 21, right?" Naturally, you know what we said. She winked—she was hip to usso I didn't have to go to confession for telling a lie.

We also had a line on a bakery that made hot pasties ("pass-tees"). Not pastries. Certainly not "paste...ies" (that's the Gaiety Burlesque on Woodward Avenue, and for another write). [But I will say that we had to stop at the Gaiety Burlesque on the scavenger hunt the night of my college fraternity initiation weekend. A G-string was on our list of things we had to bring back; or else. The nice lady at the Gaiety not only gave us her G-string, she autographed it. I don't remember the name exactly, "Lili St. ..."? Blaze Star? Another item on our must get list was a bra. That one wasn't gonna happen. The loveliest cheerleader on the squad, Ms. Vera B., slammed the phone on me when I called her for that favor at 2 in the morning. Sorry, Vera.]

Back to the baked goods. It's pronounced "past'... ies. The little pastie seems to go back in history to the early 16th Century, can you believe it. Filled with lamb, onions, potatoes, and swedes. Wow! It's a item that the miners in Devon, England would take to work. The sturdy bread crust keeps things warm by the time lunch rolls around down deep in the cold mines. [When I was dating the future wife she asked me to suggest something I'd like her to to cook for me. Pasties, please? She left the room crying after I gave her the verdict. (But, she evened the score some time later, and left me crying. Literally, left me. Some dish.)]

But what about the Kibbee Shack, you ask? I know the writing is excellent, but you signed on for some information, not a literary tour de force. (But, thank you for the compliment, anyway. Tell everyone you know.)

Not far from the Ford Highland Park plant on Woodward Avenue going eastward toward downtown, was a small little restaurant with a sign "Hamburgers" in front. Inside there was this old married couple serving the customers. Open the menu and, sure there were hamburgers, but a long list of Middle Eastern specialties as well. Those two old folks were immigrants from Syria, tough and craggy like the very hills they came from. But, order the Baba Ganoush, and mama would waddle back to the kitchen and roast an eggplant over the flame of the stove. Soon after you could hear her pounding it into a purée in her wooden mortar. It would come out still warm, drizzled with fragrant olive oil and maybe some fresh pomegranate seeds.

That stuff was so far from what you get in the salad bar today that you would need a rocket ship to travel the distance. One of the few things that still can bring tears to my eyes is remembering the birth of my two little angel daughters; and, of course the Kibbee Shack. In no particular order of importance. Just kidding. The Kibbee Shack. Nah!

The Middle East is known for its hospitality and the epitome was the long gone Sheik Café in downtown Detroit. They welcomed you like family and I even once got a tour of the kitchen. The food, never equaled again. Once, when I wanted to treat my parents and brother to an excellent meal, it was The Sheik Café. My dad was smacking his lips with enjoyment.

Well, there was something that did go one notch better. A Lebanese Catholic church on the east side of Detroit that on Thursdays had a lunch in the church basement. For $2.00 you could have all you could eat of the very most lovingly prepared Lebanese dishes made with care by the ladies of the church. When they made kibbeh nayyeh, it was like you were there at the dawn of civilization. (Hey, Mark Bittman, ever had anything that good?)

I'm not going to give a recipe for kibbeh nayyeh. The Internet is chocked full. But, if you want kibbeh nayyeh, first sample the real deal. Find a Middle Eastern restaurant that is reputed to be of the highest caliber. The dish is made with raw lean lamb and you want to have some confidence that the chef is first cut, quality wise. Don't be put off with that "raw" part. It is absolutely the BEST! A desert island dish. If I could ululate, I would.

Here is some dessert. But, can she cook?

The following video has historic footage of the working assembly line at the Highland Park Ford Model T factory.

Johnny Carson Saw To It I Was Shushed
     In 1968, the year of its 100th Anniversary, I joined the J. Walter Thompson Advertising agency in New York City. My very first assignment was as account executive on the Singer account.

     In that role I was also involved with all the advertising that was produced and placed to promote the TV specials. Mr. Al diScipio was the President of the Singer Consumer Goods Division (sewing machines and other home appliances.) He was into show business and was the prime mover in prime time TV specials showcasing Singer’s advertising, such as Singer Presents Tony Bennett and Singer Presents Elvis. You can read about my Elvis sighting in another post.

     One such promotional event tied in with the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson on New Year’s Eve. That night Singer had all the network commercial spots for its commercials. A big promotional deal, for sure. There was also multi-media tune in advertising and full merchandizing “synergies” (big buzz word in the Ad Biz) in all the stores.

     Singer had already been a regular weekly advertiser on the Tonight Show; that was during the time when Ed McMahon would do the commercials live. I once attended a rehearsal for one of those spots. Ed seemed to be a bit of a prima donna; only just one quick read and only a special ad agency copywriter to deal directly with the talent. Egg shells everywhere. Careers on the line. Do not approach the talent yourself!

