Linda Meloche sits at a table outside Zou Zou's Cafe and Coffee Bar in the heart of Chelsea's downtown (which is to say at one of two downtown intersections busy enough to warrant a traffic light). Meloche, 47, seems to see someone she knows every time she looks up. The teen behind the counter, the woman at the next table, the kid getting out of the car on the corner.
Just as you're thinking that it could be a coincidence, a man on a bike pedals up to the light at Middle St. and Main St. "Is that (former Ann Arbor police detective) Rich Kinsey in his retirement?" she says, shading her eyes. "It is! Hi Rich!" (waving).
Nahhhh. Welcome to Linda's world.
Since 2003, Meloche has hosted a weekly community cable show, Around Town With Linda, on Chelsea's Channel 18. The interview show highlights people who either live or work in Chelsea – capturing the stories of former White House aides, atomic veterans, nine-year-old golf champions, rock and roll librarians.
The city of 4,400 doesn't track cable viewership, but Meloche holds down four one-hour time slots every day of the week, and the Chelsea District Library has copies of every show to lend. A different kind of person might turn that modest stage into something self-serving, but Around Town With Linda takes its tone from Meloche's own genuine interest in everyone else.
"Everyone's got a story," she says, an observation reinforced over and over again in her 24 years as a Dale Carnegie instructor.
During a 13-week Dale Carnegie course, students share their challenges, their hurts, their fears, their triumphs. It can be very raw, courageous stuff, and they come out of it stronger and more confident. But it's not just the students who are touched by the experience.
"After my first class I was like, 'Wow! Wasn't it a coincidence that there were so many amazing people in the same class with stories to tell," she explains. "And after the second class it was like, 'What are the odds that I'd have two classes full of amazing people, one right after the other?'"
And eventually she figured it out. If you ask, everyone has something to teach you. More often than not, we don't ask.
So Meloche, who has a gift for putting people at ease, asks the questions and then she listens - nodding encouragingly as her subjects talk about their lives and the people and experiences that have shaped them. Linda's husband, Chris, runs the camera and edits each episode down to a tidy 25-45-minute slice of life.
"It's kind of an opportunity to have some artistic expression and create something," says Chris, who teaches communications classes at Eastern Michigan University. He spends anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of days editing the shows each week.
"Before we started the show Linda and I had talked about giving back to the community in some way," Chris says. "I see this as a way I can give something back while doing something I kind of like doing."
Linda, meanwhile, gets to ask all kinds of people all kinds of questions without developing a reputation as "that nosy Meloche woman."
The Meloches don't get paid for the show, but community cable fame has its perks. People whom Linda has never met greet her as if she's an old friend. Grocery store baggers offer unsolicited reviews. ("I loved that show with the teacher and the story about the goat.")
"Everyone in this town knows Linda, and they anticipate when a new (episode) is going to come out," says Chelsea District Library director Bill Harmer (vol. 74). "And a lot of people watch it, too. The week after I was on I had a number of people come up to me, tell me I look goofier in real life, things like that."
Harmer has folded Around Town With Linda into the library's huge, ongoing oral history project. The library recently finished digitizing all the past episodes. "It makes absolutely perfect sense," Harmer says. "She's been doing oral history. The story we're trying to tell is to paint a picture of Chelsea and the surrounding district, and she's already interviewed all the movers and shakers."
Sometimes episodes take on a significance no one could have foreseen. The library's five copies of Meloche's interview with Riley Scott Sumner, the Chelsea police chief who died in a helicopter crash in 2006, have been checked out a total of 48 times, a number Harmer says you'd normally associate with a major feature film.
"She does a wonderful thing for this community, and I can't think of anyone else who does anything remotely like it," he says.
Meloche, one of four sisters, grew up in Southfield. She earned a marketing degree from Michigan State, then landed a job with Proctor & Gamble straight out of college. She had a nice salary and a company car, but hated what she was doing - driving around to grocery stores, chatting up managers, trying to convince them to display more Charmin towels and Always pads.
"It was boring," she recalls. "I felt like, 'This is my service to mankind?' It was a shallow job."
After six months she quit and went to work for the American Cancer Society – an incredibly fulfilling job that paid next to nothing. Convinced there had to be a happy medium somewhere, she took the Dale Carnegie course taught by one of her ACS volunteers and somewhere along the way it clicked that this might be it.
That was 24 years ago. Today every member of her household has been through the course.
Linda and Chris have both taught it; their college-age daughters, Emily and Carly, are Dale Carnegie graduate assistants, and their 15-year-old son, Jack, graduated in August.
Linda was promoting the Dale Carnegie course on a Jackson community cable show when the idea for Around Town began to evolve. This was a live show, and the producer, noting how at-ease she seemed in front of the camera, asked if she'd be interested in filling in for the regular host some time. Flattered, Linda mentioned this to Chris when she got home.
"You know, we have a cable channel," he said. "You could do the same thing right here."
"I called the city and said, "I'd like my own TV show, please,'" and they said, 'OK.' It was as simple as that," she explains.
Meloche started with a list of people she wanted to interview and has yet to see the end of it. It grows faster than she can interview.
Standing in line at the post office one day, she struck up a conversation with the man standing next to her. Turns out the man, Henri van der Waard, had been part of the Dutch resistance in World War II. He'd fought the Nazis and spent time in a concentration camp. His story is in vol. 28.
"People are amazing," she says, "The things that people have had to endure... There's so much hurt out there."
"When people are willing to give of themselves because they know that by sharing their story somebody else will have a little more joy or a little less heartache, when people aren't afraid to share their struggles or their challenges, I always walk away feeling inspired."
Amy Whitesall is a Chelsea-based freelance writer. Her work has appeared in the Ann Arbor News, Crain's Detroit Business and Michigan Today, and you can find her online at www.activevoicemedia.com. Amy's also a regular contributor to Concentrate and Metromode. Her most recent story was MASTERMIND: Bill Harmer
Video Still Taken From Around Town With Linda
The Rest-Around the Town of Chelsea
Photos taken by Dave Lewinski