Thursday, October 8, 2009

Monkeying Around

If you can imagine being a white man having to apologize for making a racial slur to your boss, when that boss is Detroit Mayor Coleman A. Young, then you can understand why Steve Graham might have opted to turn to the bottle.

But he didn't.

"I was tempted. I've been tempted," Graham, the old director of the Detroit Zoo, told me in a sit down interview some 20 years ago.

Steve Graham was an alcoholic; correction---IS an alcoholic. Once one, always one, they say.

I interviewed Graham on a show I hosted called "InnerView," a local cable program produced Downriver. And the chat wasn't too long after Graham made one of the most unfortunately timed remarks in Detroit history.

Graham was speaking to a small group of staffers, and was doling out tasks for the day. Someone brought up something that needed to be done right away.

Then Graham misspoke---badly.

"Just grab a couple of those monkeys to do it," he said, referring to some young black workers who were nearby.

Grimace.

I'm sure Graham no doubt wanted to reach into the air and grab those words and jam them back into his mouth before they reached anyone's ears. There were blacks in the room, making matters even worse.

Well, the you-know-what hit the fan---almost instantly---and Graham was in the clumsy position of not only being smeared publicly, but having to trudge to city hall with his tail between his legs.

Young, as mayor, was Graham's boss.

"One thing about Coleman Young," Graham told me. "He doesn't suffer fools easily."

But in this case, Young went easy on Graham, who was still battling the demons of alcohol, big time.

"He just looked at me and said, basically, 'Well, you certainly said a stupid thing, didn't you?'," Graham recalled about his meeting with Young in the wake of the controversy. But that was about it. Young didn't castigate Graham. There was enough of that going around town, anyway.

"He stood by me," Graham said. "And I will always respect him for that."

So there you go---Coleman Young knew when to ease off the gas pedal after all.


A REAL monkey at the Detroit Zoo


Steve Graham was director of the Detroit Zoo at a time when the zoo was starting to lose its mojo as one of the best ones in the nation---a reputation it held well into the 1970s. But the tarnishing pre-dated Graham.

He was a pretty good director for the zoo---having come from Baltimore---and oversaw some new exhibits and construction. There were some other controversies during his tenure (1982-92), usually involving euthanasia, but those weren't unique to Detroit's zoo.

But what about that "monkeys" remark?

"It was an expression I'd used time and again," Graham told me as he tried to explain himself. "Whether the people were black and white. It was just an expression I used for the younger workers. Monkeys."

Perhaps, in Graham's mind, that was appropriate---working in a zoo and all.

But too bad he didn't ask to call on "a couple of those penguins."

Oh well.

As for the drinking---Graham was sober at the time for several years---I asked Graham straight out: How often are you tempted?

He paused briefly and looked to the floor before raising his head back to meet my eyes.

"Sometimes. For sure."

And after the "monkeys" comment?

He gave a mirthless chuckle.

"Definitely," he admitted.

I told Graham to "hang in there" at the end of the interview. He laughed and thanked me.

I lost track of Graham after he left Detroit. Google searches haven't yielded much in the way of clues.

I hope he's well, and still sober.

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