Driving “Foreign” in Motor City

Here is 2002  essay I came across recently.  It was never published — but I thought was an amusing look at the dilemma of driving an import in a city known for its cars.

Post  your thoughts.


Is it chutzpah to drive imported automobiles in a town that posts signs that read  “no foreign cars” at union halls?  That was our dilemma when we first moved to Detroit, land of the Big Three.

We loved our Swedish cars, yet our vehicular needs changed along with our address.  My husband’s Saab was designed to accommodate skis but wasn’t large enough to handle warehouse club quantities or large pieces of lawn equipment.  And though my family-friendly Volvo performed unfailingly for over 140,000 miles, our carpool crew demanded more space than a five-seat car could offer.  We’d have to make a switch but would we once again buy foreign or follow the suggestion left on my husband’s dirty windshield to “buy American.”

A minivan made the most sense.  We visited an international array of showrooms, played with motorized seats, listened to jazz on nuanced sound systems and treated dashboard buttons like children let loose in a penny arcade.  Not surprisingly, each make and model, from Chevrolet’s Astro to Toyota’s Previa, had its perks and quirks.

But Chryslers, with their Detroit pedigree and raves from consumer magazines outperformed the rest.   The test drive was smooth, the look something I’d grow  accustomed to and the price reasonable, given the high demand. I was an enthusiastic buyer and pulled my ’97 candy apple red Chrysler Grand Caravan LE into a garage that suddenly felt Lilliputian.

Over the next months I worked my biceps trying to parallel park and drove past “compact car only” parking spaces in city garages.  I discovered the pleasures of third row seating, especially when the children got rowdy, and loved the roominess which allowed me to, on impulse, buy an antique armoire for pennies on the dollar.   Though I missed my old car, I grew fond of my new soccer mom image with the accompanying crumb-crusted seats and forgotten apple cores.  Then the problems began.

While the turn of a key in my Volvo produced a sweet compliant song of “at your service,” my minivan started a yearlong kvetchathon.  This was a vehicle that didn’t want to be bothered by cold morning carpools or the stop and go life of an errand running suburbanite.  The car’s high pitched noises made pedestrian heads turn and let our neighbors know we were coming from blocks away.

I spent many mornings waiting in the service department, drinking bad coffee, reading old magazines and talking to mechanics I got to know by name.  Besides minor repairs that were still under warranty, my van “squealed,” “screeched” or “squeaked” depending on who wrote up the work order. I’d get a brief reprieve only to find myself back with another variant of the same problem.  If headache cars were lemons, mine was citrus king.

Friends insisted that I just had bad luck and to try again.  I, however, wanted to be rid of the nuisance the van had become. After selling the van back to the original dealer, cynical me started all over again.

Naturally every salesperson’s pitch,was the same, “superior product.”  But I didn’t need biased opinions.  I wanted a guarantee that I would not be getting the last car off a Friday afternoon assembly line.

“Buy an Odyssey,” the Honda salesman said, “and we’ll provide a loaner every time you come in, even for maintenance.” No more bad coffee or vending machine cookies,  I thought.  The offer clinched the deal but this time instead of buying, I would lease.  I’d live with this set of wheels before agreeing to marry.

Five years of hassle-free driving has made me an Odyssey loyalist.   What many of my Detroit neighbors fail to recognize however, is what Japanese automakers, with factories in 13 states and 56,000 employees, contribute to the American automotive scene. In fact those who think I have chutzpah should know that my minivan, while a product of a Japanese company, was actually assembled in Canada with American parts.


“Put Away Your Phone”

Last month I spent time in Manhattan helping my daughter, an NYU student, settle into new digs.  We enjoyed our runs to Bed Bath and Beyond, Kmart and the Container Store. We picked up cheap, but pretty odds and ends at Marhsalls and TJMaxx.  After a slow paced summer in the Midwest, I actually enjoyed the “too much” that is New York.

I was struck by all the people  texting while walking, being  doubly efficient with eyes glued to illuminated screens, able to radar anything or anyone that might get in the way of them and a keystroke.

It’s the kind of behavior that, when it’s all around you, can sway your thinking. So I wasn’t surprised, when on a walk back from Trader Joe’s, (Best place.  Longest lines.) my daughter’s thumbs roamed her phone’s tiny keyboard like a seasoned pianist.

When I was my daughter’s age and lived in the city, there were still phone booths, maybe even some with dials. “Who needs expensive Broadway tickets,” I used to joke, “when the best shows are the streets of Manhattan.” Everywhere I turned there was something worth noting —  a new restaurant I wanted to check out before it closed, (which was usually in the blink of an eye);  eye catching flower displays surrounding the perimeter of 24 hour delis, beautiful  but seemingly  out of place, beside the drab, littered sidewalks:  designer clothes by Puppia, Cloak and Dawggie, for dog owners willing to spend on their canine companions.

“Put away your phone,” I finally told my daughter. Besides becoming  a target for troublemakers, I thought about all the New York moments and sights she’d miss if she was staring at a screen.

I expected protest, a rolling of the eyes, but to my surprise she said, “you’re right,” and with the push of a button, her screen went dark.



Living in Michigan, I have enjoyed the privilege of opened windows.  There is something wonderfully luxurious about lying in bed and hearing the sound of autumn leaves rustling in the wind — a simple pleasure I never had growing up in New York.

