Rubin: Post-Valentine tales of comedy, coffee and love

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

People think the Cass Corridor was just hookers and heroin around 1980, when Mark and Susan Sweetman were students at Wayne State.

Not so, he says. “There were transvestites and cocaine, too.”

And comedy, if you knew where to find it. And true love.

Valentine’s Day is all over except for the credit card bills. Americans were expected to spend $681 million just on their pets, if that’s any indication of how eagerly we express our affection on that one special day.

But romance is best as a year-round proposition, and not all the good stories get told before the holiday.

In Livonia, the Sweetmans are eternally sentimental about a stand-up routine.

In Canton, Jim Vella gets requests from friends to tell his tale about coffee.

“That’s what life’s about,” Vella says. “Enjoying stories.”

Like the one about Susan, who volunteered in publicity and had an on-air shift at WAYN, and the guy who never got the girl. At least, not until he made one specific girl laugh.

Mark Sweetman, 56, is funny both professionally and reflexively. He and Susan have eight kids from ages 30 to 9, for instance, with five of them adopted, and he says there’s a method to the mayhem.

“I’m increasing my odds,” he explains, “of one of them marrying well.”

Otherwise, he might have to stick with his stand-up act until he needs to do it sitting down.

He started at 17 or 18, when he’d commandeer any microphone that was plugged in.

There were clubs throughout what’s now perkily called Midtown that offered multiple combinations of poetry, jazz, blues, new wave, country and brawls. He’d wait until the band took a break, then help himself to the stage.

“It was kind of rough,” he says, but it was practice. If he got lucky, he could play a club in Windsor for $100 devalued dollars, but mostly he was testing his material for free.

One night he brought a cassette recorder and taped what turned out to be eight clean minutes – no awkward pauses, just jokes and enthusiastic laughs.

He brought the recording to his buddy David Sobczak, broadcasting all the way to the dorms and the student center on closed-circuit WAYN. Sobczak put it on the air.

As the audience’s reaction echoed through the hallways, Susan Salisbury bounded into the studio.

“That’s hilarious,” she said. “Who is that?”

Sobczak pointed to a corner hidden from the door by hulking shelves of LPs. “There’s your man,” he said.

As Sweetman likes to tell it, he’s been her man ever since.

They’ll celebrate their 33rd anniversary in May. Four months after that, going back to their record-album roots, they’ll celebrate again.

They’re calling that one their 33 1/3.

The practical sort

Jim Vella’s parents came from Malta in 1950. Paul owned a grocery store, and Mary oversaw their nine kids.

Jim was the second-youngest. He was born on his mother’s birthday, and people used to gush that he must have been the best present ever.

Not really, she’d say: “One time, Paul got me a dishwasher.”

That wasn’t what anyone expected to hear, but she already had three sons. She’d never had a dishwasher.

The Vellas were married for more than 50 years. Paul always used to bring Mary coffee in bed to start the day, and the morning after he died in 1993, Jim did it instead.

“I don’t like coffee,” she said.

Jim, who’s now the president of the Ford Motor Co. Fund, was staggered. Why, he asked, did you let Dad bring it to you every day?

Outwardly, Mary was ever-practical. If one of the children asked what was for dinner, she’d say, “What does it matter? You’re going to eat what I put on the table.”

She looked at Jim and said, “It wasn’t about the coffee.”

Jim will turn 60 on Saturday. For now, he’s single. But someday, he says, he hopes to have someone in his life who loves him enough to let him deliver coffee every morning, whether she likes it or not.