Hang time

Hangouts come in many forms, from bars and barber shops to the stoop on a porch's steps. No matter where they're found, though, they're all simply places where people can be around their friends.

That's the case at the Chip-in Sportsmen's Club on Seven Mile Road near Dequindre, the stomping ground for a group of former autoworkers who hung out together so often they bought a building of their own.

"Guy named Bob Vine had a gas station," says 75-year-old Cleophus Ward, who's in charge here. "We all used to hang around there. He went out of business, so we'd sit around, going to a different one's house every time. So we decided we'd get us a place."

The Chip-in is one of dozens of private little social clubs around town, most housed in small, plain buildings, drawing members by word-of-mouth. The club's no-frills interior has a few card tables, some chairs and a short bar with a TV propped on top. There's a small office with an old coffeemaker on a table just outside its door, and a pool table off to the side. The fake-wood paneling walls are bare, outside of some newspaper clippings, maps, and two print rugs, one featuring dogs shooting pool and another showing cats playing cards.

The club doesn't rely on decor for its ambience; it gets it instead from years of shared stories and inside jokes, countless memories of good times and bad, and watching friends come and go, sometimes forever.

There's a mix among members of the widowed, the divorced, the married, and the wed-more-than-once. "He's been married so many times he's got rice marks on his back," someone chortles about Vernon Morrow, 66. Everyone busts out laughing.

Most of the members know each other from their years working at Chrysler. Some belonged to a nearby Elks lodge, and decided to form their own club, led by a man named "Big John" Smith, the club's legendary founder who died a few years ago.

"According to him, he ran away from home when he was 12 years old and joined Ringling Brothers circus. He was a fire eater," says 64-year-old Tom Miller, a member since 1984. He speaks with genuine admiration. "Oh, man, this guy, he was a phenomenon, about 6-foot-4, he lived to be 90. He could do some of anything. Everyone in this area knew him."

Miller sips coffee as he sits with one leg slung loosely over the other, dressed like a million bucks in a brown fedora, a sport coat and a tie. He's from a time, like many of the members, when men dressed well whenever they left the house.

The club's name is literal. "Every time they went to do something, they all chipped in to do it, so that's why they named it Chip-in Sportsmen's Club," Miller says. "They all pooled up to take different fishing trips and things."

Dues are $35 a month, plus $6 for Mega Millions lottery tickets bought by the club. Members are entitled to a key and free access anytime, including two private parties a year. They throw a Christmas Eve bash and a fish fry now and then, and grow a garden out back, giving the vegetables to folks in the neighborhood in the fall. On warm summer afternoons they'll line chairs out front and watch as traffic passes by and the day winds along.

It's got a membership limit and strict bylaws, and monthly meetings to vote on various issues and plans. In terms of private hangouts, this one's relatively high-end and well-organized. "You very seldom run into a club like this, that is licensed to be a club like this," Miller says. So far it's lasted nearly 30 years.

The Chip-in gives its retired members a place to spend time, and a destination to look forward to. "I have somewhere to go," says Herman Ector, 64, also a Chrysler worker and the club's financial secretary. "I'm here every day. My wife's still working and I get up, get in my bath, put my clothes on and come right here."

Dell Davis, the club's youngest member at 34, owns the Halftime Sports Barbershop a couple doors down with a cousin and a friend, their attempt at starting their own hangout from scratch a couple years back. He's another Chrysler man.

"I just got tired of going to the barber shop and sitting and looking at one television, thumbing through an old magazine." says Davis, "So we decided to give them something to do while they wait — we had flat screens all around, pool tables, dart boards, video games, I even had the moonwalks for the kids." With a room full of couches and TVs, it was more of a hangout where haircuts happened to occur.

He's finding out, though, that creating a hangout isn't easy. His building's been broken into so many times recently that he closed its doors. Now he's looking to move and try it again somewhere safer.

"It's becoming rougher and rougher every day," he says. "The area is so different now." He lists the damage — copper wires ripped from walls, stolen cars, broken windows, plasma TVs that vanished. Someone broke the front door glass with a rock, just to do it. "If they can't get in they'll damage something. It comes to the point you just get tired of replacing things because of somebody else's actions. It's frustrating. You try to have something nice but people don't respect or appreciate it."

The guys at the Chip-in learned long ago how to adapt to the declining area. They fenced off the back lot, denying easy access, and the front door has a cage over it. "We've been busted into, and that's why we ain't got a lot of nothing in here, really," Miller says. "There's nothing to steal. We don't have computers or flat-screen TVs — that's just inviting someone to break in."

Nowadays, with the members getting older and the founder gone, get-togethers are a little mellower than in the past, when they'd hold fish fries so big there'd be a line around the block to get in. There are still parties, and some members bring in homemade wine now and then. But a corkboard covered in funeral notices for deceased members and friends is a reminder that the good times don't go on forever. "We have funerals all the time," Miller says.

What better reason, then, to sit back and savor the simple enjoyment of a get-together with friends at a hangout like the Chip-in, which Miller thinks is just a more formal venue for the kind of casual gatherings that occur all over town.

"Other guys can do the same thing that we do, but they be under a tree," he says. "Like these guys out here on Dequindre and Nevada, you'll see 10 or 15 guys, they all meet up under that tree, pull a car alongside, just drink beer, you know? And when it starts to rain they all have to break or run for their van or truck or whatever, instead of renting them a building and organizing themselves inside."

The guys at the Chip-in enjoy doing the same things. "The difference," he says," is we just do it inside."

Detroitblogger John scours the city for gems. Send comments to [email protected]
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