My childhood home in Queens, New York, was burglarized several times in the late 60’s. Even though small ranch homes like ours rarely had alarm systems, my parents had one installed.

images-4Initially, sensors that needed to be aligned, were mounted on our window frames.  But after a thief carefully cut out a glass pane, and slid into our house, special tape to monitor motion and vibration was applied to all glass.

Every night we went into lock down.

I’d fall asleep to the sounds of our home, the furnace kicking in, a toilet flushing, my father snoring loudly from the bedroom across the hall. The only outside noise, with our windows sealed and locked, was the thunderous roar of low flying planes landing  at La Guardia airport nearby.

Sometimes the alarm would go off in the middle of the night, rousing us from sleep, upsetting us all as we checked windows to see if someone was trying to break in.  It took a while for my parents to figure out that air traffic was causing the problems.

We took to setting the alarm only when everyone left the house.  Still there were no open windows, especially at night.

And I had no idea what I was missing.

Dispatch from the Grocery Aisles

I don’t celebrate Halloween but I do food shop regularly. And after filling a bag with a mix of crisp, super delicious, locally grown apples,  I rolled my cart past large colorful displays of candy.  Every kind.  You name it, they had it.   A junk food paradise.

It’s rare that I succumb to buying the chocolate dipped and nutty middled.  But when the displays are placed so that they are unavoidable, and on sale to boot, there’s trouble.

Like every  shopper I am a sucker for a bargain.   Especially for something I really love, like the ubiquitous peanut m&ms.  (Ever wonder how those yellow packages make it to the most rural gas stations in the smallest and most remote towns?)

Old-time-general-storeAnd in past years, I have succumbed to the strategically placed lures using the discount price as my rationale.

It finally occurred to me that a $2.39 bag of peanut m&ms for $1.88 is not really such a bargain.  Especially for someone, so efficient in her eating, that she never had to worry about the candy “melting in her mouth, not in her hand.”   Turns out the modest expense cost me dearly in  calories.

That’s why this year instead of candy,  I bought a bag of mini carrots.  I know.  Not even close.  But both, (and this is a stretch), capture the orange and gold of the season,  and were on sale.

A Palace in Time

images-1For 25 hours every week, I hang a sign on my everyday life that reads CLOSED.    From Friday sundown, until Saturday after sunset, our family observes the Jewish Sabbath.  Our house is transformed into a Luddite-like dwelling, with no phones, television or computers.

According to the 2013 Pew Report, our family is one in the 10 percent of American Jews who strictly observe the Sabbath.  Preparations begin on Thursday, especially during the fall and winter months, when sundown gets earlier and earlier,   There is shopping and hard core cooking, Out comes white tablecloths and silver candlesticks.  Wine is chilled and homebaked challah warmed.   By candle lighting time, we are spent, ready for the peace and rest that the Sabbath affords.

In my rebellious adolescence, I rejected the boundaries that Sabbath set up.  I saw Sabbath as imposing, disruptive, autocratic and denying. No one was going to keep me from a Friday night James Taylor concert, or a one-day Saturday sale ay Macy’s.  It seemed as though all I wanted was what Sabbath prohibited.

But once I married and had children, I saw the “freedom from” that Sabbath engendered. Besides longing for time and quietude with my family, I wanted a connection with the spiritual.  I saw the wisdom and value in sanctifying time, something people often complain there is too little of.

We walk to synagogue every Sabbath, no matter the weather. There were many snowy mornings when we were the only people on foot, and cars stopped to offer us a lift.   I’d thank them without explaining that we do not ride in cars on Saturdays.  “Good Shabbos,” they would say as they drove away, me having a sense that they wanted, even the tiniest bit of connection, to my favorite day of the week.

Shabbat Shalom!


Alice Munro — Lucky 13

She did it.  Alice Munro, 82, weaver of tales, “master of the contemporary short story,” is the 13th woman, to win the Nobel Prize for Literature.

“I can’t play bridge. I don’t play tennis. All those things that people learn, and I admire, there hasn’t seemed time for. But what there is time for is looking out the window,” she has said.

As someone who appreciates the challenges of committing words to the page, I know, all too well, that it takes far more than luck to achieve the kind of reverence Alice Munro has earned from the writing and reading communities.

Her offerings from  “Dance of the Happy Shades” (1968) to “Dear Life” (2012) are snapshots into the lives and hearts of people, which at first glance, are deceptively simple but rich with truth. She has been dubbed “Canada’s Chekhov.”

“There are no such things as big and little subjects,” she has said. “The major things, the evils, that exist in the world have a direct relationship to the evil that exists around a dining room table when people are doing things to each other.”

“To read Alice Munro is to learn something every time that you never thought of before.”

For 2012 “New Yorker Interview” la-ca-jc-alice-munro-20121111-001


I was six and in love with a neighbor when I wrote my first “POME,” “Roses are red, violets are blue, I love you, and I am not kidding.”

Since that time, I have had essays published in “The New York Times” and “Detroit Free Press.”  In 2009, University of Michigan Press published my memoir, “The Accidental Teacher: Life Lessons from my Silent Son.”  The book recalls the many lessons taught by my now grown son with severe autism.

I have written several short stories and am working on a novel. Stay tuned.

Though I am a native New Yorker, I have lived in the Midwest for more than 30 years.  Still, I admit, it’s “cawfee” you’ll hear me ordering at my neighborhood Starbuck’s.

I am mom to three, still crazy about the man I married more than 32 years ago, and despite being an empty nester, am never  bored.

I love to write.  Always have.  Always will.