Hard day's night

Jun 11, 2008 at 12:00 am

I-75 rolls, straight ahead, Jack, almost directly into Michigan's gut. High strips of blemished brown and rushes of lush green, illuminated as if in some kind of jungle war dream, lift slowly in the distance and reflect off the windshield in the lazy midday sun. Then, abruptly, from a blur of whizzing Ford trucks and SUVs, from a forest of spruce, bur oaks and evergreens, rises the dirt-hued skyline; it's like some forgotten city — squint and dream of an American Pompeii, or some shit — and it's beautiful, the deco Mott Foundation Building a proud sentry.

Then we roll closer. The town's splendor suddenly fades like the looks of a once-fetching barstool queen whose best years are behind her.

Entering Flint, a town sprouted on a blip-stop between Detroit and Saginaw and incorporated back in 1855.

First thoughts: Hometown of Grand Funk Railroad and Michael Moore, a longtime stronghold for General Motors. Roger & Me. Initial impressions: Starbucks and J.C. Penney, inventive downtown renovation, some abandoned buildings still sport blight-disguising facades from the 2007, Flint-shot film Semi-Pro. There's an obvious mixture of a city-promoted sense of community, confusion, poverty and beauty. Fascinating stuff.

Railroads crisscross the city on rusted overpasses, sad train whistles audible night and day.

Built as a company town with an old General Motors heartbeat, there's still a pervasive sense of provincial pride here. Like Detroit, locals can call it a shithole, but if you're an out-of-towner and utter same, watch for mean fists.

It's an easy call that the town's lonely as hell — this city, whose population sits around 120,000, peaked in 1960 at 200,000. It's home to University of Michigan-Flint, which provides evidence of a modern culture and an art scene, evidenced in downtown galleries, eateries and new loft spaces in old downtown office buildings.

I'm perched on
a stoop that once led to a front porch of a house that's been demolished by a fire. The house has, apparently, been this way for years. It's now a slab of vine-covered rubble on a concrete slab; wildweed, rusted nails, razor-sharp glass shards sit above an ominous, open-door basement. But there's a phantom sensation of family, joy and life. There's a soft melody of birds ringing in stereo from surrounding trees. An abandoned house rots next door, separated by vines of poison oak that snake up chainlink. It all feels haunted.

Ghosts of little girls playing, sidewalk hop-scotching with wind at their backs, summer dresses outlining their forms, pigtails bouncing, move in front of me.

Partially hidden down in the hoary willow and undergrowth before me sits a lone survivor from the blaze — a playable 45 of the O'Jays "Work on Me." A 31-year-old R&B pop song of longing and one that works as a timely little parable for this house, for this street, for this neighborhood, for this city.

We're on Bishop Avenue in north Flint, in a neighborhood that sports houses scheduled for demolition by the city; though, truth be told, the area makes many Motor City hoods look like Santa Monica, Calif.

Ricardo Reyes is with the Neighborhood Restoration Group, a local nonprofit, which, along with the Genesee County Land Bank Authority, seeks to "renovate properties, enhance neighborhoods" and strengthen the community by putting properties back into use. He's a concerned resident, a guy proud of the strides these neighborhoods have made in recent years, despite the shrinking city's sour economy.

The 49-year-old, who just happened by with his daughter and grandson, grew up in this neighborhood, was a paperboy as a kid and lives just down the street.

This was a great area, Reyes says, "into the early '70s. Since then I've seen the drug houses come and go. .... In Flint, you've got to go by the block, not the street. We're turning this around into a good neighborhood with good people."

Bishop Avenue is one of those tree-lined hoods where rust belt kids grew up in families on the promise of auto manufacturing as a route to the American Dream of owning a home and raising a family. The area today is partially shuttered, partially dilapidated but brims with loving warmth. Wood frame and modular homes with kept lawns and cared-for flower gardens far outnumber the abandoned or foreclosed houses targeted for city demolition or renovation.

Across the street from the torched home sits the large Block Club Community Garden, which is just getting tilled, and shows signs of care and attention. The juxtaposition is remarkable; it says renewal. And new parks have been created in the area.

But a kind of sadness percolates inside the hood, one of an America that'll never come back; one that offered affordable homes and a pride of ownership within a family's means. A community where people would only want to survive within their means. The sadness says "work on me."

Locals say the sidewalks
roll up early in downtown Flint. The business district is centered on the bricked Saginaw Street, split by the lovely Flint River and its accompanying walkway.

