DETROIT -- Billionaire bridge owner Matty Moroun once told me a childhood story that might explain his money lust.
Moroun, now 84, grew up in a neighborhood on the east side of what is now the Chrysler Freeway, just outside Black Bottom, a working class stew of Italians and Arabs and blacks.
A nun encouraged him to test for admission into University of Detroit Jesuit High School, the prestigious preparatory school.
He scored high marks on the entrance exam and was admitted.
A look through the old yearbooks shows a fleshy, kinky-haired, swarthy-skinned boy named Manuel Moroun. He was the only Arab in his school and perhaps the first to ever attend there. The first black would not be admitted for another decade.
Moroun played no sports, joined no clubs or associations, according to those yearbooks. He always stood to the side during the class photograph with a face of sour milk, in the same dark jacket that appears as though it doubled as his funeral outfit.
"I saw a whole new world," he told me. "It changed everything for me. I came from humble beginnings, a slum area more or less. The son of an Arab gas station owner. "I remember Pete Ahrens at U of D. His father was general manager and vice president of GM. Christ, he drove a new Cadillac to school every week. The Fisher boys went there. All the kids had new cars.
Christ, I had a streetcar and a bus, that's how I got to school. It made me feel I was very inadequate. I felt inadequate. Not up to the deal.
"I'm more comfortable now, but I still look in awe at people like that. You can't shake that. It's hard to shake that. You think of the children of those people I went to school with. It all crumbled.
“And I won.”
Moroun has gone on to become one of the wealthiest men in America, making the bulk of his fortune in trucking and lucrative bridge tolls. In the meantime GM crumbled and a new Cadillac can’t even be purchased within Detroit city limits anymore.
But it appears Moroun’s empire too is beginning to crumble.
He was escorted out of Wayne County court Thursday morning, not by his lawyers or hand servants, but by sheriff’s deputies. He was ordered jailed for thumbing his nose at a judge’s order to finish building ramps to his Ambassador Bridge and nearby expressways as required by the state.
Moroun appearing worn and confused -- his mouth agape, his eyes clouded with age --looked nothing like the self-made titan of industry whose detractors call a troll, slumlord, a money grubber.
The reputation is deserved. Moroun owns whole ghettos on both sides of the Ambassador Bridge, crumbling warehouses along the waterfront and the most outrageous symbol of urban blight, the ghostly Michigan Central Rail Depot.
His time in the county jail might be Moroun’s Ebenezer Scrooge moment. A chance to reflect on his life. A chance to avoid the eternal pit of irrelevance. I know Moroun is already thinking about legacy. I recently had a beer with Dan Stamper, the president of Moroun’s bridge company.
Stamper was also sent to jail Thursday.
“We need a game changer,” Stamper said, referring to their battle to keep a publicly owned bridge from being built in Detroit. “You have any ideas?”
“Yeah,” I told him. “Offer to give half of your tolls to Detroit for the next 100 years.”
That’s an endowment of least $30 million a year for a city with no money, bad schools and few jobs. A relative pittance for a son-of-the-city now worth perhaps many billion dollars. That would buy a lot of love.
“I’ll run it by him,” Stamper said.
Moroun has plenty of time to think about it. The judge gave him 30 days in a 14 by 8 cell next to Kwame Kilpatrick’s old quarters. That cell is currently occupied by an on-line porn pimp.