Down on the corner

His barbecue stand is stocked with two grills, a hot dog cart and a group of men who seat themselves at his side every day.

Charles Gaither can be found on the corner of East McNichols and Hoover six days a week, from just before lunch until the sun sinks away, standing over two barrel grills that bathe him in heat and smoke. This is how he supports himself and his four kids. 

Gaither's one of countless grillers in the city who station themselves on sidewalks and parking lots during summertime, selling barbecued meat for a few dollars a meal. But while many do so as a side job to a main business like a barber shop or a party store, Gaither relies on this alone to pay his bills. It makes for long days of work at the mercy of the weather.

"It's about two or three hours before I get here of preparation — loading the truck up, getting things set up, making sure things are ready to go," says the tall, thin 38-year-old. "And it's about two or three hours after I leave here — take everything off the truck, gotta wash the dishes, then I'm always doing something to get ready for tomorrow."

He calls his business "C" Chef BBQ. It's posted just like that on a framed, laminated menu that rests on the folding table where customers stand and order their food, and on a hand-painted sign propped near the sidewalk. The parking lot he works in belongs to the church he attends. They let him set up here, under a little canopy.

Besides the usual grilled ribs and sausages, Gaither's created some unique dishes, like a leg quarter of jerk chicken on wheat bread for $4, Steak-umm sandwiches with onions and cheese for the same price, or $1.25 hot dogs covered in cinnamon-spiced, sweet baked beans on a bun. Drinks like red pop or lemonade go for a buck apiece.

After years of cooking in other people's restaurants, he resolved a few years ago to start one of his own.

"Nothing's easy," he says. "That I have learned the hard way. It's easier to work for somebody else because here, everything's my fault. At the end of the day there's nobody to be mad at but me. But it's mine."

Don Williams cracks open a tall can of beer in a brown paper bag as he watches the passing cars. "This is one place where you can see everything happening," says the 54-year-old. He's sitting next to the "C" Chef canopy with pal Earl Hodges, 63, and Gaither's 38-year-old brother Anthony.

When Gaither first opened up here, these neighborhood guys would order food and make small talk with him. Later they brought chairs so they could hang around awhile and make a day of it. Eventually they got so comfortable they set up their own horseshoes pit on the long strip of crabgrass between the sidewalk and the street. 

People make hangouts out of all sorts of places. Porch stoops, dive bars, front lawns, city parks. For whatever reason, the soft-spoken chef, so polite that almost every sentence of his contains a "yes sir" or "yes ma'am," found himself the center around which this small group's social life orbits. His workplace became their full-time hangout. 

"There's a lot of entertainment here," Williams says, leaning back in his chair. "Pretty ladies go by, everybody rides by, the bus stops right here, picks up, empties off, bus stop over there, officers night-sticking motherfuckers," he laughs. "We have a ball over here, man."

Williams is the group's talker, the one with the contagious laugh, the one always cracking jokes.

"He do not hush," the chef says about him. "God bless him, but he do not hush." 

Williams, like Hodges, has been in the neighborhood for years. "I've been living here since '76. The neighborhood over here, wasn't nothin' over here black but a shoe and a tire." They all laugh. "I'm telling you the truth. Matter of fact, we was one of the first black families to move over here."

After three decades working robotics at Chrysler's Sterling Heights plant, he retired a few years ago. "It's been three years of heaven," he says. "I've never been able to sit out here like this 'cause I always worked afternoons and they'd keep me there, what, 10, 12 hours. But now I ride my bicycle up here, sit up here a couple hours when he starts up in the morning, drink a beer. That's what I like to do."

They're out here even on the short, gray days of winter, sitting close to the hot barbecue pits, sometimes taking swigs of Yukon Jack to keep warm. "Winter's very challenging," Anthony Gaither says, understated. It doesn't stop their gatherings, though.

You can tell these guys admire the chef, truly like him, even feel protective toward him. Hodges and Williams call themselves his adoptive uncles. And with his brother Anthony joining them most days when he's not working at the gas station up the street, the assembled group has the relaxed familiarity of relatives sitting around the yard.

"It's a family thing," says Hodges. "We stay up here until 8 o'clock or so some nights, and while he's loading up we stand around talking, drink a beer, you know? We hate to even leave each other 'cause this is just what we do. We stay here all day. And when someone is not here one particular day, the whole day, we wonder where they are."

Clang! The horseshoe hits the stake and falls off to the side. 

"You ready for this ass whooping?" Williams says to Hodges. "Don't take it personal, though," he adds with a chuckle. He throws a second one. It bounces off the dry dirt and kicks up a whiff of dust. He's already way in the lead.

"Aw, he's just lucky right now," Hodges counters. But the score is an afterthought. Horseshoes is just another reason for these friends to stick around, something to do between bouts of sitting.

"It's a beautiful game," he says.

Anthony Gaither likes its low-exertion pace. "I'm not really a sports person, like baseball, running around and all that. I don't really want to do all that running and stuff," he says, rubbing his belly. "Just stand here and let the stomach grow a little more." 

Kids ride by sometimes and ask to be taught how to play. Others come to watch. Rarely, a hustler might show up and want to join in, and before you know it they're swearing and getting riled up and trying to bet on throws. That ends the game. 

As they take turns throwing and talking and throwing again, cars pull up, drivers amble out, and Charles the chef hustles between his grills. Sometimes half-a-dozen cars will be parked around the canopy in the lot, angled in all directions, their stereos blaring, their drivers hungry. The horseshoe guys will wait for everyone to get served and invite the chef to play a quick round. He rarely has the time for it, and doesn't get to hang out much, but he's still the center of this group and its reason for being here.

And the chef is perceptive enough to know this, thoughtful enough to appreciate the gesture of these guys showing up one day and adopting him and his spot as their own.

"Some days are better than others, but the relationships and the people I've met are more important than the money. I love the customers, and the people I meet out here, and these guys out here," he says, as his friends stand around joking by the horseshoes pit. "It makes it difficult to come off this corner."

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