July 30, 2014

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Steve and Sophie inside their longtime bar.

Last days

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. 

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 letters@metrotimes.com.

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