Editor's note: After raucous internal debate and several ugly slap fights, Metro Times staff writers have successfully seized this hallowed space, formerly occupied by Loose Lips. They'll write Back Words on a rotating basis until they're burned out, at which time we will come up with a new gimmick.
Neil Young’s “Out on the Weekend” plays on the jukebox. It’s a poignant tale about the loss of innocence, but also a song about regret and unfulfilled dreams.
It is Sunday night at Steve’s Place in downtown Detroit. The place is nearly deserted. There’s me, owner Steve Francis and his wife, Sophia, who is dozing at the far end of the long bar.
Francis is hunched over in the kitchen, working on the floor tiles. Working, as he does from 10 a.m. till after closing time, every day except Christmas.
Steve’s Place has a postapocalyptic feel, as if burnt out and only marginally re-established. Light is random and murky. High ceilings, deep booths and a bar hued in colors of ’70s shag carpet; bottle green and blue. Liquor cabinets creak when opened. The back room is a lovely wreck, as if it had been given a vigorous spin and turned upside down.
It suggests the isolation of a bar built on blue-collar money that has seen generations of drinkers and raconteurs, seasons of punk rockers and street buskers pass through.
It’s a Bukowskian dream, an overlooked jewel in downtown Detroit. It could be the last bar on the last block on the last day at last call.
Steve and Sophia run the place, and have done so for 32 years. They live in the flat upstairs.
Anyone who has done time drinking downtown is either acquainted with or aware of the elderly couple. There were nights when the bar would be filled with patrons spilling over from shows next door at St. Andrew’s Hall, or after sporting events. Stories about the bar border on legend. Tales of late-night revelry and drinking long after closing; of those too drunk to drive left to crash in some dark corner, only to be booted out at sunrise.
Francis settles down on a barstool. He rests his hands on the bar in front of him as if he about to receive a manicure. “This place; my life, my jail,” Francis says, shaping his mouth into a grin. His voice is so soft it’s almost impossible to discern the words, made harder with his syrupy Greek burr. The man moves in his own time, his own graceful rhythm.
“This place is beautiful, it is magnificent,” he continues. “1974 and 1975 were good years. Maybe all the way up to 1984.”
Born in Portland, Ore., Francis was raised in Greece and lived through the German occupation during World War II. He says his father died from an injury suffered in World War I. Francis doesn’t know his age, really; he has no birth certificate.
“Yes, I was born 47 years ago,” he says, straightening his tie. After a moment he winks.
A snow-haired drinker, prim in knit sweater and pressed slacks, moves in and slides onto a stool. He sits and stares straight ahead. Soon a beer arrives.
Another man walks in with a confused look on his face. He asks, “Do you know what time this place closes?”
“Two,” answers the gent on the stool.
“Thanks.” The man turns and walks out.
Those were the only words spoken over 40 minutes. Silence, save for the big-band drone from the small stereo behind on the bar.
In the outcome of a catastrophe, one that would leave little save for acres of concrete rubble, some flooding and a few varieties of insects, Steve’s Place would still be standing. It would remain, still inhabited by the defeated, the cheery and the forlorn, sitting and sipping in silence.
They’d sit and gaze inward, or look at nothing. There’d be others, too: some laughing, some hacking, some spinning yarns.
There’s an eerie disquiet at the heart of Steve’s, above and beyond the optimism of the dusty 1970’s lunch box collection and antiquated beer imagery, or the fittingly placed “Twilight Zone” pinball machine and roadside cowboy art, paintings of animals. A plastic duck keeps watchful eye on Steve’s inmates from a high perch atop an idle air cleaner.
After running a bar for more than three decades, staying in business becomes an abstract idea. Steven and Sophia, downtown fixtures for as long as anyone can remember, rise and hit repeat every morning.
Francis shakes his head slowly. “People don’t come in like they used to. We’re a restaurant, we serve food.”
The man is tired. He hints of returning to Greece with Sophia, who, he says, has been ill of late. He says he’s hired a guy to “turn the place around.”
Statue-of-Liberty spikes and blue hair parade past the bar’s front window, queuing up for a show at St. Andrew’s Hall. There are no beer signs or protruding neon on the facade to suggest the bar is even open.
Throughout the night hundreds of people stroll past Steve’s Place. Rarely does anyone enter. There’s a real dying-on-the-vine beauty to the bar. It’s unaffected by pretense and trend. Steve’s Place stands alone, traditional and ghostlike, quiet and almost heavenly.Brian Smith is Metro Times’ music editor. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org