The Lighter side of the NAIAS
Published: January 18, 2012
Whatever happened to the old days of giving vehicles names consisting of actual words? This year the show displayed a text-message-friendly alphabet soup of new makes like the Lincoln MKZ, Cadillac ATS, Toyota NSA4, Subaru BRZ and Acura RDX. (See also: WTF? LOL!)
OK, I'm back. Had to pause because rock star auto exec Sergio Marchionne had just shown up. The chain-smoking, sweatered, Italian CEO of Fiat and Chrysler arrived with tired eyes and a face prickly with two-day stubble. But when you rescue a company that was near death and save thousands of jobs, you're allowed to show up around here like you just rolled out of bed after a bender. The disheveled Messiah came down from the mountain, delivered the Word, and vanished into the backstage heavens once more. And the crowd swooned.
This is how press days go. Every hour or so, another auto company holds a press conference where new vehicles are driven out on stage to the sound of fireworks and bad, generic rock 'n' roll. Then a CEO steps triumphantly out of the vehicle, grabs a microphone, points to the car and demonstrates what a poor public speaker he is.
Missing this year was the nascent Chinese auto industry's exhibit, which could be found relegated to the lobby or various little hall nooks in past shows. Word is they're sitting out this year to refocus their attention on making tainted dog food, shooting Tibetans and manufacturing toys that your child can get lead poisoning from. Good plan. Stick with what you're best at!
Things were different this year out in the lobby as well. Gone were the metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs that blocked every entrance in the years following 9/11. Back then you couldn't carry a paper clip without summoning a phalanx of security guards waving chirping hand-held wands at your hindquarters. But terrorism is so yesterday, people. Unfortunately that means we didn't get to witness the looks on the faces of those journalists who see a purposefully sniffing dog and momentarily get confused as they try to remember if they stashed their weed in the car or not.
Over the past few years, organizers have been catching onto the idea that Detroit might be something worth promoting instead of apologizing for. So a Motown tribute trio lip-synched to Supremes songs in the lobby, and the Detroit Shoppe, normally of the Somerset mall in Troy, set up a store outside the hall, hawking everything from shot glasses and T-shirts to books about Detroit. Though in a glaring omission, they neglected to carry this amazing new book called 313: Life in the Motor City by a local author whose name I won't mention here. (See also: John Carlisle).
The journalists, like the vehicles, were split between the domestic and foreign. You could easily spot the international reporters — they're generally thinner, paler and have stranger haircuts and much better suits than their American counterparts.
Melodious accents filled the air at the show — Swedish and Japanese from the journalists, Italian and German from the well-dressed execs, and Spanish from the Hispanics whose jobs were to follow in their wake and vacuum their litter from the carpets without making eye contact. (Curiously, almost nobody in the hall spoke English the moment they got outside on the sidewalk and ran into the guy begging for change with an empty cup held outward.)
The nicest thing about press days is the amount of personal space you have. When you attend the public days at the Auto Show it's like being in a crowded nightclub, with everyone shoulder to shoulder, except everybody's sober and nobody's good-looking.
The reporters were sober here too, at least for the first few minutes. But by early morning on opening day the makeshift bars at the exhibits were serving free mixed drinks. As the day unfolded, some of the American journalists swilled beer, while the Europeans opted for tooth-staining red wine.
And then there was the free food, which was almost as audacious as the design of those wild-looking cars displayed here that'll never be mass produced but were really some engineer's $900,000 daydream he got the go-ahead for. The Lincoln bar, for example, offered little culinary astonishments like "Seared duck breast baklava with girrotine cherry, Cajun walnut dust and carmelized phyllo," and "Kendall Brock smoked salmon with Granny Smith apple, jalapeño emulsion and micro watercress," among many other foods described by jumbles of words that normally don't associate with each other.
Journalists love free food, not only on principle, but because we're all pretty broke. Freebies such as food and drinks are the small consolation to counterbalance the low pay, the unpredictable hours and the utter lack of job security in this field. So if it sounds somehow exciting, it's really basically a matter of, "Well, you might not have a job next week, but here's an appetizer and a beer, champ."
Meanwhile, the blue-collar guys who set up the exhibits feasted on plain ol' $4 hot dogs as they wandered around the hall, some with dusty kneepads still strapped to their dirty work jeans, looking like they felt a little out of place among the $1,000 suits and $200 haircuts. But they shouldn't have felt uncomfortable. Of all the people there, they deserved to be there the most, in a way. They're the ones who built the exhibits, built the cars displayed in them, built Detroit into a massive industrial power at one time, unlike the soft-handed CEOs who think a screwdriver is a drink favored by poor people, and whose aloof, stupid decisions over the years partly destroyed a city, an industry and countless livelihoods. (See also: Rick Waggoner.)
These regular guys from unexotic locales like Warren and Hazel Park and Detroit wandered the aisles as they looked at the models, looked at the cars and looked happier than they have in the past few years, because all the glitz and glamour and the drunk CEOs mean things are looking up and they might just keep their jobs this year.
They weren't the only ones feeling out of place, though. Two young Detroit cops walked down the aisle, dressed in black uniforms, and took it all in while they offered a sense of security with their presence. At one point, one of them turned to the other and summed up the essence of press days as well as anyone has.
"Too many suits," he said.
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