     My reason for being there that New Year’s Eve was to be sure that upon arrival at the ground floor entrance to NBC studio 6-B at 30 Rock Mr. di Scipio and his entourage would be seamlessly whisked up by elevator to the stage floor and seated promptly, no waiting; chop, chop. Star treatment. Any hitch and it would be my very life. Or, so I held it. I was the designated facilitator and NBC provided a small coterie of staff on their side.

     It did go well, in fact. Big Al was gracious enough to invite me and my lovely companion after the show to a night club to see Ella Fitzgerald. After the show he spoke privately with Ms. Fitzgerald. Maybe a potential deal for another Singer Presents.

     Remembering my one other time at the Tonight Show in NYC sometime in around 1969 - 1970. My then fiancé and I were sharing a little private moment together during the show, when this little old lady turns around and quite sternly shushes us.

     Well, what an honor! It was none other than Miss Miller herself!

     I do believe that second time was the best time. A charm.
The Michigan State Fair

I got the idea for this essay from the video for the song inserted at the end. So I will spare you the verbiage and get to it as soon as I can get there.

Yet, some words are indicated. "Bare" with me.

You know how as a grade school kid you probably looked forward to the summer recess? For me it was a time of exquisite longing. Just thinking about the coming THREE WHOLE MONTHS OFF! from classes filled me with giddy delight. And an aching longing of the most unendurable kind; when will it ever get here?
Capping the summers of fun was the State Fair. The Michigan State Fair is claimed to have been the first in the country, going back to 1849. In 1905 the State Fair got its permanent location in Detroit thanks to a group of citizens led by Mr. Joseph L. Hudson, the founder of that great and, alas, now disappeared eponymous J.L. Hudson Department Store. Hudson's rivaled Macy’s for size and was a wonderland for me. They had EVERYTHING. I could go on and on about my times in that store, but will save that for later. [Just a sneak peak... I had a big crush on Christmas Carol. I loved her from afar. She would arrive with Santa at the end of the Thanksgiving parade and climb onto the overhang platform at the store's main entrance. She was my Lady Gaga: the brightest red coat, white stockings, patent leather shoes and hair to match (the shoes, that is). Also, as pretty a thing that I had ever seen. She swept me off my feet. I had the experience one year after that parade of being swept along by a crowd. Not off my feet, thankfully. But close. Escaped, though.] Sadly, the flagship location in Downtown Detroit on Woodward Avenue was demolished in 1998.
The Michigan State Fair also ended, in 2009, due to spending cuts. But by then it was no longer the spectacle that I remember from my youth.
Being Michigan, and Detroit, the State Fair always saw a big show from the auto manufacturers. In my youth, that would be Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors. Any others, and imports, were strictly side shows. The difference from the annual Downtown Cobo Hall car show was that at the State Fair, it was a people’s show. The car models were all there to touch and sit it in. Hands on was the rule.
Of course, there was a lot of food. The two items that seemed to be regular staples for me were the French fries sprinkled with malt vinegar and the frozen custard. The fries were thin cut, crisp and the only time that I ever ate them with vinegar as a condiment. Delicious, but it didn’t fly in my parents’ home, so only once a year. The frozen custard is still something that I am always on the lookout for. Light and airy, rich and creamy; it was there before Dairy Queen and never equaled since; though DQ is still, as ever, a nice treat.
Also, there was the opportunity to look at all the farm animals up close and the farm equipment and all the displays of amazing new products. The slice it dice it Veg-O-Matic guy was always guaranteed to drop jaws at his speed and finesse. That, there, was a pitchman.
The State Fair was an important window on the world. I felt like some hick kid being exposed to the world of things outside the boundaries of my small town mentality. Not just the kind of exposure you get from books or watching television. At the State Fair you got hands on, direct contact. Up close with no adults hovering over to keep you in check. We crawled around the Michigan State Fair like the true explorers that we were.
If summer was the jewel of the year and the State Fair was the capstone of that season, then the midway was the ultimate experience, and a most indelible one. Besides the usual rides—no biggie, since we had the real deals all summer long at Jefferson Beach Park and Eastwood Park—there were the so-called attractions. Those money rakers each featuring a wise mouth barker on stage in front of hand painted signs promising the excellences and live oddities on view just on the other side of the curtain. Step right up, step right up! Tickets, please. But, as you may recall yourself, the reality never met up with the hype.
And, in the center of it all was the Girly Show. Live beautiful sexy ladies who will reveal for you all their secret charms. Also, just behind the curtain. For a price. For many years all’s I could do was stand there and listen to the barker and his tempting spiel and be filled with fantasy and nervous wonderment. Simultaneously full of Catholic-boy conflict between the fear that what would be just behind that curtain would guarantee me a swift trip straight to hell and the impossible to ignore delicious feelings of…of… all sorts. Sweaty palms. Does my nervous fidgeting show?

