Tuesday, October 6, 2015
My old friend Chuck Costa has died
Many of my Detroit friends remember the name Chuck Costa.
Chuck came to the United States as a teenager from his native Malta. Started working as abusboy at a restaurant in Greektown.
Later, he became the largest landlord in the city. He had so many properties in the inner city of Detroit that a book was commissioned about his successes. It was called "Slumlord."
Anyone else in his position would have hated the name. Chuck loved it. He, after all was never one to shun publicity.
Or that's what most people think.
The story of my relationship with Chuck Costa dates starts at the Book Cadillac Hotel ballroom. Chuck was the head of the landlord's organization in Detroit. The White House had just announced the end of direct vendor payment to those who rented to poor people.
Direct vendor payment means the rent money for welfare clients went directly to the landlord.
Jimmy Carter thought that was a bad idea because it took away the dignity of the tenants.
So he ordered new rules. The payment would go to the welfare recipients. Who would then be responsible for paying the landlord.
The result was the beginning of the tragedy known as Detroit. Vacant lots where buildings once stood housing poor people.
And a housing crisis in the city.
Anyway - in what must be the most bizarre news conference I'd ever attended - Chuck booked the ballroom. I walked in and saw hundreds of landlords. Who cheered for minutes when Chuck announced that if this went through - they would no longer rent to poor people.
Of course - it was all theater for the benefit of the reporters and the White House. But I thought at the time, "What a jerk. This guy doesn't care about the very poor people who keep him in business."
His control over all those hundreds of landlords, too, made me wonder. Who the hell IS this fellow anyway.
So I decided to befriend him. And investigate him by getting close to him.
Anyone who knew Chuck understood that if there was anyone loved on sight - it was a reporter. Because Chuck loved the limelight.
I'll get back to that in a second. Because it wasn't always true.
One day - this is when he had his offices in a walk up on Myrtle - an old black, obese, black woman, made what was for her the long trek up the stairs to his office over a storefront. She struggled, that lady did, to make her way up the stairs.
When she got there, she was shown to one of the red velvet chairs in his office. (There was a velvet painting of dogs playing cards on the wall, too - I kid you not!)
"Mr. Costa, Mr. Costa you gotta help me," she said.
Seems her landlord wasn't properly maintaining the building. I think it was no lighting in the hallways and she was scared to come and go because of it.
Chuck picked up the phone and called her landlord and told him to fix the problem NOW. Which he promptly agreed to do.
"Bless you Mr. Costa," she said, before leaving.
Chuck then surprised me.
"You can't report that I just helped this lady," he said. "That was entirely off the record.
"Why?" I asked,
"I have a reputation to maintain," came the reply.
That was the side of Chuck most people didn't get to see.
Over the years, as a reporter for WWJ, I'd come across people who were burned out of their homes as I rushed from breaking news story to breaking news story in Detroit. Many of them had no place to stay.
At one fire, I got a brilliant idea. I called Chuck at home. He was asleep in his big easy chair in front of the TV in the basement family room of his house on Nine Mile Road in Southfield. That's what he'd do. Fall asleep in front of the big plasma TV. It was a nightly ritual.
I called him and woke him up. Chuck didn't hesitate.
"I'll call one of my mangers for them and get them into a vacant furnished apartment until they can get on their feet. But you can't report it," he said.
Ahh, that reputation again!
Over the years, there were more public attempts to help people. Like collecting winter coats and distributing them to the homeless in the Cass Corridor. And the annual Christmas party for orphans he put on at a local restaurant. (Guess who played the part of Santa Claus?)
But there were other times when he did things behind the scenes. Like when he offered himself as a liaison between the State Department and Iran during the hostage crisis at the UN Embassy in Tehran. Only a few of us knew of the efforts he was involved in behind the scenes.
