Honest angel

John Thompson is frothing at the mouth. He gesticulates and bellows as he weaves one of his trademark tales of mischief while darting back and forth behind the bar he’s tended and owned for 12 years.

A trio of white sunburned construction workers sips Budweisers and guffaws. Thompson punctuates the story with obscenities and a smart-ass grin. An older black gentleman in a forest-green polyester leisure suit listens with rapt attention, even though he must have heard the story a million times. A group of white-collar execs in expensive ties saunters in and orders a round, while an attractive black woman in a modest suit sits quietly by herself, blissfully free of harassing pickup lines.

Late-afternoon sunshine cuts through the smoky haze and mixes with the glow of the bar’s neon sign, which screams, “Sobriety Sucks.”

“Hi, I’m John,” Thompson says to each person who ventures in, “give me holler if you need anything.”

A quintessential neighborhood dive, a shockingly multicultural establishment and a vehicle for regular charity fundraisers, Honest?John’s Bar and No Grill is a staple of Detroit culture, a place where the beers and the truth are served cold and straightforward.

And now, after more than a decade of slinging drinks and insults in the grimy watering hole on Field Street near Belle Isle, Thompson will pick up and do it all over again. He’s preparing to move the bar to the Cass Corridor, the old stomping grounds of his nightmarish childhood.

Honest?John’s is known for its off-color fundraisers that benefit churches and community organizations — and we’re not talking bake sales here.

Events such as the Devil’s Night Barbecue (“Burn the ribs, not the city”), Dipps for Toys (volunteers in wacky costumes wade into the Detroit River in mid-December), and a group moon-fest called the Moon Drop (“Bare it so the churches can share it”) are channeled through Thompson’s nonprofit organization, Honest?John’s Shakedown Society.

The fundraising isn’t a small-dime side project, either — Thompson says the bar raises an average of $75,000 a year, and has amassed more than $850,000 for charities in the past 12 years.

Thompson is the unlikeliest of angels. The paradox of his hard-nosed demeanor and giving nature is what makes him likable, even though he’s one of the most obnoxious, crass, vulgar and grating characters you’re likely to meet. He’s the sort of person who can — and will — insult you to your face upon first introduction, and you’ll immediately love him.

With his short brown hair dusted with gray and silver rimmed glasses, Thompson bears a sort of all-American anonymity that betrays his boisterous nature. He is married, to a woman named Irene whom he literally blackmailed for a date. (She refused to go out with him since she “didn’t date bar owners.” He threatened to plaster her workplace with slanderous signs. Instead of calling the cops, Irene relented and agreed to a date. The couple has been married for two and a half years. )

Thompson grew up hard and poor in the Cass Corridor, right next to the new location of his bar on Selden. He never knew his father; his mother was a prostitute who died of a heroin overdose when he was 12. Throughout his adolescence, he was bounced in and out of foster homes and juvenile facilities.

“I bought the bar my mother used to hook out of,” Thompson says of his new location, uncharacteristically somber. “Talk about coming full circle.”

The glimpse of gravity vanishes in an instant, and Thompson readopts his leer.

“You know the real reason I’m moving down there, darlin’?” he hollers, several inches too close to my nose for comfort. “Those people who are spending $150,000, $200,000 to live in the Corridor? As soon as they realize what they’ve done, they’re gonna start drinkin’.”

In his early 20s, Thompson began tending bar in Detroit watering holes of yesterday like Cobb’s Corner Bar and the New Miami. He garnered enough financial backers to purchase his own place, and the downtrodden bar on Field became Honest?John’s.

“John had a hard time growing up,” says the Rev. Faith Fowler of the Cass Community United Methodist Church, which benefits from Thompson’s fundraising. “The church was there for him, and he’s trying to be there for other people who are going through hard times. He has a soft spot for people trying to get by.”

And what does Fowler think of Thompson’s unconventional fundraisers?

Fowler laughs nervously and says, “I think most of his ways of raising funds are good old-fashioned fun. It does appeal to younger people who may not otherwise be involved in charity work, because they can do something a little offbeat.”

Thompson aggressively pushes his charity events to all patrons, pestering them till they give in.

Fran Parker is the chief operating officer of Health Alliance Plan, and one of Thompson’s converts. She walked into the bar one day and found herself serving as the treasurer of the Shakedown Society.

“No one is safe once you enter the bar,” says Parker. “Through persuasion or charm, John will get you involved. It’s contagious.

“He’s sort of like a cross between a little boy and the devil. He nurtures a certain amount of unconventionalism — it’s a controlled insanity.”

Somewhere along the way, the lifeblood of Thompson’s business, alcohol, got the best of him. After stumbling through the depths of alcoholism, he dried up. He works, lives and breathes booze each day from the excruciating standpoint of a reformed addict.

He’s been sober for three and a half years, and confirms that it does, in fact, suck. A lot.

“It’s hard, it’s so fuckin’ hard,” he says as he nurses a pint glass of diet Mountain Dew. “I pour shots of Absolut, and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. But I’ll never drink again. In this business, you can either work really hard and stay sober and make lots of money, or drink a lot and accomplish nothing.”

When asked why there’s a question mark in Honest?John’s, he raises an eyebrow and brandishes that trademark smirk. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“Well, you seem pretty damn honest,” I laugh in spite of myself, “one might even say to a fault.”

“Honey, I’m only honest with you if we’re not sleeping together!” he bellows.

He launches into a story about the bar’s former mascot, a cat named Smirl. The cat died of old age five months ago, and Thompson threw a gala wake which featured a buffet served for 16 hours straight.

“Four hundred pounds of Chinese food for that fucker’s wake!” he roars, and his audience dissolves into tears of laughter.

Thompson now entertains with a tirade about the assorted activities he has — and has not — indulged in throughout his life.

“I never did golf, smoke, do heroin, or been gay,” Thompson yells. “In my next life I’ll be one cocksuckin’, golf-club swingin’, chain-smokin’ heroin-addicted sonofabitch!”

The angel has spoken.

Sarah Klein is a Metro Times staff writer. E-mail her at [email protected]
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