Compared to some desolate stretches of Michigan Avenue, the old neighborhood around Central Avenue is relatively intact. A sort of village life remains, with a cluster of small businesses, such as Papa's Pizza, Sunshine coin laundry, an antique store, and a few bars and banks. This little part of the old Chicago-bound road, where the Edsel Ford Expressway runs right behind it, hangs on stubbornly.
There's even a tiny dive bar — legal occupancy 49 — on the same block that the 1980s punk club Graystone Hall once called home. Of course, those two years of punk shows might as well have happened on a different planet for the bar's regular customers. They have memories enough of their own to cherish.
To enter through Cas Bar's front door is to be transported to another place and time. Sure, the jukebox has compact discs and modern music, and the TVs are flatscreens — but if not for those touches, it could still be 1976. Some of the customers have been coming in that long. The wood-paneled walls are thickly adorned with the memorabilia of decades, and the patterned plastic drop ceiling ducks down over the bar in an old-fashioned touch, making it feel that much cozier.
Bartender Jodie Welbes gives us a bit of a hard time. "The last article I read about us in Metro Times was about how bad the bartender was," she tells us with a dispassionate expression. "How rude she was." Before we can utter an apology, Welbes adds with a grin, "She was rude. She scared off a lot of our customers. She's been gone a year and things have been great."
We take a seat next to Jill Bosman, who's wearing a black and blue blouse, a showy gold-and-blue necklace, large gold hoop earrings, blonde hair piled up on her head, and 1960s-style double black-and-white eyeliner. She's all dressed up for her evening shift at the nearby PLAV Post 11, an unassuming building just a block away.
She doesn't give her age, but she admits to having been in the bar back in the 1960s. She's a Polish-Hungarian-German mix whose dad and uncles all worked at "Chrysler's." She even worked at this very bar in the 1970s. Bosman can recall Michigan Avenue when there was a bar and a barbershop on every block.
"At one time, they used to have bars up and down the street," she says. "You never could make it down one side and then come back sober on the other side. You couldn't do it!"
"We used to have so much fun," she adds. "And they come back, you know? They always come back. I mean, I don't care if you moved to the suburbs. You'll always come back. They used to think that Detroit was so bad that they moved to the suburbs. Well, guess what? Now they find out that Detroit is building up, and everybody wants to come back."
Bosman isn't kidding. Welbes says plenty of people come back to "the old neighborhood" for a few. Two longtime regulars, a married couple, even make the trip down from the U.P. a few times a year, and stay in one of the upstairs apartments during the visit.
Truly, this is no hip place for disaffected customers to stare into their smartphones writing sullen Yelp reviews. Cas Bar requires tolerant and engaged customers. At least on the day we visit, it seems that any and all visitors will be confronted, even challenged a bit. In that regard, it's like family — at least a family that might lovingly rib you.
"It's one of those things," Bosman says. "We're family. People don't bother us. We check everybody that comes in and out, and everybody knows everybody ... and if they don't, they will know. We can keep the door open all night. Nobody ain't gonna bother you around here. Because everybody knows everybody. There's still a few bars that are like that."
But don't the customers take a risk by not having a buzzer? By leaving the door to the street wide open on a summer day?
"Don't have to worry about nothing," Bosman says. "Everybody watches for everybody. When you can walk to the bathroom and leave your money on the bar, and ain't gotta worry about it, tell me that ain't a safe place."
Sometimes the pull of the little bar is enough to bring people to the neighborhood as residents. Take Stacie Goolsby. She's a regular, a friend of bartender Jodie Welbes who lives two blocks away.
"I started working at some of the bars around here for some extra money," she says. "I got to know a lot of the people in the community and I moved from the suburbs a year and a half ago, and I love it. It's community. You see everybody sitting here at the bar? I can call any one of them at any time of the day and tell them I've got a problem — and one of them is going to be right there. We all look out for each other."