Over the years, I learned as a reporter that Chuck could be my biggest single professional asset. Even in a great news town like Detroit, there were times when there weren't any stories to immediately cover. That's when I would inevitably find my way to his office and paint store (by now located on Grand River near the Lodge Freeway) to hang out with Chuck. Because you'd never know who might walk in the door to see him and plant a story right in my lap.
It was there that I met and got to know somewhat his very good friend Rosa Parks.
Congressman John Conyers would wander in and I got to know him pretty well away from the news conferences. When Dennis Archer was mayor, he'd often have his driver stop at 2737 Grand River unannounced.
His friendship with Archer flourished after Chuck took several unsuccessful runs at becoming mayor himself. He had an interesting love hate relationship with Coleman Young. He was a thorn in Young's side. But I'm pretty sure - despite their differences - Chuck and Coleman held mutual respect for one another.
I also got to know Jack Kevorkian. Who Chuck took in after Kevorkian broke from his attorney Geoffrey Fieger. Giving him a car and a place to stay.
All sorts of union leaders would stop by. Or we'd go to Carl's Chop House for lunch and, to use Chuck's terminology, "break bread" with them. So my friendship with Chuck, was obviously also good for my career.
If you think Chuck was an angel, then you didn't know him like I did. Everyone has their dark side. Chuck was no exception.
He had a temper. Because he ALWAYS knew the right path to take. At least he thought so. And he's let you know.
More than once I saw him screaming at those closest to him. Especially his sons. If the decisions they made weren't the ones he thought they should be making for themselves.
And, truth be told, he had an eye for lovely women. And women were attracted to his charm and generosity.
So were men, by the way - many of whom took advantage of him. "Borrowing money" then flitting out into the wind never to be seen again.
Even his own bookkeeper stole from him! With the assistance of a young assistant he brought in.
Chuck was way too trusting. As evidence his warm embrace of me, sight unseen. Sometimes that worked out to his advantage - like our relationship and countless others that, I'm sure, enriched his life. Sometimes it worked to his disadvantage.
One thing I can say for certain is that, although his relationships with the ones he loved could be strained. He loved his family dearly.
I don't think he knew how to properly express his feelings. But even after he divorced his unbelievably sweet wife, Anita, he remained in love with her. And took care of her when she became sick.
And as for his six children. He may not have said "I love you" as often as they'd have liked. But I know from my conversations with Chuck, he truly loved them all. He'd talk about them with such pride. But always when they weren't around to hear it.
These last several years, Chuck was not the Chuck we all knew. In a nursing home. On a respirator. The result of decades of smoking no doubt (everyone knows how Chuck would cough even when he wasn't smoking. He'd call that having "hobo fits.") But even then - there were moments of lucidness. When I made my all-too-infrequent visits to Detroit and stopped to see him - he'd always want me to tell the nurses one of our many war stories on the streets of Detroit.
I think his favorite story was the one about the guy whose finger got caught in a sliding window of an old DSR bus on Woodward Avenue. Someone slammed the window shut and the poor guy's finger was stuck in it - nearly amputated.
No one could get the window open. They tried and tried and it was obvious - if we didn't get it open - he'd lose the finger.
Chuck said he had a solution - and ran back to his green Cadillac and popped the trunk. Grabbed a hand axe. And ran back.
Of course, he was going to use the blade to pry the window open. But the poor guy thought he was going to cut his finger off!
It was the first time I'd ever seen a black guy lose the pigmentation in his skin as his face literally turned white!
Afterwards, he was relieved and thankful. But I have to tell you. Both Chuck and I got lots of mileage - and laughs - out of THAT story.
To Chuck - life was one adventure after another. He loved conflict and conflict resolution. He loved being in the middle of everything. Offering his opinion. On everything. And not necessarily bothering to listen to what the other person had to say - especially if that person disagreed.
I've got to believe that - if there's a heaven and Chuck's there - he's spinning some kind of a story about those adventures to someone. And if there are any reporters in heaven - Chuck will have found them by now.