And so an hour before the scheduled 7 p.m. start time, Muhammad was added to a program that already numbered nearly two dozen. Don't worry, Cosby told him, just speak from the heart. And then Cosby was off.
This reporter introduced himself in the hallway. Cosby had already sent word that he was not interested in doing any interviews -- not then, not later. "I'm not going to talk to you," he told the reporter, "but you can observe. Come with me."
Another meeting -- this one with Norma Dozier-Madison, a psychologist at Detroit's Catherine Ferguson Academy, an alternative school for pregnant teenagers and those raising small children.
Cosby asked: What's the youngest student the school has ever had? Dozier-Madison said they once had an 11-year-old girl whose pregnancy was the result of being raped by a family friend. Cosby frowned, and asked a lot of questions about the girl's circumstance. She is now 18, no longer in school, and the last Dozier-Madison heard, an older sister was raising her child.
As Cosby listened and advised, Dozier-Madison began to wonder if he really understood the magnitude of the problem. "It was a good meeting," she said later, "but I wasn't getting the answers I wanted to get. I wanted some concrete answers to the problems I presented. Like, how are we going to reach people?" Dozier-Madison, who grew up in a Detroit housing project, said many of the people who need help the most won't go to a Cosby town-hall and can't be reached through radio, television or other conventional means. It's almost like you need "some kind of paper to hand people as they're driving up and down the streets," she said.
"How are you supposed to know how to be a good parent if you haven't been parented, if you haven't had any good examples of good parenting?" she says. "How are you supposed to know? It's not going to come from osmosis."
The town-hall had been set up in an atrium where students had been registering for classes earlier. The entire place was jammed -- the first floor, the second floor, people leaning over railings, sitting on makeshift bleachers, standing, crouching, straining to see whatever there was to see. All of a sudden a sighting: Cosby breezing through a corridor on his way to stops at the overflow rooms.
"Mr. Cosby! Mr. Cosby!"
"I love you, Bill!"
"Hey, hey, hey!" That reference was to "Fat Albert," the 1960s comedy skit and popular 1970s Cosby cartoon that recently had been remade as a movie and was still out in theaters. Everywhere Cosby stopped, the chorus went up: "Hey, hey, hey!"
But Cosby never stopped for long. A wave here, a handshake there, a quick cell phone photo. And jokes, always jokes. He hugged a small child and feigned a puzzled look. "Hey, this is not my baby." And he kept moving, Cos and his entourage. The whole scene resembled a presidential campaign rally.
Finally, it was time for the town-hall to start.
Onstage was Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and representatives from community organizations addressing issues from illiteracy to gang violence. Actor-director Robert Townsend and TV judge Glenda Hatchett did star turns at the mike. There was moving testimony from a former drug dealer who did time in prison and inspiring words from a Swarthmore College student.
Cosby would periodically stand up and shout, "C'mon," as though he were a deacon in church. And then finally, after two hours and 20 minutes of warm-up acts, it was Cosby's turn.
He spoke about saving children. He dissed the "poverty pimps" in the black community, though he didn't name names. But he didn't mince words. To Detroit: "You've got a reputation and it stinks," Cosby said, referring to the city's lingering reputation for high violent-crime rates. "It's not all of you, no. I'm not talking about all of you. I'm talking about 55 percent, 70 percent." And since Detroit is more than 80 percent black, he noted, it can't be the white man's fault, he said.
"It's not what he's doing to you, it's what you're not doing."
There were no groans, no rejoinders from the crowd. People just took their castor oil -- Cosby oil? -- and swallowed, as if somehow the medicine tasted better when administered by Cliff Huxtable.
They laughed at every punch line, and grew strangely silent when the comedian turned super serious.
He had them the moment he grabbed the mike and hiked up his sweat pants. The program, regrettably, went on so long that the audience never got to ask questions. And some in Detroit are now wondering the same thing they're wondering in other cities: When will we see you again?
Will we ever see you again?
Staff writer Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.