Arts & Culture » Culture

The pope of Gratiot Avenue



Outside the gray tollboothlike box, Johnny Ringo has his hands on his hips. Thin locks of reddish hair spring from the back of his Kangol cap. Ringo squints his soft blue-gray eyes and shakes his head. He stares out past the tiny parking lot that is his dominion toward the corner, where a soiled gent is shouting to no one in particular. He’s not saying anything; it’s more a show of alcoholic anger and sickness.

“That guy is one of the moochers of the city,” Ringo says, his voice shaky but confidently streetwise. “As long as they have money for a half-pint of liquor, they’ll be fine for the night.”

We are standing downtown on the parking lot at Gratiot and Broadway, the same lot — owned by the Broadway clothing store — that Ringo has manned since 1988. It smells like the inner city — grease, piss, dirt and diesel fumes.

Ringo is an epithet bestowed on him by construction workers (Kelly is his surname), the ones busy erecting a giant parking structure next door. The looming multilevel lot will one day put Ringo out of a job.

His lot has space for 28 cars, and Ringo is constantly having to park and repark, moving one out to move another in its place. He works for tips, really, not much else, tips that don’t add up to more than a few bucks a day. Maybe the gig gives Ringo a sense of purpose.

“I don’t see myself ever retiring,” he says, winking, his weathered Irish face bright with mirth. “I’d go bananas.

“You know, I like to watch people. I know a lot of things about these streets that other people don’t.”

Ringo reckons he spends 55 hours a week on the lot, every day except Sunday. He lives alone with no phone and rides the bus the few miles back and forth from home each day. He’s one of the few people I’ve met who actually uses the city’s mass-transit system.

The man is thin and frail; he moves with the delicacy of someone much older than his 55 years. His steps are stilted. Makes sense, considering he has a total of six toes. He says he lost the digits in a skiing accident. “It was one time and only time I ever cross-country skied …”

Ringo also lost most of his right forefinger to frostbite. He is also prone to seizures. He survives mainly on SSI.

“I have a chemical imbalance,” he explains. “The seizures wreak havoc on my memory.”

Hard luck or not, the guy loves the lot. Nothing bad, he says, has ever happened to him here, provided you discount the winter a few years back he slipped on the ice and had to have his hip replaced. In 15 years, he says, he’s never been robbed or hassled.

Ringo recalls one afternoon when a carload of goons rolled into the lot and parked.

“A car pulled in and [he] left it running. Handed me a twenty and went into the Broadway. Then they blew this guy away. They came out and drove off. I had no idea what went on on the inside. It was a drug deal gone bad.”

Passers-by wave. Tenants from the loft across the street nod in his direction. Street urchins call him Kelly. Today one of the latter brings him lunch — a meatball sub — for a buck tip. Employees of the Broadway know him well and tip accordingly.

Ringo refers to himself as a hillbilly from Cincinnati. He arrived here from Ohio in 1974, transferred by Kmart, for which he worked as a supervisor in the shoe department. After quitting that job he opened a feed and grain store called Tri County. Then he opened another. His advisers told him he was spreading himself too thin. He was. The businesses went belly-up.

“My accountant advised me not to open another store. Well, I did. I wasn’t gonna be satisfied until I had a store in three counties. They closed up in 1984.”

By 1988, he had lost his wife, house and two businesses. His 10-year-old daughter had died.

“That’s when everything really started to go down. When my daughter died, that was the downfall of our marriage.

“You know, I’m not going to tell you that I didn’t have a temper,” he continues, as if to explain the collapse of his 18-year marriage. “I mean, I used to really have a temper.”

His two surviving children, both of whom are in their 20s, live in Michigan.

One, he says, works in construction, the other in broadcasting. He doesn’t see them too often. “I should know more about my kids, but I don’t … I’m a loner.”

A tattooed girl in a jazzbaby bob and clingy mesh approaches Ringo and gives him a hug. She hands the lot lizard a tiny cellophane wrap and winks. “Said I’d bring you a prize,” she says.

“I’ve been smoking reefer since I got to Detroit,” giggles Ringo. He has a look of pure joy on his face. “That girl is a street angel.”

A bald, squat man carrying a briefcase approaches. He exchanges a parking stub for his keys and moves to his car. He doesn’t offer a tip. Ringo says nothing. He keeps talking.

“If they say that 55 is the on-the-way down years, then I want to enjoy the hell out of what I have left.”

Does he get lonely?

“Yes,” he says between bites of his meatball sub. He pauses, and a look of melancholy comes over him.

“Sometimes you can be right in the middle of the city and it can drop down to a dead quiet. You can almost hear a pin drop. Yep, that can be very lonely.”

Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at

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