Well here it is. The Girly Show. The song, just wonderful. Step right up. Step right up! (It’s not over ‘til the fat lady smiles. Then, it ends unceremoniously. Let's go, folks. Make way for the next bunch (of suckers). Move along. That's right.)

Ad Biggies

And One Surprising Character
I was an Ad Biggie around the same time in which the Mad Men television series is set. 
It was the late 1960s, a little bit later than depicted in the show. By that later time people in the business were adjusting their lunch time drinking habits down to wine spritzers. My beverage of choice was a Campari and tall soda, squeeze of lemon wedge. Even so, there were still some pretty hard drinkers among us. I once had a lunch with one of those dyed-in-the-wool ad guys to celebrate an upward career move. Lunch at his club, and three generous martinis. I walked back to the office stiff as a zombie after the meal. Never again. Ouch. That sort of thing takes years of practice.
As you must know from Mad Men there was a terrific amount of cigarette smoking in the office. I was a cigar aficionado. The Nat Sherman No. 86 Panatela, natural wrapper, was my nail of choice. When you’re into smoking at the office as a more or less continuous feature of your work day, in that cloud of self-absorption it does seem to be an enjoyable experience. Until, however, when you decide to quit and have to live through the physical process of purging the built up tars and the taste of an ash tray from your system. At such a time you also get some appreciation for the suffering your smoke had on your co-workers. The former Mrs. Wronski used to tolerate my smoking at home. Never complained; that must have been a sign of true love. Although, I doubt that her complaints would have made any difference. She threw me out, finally. That made quite a difference. We sometimes have to learn the hard way.
The third wheel of the Ad Biz trilogy of decadence was, as they put it these days, “hooking up” with someone of the opposite gender at work. Correction, "from" work. "At" work; holly cow, you got to be crazy. Though I'm sure it has happened. Rich fodder for office gossip. I had my temptations as well. Human nature being what it is, I’m sure that is still out there, yet as they say… “Don’t dip your pen in the company ink well.” That’s always the best advice. Be strong, all you sexy beasts; keep strapped to those desks. Keep eyes on the screen at all times.
The advertising business, contrary to how it’s presented in the media, does in fact exact hard work and discipline. It’s not just some clever people lounging around drinking and smoking and copping feels dreaming up some clever little morsels to toss to the hoi polloi. That is, it wasn’t like that in the full service shops that I worked in. Creativity, to be sure, is an inspired art and needs some freedom to manifest. But in the commercial field, the professionals judge their product on results and formulate messages based on a clearly defined and researched communications strategy.
Even though the advertising industry is a fully professional enterprise, working with clients can bring out anyone’s self-promotion genes. There were more than a few such self-serving types in my time. Donald Trump comes to mind for no apparent reason since he was never in the game. But, he is a good (maybe too easy) prototype for the kind of person I am thinking about. Most of them we could see coming a mile away and they were the subject of not a little sniggering and put downs from their peers. Others play at getting ahead with good hard work. I fell into that latter aspirational group; but there are politics and you have to do your time in the barrel with the client from time to time. One reason for me to leave. Can you imagine having your livelihood on a daily bais at the mercy of whether or not your client is pleased? Most clients are professionals themselves, but in human relations, the demand to go along and kiss up does come along in every career. It is a very gradual process to arrive someday to the shocking realization that you have sold your soul for a bowl of soup.
I am remembering a fellow from my days assigned to the Singer Consumer Products (sewing machines and household appliances) account at JWT. We had both the advertising and publicity accounts with Singer. I once put my foot completely in my mouth by referring to publicity as “free advertising”. Not something your employer wants to hear you say to the client, since he is billing the client for hours as a publicist. In fact, publicity is not free advertising. Sure, the placement of a product or some information related to a product in the media is not paid for, as such (if it is, then shame on you); but, the leg work to get that publicity in print or on television does take a lot of professional doing.
The fellow I am recalling would usually be there when we had a big everybody to the table type meeting. He was ostensibly on retainer with the President of Singer as some sort of consultant. The basis for that relationship I never knew and you can speculate on what that might have been after you get to know the man yourself from the documentary that follows.
He was the kind of person I mentioned before. Clearly, a big talker and shameless self-promoter. He was a rather garrulous presence at meetings; assertive, full of confidence, and never at a loss for words and some clever comment. He gave me the impression that he was a getter and fixer with shadowy connections in high places. He was an intellectual and a bit of a philosopher.
It was he who submitted that the reason women were so involved with sewing was its metaphorical symbolism to the good old in-and-out: picture that sewing needle... thrusting, thrusting, thrusting; penetrating assertively, deeply, sliding into the folds of soft, yielding… Alright! Alright! We get it! We get it!
One other feature of the advertising business—probably any business for that matter—is that most of the people you work with you never see other than at the office. It was always quite a revelation and often surprising to meet your associate’s better half at some company function. Friendships are forged. I am still in touch with some of my old pals. But mainly, relationships stayed intra-mural and narrow. Probably one factor why I decided to leave the industry after I chose to live the holistic life and a path with heart. When you reflect on the amount of time you spend at a job, you begin to look at how much time that choice may be keeping you from a fuller life. I did. And, soon after, I was out of it. What followed is another story entirely. As the Pythons’ would say, “And now for something completely different.” Enough to say I became a Rolfer® A what?
So anyway, very recently here I am looking up some folks from my past Ad Daze. Speak about only having a narrow sense of your co-workers lives. The video you are about to see is an award winning documentary by the daughter of the fellow I mention.
 Who knew? And, if they did, what was in it for them?
As I said, you generally don’t get to really know the people you meet in business. In this one case, what has come to light is both intriguing but definitely shocking: Strong stuff. Be advised. (One of my colleagues from that era reported feeling very upset.)
mature subject matter viewer discretion advised

