WELCOME, WORLD

I remember my first time.

I was nervous. I was embarrassed. I was already in my 20s and had never done it before.

But I did it.

And I liked it.

I came to Detroit.

Perhaps you are doing the same thing today for Super Bowl XL, arriving at our airport, checking into our hotels, looking at our river that leads to a Great Lake. Maybe you’ve never seen a Great Lake. Don’t worry. It’s like an ocean, but usually without the waves.

And don’t worry about anything else, either. Because if there’s one benefit to a cold-weather Super Bowl in a Rust Belt city that only gets headlines when there’s violence or poverty, this is it:

Your expectations are so low, we are bound to exceed them.

Our winter? Not as bad as you think. Our storied poverty? Not as bad as you think. Our buildings that are less than gleaming? Not as bad as you think.

Still, it’s what you’re not expecting that may define your time here. And that’s the people. They call Chicago “the city of broad shoulders”? Call us “the city of braced shoulders.” We expect visitors to think the worst. We expect journalists to swarm when there’s bad news.

We have been living this posture for so long, hunched forward, shoulders up, ready to defend, that we have learned to walk, talk, work and sleep in it. We’ve also learned – and you may find this amazing – to smile our way through it.

Hey. If you watched the Lions the past 50 years, you’d learn to smile through pain, too.

So I’m going to make a bet here. I’m going to bet that when you leave Detroit next Monday, the thing that will stay with you most will be those smiles. You will find that most of us love it here, that we see through the scarred or saggy flesh to the heart that beats within.

This is an American city. Our city.

Welcome to it.

The usual cast of characters

Can I be honest? When I first heard Detroit was getting a Super Bowl, I told everyone it was a bad idea. I worried it would do more harm than good. I have been to the past 21 Super Bowls. I know how they work. I know they bring mostly businessmen, corporate sales teams or jet-setters for a few sunny days to party, play golf and close a deal. I know they bring thousands of judgmental media members, each needing to find a week’s worth of stories.

I figured both groups would find Detroit lacking and adopt a mantra summed up by three words: “This Place Stinks.”

After all, we don’t have South Beach. We don’t have Bourbon Street. We don’t have Disneyland.

But those places aren’t real. They are dolled up, stacked coins, candy on candy. They are bars next to more bars and rides next to more rides.

They are not cities.

Detroit is a city. Our bars are next to our clothing stores, our restaurants next to our office buildings. We don’t have rides. We do have a monorail that has been known not to work over the years.

But the bloodstream of a city is its people. And that we have. Not just Disney waitresses. Not just doormen or caddies. People – real, live, working people whom you will meet, greet, talk to, hear some stories from.

They will be the best part of your week.

And this is what I’ve realized about a Super Bowl:

It is more about them than you.

The icons of the Motor City

I’ve realized even if visitors are not excited about this Super Bowl, we are. It already has shown us what we can do when we rally, what we can look like when we spruce up, what we can feel like when we stand straight and act as worthy as anyplace else.

It already has galvanized thousands of volunteers who, believe it or not, are motivated in large part by civic pride, not the chance to meet somebody famous.

And mostly, it is giving us an opportunity to be seen up close, something most of Detroit’s critics never bother to do unless forced (hello, Jimmy Kimmel).

So here is what you will and won’t see:

You won’t see cars being assembled downtown – those factories are in the outlying areas. But you will see the corporate headquarters for Compuware, General Motors or Little Caesars.

You won’t bump into old Motown stars like Diana Ross or Smokey Robinson, who don’t live here anymore. But you might bump into Bob Seger or Kid Rock, who do.

You won’t hear stories about our pro football excellence, since we’ve only won one playoff game in the past five decades. But you will hear plenty of Stanley Cup tales.

And you won’t get shot, mugged, held up or jumped – not unless you have a thing for really bad neighborhoods really late at night. But you will be happily greeted by butchers, bakers and auto part-makers, who can tell you about their childhoods here, and their parents’ childhoods here, and their grandparents’ childhoods here, because you’re going to notice something: This city, that so much of the country fears or pities, is a place most of us do not leave – not because we can’t, but because we don’t want to.

It may not be perfect.

But it’s ours.

And this week it’s yours. My bet is with half an open mind, you will go home pleasantly surprised. You’ll learn what Greektown is, what a Coney Dog is, what we mean when we say “Cobo” or “Copa,” why even British royalty books rooms at the Townsend in Birmingham, and why music seems to seep from Detroit pores. You’ll know who Stevie Y and Joe D are, even without their last names, you’ll know why it’s “Fords” not “Ford,” you’ll know why “soda” is “pop” and you’ll know what Canada looks like when it’s south of you.

Yes, you’ll see tough economic conditions, but more important, you’ll see people fighting them and still smiling. Hey, it’s easy to smile in Disneyland. When’s the last time Mickey had to work a double shift?

And maybe, when all is said and done, you’ll be surprised how painless and actually fun this visit was, and you’ll remember what they say about your first time.

You never forget it.

And if it’s good, you want to repeat it.

In which case, we have this little old basketball team called the Pistons …

And we’ll see you in June.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR. To read his recent columns, go to www.freep.com/mitch.

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