A scam and a protest on the streets of downtown Detroit

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

I didn’t believe the gentleman who hit me up for $12 on Shelby Street really needed a thermostat for his car, but I was willing to make a phone call.

I didn’t believe the picketers at the Penobscot Building were really carpenters, either. But it never hurts to ask.

Since I like a good scam even more than I like a good labor action, let’s start with the thermostat, a $20 item that looks something like a spring wearing a flying saucer as a hat.

I work downtown, so I’m used to someone telling me he needs bus fare or gas money because his wife is having a baby in Pontiac. The hustlers who take pride in their craft will even carry a gas can and know the name of the hospital where Mrs. Hustler is supposedly giving birth.

Being asked to pay for an auto part, however, was new.

The fellow who politely requested my attention at a red light wore a shirt and tie. The hood was raised on his silver Toyota Corolla, which was parked at the curb.

He said he was a nurse at Beaumont Hospital — for some reason, hospitals are recurring themes for people hoping to perform surgery on your wallet — and he’d gladly give me his contact information in exchange for $12.

Exactly how he planned to get to and from an auto parts store was not explained. Neither was why a nurse wouldn’t have a credit card.

Still, I told him I’d check back after I parked my car.

I didn’t tell him that between my garage and my return, I would be dialing my personal expert on auto repair.

The fix is in

Tony Lombardini runs Mr. Mechanic in Southfield. He has replaced many a thermostat, but never at a curb with no tools.

Assuming the thermostat is the correct diagnosis for a particular overheated car, he says, you’ll need a socket set, wrenches and screwdrivers.

You’ll also need antifreeze, “so he’d have to hit somebody up for antifreeze money.”

Without going deep into the nuts and bolts of the repair, it involves removing the fan, V-belt, generator and water inlet.

Beyond that, Lombardini says, “three-quarters of the problem is bleeding the air out of the radiator,” air being what sneaks in as the antifreeze departs.

That can be done with a wrench, but the preferred tool is a vacuum pump, “and I can practically guarantee he’s not towing one of those around.”

In short, Lombardini had some doubts, which meant I had some questions in mind as I walked back down Shelby toward the allegedly stranded motorist.

I was half a block away when he closed his hood, turned off his emergency flashers and drove away.

About that protest

He saw me as he rolled up Shelby and shouted out the passenger window, “I thought you’d forgotten!”

“I thought your car was broken!” I hollered back.

An overheated automobile might run again, briefly, after it cools down. In case he was looking for a place to pull over, I followed as he turned right on Fort Street and right again on Griswold.

I lost him fairly quickly, but I found about two dozen demonstrators walking in a narrow oval outside the Penobscot Building.

If you’ve been downtown from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. Monday through Thursday the past few weeks, you might have wondered what they’re protesting and who they are.

According to Ed Musser of the Michigan Regional Council of Carpenters (MRCC), Penobscot owner Triple Properties does not pay area standard wages.

It’s not a union vs. nonunion issue, he stresses; it’s that Triple Properties is “undercutting the marketplace” by paying well below the state-recognized standard rate.

Triple Properties, best known for letting the Silverdome corrode, was mum on the subject.

As for union carpenters, they earn about $30 an hour plus benefits and have more productive things to do during construction season than walk and chant.

The protesters, Musser conceded, were “paid demonstrators,” provided with bottled water and regular breaks.

The job pays $10.50 an hour. So if you meet somebody downtown who says he needs a thermostat for his Toyota, tell him you know where he can earn one.