The city's deep blue, rust-streaked dusk in slow-afternoon fading light is something, more powerful and vast than those in Detroit somehow, but far lonelier. It tenders a sense of trepidation, longing and faraway melancholy — I catalog the smells and sensations; the soft cool breeze, the piquant Flint River, the exhaust from the last of the downtown cars heading home — and it hovers in the city's skyline. Flint's downtown is languidly beautiful as twilight turns dark. Lights arching above Saginaw Street north toward the river give the feeling of a tunnel where shapes form in shadows, where if you continue walking you might vanish into nothing.

Teasers Gentleman's
Club on Wednesday night on the town's southside. Purple-haze interior with splashes of neon colors and gilded poles and corners.

The amiable beefside door security duo spend much time watching sports on the TV screens. There's a pool table. An ugly, tuneless dirge emerges from unseen speakers, which is as sexless as forced porn. We hear Hellyeah. Christ. How do girls dance to, much less mouth the words to, such anti-sex, forced-anger din? You can't even dance to it. A DJ hops up with a classic '70s FM rock jock voice: "Giiive it uuup for Tiffany!"

If the venue's dead tonight it's because bewigged Poison frontman Bret Micheals is across town, um, "rocking his world" at the Machine Shop bar. Sold out. He does well in these types of towns, Midwestern centers where time can freeze in one's coming-of-age decade. Half the Teasers' strippers are at the Machine "wanting to fuck Bret," as one blond-streaked dancer chirps while tapping her cellphone keys in perfect rhythm. She's at one end of the bar perched next to Brigitte ("just Brigitte"), Teasers' head woman, a russet-headed beauty with overdone silver eyeshadow that works swimmingly on her. She's constantly distracted and attentive to her staff.

A rounded Nubian goddess called Nirvana steps up to the stage and hip-sways slowly; her back to the venue, letting her ass defy gravity, and ignoring herself in the preen-ready, narcissistic mirrors that make the wall behind the stage.

On a good night, Brigitte says, a girl can make $500-$600 here. But if she sits on her ass she might do, oh, $100.

"Tell me about Flint," I ask.

"People do drugs and get shot," Brigitte says, shaking her head while giving her bartender a command of some sort. "No, not really. ... It's not so bad. ... Really."

A tub of a guy in a button-down shirt and sensible trousers climbs into a chair at a table. He's all alone. In Flint, sometimes, all one can think about is the loneliness some must endure. And then you begin to compare your lives, one crummy one for another. Strip bars can do that to a person.

A trio of balding gents sit at the lip of the stage on which a pair of lithe dancers mock lez action with all the enthusiasm of work-a-day girls nearing their 5 p.m. clock-out time. The dudes sit motionless, save for backward head-tilts to sip bottled Coronas.

In the girls I see long lines of abusive boyfriends and tentative lesbian trysts; and futures based on someone else's blue-collar income, stretched tribal tats, leathery faces, neglected children and Finding God. Maybe it's Flint, or maybe it's your basic sex-worker cliché. But tonight that's all future-think; the women here are striking, lovely, and they are bored, but their faces betray little regret. Natural pros in silicone, peroxide and tattoos, no doubt wishing Bret Michaels hadn't pulled into town.

Brigitte talks of Teaser patrons: "We get bikers, blue-collars, white-collars, punk rockers ... you name it." Any strip bar in Anytown America? Probably.

The tubby guy now has an ass floating in his face. His expression stays blank.

We spent an
afternoon bin-diving for albums, which is kinglife for geeks and shut-ins, DJs and flunkies with no lives. From our vantage, Flint sports two killer record stores: Musical Memories on Dort Highway and Jellybean's just down the road.

We step into Memories, whose entrance is shaded under a brilliant yellow awning. Sade's playing on the small counter TV. The shop weighs heavily on nostalgia, of course — mom and pop record stores are about community and discovery. We see rare pricy gems, days and days of albums, eBay-only items, CDs and concert videos and posters and so on. It feels like an oddball collector's rec room on steroids.

Suddenly we're regaled with stories by its owner, Pete Flanders, a thickset, articulate 61-year-old whose perfectly trimmed white beard matches his kind demeanor.

Flanders, who spent, all told, 25 years as a DJ, spins yarns of radio's halcyon days in the '60s and '70s. He began DJing soul on Flint's WAMM back in '65 and switched to rock station WTAC (which was Flint's answer to Windsor's CKLW) in 1970.