The Marina Experiment…

Mature subject matter viewer discretion advised

The Marina Experiment from Marina Lutz on Vimeo.
Nuts and Ducks and Caps and Scraps

I recently heard the great Tom Waits singing Coney Island Baby. It brought back some memories of the time I once lived in Brooklyn with two little baby girls who I called my own. They are all growed up now with little girls (and a boy) of their own.

When we were young together in that best of all boroughs, sometimes the ladies would go with Dad in the trusty Land Rover for excursions to explore new territories. "City safaris," as it were.

One such trip was to gather horse chestnuts. [When I was a boy there was a huge horse chestnut tree on our block. Each fall I would search the ground under that tree daily for fallen bounty. After peeling off the spiked shells, inside were the most beautiful deep chestnut brown fruits (“conkers”). I would polish them and stash them away in an old cigar box that I kept with all my other collected small treasures. Jewels to this young lad.]

In Brooklyn, so many years away from that chestnut tree on my block, I knew of a chestnut tree in the historic Greenwood Cemetery. It is a national landmark site planted with a vast collection of various species of trees. It’s dotted with a profusion of 19th century monuments and is the resting place of many of the rich and famous.

It was a brisk and somewhat overcast day. Perfect conditions to add a touch of a spooky vibe to the experience. What was truly spooky, terrifying really, was our encounter with a pack of dogs that was ranging through the grounds. They didn’t want anything to do with us, but they did pause to consider us there for a nervous moment.

We found that horse chestnut tree on a hill. After we had collected a good share of the mahogany brown nuts we took a little stroll down to the pond. When we got there we came across a lame duck. No, not a politician; but, a duck… that was lame. Our hearts went out and we gathered the frightened creature and brought it home to nurse it back to health. Time is the great healer and in a few days we came home to find that our little friend had flown the coop. Happy trails.

On another trip we drove all the way out to Coney Island for a walk on the beach. It was off season and none of the rides were operating. [One summer we had a 10th birthday party at Coney Island and the brave among us rode the fabled Cyclone. I remember seeing my younger daughter and two other girls sitting as cool as cucumbers in the seat in front of me; and me with two little girls in back, one screaming “DAVID, MAKE IT STOP!!!” All I could do was to be as reassuring as possible, since I was pretty shaken myself. "There, there; it'll be OK." A comment came from the front seat… “You two sounded like a soap opera!” And, EXCUSE ME! for not stopping the Cyclone just as it started dropping off the crest of that first big rise. Props to Claire. I hope you haven't been scared too seriously by our little adventure.]

Back on the cold beach. My daughters were [“Were,” hah! Still are.] silly and sassy little ladies. They each got into a competition to see who could comb the beach for precious presents for dear daddy. But, typically, and gleefully, in reverse. The crummier and less significant the found object, the more fitting for their beloved old man. I didn’t know if they really thought they were giving me special treats or they were imbued with a wicked sense of irony. They never let on. I know the truth on that, but I will keep mum. Some mysteries are best left that way. “Why, thank you my little darlings, that is so wonderful of you.” Bottle caps, chips of driftwood, soft drink can tabs, green bits of glass rounded and polished dull by the sand and the waves. [One day when I met a living saint, I offered those shards of green glass. I wrapped them in a piece of lavender paper which was hand made from banana leaves. It was my way of asking God to look after my girls. And so it is.]

"All the stars make their wishes on her eyes..."