Friday, April 10, 2009

“Dollar Menu Motorvator, Redux”

c. 2009 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

It was a busy, spring morning at the reborn McDonald’s on Water Street, in Chardon.

As I considered a breakfast of hash browns, eggs, and sausage, sunlight streaked fancifully through the windows. My spot by the fireplace was filled with other local journalists who had come to discuss events of the day. They were a graying, serious bunch. I was the youngest in attendance. Each of us sat with our own reporter’s notebook carrying ink scribbles and stray scraps of paper.

Excitement crackled in the air!

Suddenly, Ezekiel Byler-Gregg of the Burton Daily Bugle pounded his fist on the table. With a throaty growl, he called us to order. “May I have your attention, please?”

The annual Geauga Journalist’s Roundtable had begun.

“Who’d like to start our meeting?” Ezekiel asked, dutifully.

Mack Prindl of the Parkman Register volunteered to speak first. He fumbled with a pair of reading glasses while sorting through his notes. “This week, I’m leading off with a story about the ‘Scarecrow Bandits’ in Chardon. One of the young miscreants is from my township and he’s working on a local farm to satisfy the court decree of community service…”

The group nodded in affirmation.

“Very good. Who’ll go next?” our chairman grunted.

Martha Ann Reale of the Newbury Siren-Monitor raised her hand. She cheerfully announced their latest project, while toying with a strand of native jewelry. “We’ve decided to do a historical series across the next two months. Our first installment will be a review of the long-lost Kiwanis Lake Tavern, and its evolution as the community changed from a collection of summer cottages to a residential enclave.”

Ezekiel chuffed with satisfaction. “Sounds like a worthwhile idea. Who wants to be next?”

Before anyone could answer, a stranger walked into the fast-food emporium. He wore a rumpled, yet elegant business suit. His face was covered with a rude outcropping of beard stubble. It appeared that the fellow had been sleeping in his clothes.

Everyone fell silent. Our concentration on the meeting had been broken!

The newcomer ordered a cup of coffee, then chattered at the counter.

“Who is that guy?” Mack said with concern showing on his narrow face. “Is he looking for directions?”

“He’s probably job hunting here in the county,” Martha Ann observed. “The bad economy has driven lots of people to look for refuge in Geauga. You must be right… he’s lost and confused.”

Buzzing with conversation, the counter clerk gestured toward our table.

Instinctively, everyone flinched!

The stranger turned around with a hungry look in his eyes. “Over there?” he said, loudly.

“Yes,” the clerk repeated.

Chairs slid backward as he approached our table. I noted that he wore expensive rings and cufflinks, but no tie. Coffee stains dotted his silk shirt.

“Good morning!” he said with a wounded smile.

Ezekiel was brave. “Yes indeed it is. Can I help you, mister? You seem to be… looking for someone.”

“That’s right,” he agreed. “I’ve driven a long way to Chardon, from a suburb of Detroit. To find one man… perhaps you know him. Rod Ice?”

Fear made me tingle!

“Yes, I know that fellow,” Ezekiel boasted. “He’s sitting here to my right…”

I gulped with anxiety, but offered my hand. “Uh, hello sir. Do I know you?”

The stranger laughed out loud. “Not at all. But I know you, Rod. You wrote to me when I was chairman of General Motors!”

The room quieted immediately.

“Chairman of GM?” Martha Ann screeched.

“That’s correct,” he replied. “My name is Rick Wagoner. Until last week, I was in charge of the nation’s premier automaker.”

Mack bounced pridefully in his seat. “Well, this is a pleasure. I’ve been a Chevrolet man all my life!”

Ezekiel pulled up an extra chair. “Why don’t you sit with us, Mr. Wagoner. We’d be glad to include you in our meeting.”

The GM executive appeared grateful. He sipped coffee and began to explain his visit. “I worked very hard to save my company. But President Obama felt that I needed to step down.”

Martha Ann snorted with indifference. “Isn’t that amazing? Not the head of AIG, after costing us billions upon billions of dollars. Or the leaders of banking institutions that have burdened our nation’s monetary system. No, instead, he forces out a car guy. How is that justified?”

Ezekiel bowed his head. “It sounds like a case of mixed up priorities.”

Mack shook his head. “Our wallets and purses are being looted by the government. To rescue those who used to oppose such federal intervention. By leaders who won’t even pay their own taxes!”

A cheer went up in the restaurant.

“That’s a harsh assessment,” I said. “But it rings true.”

“Regardless of all that, I’ve come here with one humble purpose,” Wagoner said. “To ask for your help.”

I was stunned. “My… help?”

“Rod, you sent us a very interesting idea last year,” he continued. “I was impressed.”

Martha Ann sighed with disbelief. “Interesting idea? About what?”

I shrugged my shoulders. “You mean my column about the Chevy Chevette?”

“Exactly!” he cheered. “The Dollar-Menu Motorvator.”

Mack rolled his eyes. “Okay, you wanted GM to sell cars like items on the McDonald’s budget menu?”

“I wanted us to focus again on giving real value to our customers,” he said. “We did that with the original Chevette. Tough economic times demand that of us… it is the only way to survive.”

Ezekiel stroked his beard, thoughtfully. “The profit margin on a Chevette had to be slim. How could you sell that idea to your company with profits dwindling in modern times?”

“President Obama has talked about sharing sacrifice,” the erstwhile executive proclaimed. “A plan to shed costs and give back to the American people would do just that – and help revitalize the nation.”

“Look, Mr. Wagoner,” I said. “I’m flattered by your praise. But my article was… a joke. A goof on current events. A bit of Dave Barry or Mike Royko.”

The group fell silent.

“My column was intended to entertain readers,” I continued. “Not suggest a plan for your industry’s future.”

The former CEO waved his hand defiantly. “I disagree. It was very profound. A strong sentiment from the heartland.”

Mack frowned. “I’m with Rod. You can’t build a recovery on the ‘Dollar Menu’ at Mickey D’s!”

Martha Ann hissed with irritation. “Be quiet, Prindl! Mr. Wagoner is making sense.”

Our guest finished his coffee. “My time at the helm of GM is over,” he whispered. “Now, it is up to you. Use your soapbox wisely. Sell the ‘Motorvator’ idea through your newspaper work. Be a positive force. The country needs that!”

He stood up, and reached for his overcoat.

“Thanks for letting me ‘sit in’ with you,” he smiled.

Ezekiel shook his hand. “Of course.”

Before anyone else could speak, Wagoner was gone.

We sat in mute reflection for a long time.

Martha Ann finally pierced the wordless vacuum with a lighthearted query. “So, Rod, what are you going to do? Take his advice? Or not?”

My eyes were heavy. A morning haze lingered in my head.

“I’m going with a third option… to finish my breakfast!”

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