"Every single thing that goes on in my household depends on what I make," Mr. Thomas said as he helped a friend fix the water pump on a rusting Dodge van. "If something doesn't happen for me for two or three weeks, then I'm in a hole."
It's not just a hole facing General Motors, Ford and Chrysler. It's a gaping chasm that threatens not only their own futures, but also the livelihoods of thousands of Detroit families who depend on the auto industry.
That made it personal when last week's congressional hearings on whether to grant the automakers $25 billion in loans turned into a confrontation, partly because some of the executives took private jets to Washington.
The country's leaders need to look past the companies' mistakes and focus on what's best for people, restaurant owner Anton Nikollbibaj said.
The Detroit automakers employ nearly a quarter-million workers, more than 730,000 others produce materials and parts that go into cars and about 1 million work in dealerships nationwide.
"I could understand the average Joe not understanding what Detroit is about, but the Congress should know what Detroit means to the country," Mr. Nikollbibaj said. "How are you going to tell a guy who has five or six kids at home and who's been working for Chrysler all his life that you are not going to help?"
Detroit newspaper editorials and some columnists called Congress misinformed or callous for seemingly ignoring the impact a collapse of one or more of the car companies would mean to Detroit, a city that already is among the nation's leaders in unemployment and home foreclosures.
This year has been rocky for Detroit, beginning with the sex scandal that cost Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick his job and freedom. He was sentenced Oct. 28 to four months in jail as part of a plea in two criminal cases.
The mismanaged and often-criticized public schools are in line to lose millions in state aid because enrollment dropped below 100,000. Detroit's chief financial officer has said the city faces a $125 million budget deficit that could force layoffs and cut services for residents.
"The mood in the city now is not good," 76-year-old retired carpenter Glen White said. "A lot of people are losing their homes ... I'm making it all right, but it's tight."
Mr. Thomas said this past week's last-minute plea from the auto chief executives is typical of how things are done in Detroit.
"We wait for something bad to happen before we do something," he said.
"Everybody is scared," said Mr. Nikollbibaj, who is concerned about keeping his restaurant afloat after shift and job cuts at two Chrysler plants.
But auto executives need to shoulder some of the blame for their failures, Bill Fink said.
"I think they shouldn't get paid more than the highest paid worker on the line," said Mr. Fink, 51, a former food deliverer who has been unemployed for months and spends two days each week shopping his rÃsumÃs online.
The auto industry's trouble and deteriorating local economy have been a reality check for a lot of people, Mr. Fink said.
"For way too long people were thinking as long as they have a job they don't have to worry about the guy down the street until it affects them," he said.
BANKRUPTCY NOT SOLUTION
DETROIT --- General Motors' board of directors doesn't consider bankruptcy protection a viable option to solve the company's financial troubles, but it has discussed Chapter 11 because it has a legal duty to do so, a spokesman said Saturday.
"The board has a responsibility to keep all options open considering the circumstances," said Vice President of Communications Tony Cervone. "Chapter 11 protection is not a viable option because it doesn't fundamentally address the issues at hand today."