When Joz Wang and her brother bought their mom a Nikon Coolpix S630 digital camera for Mother’s Day last year, they discovered what seemed to be a malfunction. Every time they took a portrait of each other smiling, a message flashed across the screen asking, “Did someone blink?” No one had. “I thought the camera was broken!” Wang, 33, recalls. But when her brother posed with his eyes open so wide that he looked “bug-eyed,” the messages stopped.
Wang, a Taiwanese-American strategy consultant who goes by the Web handle “jozjozjoz,” thought it was funny that the camera had difficulties figuring out when her family had their eyes open. So she posted a photo of the blink warning on her blog under the title, “Racist Camera! No, I did not blink… I’m just Asian!” The post was picked up by Gizmodo and Boing Boing, and prompted at least one commenter to note, “You would think that Nikon, being a Japanese company, would have designed this with Asian eyes in mind.”
At 1300 E. Warren St., you can smell the plight of Detroit.
Inside the Wayne County morgue in midtown Detroit, 67 bodies are piled up, unclaimed, in the freezing temperatures. Neither the families nor the county can afford to bury the corpses. So they stack up inside the freezer.
Albert Samuels, chief investigator for the morgue, said he has never seen anything like it during his 13 years on the job. “Some people don’t come forward even though they know the people are here,” said the former Detroit cop. “They don’t have the money.”
Lifelong Detroit residents Darrell and Cheryl Vickers understand this firsthand. On a chilly September morning they had to visit the freezer to identify the body of Darrell’s aunt, Nancy Graham — and say their goodbyes.
The couple, already financially strained, don’t have the $695 needed to cremate her. Other family members, mostly in Florida, don’t have the means to contribute, either. In fact, when Darrell’s grandmother passed recently, his father paid for the cremation on a credit card — at 21% interest.
So the Vickers had to leave their aunt behind. Body number 67.
“It’s devastating to a family not to be able to take care of their own,” said Darrell. “But there’s really no way to come up with that kind of cash in today’s society. There’s just no way.”
The number of unclaimed corpses at the Wayne County morgue is at a record high, having tripled since 2000. The reason for the pile-up is twofold: One, unemployment in the area is approaching 28%, and many people, like the Vickers, can’t afford last rites; two, the county’s $21,000 annual budget to bury unclaimed bodies ran out in June.
“One way we look back at a culture is how they dispose of their dead,” said the county’s chief medical examiner, Carl Schmidt, who has been in his position for 15 years. “We see people here that society was not taking care of before they died — and society is having difficulty taking care of them after they are dead.”
Detroit is not alone. The Los Angeles coroner’s office said it, too, has seen an increase in the number of bodies abandoned. That’s not surprising at a time when unemployment tops 10% in many cities and the median cost of a funeral in America hovers around $7,000. Cremation can cost $2,000.
Little help available
This is an issue of concern, said the Detroit mayor’s office, but the city can’t afford to offer any assistance. “The failure, through inability or choice, to bury the deceased is a reflection of the economic conditions that have arrested this region, where people are now forced to make emotionally compromised choices,” said a spokesman in a prepared statement.
The state, however, does have some funds available to assist with burial costs. For fiscal year 2009, Michigan allocated $4.9 million for assistance, and of that, approximately $135,500 remains. Those in need of assistance can find grant applications at Michigan Department of Human Services offices, most funeral homes, and at Michigan.gov/dhs.
The Vickers did not know about the funds until CNNMoney notified them. But, fortunately, they were eventually able to scrape together the $695 and will be able to cremate their aunt with help from Social Security, social services and their aunt’s church.
The way Darrell sees it, the stimulus package should have helped people in situations like this, rather than to “spark the economy and sell cars. We can’t take care of our own when it comes to laying them to rest and letting them rest in peace.”
‘Reflection of the economy’
Believe it or not, the Vickers are among the fortunate.
Dozens of other bodies remain, some never identified. And they can’t be disposed of until their families come forward or the county’s burial fund is replenished when the 2010 budget is approved. There were 66 bodies before Aunt Nancy’s, and they’ll be interred on a first-arrived-first-buried basis.
“There are many people with sad lives,” said Schmidt. “But it is even sadder when even after you are dead, there is no one to pick you up.”
