Surprise party

Booming dance music, flaming barbecue grills, and a stocked food tent for thousands of homeless? Yup!

It was supposed to be big, but nobody expected it to be this fun.

The plan was to throw a down-home, Memorial Day barbecue in Cass Park for the poor and the homeless, where they often gather. The event, organized by several local charities, had a rambler of a name: "Feed the People: Detroit's Red Carpet Backyard Barbecue for the Homeless and Hungry."

There was no conceit among organizers that this event would change lives. There would be no efforts to coax the recipients into programs or churches or shelters. The idea was simply to give struggling Detroiters a holiday meal like everyone else would be eating that day. 

The homeless and hungry are used to coming to this park for food. Church groups and volunteers and social organizations often pull up a truck or a van to hand out meals and clothes.

But none of them expected this. There were few cops, and no security guards. There were no social service agencies. No eager youth from church groups trying to draw them to Sunday services somewhere. None of the usual trappings of a public event for the poor.

Instead there was dance music booming from a stage. Barbecue grills smoking under the weight of thousands of free hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken wings and ears of corn. A red carpet leading to the food tent, befitting honored guests. And a crowd of poor people who suddenly found themselves at an actual holiday barbecue.

When they saw they weren't being watched or pestered or followed, when they realized this was indeed like a real backyard party, a festive mood set in, fed on itself and spread through the crowd. They thought they'd stand in a sedate line at a food tent, but instead they were at the biggest, liveliest celebration in town that day. By afternoon it would bring out thousands of people to be fed.

It brought out Ron Helton, sitting in a motorized scooter, sweating profusely in the rising heat, mopping his head with a cloth. "I'm from here! I'm from the Cass Corridor!" the 52-year-old shouts. He'd spent years volunteering as a barber for Fort Street Presbyterian Church, where hundreds of the homeless sat in his chair after getting a free meal. And most of them seemed to be here now.

"Hey, baby, you all right?" Helton says to a man who comes over to say hi. "I'm the barber down here," he explains. "I'm like the mayor around here. I know everybody." 

He used to live in a now-gone flophouse on Henry Street that catered to transients, then pulled himself up and out. But home, he says, will always be Cass Corridor, where a lot of people still stay in run-down rooms like he once did, and they could use a decent meal sometimes. "You got to remember, in this area a lot of people are still staying in hotels, so they don't have kitchens. This is great." 

The food line snakes through the park from one end to the other and out onto Temple Street, and the wait is over an hour. But when everyone in line is talking and having a good time, hanging out in line isn't so bad. "This is like a family reunion on Belle Isle!" Helton says, as another person reaches to shake the mayor's hand.

The party brought out Mary Weatherspoon too — "That's 'weather' like outside and 'spoon' like you eat with," she says by way of introduction. The grandmother stands quietly in the shade, eyeing her brother, who's standing in that long line, waiting to get meals for the family. Her grandchildren crouch at her feet. 

"Oh, it's so nice here," Weatherspoon says. "I love it. Everybody's getting along, talking." 

She lives near Houston-Whittier in the ravaged east side, and knows some of the people here, if not by name then by circumstance. "Some people don't have transportation, or family members, places to go, so this gives them someplace to go, get out, visit and see people, do something different," she says. "Like we got the wheelchairs, some of them are usually stuck in the house. I think it's wonderful."

The party brought out volunteer Mary Perry, who came over from her apartment on Washington Boulevard to help out when she heard what was planned. "You can see a lot of these people, they're not from Cass Corridor," the 64-year-old says. "These are people that don't have food and came down here because they probably couldn't afford a holiday dinner. I think it's wonderful, but it shows how bad things have gotten for us. People wouldn't be here today otherwise, with their kids. They'd be home barbecuing."

It also brought out Shirley Perryman, 63, a volunteer from Transforming Life Group, which drives around in vans and hands out meals to the homeless on the street, one at a time. Now her clients were all gathered here before her at once. Like everyone else here, she's stunned by the party that erupted. "I see a lot of the people I see on the street on a regular basis, and you can see the downtrodden heads, the way the spirits are just really down, but today it's a very festive spirit. Everybody is really upbeat today." 

And it brought out Mario Davis, who's homeless. "I'm a gypsy!" he corrects. This park is often his home.

He sits at a table with either friends or strangers. It's hard to tell which because he's been throwing his arms around everyone who passed through his airspace, so overjoyed was he about this celebration. There's technically no drinking allowed, but he, like so many here, found that a little beer in the sunshine at a backyard holiday party isn't such a bad idea.

"What's your claim to fame?" he asks everyone. His was managing the 20 Grand nightclub, the infamous rhythm-and-blues spot that hosted the top Motown acts every weekend. "We had all the entertainers in the world," he says. "It was so beautiful. It was like, have you ever, when you wake up in the morning and the birds sing and all you hear is music the whole day through? All you hear is just beautiful things? It was like that."

Things went bad for him since, and he's been homeless for years. He's inadvertently funny when offering his biography. "I've been through the Vietnam war," he declares. When did he serve? "I was not there," he replies. "But I went through it." 

Then "Cha Cha Slide" by DJ Casper, a song popular at weddings and parties, bursts out of the speakers, and dozens of homeless people gather before the stage and step in sync. "Right foot two stomps. Left foot two stomps," the lyrics announce, and the homeless follow the song's instructions. Davis bounces in his chair excitedly.

"Now you gotta look at all these beautiful people," he gushes. "Everybody out here ain't got no money — women and children. No one has nowhere to go, they got homes maybe, but they're homeless. They're cool. There's no fighting, there's no cops around. All everybody want is a piece of the pie."

He stands up, makes his way to the stage, lifts himself onto it, slides to the left and slides to the right like the song says, and he's the happiest man in the park because he's leading the dance for his fellow gypsies in a backyard party thrown in his very own backyard.

Detroitblogger John is John Carlisle. He scours the Motor City for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]