A legendary downtown bar and its owners remain entwined until the end
Published: December 5, 2012
The decor hasn't changed in decades. Lime greens, bright chartreuses and patterned wallpaper on wood paneling create its surreal backdrop.
The long bar gleams with pale, distorted reflections of the Christmas lights on the wall. Yards of hallway lead to the bare-bones bathrooms. And filling out the space are restaurant-style tables and booths, dozens of them, persistent reminders that this place once served meals but hasn't in at least a decade. A sign on the wall lists old lunch specials now frozen in time: roast beef and chicken noodle on Mondays, meatballs and spaghetti on Wednesdays, and so on; a connection to a past before the couple got too old to cook, before the lunch crowd stopped coming by.
Several vintage tin lunchboxes, including decades-old originals featuring such pop-culture figures as Nancy Drew and Fat Albert and the Monkees, gather dust above the bar. They were new when Steve bought them for decoration; now they're collectors' items that sometimes draw spontaneous offers of cash from visitors. "But I cannot sell them," he says. "If I sell them it would be empty in here."
Steve himself is the very essence of his bar. He's a renmant from Old Detroit — a charming, grandfatherly, Old World gentleman who still wears a tie and a checkered shirt to work every day, who hitches his baggy trousers high, who glides in little shuffles across the floor in scuffed dress shoes.
He was born in Oregon but was raised from an early age in Greece, and in his younger days he'd regale customers with his battle stories from the German occupation in World War II and the Greek civil war after that. "I was in the service almost six years fighting against the Communists," he says. "I lost everything to the Communists — my house, my job."
He came back to America in the '50s, settled in Detroit, married Sophie and worked in high-end restaurants like the London Chop House and Caucus Club until he'd saved enough money to buy his own bar.
Somehow he's managed to retain his thick Greek accent through his years here, and combined with the softening of his voice with age, he's nearly impossible to understand when he speaks. He can't hear so well either anymore, so most interactions between him and his customers are wordless conversations of shared expressions, a nod to generously poured drinks, gestures of politeness.
His age is beginning to show more now. Even only a few months back, on a bright summer weekday, he seemed more lively as he sat outside his bar on a chair that leaned against the brick wall, smoking a cigarette, his legs crossed elegantly, smiling as he watched the life of the street. Not long before, he had the sign outside repainted to say “Mr. Steven’s Place” in a curious attempt at freshening things up.
He sprang to life when a regular customer walked up with his 1-year-old son in tow. The sight of the boy caused a sunburst of a smile on Steve's face. He reached into his baggy pants pockets and pulled out a dollar bill, and with a trembling hand reached out and gave it to the child. The elderly bartender was so delighted at the sight of the toddler he wanted to express his affection in a tangible way, and this was the gift he spontaneously came up with. It was likely more money than he'd made so far that day.
As father and son left, an elderly man walked over from somewhere in Greektown, and the two began speaking animatedly in Greek to one another. It was just like the old days for a moment, one immigrant catching up with another, old friends in a Greektown that's become less Greek by the year. Once, this area was filled with thousands of others like them, but every year there are fewer of them around to talk to like this.
That day's just a warm memory now as Steve sits huddled inside the bar on a cold November weekday night, hunched into himself for warmth, unable to sit in his chair outside because of the chill. Sophie is upstairs, sleeping.
"She's not feeling too good," he says. When she wakes up it'll be his turn to nap. And he can use the rest. He's not feeling well either right now, he says. "Health," he says, simply. "But for the age, not bad."
He and his wife could've retired years ago, but then what? They live upstairs; the bar is their home and this is all they've done half their lives. Despite worsening health and advancing age, their bar is going to remain here as long as they do. "I have no choice," Steve says. "We've worked hard all our life over here. I work like slave over here. This is my job and my house."
He gets up slowly from his table and makes his painstaking way to the back booth, by the open doorway that leads to the couple's apartment, where he sits and stares forward again, a man waiting out the clock, both on this day and in this life. But this time, as his only visitor gets up to leave, he suddenly breaks into a sweet, friendly smile, and waves and waves with a wide sweep of his hand until the customer is all the way out the door, leaving Steve all alone, waiting patiently by the apartment door for his sleeping wife to awaken.
Detroitblogger John scours the city for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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