And in a town with so much need, Schmidt noted one more cause for concern: The increase in unclaimed bodies is not due to an increase in murders — though the rate remains high — but due to natural causes. Schmidt speculated that many of the deceased didn’t have health insurance or could no longer afford medication for the chronic medical conditions.
“If anything is a reflection of the economy, that is a reflection of the economy,” he said.
Where is Obama ? Where is the change ?
But this messy reality is shielded behind the Wayne County morgue’s perfectly trimmed hedges and pristine brick walls.
Michael Jordan had his pick. Dean Smith. Phil Jackson. Maybe even his good friend Charles Barkley.
Each would have been an understandable choice to present Jordan during his induction Friday into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Smith was Jordan’s legendary coach at North Carolina. Jackson helped guide Jordan to six NBA titles with the Chicago Bulls. Barkley shared the role of rival and running buddy.
Jordan passed on all of them. Instead, he chose someone who had never coached him or played with or against him.
He chose David Thompson. The former NBA high-flyer who had starred at North Carolina … State.
“I got a call from the Hall of Fame and they asked me if I was willing to be a presenter for someone,” Thompson recently told Yahoo! Sports. “I said, ‘Yeah.’ I didn’t know who it was. … They said Michael Jordan. I was like, ‘Wow.’ He told them that he was a big fan of mine and I was the one that really inspired him. Being that there was so many North Carolina people he could’ve chose, I was honored.
“I was kind of surprised, and also was really flattered that he chose me over Coach Smith. You know how important he is?”
To Jordan, Thompson’s college ties didn’t matter as much as his game. Before Jordan became Air Jordan, David Thompson owned the skies.
Thompson grew up in Shelby, N.C. Jordan was just 11 when Thompson led the Wolfpack to their first NCAA championship in 1974. Nicknamed “Skywalker,” he captured Jordan’s imagination – and that of the rest of the nation – with his 48-inch vertical leap and acrobatic dunks. Thompson went on to play for the Denver Nuggets, and was the runner-up to Julius Erving in history’s first dunk contest during the 1976 ABA All-Star weekend. He once scored 73 points on the final day of the regular season. Drug and alcohol problems shortened his career and kept him from realizing his potential, but he recovered and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1996.
“Even when I go out to speak, that’s how they introduce me, ‘Michael Jordan before Michael Jordan,’ ” Thompson said. “Charles Barkley once said, ‘[Thompson] took the game to the air. … He got people out of their seats.’ I saw a lot of my game in Michael Jordan’s game.”
Thompson first began to hear about Jordan when Jordan was playing at Laney High School in Wilmington, N.C. He knew Jordan was not only considering North Carolina, but N.C. State, too, in large part because Thompson played there. The Wolfpack, however, never asked Thompson to help recruit Jordan, who went to help lead the Tar Heels to the NCAA title as a freshman in 1982. The Wolfpack won the national championship a year later.
“We would have had a couple more championship banners up there if he came,” Thompson said.
Thompson met Jordan for the first time during the 1984 Final Four in Seattle. Jordan was there to receive a National Player of the Year award while Thompson was in the midst of the final season of his NBA career with the Seattle SuperSonics.
“My friend took a picture of us together while saying, ‘These are the two best to ever play in the ACC,’ ” Thompson said. “A couple years later he ran into Michael and had the picture on him. Michael got a kick out of it, especially since he had hair back then.”
Thompson said Jordan went out of his way to help him while he was a community ambassador for the Charlotte Hornets in the early 1990s. Then with the Bulls, Jordan would sometimes arrive hours early for road games in Charlotte to meet with underprivileged children.
“The kids treated him like he was the Beatles or Michael Jackson,” Thompson said. “Little girls would shake. He was really good with the kids.
“They didn’t really know who I was, but once he told them I was an inspiration for him they would look at me in a different light. They wanted my autograph. One kid said, ‘You must have been really good if Michael Jordan said that about you.’ ”
Thompson won’t have to give a lengthy speech for Jordan; those days are over for the Hall, replaced by video tributes. But NBA Entertainment recently interviewed Thompson for an hour for Jordan’s introduction, and Thompson will attend all the ceremonies in which Jordan is honored, and stand with him during his induction speech.
Thompson is still overwhelmed Jordan picked him to help celebrate his greatest honor. Over Smith, Jackson, Barkley and everyone else.
“I’ve been smiling ever since,” Thompson said. “I’ve been telling people and they’ve been congratulating me like I was getting in. I’m already in.”
