January 16, 2009 at 1:27 am

Inauguration or BUST!

Pair embark on 600-mile trip to D.C.

Two News staffers hear people's hopes, dreams on way

CLEVELAND -- The day did not begin well.

I had taken the car to the mechanic in Royal Oak for a tune-up in preparation for our 600-mile drive to Washington, D.C., and the inauguration of Barack Obama.

Plugs and oil and grease were all I asked for. But then he opened the hood.

"This car clearly poses a safety hazard to yourself," said Jack Marwil, owner of Vinsetta Garage on Woodward. "It will never make it to Washington. I see you standing on the side of the highway in arctic conditions. And that's if you get lucky."

He called it a deathtrap, and I was insulted. He called it a fireball, and I was scared. The gasoline and transmission supply lines are rusting. The connection wires are disconnected. The sparkplugs are worn down to bitten nails. Battery: marginal. Terminals: corroded. The idler arm in hazardous condition.

The car is a 1973 Checker Marathon, an old-style taxi cab born -- but no longer built -- in Kalamazoo. I purchased it 18 years ago in Ann Arbor, and in that time it has crossed the Rockies twice, made the New York-to-Detroit trip a dozen times and turned heads in San Francisco.

"We're going to Washington to see the president," I told Marwil. "I'm an American. And American ends in 'I can.' Not 'I can't.' "

Photographer Max Ortiz, my partner on this adventure, shrugged.

Millions of citizens are expected to descend on the nation's capital for the swearing in of the 44th president of the United States. It is a historic occasion, not only because he is the first man of African descent to hold the most powerful office in the world, but the fact that he is the man who will take control of the most powerful office in the world precisely when the world is on its knees.

No one knows this more than the people of the industrial North, those who created the modern world, the middle-class, mass production. We are the offspring of those who fought and died to hold this Union together so that a man would be judged for his competence rather than the color of his skin. We the people of fly-over country. We wanted to meet them.

Ortiz and I embarked at high noon, in two tons of Michigan know-how, to hit the Rust Belt Road: Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, even Maryland to some extent. We wish to listen, if only for a moment, to the people's aspirations and desperations.

"If you see the president," Marwil said, "tell him to do what he said he was going to do. Reinvest in manufacturing. Reinvest in the heartland. Save us."

We cruised past Allen Park down I-75, and the hood flew open. We cruised past Monroe. Houses on the highway going for as low as $129,000. The nuclear power plant. In Toledo, we pulled off the highway into a working class neighborhood behind the Libbey glass factory. Bill Croley was shoveling snow. Croley, 56 and unemployed, lives with a mean little Chihuahua in a run-down row house with buckling plaster.

"Get us some jobs, Mr. President," Croley instructed us to tell Obama, should we meet. "I know it's going to take a lot of work and a lot of pain, but we're hurting out here. You could never believe that the North would turn into this. We're desperate."

And with that, he wished us Godspeed.

Somewhere between Toledo and Cleveland, we picked up hitchikers. Ted Disbennett, 21, and Joseph Fisher, 20. They met on the railroad tracks, riding boxcars across the country, their homes on their backs.

Two weeks ago, they jumped a train in Tucson, thinking they were bound for New Orleans. They got drunk and ended up in Chicago, jumped another train and ended up in Indiana. They were hitch-hiking to Cleveland, to see a friend.

"There isn't much out there for young people," said Disbennett, who hails from Queens, New York. "The old days are gone. Everything got spent. We're in wars we shouldn't be in. There's no work.

"You want to know where it's worst? In the small town. They've got no money. But those are the nicest people in the world... If you see the president," Disbennett said, "tell him to believe in himself, do what he thinks is right. We're counting on him."

We dropped off our passengers in Cleveland, where we were to meet Ella Mae Johnson. I checked the oil: fine. Air: good.

At 105, Ms. Johnson is believed to be the oldest person who'll attend the inauguration.

We called ahead, but Ms. Johnson was feeling wrung-out and wanted to rest up for her trip to Washington, D.C.

"This is a great day for us all," said Ms. Johnson, born in Jim Crow, Texas. "He'll lead us in a better direction. If you see him, tell him God bless."

And may he get us to Pittsburgh in the morning.