The candy man

"How you doing, young fella!" shouts a jolly Mr. Boyd to the little kid standing at his store's counter. The boy, probably about 7 years old, asks for a pack of gum. "Oh you're gonna be doing some chewin', huh?" Boyd replies enthusiastically. He gives him the gum and lets the kid owe him a nickel. He's the only customer this hour.

This is how the days usually go at Boyd's Party Store, which sits in the middle of an east side neighborhood at the corner of Moran and Hancock. The place is old and spare, like a little country store, set among patchwork houses and prairie lots.

It belongs to Neal Boyd, soon to be 73 years old. He's known by his customers simply as Mr. Boyd, an indication of the respect he's accorded by everyone around here.

"I'm a father figure or a grandfather figure, and some of them just look at me as a good fellow," he says. "Most of the people around here respect me and I respect them too. There's been a lot of folks I've helped."

You'd never know the store was here unless you're right up on it. Two small, hand-painted signs nailed to its mint-green aluminum siding are all that set it apart from the other houses on the street. Built more than 100 years ago, it's a wood-frame building attached to a house, the kind common then, when proprietors lived above or next door to their businesses. Instead, there's a landlady nearly as old as the store living in the house attached to it. Boyd looks out for her, doing small repairs as the house ages.

Nowadays, customers are usually either children buying candy or adults buying beer, one tall can at a time. Both sets of customers pay with pocket change.

"I ain't doing much business, I'm gonna tell you like it is," he says. "It's slow, man. I like to be busy, at least like to be ringing the cash register."

It's small inside there, with just a few stand-alone shelves holding the bare-bones basics — bread, bologna, chips, some frozen microwaveable meals — just enough food to qualify with the state to accept food-assistance cards from his customers. The glass-door coolers offer pop, plastic pints of fruit juice and single cans of cheap beer like Milwaukee's Best, his best-seller at $1.50 each. Behind the counter are boxes of candy and gum for the kids, and rolling papers and cigarettes for the grown-ups.

There's an old exhaust fan above the door, and ceiling fans that make a small breeze, but in the summer it gets hot as hell in there, and Boyd will sit out on the stoop out front and talk to passers-by until someone needs something inside — little kids wanting treats, adults thirsting for beer or begging for food.

"'Mr. Boyd, I'm hungry. I need some food until Wednesday,'" he says, imitating a customer, "and that's been two months ago. So he got $15 worth of stuff, 'cause I ain't gonna let you leave out of here hungry. I ain't seen him since. He lives around here too. I think what he really want to do was sell it and get some drugs. Probably need some drugs for himself."

Boyd came to Detroit from the Mississippi Delta in 1959, leaving behind a dead country town. "There wasn't no jobs," he says. "All there was down there was cotton fields and cornfields back then, so peoples come to get a better job." He went into construction, raised nine children, and a couple decades ago passed the old party store, found it for sale, and took over from the old Polish owner.

Over the years, residents moved out in waves, and now it's mostly poor people left in the neighborhood. "It's just terrible right now," he says. "It's bad right now. People just ain't got nothin'. It's terrible."

One neighbor even taught him how he traps and eats the wild pheasants darting around the fields here — get a stovepipe, put screen on one end of it and put feed inside. The dumb, hapless bird walks in there to eat and gets stuck. "He go in there and eat but he can't turn around, 'cause he don't know how to back out." he says. "We got plenty pheasants here in the city. Sometimes I sure would like to have them in the skillet."

Someone who couldn't afford utilities inadvertently blew their house up a few months back, just one street over. "Yeah, shit, it blew windows out of houses over here. It was a mess. Somebody was stealing gas. We thought we'd been hit with a bomb." These are the snapshots Mr. Boyd offers to describe life around the neighborhood now.

Despite life's hardships out here, Boyd glows with enthusiasm when children come in. He sees through the "street" personas they've picked up and senses the innocence still in them. Even the kids who've developed foul mouths and sticky fingers still meekly request sweets. He'll sell candy at a loss to them, give the poor kids free samples, and if one child has money but his friend doesn't, he'll give both of them the same number of pieces. In exchange, he turns most interactions into lessons he hopes will counteract bad behaviors they've learned.

"My main thing is telling them to stay away from the drugs and stuff, and treat people the way you want to be treated," he says. "I tell them you can do whatever you want to do if you put your mind to it. I've had a lot of them that had left here and turn out to be real good, and they come back and thank me. Then I've seen some that I know who was young that look older than me because they out there on them drugs."

Boyd keeps the leisurely hours of 1 in the afternoon to 10 at night, most of it spent on his stool, behind bulletproof glass. The old coolers chug along as he waits; otherwise it's dead quiet but for the crickets in the fields and the sound of children sometimes playing outside in the street.

The road out front is still spotted with houses, but on the side streets behind it the empty fields are growing in number.

"They been saying they gonna come through and buy all this stuff and rebuild," Boyd says. "I bet they can with all these vacant lots and stuff, but so far they've been saying that for a while. I don't see nothin' yet, though."

Sometimes customers come in just say hi to the man who actually had a hand in bringing them up. "I know practically everybody that come in here," he says. "Even if I don't know them, they know me; they know me 'cause they done growed up and I don't know them because their face changed a little bit."

With so few customers, he mostly works just to pay the bills, to break even and keep the store open. "Me, I drink," Boyd says, frankly, contrasting himself to the unemployed drinkers scrimping change to buy single beers in the daytime. "I'll have a drink but I know when to drink. If I need to buy some stock and I just got enough money for stock, I ain't buying no liquor."

And then he leans forward, his words take a sentimental tone. "I call the store my woman. If she needs something, I got to put it in here, 'cause I know once I open that door somebody gonna come in here and buy something, but if I ain't got it I can't sell it. Gotta take care of her first."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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