I didn’t know that that was going to be there and I wasn’t involved with it. But I will say, as you said, editorially, I can understand why they did it. And for the community I can understand why they did it. But it’s kind of like: well, if Wall Street is projecting a big fraud and it’s a community of grifters, I’m not going to write a story about an honest guy on Wall Street. The point is if there’s something calamitous, let’s point it out. I didn’t write it. I had nothing to do with it. But I understand why it’s there.
You’ve worked a bunch of interesting jobs in interesting places in your time—serving fish ‘n’ chips in Sydney, baking in Denmark, teaching in Michigan. Does that kind of diverse background help in your reporting and writing?
It’s made me more full. And I’m no liberal by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m also no conservative. Having said that, I’ve lived in Europe, so when people complain about European socialism, I’m like, “Well, shut the fuck up.” They’re as different individually as we are and it’s a nice way of life they have over there. So you can’t fool me. I’ve looked at things with my own eyes.
You know what else it has taught me? How to go into a strange place by myself. More than anything that’s what all of that gave me: confidence.
For this story you had to do a lot of that, reporting in neighborhoods that could be dangerous for someone who stands out. How do you approach that?
It’s the same thing that everybody’s culture and everybody’s parents taught them. First, you introduce yourself to the old people. Second, if there’s a young person, you talk to them. You take your time; don’t be in a rush, and actually state your business. When you’re going to the people you have business with don’t be a creep, don’t wander around, and don’t look afraid. Walk right up and say what you have to say. Inform them of who you are. In most cases, the media are so prevalent nowadays that people are almost waiting for you to be there. So they’re ready.
For instance, the neighborhood where Aiyana was killed is very heavy, very rough; the feelings there aren’t so good. You see all these guys loading up boilers and furnaces and sinks; you know what they’re doing—they’re scrapping ‘em out, they’re tearing them out. So you go right up and you say, “What are you doing?” They look at you, and I say to them, “Hey, I know what you’re doing. If you had a choice, if you could go to that Chrysler plant—I see you’re sweating—would you like a regular job if they had one?” The guy will say: “What the fuck do you think? There’s nothing left so we’re taking what’s left.”
I’m like, “I get you man, because I’m from it, my brother’s from it.” Then you say something like, “Where’s grandpa from?” And he will say something like, “Alabama.” “Well, mine came from Louisiana. You think this is what they had in mind for us?” There’s a commonality, we are men together on this planet, and then it’s quite a natural conversation that’s not too difficult to have. Irrational fear—you’ve got to get over it. If actual danger presents itself, you better be smart and you better be fast.
You left The Detroit News last month—why the move?
I work on emotion, I want to be attached to what I’m doing, and I don’t want to just file copy. But also the media landscape is remaking itself. I feel like I’ve taken chances in my career, I’ve learned things. It takes a lot to leave The New York Times and it takes a lot to leave The Detroit News. There aren’t a lot of newspaper jobs left, but there are some things to learn. I’ve got to take a couple of weeks off and work out what it is I’ve got to learn.