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Culture

Last days

A legendary downtown bar and its owners remain entwined until the end

Photo: , License: N/A

Steve and Sophie inside their longtime bar.


There's not a single customer in the bar tonight. Just like most of last night. Just like most nights before that.

Steve Francis, the bar's owner, sits at a table by the wall, huddled inside his wool sweater, with a blanket covering his lap. "Cold," he says, simply. "Costs too much to heat." 

It's Friday night at Steve's Place, one of the oldest, loneliest dive bars in Detroit. It manages to be both legendary and obscure, a place that most people have heard of but not many visit, except those loyal few who check in now and then to see if its elderly proprietors are still improbably in place behind the bar.

"Nobody in here," Steve says, meaning not just tonight but always. "Sometimes there are birthday parties, the bachelor parties once in a while. Occasionally, a few lovers come in here. But now, very bad. No business."

It's dead quiet apart from the little television above the bar and the sounds of the night seeping in from outside — the loud clang when a car drives over the thick metal sheets covering potholes in the street, the clipped words of stray conversations among people passing by, the shouts of a riled homeless man echoing among the tall buildings. 

The dim light in the room comes from small sources — the flickering television, the single light bulb inside a frosted globe hanging from the ceiling, the soft glow behind the old bar's liquor bottles and the strand of colorful, year-round Christmas lights strung along a wall. 

Steve and Sophie, his wife of 50 years, are the bar's only employees. Both are in their 80s, though Steve says he's not even sure how old he is exactly, because he has no birth certificate. The frail couple takes turns working; one naps in the apartment upstairs while the other one works the bar, from a little before the lunch hour to 2 a.m. or later, every single day of the year but Christmas.

The passing blur of pedestrians can be seen though the misty windows all night, but for hours at a time, nobody, nobody at all, opens the door and stops in for a drink. The only customers nowadays are lone barflies, stray sports fans on their way to a game, and those loyal regulars who come for nostalgia, or sentimentality, or because this is one of the last authentic, old-time bars left downtown.

"This is a good place, good drinks, the best place in Detroit to have alcohol," Steve declares, faintly smiling, as though to convey a hint of sarcasm or irony. "It's the best bar in Detroit." 

His solitude is finally interrupted as an elderly man wearing a thick coat and furry hat walks in and sits at the bar. Steve unfolds himself from his seat, shuffles achingly and slowly around the long bar and then behind it, and greets his customer, a longtime regular. The man orders a can of Pabst. Steve inches forward again, one tiny sliding step at a time, to one of the coolers. He grabs the beer, rings up the sale on the ancient metal cash register and works his way back to the customer.

Then it's a long, slow journey back to his seat, where he gets back under his thick blanket and stares blankly forward, toward the jukebox, and the old cigarette machine, and the door that rarely swings open.

 

Years ago, there were plenty of customers. When Steve first bought the bar 40 years ago, it was packed, just as downtown still was. "It was a good location, and the bar made a good profit," he says. "It was a good investment. But times are very tight."

Even a decade ago he'd get spillover from St. Andrew's Hall next door, when bands and their fans would fill the bar at 2 a.m. after a concert ended, and leave their mark by adding to the overlapping bumper stickers for different bands stuck to the cabinet behind the bar. 

But Steve's Place became a leftover in the midst of the new martini lounges and cigar bars and the massive casino nearby. As downtown changed around him, his bar stayed stubbornly the same — eccentric, a throwback in contrast to its brightly lit surroundings. An eerie, Twilight Zone bar tended by a vulnerable elderly couple is not much of a draw these days.

"It was better before they opened the casino," Steve says, as Sophie sits at the end of the bar. She's just come down from upstairs, wearing the kind of loose, flowing housedress favored by old women. "When they open the casino, people went there to gamble and I lose all this money," he continues. "No customers now. Before, when they had the games over here, the hockey games, we had a lot of people over here. Now nobody comes."

"And no hockey now!" Sophie interjects, noting how yet another NHL lockout has subtracted 20,000 hockey fans from the downtown streets a few nights a week. The couple gets by on their Social Security checks and the few dollars they make on their few customers. It's barely enough.

Their bar is a strange relic — mysterious, melancholy and utterly noir, hanging on past its natural life as if by a mere wisp of will. Its ambience is authentic and palpable and couldn't ever be staged or re-created, because this kind of atmosphere has to be built up slowly and naturally over the years, like grease on an old stove or the rings in a tree. 

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