You don't even have to drink to be a part of this family. Nearby is Chester Calka, 68, who lives "at the next light" and has run Central Sales down the street for 43 years. He comes in on Fridays and Saturdays just to drink Diet Coke or green tea until closing time.
"I've been here all my life," he says. "I only moved a block away from where I was born, and my sister lives in the house next door to the house where I was born."
In fact, his life is so centered on a few blocks of the avenue he doesn't even own a car. "I'm on two feet," he says. "I blew the engine on my car four years ago, couldn't find a replacement engine, and now the insurance is so high ... "
Calka hears that the owner is coming, and says, "The lady that owns it is really nice. I just sit around here and keep her company. Her daughter's worried about her leaving here at night, 'cause Detroit's still rough. So that way, she has somebody to walk out with to her car. She drops me off."
It's still dangerous on Michigan Avenue? Though we recall a stabbing on that block in the 1980s, isn't crime down?
"That shit happens all the time out there," he says. "Stabbed, shot. They've had shootings at a club down the street like there's no tomorrow. In fact, we're in here sometimes, we can hear the shots, and look out and see what's going on."
Mostly, though, the bar offers a bit of respite from the sometimes-hairy street life.
"It's basically a nice place to sit," he says. "Fridays and Saturdays are usually the regular crowd, unless there's a big party somewhere. I've made a lot of good friends here. I've met some idiots, sure, but mostly decent people."
Finally, the owner of the bar comes in: It's 68-year-old Beverly Jo Sassin.
She wears a floral blouse and large earrings, and if it weren't for the two tattoos on her wrists, she could pass for your typical Oakland County lady who lunches. But when she starts talking, you might detect the slight twang, clipped cadence, and frank manner of an Arkansas native. Her family moved up from the cotton and soybean fields of Craighead County in the 1950s so her dad, a truck driver, could find a better job. Most of the time, she spins tales that show off her pleasant laugh, but there's a no-nonsense Arkie toughness to her as well.
"I'm stone hillbilly. I'm stubborn as they come," she says. "I'd only been in this bar one time when I bought it, and I came in here on a Sunday, and they said, 'Oh I heard it's a little housewife from Oakland County, and she just wants this as her plaything.' I said, 'You've got me dazed and confused.'"
Sassin spent her youth growing up in in the rural back end of northern Oakland County, in places like White Lake, Commerce, and Milford when the roads were still dirt. She got her start bartending 50 years ago in a one-horse town in Ohio, "slinging 3.2 beer." Asked how she wound up in Ohio, she laughs and says, "I was the little rolling stone. Me and my girlfriend just took off. We were going to go to the Peppermint Club in Toledo, so we took off one weekend and went. And then I came back six months later."
She eventually married a local businessman, Mike Sassin, of whom she says, "He was a gem. I was privileged for 34 years. God bless him."
So how did an Oakland County lady come to own a dive bar on Michigan Avenue? "The guy that owned it before me was friends with my husband," she says. "He ended up really sick, and he knew he wasn't going to live long, so he came to me and said, 'I want you to buy the bar.' And I said, 'I don't want to buy the bar.' He said some guy downtown wanted to buy it, and 'I don't want to sell it to him. I want you to take it.' So I said, 'Hmm, alright. I guess.' It's not like I haven't been doing it my whole life."
Sassin keeps it simple. There are no draft handles, no internet jukebox, no WiFi password. "This is a shot-and-beer bar," she says. "It's just an old-timey place, what I like. I've worked all over this city, from the time I was 21, I've worked downtown, on the east side, I've worked all around, and when all's said and done, I come back to the shot-and-beer bar, because that's where real people are. I hate fake people. And I'm not a syrupy person. I'm from the hip. And I'll tell you flat-out what I think, and I don't really care if you like it or you don't."
Sassin has since earned the nickname "Mama Jo," which suits her role as the head lady in charge, and her no-nonsense attitude.