Come this weekend, the game’s greatest legend will be inducted alongside his own idol. Even Michael Jordan knows the importance of recognizing those who came before him.
“I built my talents on the shoulders of someone else’s talent,” Jordan wrote in his 1998 autobiography, “For the Love of the Game.” “I believe greatness is an evolutionary process that changes and evolves era to era. Without Julius Erving, David Thompson, Walter Davis, and Elgin Baylor, there would never have been a Michael Jordan. I evolved from them.
Andy Rios couldn’t wait to get home to Southern California to have some french fries.
There’s a big victory meal upcoming back in Chula Vista.
Bulla Graft’s sharp single scored the go-ahead run in the fourth inning and Kiko Garcia pitched three-plus scoreless innings of relief to lead California to a 6-3 victory Sunday over Taoyuan, Taiwan to win the Little League World Series.
With the U.S.-partisan crowd on their feet, Garcia closed out the victory by striking out Yu Chieh Kao, completing a comeback from a 3-0 deficit. The California fans yelled “USA! USA.”
Chula Vista, California short stop Andy Rios reacts after turning a bases loaded double play against Taoyuan Taiwan during the fifth inning in the championship game of Little League Baseball’s World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, August 30, 2009.
“We knew we could come back,” said the 13-year-old Garcia in between laughs with his teammates. “We always do.”
They’re surely celebrating in the San Diego suburbs after California secured the fifth straight Little League championship for the United States.
After a wild celebration around Garcia, the Californians invited Taiwan to accompany them on the customary victory lap around Lamade Stadium on a sun-splashed afternoon.
But the championship banner belonged to California.
“It seems San Diego comes so close all the time. The Padres come close and don’t win. The Chargers come close and don’t win,” manager Oscar Castro said. “It was nice to do it for the city.”
Castro sought to shield his team from the pressure of the tournament as they advanced, forbidding them to surf the Internet for the last three weeks to prevent them from seeing the media exposure back home.
Victory on Sunday looked in doubt early. Wen Hua Sung and Chin Ou hit back-to-back homers in the third to give Taiwan a 3-0 lead.
California scored a run in the third before surging ahead in the fourth. Seth Godfrey drove in a run on a sacrifice fly before Nick Conlin scored on a wild pitch.
Even Vice President Joe Biden, who attended the game, was impressed, standing and clapping as his three granddaughters looked on.
Later, Taiwan walked slugger Luke Ramirez with two outs to bring up Graft. The 12-year-old second baseman hit a 1-1 pitch to right to score Rios from third.
Taiwan loaded the bases in the fifth off two hit batters and a walk, but Garcia escaped the jam after getting Ou to ground into an inning-ending double play. Rios snagged the bouncer, tagged the runner going to third before throwing to first to get Ou.
“It was just instinct to tag the runner, he was right in front of me,” the 13-year-old Rios said. “They had all the momentum with the bases loaded, but I gave us the momentum with the double play.”
California added two runs in the fifth, more than enough cushion for Garcia.
The boys threw their gloves high in the air after Kao struck out, then gathered near the mound and fell into a pile on the ground.
Chula Vista, California player Andy Rios scores a run against San Antonio, Texas during the third inning in the U.S. final of Little League Baseball’s World Series in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, August 29, 2009.
After the game, the boys were asked what they wanted to do when they got home. Rios, flashing a mischievous grin, raised his hand and said he wanted to go the team’s favorite restaurant for the customary post-victory celebration. Rios and Godfrey longed for fries, while Garcia wanted tacos.
“It’s just an amazing feeling,” the 12-year-old Godfrey said. “We went for it, and we did.”
Ou, who started for Taiwan, baffled California early with breaking balls before the team rallied in the fourth inning.
California didn’t homer Sunday, though the club followed through on manager Oscar Castro’s philosophy to hit line drives, not the long ball. Castro said it took his boys one time through the order to figure out Ou.
Garcia, who led the team by hitting .667 with three homers and eight RBIs for the tournament, said the team never lost confidence.
“We knew we could hit any kind of pitching,” he said.
Taiwan’s coaches declined to speak with reporters afterward, instead choosing to lead their players across the field back to their dorms, with equipment bags in hand.
They walked right past giddy California boys on their hands and knees, scooping up bags of infield dirt as a memento of their big win.