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Over Easy: James Robertson’s Commute – A Journey of Faith and Determination

James Robertson

James Robertson

James Robertson, a 56 year old Detroiter, lives in the city and works in suburban Rochester Hills. His his 1988 Honda Accord died more than a decade ago, and he hasn’t been able to afford a replacement. His job pays $10.55/hr., which is more than Michigan’s $8.15 hourly minimum wage, but it’s not enough for him to save for the purchase, insurance, and maintenance of a car in that area. (Detroit has the highest car insurance rates in the U.S.) Robertson works at Schain Mold & Engineering, where he has run an injection-molding machine for twelve years. His boss’s wife often makes him dinner.

He leaves home at 8 a.m., and is able to ride a bus partway, out Woodward Ave. as far as an upscale mall in Troy, but then he walks from there to his job in Rochester Hills, arriving about 12:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Five days a week. Rain and shine, heat and cold. He has a perfect attendance record.

As hard as Robertson’s morning commute is, the trip home is even harder. He works a 2 p.m. – 10 p.m. shift, and then sets out on foot in the dark for the 21-mile return to his home. None of his coworkers live near him, so he almost never gets a ride from them. At the upscale mall, he is able to catch the last SMART bus of the day, just before 1 a.m., and rides it into Detroit as far it goes, to the State Fairgrounds just south of 8 Mile. By then, the last inbound bus has left, so he walks the remaining 5 miles to the home he shares with his girlfriend, who inherited the house they live in. He gets home at about 4 a.m., then arises after a couple of hours of sleep to begin again. Five days a week.

So, what gets him past dangerous streets, and through the cold and gloom of night and winter winds?

“One word — faith,” Robertson says. “I’m not saying I’m a member of some church. But just before I get home, every night, I say, ‘Lord, keep me safe.’ ”

The next day, Robertson adds, “I should’ve told you there’s another thing: determination.”

After the story of Heart and Sole appeared in Sunday’s Detroit Free Press, recounting how a full-time job and 21 mile daily commute on foot leaves Robertson only two hours for sleep each day, a Wayne State University student launched a GoFundMe drive to raise money to buy Robertson a car, with an initial goal of $5,000. As of late Tuesday more than $254,000 has been donated, along with a choice of cars offered by local dealers.

Rochester resident Blake Pollock, a vice president at UBS, brought Robertson’s story to the Free Press after seeing him walking in every sort of weather for hours through areas of Troy and Rochester Hills. Pollock never dreamed anyone would be walking like that to keep his job. Because their commuting routes overlap in Oakland County, Pollock has picked up Robertson dozens of times this winter, ferrying the older man to the job. Now Pollock will help establish a board of advisors to help Robertson manage the rapidly increasing donations. Some of the funds will be put aside to pay for years of auto insurance, gasoline, maintenance, and also likely will help Robertson with medical and dental expenses. Dealers have offered, through the Free Press, free Chevrolets, Hondas and other makes. Apparently Robertson is leaning toward a Ford.

Local radio legend Dick Purtan interviewed Robertson at Purtan’s lakeside home in West Bloomfield.

Robertson told the retired radio funnyman he had no intention of quitting his $10.55/hour job, no plan to leave bosses and coworkers he cares deeply about, no intention of ever moving from the neighborhood in central Detroit where he’d lived all his life. Purtan was moved, like countless others who’ve read about Robertson or seen the Free Press video of him making a commute through miles of snow in Oakland County last week.

I encourage you to read the full Detroit Free Press articles about James Robertson linked below. And then keep his story in mind the next time someone tells you poor people are moochers, or the minimum wage is only for teenagers, or millages for bus service aren’t necessary in this age of the auto.

Heart and sole: Detroiter walks 21 miles in work commute

Detroiter’s daily trek inspires hundreds to donate

And then there’s this: Transportation study ranks Detroit 40th of 70 cities

Photo: Ryan Garza, Detroit Free Press

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I retired from the University of Notre Dame in the Office of Information Technology in 2010. I'm divorced, with two grown children and 8 grandchildren. I'm a lifelong liberal and a "nonbeliever."