Fading away

Jul 9, 2008 at 12:00 am

Some places are like ghosts, not quite dead, not quite alive, but lingering between the two as faded shadows of their old selves.

Paul's Diner on Michigan Avenue at Cabot Street, less than a mile from the Dearborn border, looks at first glance to have died. It rarely has customers, there's no listing for it in the phone book, and its hours are erratic. The only thing keeping it going is the will of the man running it.

"It used to be just all the old-timers," says owner Paul Jones, 65, a curt, doleful man with slumped shoulders and a rare smile. "I've lost all my business right there. They're either dead or invalids."

The diner, housed in a century-old building, is barely noticeable from the street, being little more than a time-worn facade: a battered door, a faded sign and an unlit, filmy window crowded with houseplants.

Jones bought the place 15 years ago. "I'm very attached to it now," he says. "I put a small fortune into this thing. I don't have a note; I paid this off a long time ago and I sweated blood to do that."

He lives in an apartment above the diner where he spends most of his time. He holds court at the end of the long lunch counter; his cigarettes, bills, address book and prescriptions are spread out in front of him as he sits and chain-smokes. An old cocker spaniel, half blind and mostly deaf, rests quietly at the foot of the counter at his feet.

The air is smoky, and the décor is faded. The booths were bought second-hand years ago from a McDonald's. The place has the usual elements of a diner — plain coffee brewed in an old machine, ceramic bowls and plates in stacks, boxes of crackers and napkins on a shelf, daily specials scrawled in chalk on a hanging blackboard. In addition to the usual soups and breakfasts, they serve peculiarities like a lamb loaf sandwich or a hillbilly loose burger.

"We could make this hoppin' if we wanted to," Jones says wearily. "It's mostly my fault for not advertising. I'm just tired. I drink too much and I'm tired, bottom line. I'm not going to lie about it."

Usually the only ones in here are Jones, his girlfriend, Kathy Darby, and a cross-dressing neighbor. Darby, 44, works here too, and lives upstairs with Jones. They react with surprise when somebody actually comes in for a meal.

"Business for the area is way off," Jones says. "When you have something like this there's no such thing as a stable income, so you scrounge every penny, and if you don't you're fucked." They barely get by, he admits.

The couple met when Darby, a recent widow, took offense at Jones' gruff demeanor one day as she walked by while he lingered in the doorway. "I walked by and said, 'Good morning,' and he stuck his nose up in the air. It pissed me off so much I went out of my way for the next three months just to piss him off and come by."

He eventually warmed to her after becoming gravely ill with a fluid build-up around his lungs. "He basically was the walking dead," she said. "What was wrong with him was the same condition my dead husband went through. The doctors in the hospital couldn't tell him what it was but I knew what it was." One day, as he languished in a booth at the diner, she came in, put a water pill in his mouth and ran out the door. "Four or five hours later I was up and about," he says. They've been together for just under a year.

From their vantage point here, they get a prime view of Michigan Avenue and all its wildness. "Michigan Avenue has always been Michigan Avenue," Darby says suggestively. "Always has been and always will be."

"Half these assholes don't even live here," Jones says of the customers who visit the drug dealers, strip clubs and prostitutes. "They come down here to be assholes. They don't dare do it in Dearborn or Redford, 'cause they'll get their ass locked up and their ass beat."

Things are calmer now, but in his time here Jones has dealt with aggressive bikers, gangsters and strong-arm robbers, for whom he has baseball bats stashed around the joint. "They try to muscle you and take money," he says. "I've been through it. I've never lost. I've got my ass beaten, but I never lost." He's like an old junkyard dog, tired and quiet, but ornery and easily riled.

Sometimes the couple considers moving up north and closing the diner for good. "We're not sure right yet," Darby says. "We've both been through a lot in our lifetimes, and both are from this neighborhood, and it's like, what do you do? Do you just walk away from it or do you try and make an attempt to make it better?"

Outside, traffic slowed as the day passed into the evening. "Michigan Avenue should be roaring, and the only reason it's not is because it's a bunch of poor people like us trying to survive," Jones says. "It's not easy down here sometimes. It's tough. Not many people are going to come down and do what I do to survive."

He takes a long drag on his cigarette. "But considering everything, I've got a good life," he says.

Paul's Diner is located at 8740 Michigan Ave., Detroit. For more information call 313-846-0921.

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