"Back in the '60s, you could play anything," Flanders says contritely. "That was long before radio went to shit, of course."

Between his first two radio gigs, Flanders toured with James Brown in 1969 as a kind of "advance man." "You could deal with the black artists so well," Flanders says. "There were no egos."

He tells of the Detroit Emeralds watching stag films before a show in the basement of Phelps Lounge in Detroit and how he learned to mop floors from Junior Walker.

His three-man staff includes shop rat Darryl Letts, a pleasant, scraggly haired guy who has been part time here on and off for a decade. Today, and nearly every day he's here, he's sifting through piles of 45s — 265,000 of them to be almost exact — and alphabetizing each one. Thousands of singles are stacked before him, each in need of sorting and notating.

I stand and watch Letts a few moments in amazement. And then he says as if reading my mind, "Look, going through these boxes has been a real education." Then he adds a twisted smile, turning to glance at me: "It really has."

Flanders says he started the shop because he had "too many records at home."

What sells well?

"Black music is king here," he says, "and Northern Soul vinyl."

How's business?

He says his shop's "Doing OK, paying the bills on a monthly basis." After a pause, he adds, "That's more than you can say for a lot of others."

Among some of the classic vinyl we walked with included Bohannon's dance classic Alive; two classic Detroit '70's jazz records on the legendary Tribe label in plain white sleeves: Wendell Harrison's An Evening With The Devil and Harold McKinney's Voices and Rhythms of the Creative People.

Total cost: $28

Those records would've been worth thousands of dollars had they been in their original sleeves. Still, this is a crate-digger's wet-dream haul.

Last call Wednesday
night. The little TV in an upper corner squawks emphatically: The Celtics trump the Pistons! The little TV fits snugly inside the little living-room-sized Leo's Red Ribbon bar on Flint's south side. The interior's punctuated by a Pirates of the Caribbean pinball machine in one corner and a blue-collar juke heavy on Seger, Gaye and AC/DC a couple feet away. An antique beer can collection sits above the bar. The whole place has the appearance of smudged windows. It's beautiful.

Three ruddy-faced Flint folks headed straight to booze-y oblivion are making a ruckus on the bar, downing pitchers and bumming smokes. They're not the kind of fall-down slobbery drunks; rather, they're the type who're lovingly familiar with old-man bars and use them solely to drink and engage in banter and louder-and-louder squabbles.

Scott Dewitt's an effusive, bespectacled 44-year-old, thin with gray hair, who, along with his two buddies, attends nearby Baker College. They're all looking for something new to do with their lives.

"I'm an anomaly," Dewitt says, with a straight-ahead glare, that kind of look drinkers get when they're considering, slowly, carefully, their next thought. "I hate this town but I keep coming back."

One pal, 30-year-old Travis Kipfer wears a white trucker cap and mostly listens to the talk while nursing his beer on the bar. He's studying to be a history teacher. The other, 38-year-old James Bowman, a computer science major, is pretty well lubed, and pretty courageous in the bar game of circle toss.

They all talk of their families whose histories involve, in some way, working at GM's Buick City.

Bowman and Kipfer are sons of GM shop rats, who, had the factories not shut down, would probably be working for GM as well.

Bowman says he'd be a shop rat, no doubt. Kipher, an ex-boat mechanic, agrees, with hesitation, as if that work wasn't fit for anyone. He says his pop "retired from Buick City before they closed. He got cancer from coolant they used in the facility, so he took a buyout."

Talk of company and union rises and falls and a small argument ensues. Then it dies. They dispute the rise and fall of Flint and its carriage-to-auto heritage. Another pitcher arrives. Another round of gab. Another old-man bar.

Kipher says he likes Flint, no matter what. "I've lived in seven different states and I always come back. It does suck to live here ... but my family is here, that's why."

A dapper African-American, probably about 30, in a fedora hat, Jamez James, rocks out to Zep and Tull on the juke. He has a sweet and kind face. He scribbles on my notepad: "Light Life To Love" with zero trace of irony. He tells of his plans to launch his own business involving some kind of body art. He wants to move to Los Angeles.

Dewitt continues on why Flint's appeal is so strong, and why it's so derided. "It's indescribable. I hate this fucking town, but I learned everything here. This is where my roots are. I keep coming back. If you're from Flint, you will be back."

There's talk of gang wars, violence and stabbings.

"Be careful when you leave," Bowman says. "Be very careful."

Brian Smith is features editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]