"I treat everybody the same until they give me a reason not to," she says. "It doesn't matter if I've known you five minutes or 15 years. You're an adult, you're in an adult establishment. Act like an adult. You'll get treated like an adult. You act like an asshole? Hit the door. I ain't got time for you. That's how I feel about it."
That has likely come in handy during the 20 years she's run the bar. That part of Michigan Avenue has always had more than its fair share of prostitutes, and Sassin says, "They're still out here. They just come out a little later. I used to have to go out and say, 'Look, I work this corner until 2:30 a.m. Stay off of my corner until then, because I'm paying for mine.' Except I wasn't that nice."
If crime has been one issue, proper infrastructure has been another. A decade ago, Michigan Avenue was torn up for years as a seemingly endless reconstruction process dragged on interminably.
"They said they had a projection of when it was going to be done," Sassin says, "but it just kept overrunning and overrunning, and it was forever. It was really bad for a few years, down to, like, two lanes. I had a party one time and we put a horseshoe pit out in front. We were playing horseshoes in the road. Well, we had dirt! So I figured we might as well play horseshoes."
Of the bar scene that once dominated the area, Sassin can name the casualties: Mother's Bar, Kress Lounge, Sassy's Saloon, and many more. "There were quite a lot of them around here ... The tried-and-true stayed, the rest of them went by the wayside. There's been a lot that's gone though, a lot, even from when I came here, a whole lot of them off the avenue."
Also, Sassin can explain why Cas has only one 'S' in it. Is it because the bar is named for the cross street, which is Casper?
No, she says, the bar was originally on Cass Avenue. "The license was pulled in 1954. And then from Cass it came this way and ended up here." She speculates that the 'S' was likely jettisoned to create a distinct legal identity for the new location.
"I've had it 20 years, and the guy before me had it for nine, and the guy before him, I knew him too, Leroy, he had it for 13," she says. "So I can trace it back all that way ... Before it was a bar, it used to be a corner pharmacy."
But what it has been doesn't matter to "Mama Jo." Her philosophy is: "You make it what it is."
Like lots of people who've had long careers, Sassin says she could write a best-selling novel. But with Sassin, you believe her. She's had quite a few insights into the drinker's psyche, and does her work much more cheaply than a professional analyst.
"People come to a bar for two reasons," she says. "The company of other people, or they're thinking about something, and they just need to drown their sorrows a little bit. It's one or the other. Very few people say, 'Oh, I'm here for the entertainment.'"
She recalls, "Some guy comes in here one day and says to me, 'Jo, I don't know what to do. My wife acts like she doesn't care about me.' And I said, 'You know what? You're spending too much time with your friends and not enough with your wife. You better figure out how you got to where you're at. You wined and dined her, you took her on dates, you did things with her. Now you're too busy out with your boys doing your thing. So you better retrace your steps because these 21 years you've been together are not going to be any longer. Because she's going to outgrow you.'"
The man came in about 18 months later and said his marriage had improved.
"I said, 'What did you do?' He said, 'I listened to what you said.'"
It's just one of a thousand stories of this little corner bar. Like the pictures of Sassin's family covering the bar mirror, or the many hangings on the wall. Speaking of which, we ask if the old plug-in Popeye and Betty Boop on the wall still light up. Sassin says they've been up for 29 years, and only come down for Christmas, when they're replaced by holiday trees. Over and over again, people have dropped in and offered to buy them on the spot. She refuses to sell.
"I don't light them up that much now because, you know, they are older," she says. "But they work."
She gives bartender Welbes the go-ahead to plug in Betty Boop, and the cartoon flapper begins to glow."
"She's beautiful, isn't she?" Sassin says. "She's beautiful."
Cas Bar is open 10 a.m.-2 a.m. Monday-Saturday and noon-2 a.m. Sunday, at 7800 Michigan Ave., Detroit; 313-581-9777.
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