|'Roger and Me' Revisisted|
September 20, 1992
Michael Moore May Have Moved On, but His Film's Stars Still Call Flint Home
The last we saw of Flint on film, Deputy Fred was evicting a fatherless family at Christmas, Rhonda the Bunny Lady was skinning a still wriggling rabbit to pay the rent, and the devil incarnate was calling the shots at General Motors Corp.
Michael Moore's 1989 "Roger and Me", a personalized documentary of plant closings and layoffs in Michigan's fourth-largest city, immortalized Flint's unemployed citizens as GM road kill, loyal workers left torn and bleeding along the hard road to corporate profits.
"Pets or Meat: The Return to Flint", airs nationally at 9 p.m. Sept. 28 on the PBS series "Point of View" (Channel 56, WTVS, in Detroit). The 23-minute film premieres in Flint at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Whiting Auditorium.
A visit to Flint finds much of its heartache endures. Unemployment exceeds 16 percent, violent crime ranks 17th worst in the nation. Adversity has turned proud houses into decaying shells.
Moore's cast of characters have met mixed fates in the four years since the cameras rolled. Some have succeeded in bootstrap fashion, building better lives from the ruins of old. Others barely scrape by.
The hand-lettered sign posted for years in Rhonda Britton's drive, the one that read "Pets or Meat," is gone now. All that remains of the rabbits she bred to subsidize her widow's benefits are tufts of gray fur matted with blood strewn across her overgrown grass. First came health department bureaucrats, who ordered an end to her backyard butchering. Then came the dogs, who slaughtered the last of her stock in a midnight raid on the tilting hutches.
Rhonda works at Kmart now, relying on food stamps and Medicaid to supplement part-time wages. Her dachshund and Doberman puppies, penned in a drafty laundry room, are for sale cheap. There's no cash to buy their food.
Instead, Rhonda is raising rats to sell to snake owners, which get along dandy on table scraps and reproduce with abandon. Proving her point, the 40 or so rodents scurry madly about the four glass tanks crowding the living room, oblivious to their futures as snake supper.
While the TV blares talk show blather, Jessica Britton, 9 months old, shakes a plush pink rattle. She knows nothing of her mother's former celebrity or current misfortune. For her, there's never a shortage of breast milk or hugs or kisses. Still, it would help a lot if her daddy would send some support. Winter's cold is coming and the gas bill needs paying.
"I'm sure in a bind," says Rhonda, 44. "I'm between two rocks."
Dinona Jackson was ready the night her estranged husband broke into the apartment she'd luckily found after being evicted during "Roger and Me". Locking her two boys in a back room, she ran for a shotgun bought only days before. She braced herself against her bed. Her heart beat harder as she waited, wishing he'd make his move fast. But her fear was nothing compared with the jolt he got when she squeezed the trigger and sent buckshot flying.
She hasn't seen him since.
Dinona is doing just fine without him. There was a short layoff from Hurley Hosptial after health benefits ran out for thousands of GM workers and they cut back on medical care. But that was a while back. Son Timothy just set sail for South America with the U.S. Navy. Dinona misses him much but says he's better off away from Flint. A second son, Terrence, 14, is a good kid who steers clear of drug traffic and trouble in the neighborhood.
The best news is that Dinona found the Salem Housing Task Force, which made her dream of home ownership true. She completed Salem's 13 weeks of classes. She fulfilled the 10 hours of "sweat equity" all participants must contribute. Now the good folks at the task force will help secure a mortgage for the sparkling white bungalow she brought back to life.
Tom Kay was the token suit in "Roger and Me", the guy stuck with the job of explaining the necessity of GM's business decisions. He was patient. He was gentle. And, apparently, unhappy with the results.
"I don't even want to discuss it," he said. "Have a nice day."
Ben Hamper is about to willingly suffer an agoraphobic's ultimate test. As fodder for his new book "America Drinks and, Goes Home", Hamper will go to Minnesota to visit the world's biggest shopping mall. He has already wrenched himself from the safety of his Flint backyard to collect material for the book in New York City and numerous points south. Now the Midwest awaits his critical eye.
There is considerable comfort in his yard, where pine trees suffuse the air with freshness and bird songs are interrupted only occasionally by a puppy's feeble bark. Instead of the factory floor, Hamper now writes books in a tool shed turned office, surrounded by iconoclastic posters (e.g. Vanna's bust with Charlie Manson's head) and a collection of lunch pails featuring Bobby Sherman, the Osmonds and the Partridge Family.
That Hamper can leave home at all is a testament to the progress he's made since we saw him shooting baskets at the mental health center, the refuge he took while on medical (mental) leave from the factory. "I've been amazingly blessed," he says between drags on the Merit Lights that never leave his slightly shaky fingers. "I was just out of it. I kept hoping that one day my mind would get back on the bike. Obviously it's turned out for the best."
Steve Wilson hasn't changed a whit since Moore made a mockery of his boosterism. His winsome looks and optimism have weathered the multimillion-dollar failures of AutoWorld, the Water Street Pavilion and other attractions intended to lure tourists to his home town.
Hard lessons have been learned, Wilson says. The city has recast its expectations. "We're not trying to say that Flint is Orlando. We are trying to capitalize on the market that is passing us by -- 60,000 people passing daily on I-75.
Call Kaye Lani Rae Rafko at her Monroe home and you will hear baby Nicholas cooing in the background. Miss America is now a mama.
Her appearance in "Roger and Me" was a humiliating film debut. She's never watched the movie in its entirety. "I'm all for employment," she said to Moore when queried about the Flint layoffs, as she descended a parade float, a young, hopeful Miss Michigan.
She was crowned Miss America two weeks later. And now she travels the country for a California health care corporation, speaking on nursing issues. And she studies at the University of Michigan for a bachelor of science degree. And serves on the board of the Monroe hospice. And judges the quality of life awards for the pageant ...
Deputy Fred Ross is the man who knocks on doors or jacks them open to evict the people who don't pay the rent. He is the most famous of his kind in the world. And he is a man of few words.
"Things haven't changed," he says. "It's still busy."
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