Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Ballad of Flint Bars and Fake I.D.s

The Copa's second home in the old Vogue store. (Photo by Tom Cheek/The Flint Journal)

When I was 15, I possessed what had to be the worst fake I.D. in U.S. history.

On the advice of my girlfriend, I used makeup to conceal the final digit of the 1966 birth year on my Michigan license. I took a piece of Scotch tape and lifted a "zero" out of the phone book, stuck it inexpertly where the final "6" had been, and used a razor blade to cut away the excess tape. I didn't have a light touch, and I cut an imperfect square into the license around the new number. Those grooves, coupled with the elevation caused by the makeup and tape, created a 3-D effect that drew the eye directly to the altered date. It looked like I'd spray-painted a tiny zero on a piece of Plexiglas and stuck it to my license with Bond-O. But in my hometown of Flint — a hard-drinking factory town with more bars than jobs — my new license worked like a charm.

Things are tougher today for young drinkers. An older drinking age means college kids are now scheming the way high-schoolers used to. Worse, bars actually seem to check I.D.'s in the San Francisco Bay Area where I now live and frequently turn potential customers away. Flint was not the kind of place that would deny someone the right to drink simply because they were underage, and I had many rivals for the "Worst Fake ID" championship. One girl I knew, who was black, managed to secure the ID of another friend's 21-year-old sister. There was only one problem: the sister was white. When she nervously presented her fake ID at a bar for the first time, the bouncer did a double take, then calmly said, "Nice tan. Go on in."

There was no shortage of bars to sample in Flint: Mona's Cocktail Lounge, The Torch, Augie's Garden Glow, Vechells, the Fifty Grand Cocktail Lounge, The Ambassador, Rube's, Ivor's Place, The Embers, The King's Armor, and a cleverly named strip club called the Treasure Chest, which competed for customers with a classy little joint called Titty City, to list just a few.

But there was really only one place my friends and I frequented in high school. In a rough town with lousy weather and bars called The Wooden Keg and The Rusty Nail, we hung out at The Copa. As the ridiculous name indicates, The Copa was not your average Flint bar. In a city suffering through an economic meltdown of epic proportions memorialized in Michael Moore's mockumentary 
Roger & Me, The Copa was a business miracle simply because it was located downtown on North Saginaw Street and it was actually open.

Bill Kain opened The Copa in 1980, and diversification was the secret to his success. While Flint lived and died with the auto industry, Kain catered to just about everyone. The Copa was primarily a gay bar, but Thursday was officially straight night and the crowd was mixed on many evenings. In fact, the only people coming to Flint instead of leaving it in the '80s were gays and lesbians visiting The Copa. In a largely segregated town, The Copa was racially mixed, playing funk and New Wave in a market that made Foreigner, Styx and Billy Joel rich. It was the only bar in town where dancing to the Tom Tom Club or New Order wouldn't warrant an ass-kicking. (Asses still got kicked at The Copa, just like any bar in Flint, but not for dancing. It had its share of shoot-outs and brawls.) There were house music nights, male strip shows — attended primarily by straight women — and rap acts.

Kain was an outspoken critic of the hare-brained schemes to revitalize Flint with auto-themed amusement parks and high-end shopping projects, but the fact that he had a thriving business didn't give him much pull at City Hall. When Kain died in 1991, he was dismissed with a tiny, three-paragraph obit in The Flint Journal.

So what made The Copa so enticing to 15-year-olds armed with fake I.D.’s and Flock of Seagulls hairdos in Flint, Michigan? Why does anyone become a "regular" at any bar? The reasons go way beyond the simple lure of alcohol.

Madelon Powers, a history professor at the University of New Orleans, is what you might call a saloon scholar. In her 1998 book Faces Along the Bar, she explores life in the old-time saloons of pre-Prohibition industrial America, but many of her observations still apply to today's bar scene.

"At a time when various groups from Bible-thumping evangelists to profit-hungry industrialists were busily hatching paternalistic schemes for reshaping working-class leisure habits, the saloon offered its predominantly male clientele a place to work out their own solutions to their needs," Powers writes. "Drink, food, shelter, and companionship have ever been the tavern's stock-in-trade. Since many saloongoers lived in substandard tenements with few home comforts, the saloon in comparison seemed a most appealing prospect."

Basically, saloons in 1870 offered patrons something they weren't getting elsewhere, and bars today do the same thing. In Flint, if you didn't want to drink with unemployed autoworkers twice your age who played "Dust in the Wind" on the jukebox, you went to The Copa. Most of my favorite bars don't provide the "luxurious" surroundings available to pre-Prohibition drinkers, but they offer the chance to escape certain things nonetheless. At Sadie's Flying Elephant in San Francisco, it's rare to hear a conversation about modems or options or downloads. Cell phones don't seem to ring. That's a rare luxury anywhere near Silicon Valley — a factory "town" just like Flint, but without the heart or the swagger. A loud cell phone conversation wouldn't get you tossed at Sadie's, but it wouldn't be welcome, either.

Powers points out that bars have always had certain codes of behavior. "Just as churches had their congregations, so most saloons had loyal constituencies of perhaps 50 to 60 'regulars' who kept them in business," she writes. "Like their counterparts in medicine, politics, and athletics, they observed certain regulae of their own — the venerable traditions of drink culture — which boosted their esprit de corps and encouraged honor and order in their dealings with one another."

At the same time, I would never align myself with a bar where everyone was just like me — several of my ex-girlfriends probably have nightmares about entering such a place — let alone one where everybody knows my name. The fictional bar on Cheers seems like the kind of homogenized, locals-only place I hate. The lure of The Copa, like any good bar, was that it had so many people who weren't like me, but I could somehow relate to them just by being there. The fact that you sought the bar out and made it inside said you had some redeeming qualities.

But let's remember that one of the obvious reasons people go to bars is to drink, and I keep a mental Rolodex of bars and what I drank there. I remember the amazing pitcher of Pabst Blue Ribbon I had with my buddies in a little place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan one summer when our truck broke down. I cringe when I recall sitting in the Latin American Club in San Francisco drinking a White Russian and a margarita at the same time. But nobody who's on the right path goes to a bar just to drink. They never have.


  1. Mine worked great too!! I changed the 8 to a 3 and suddenly was walking out of the Arab owned liquor store on South Saginaw with a box of booze which I had bought for all of my friends. They never questioned me. I think I must of bought booze there 10 times in my senior year and they eventually stopped carding me because they recognized me. I think this is a testament to how much a part alcohol is woven into the history of Flint. I always said that bars in Flint are like Churches in the South.... there is one on every corner. I'm so glad that my kids will have to work hundreds of times harder to change their ID's. Technology is a good thing!

  2. I know what you mean...it was sure a lot of fun, but I'd be terrified to think of my kids doing the same thing. I guess that's one of the joys of parenthood.

    For an updated version of the Flint booze hunt, check out the movie Bad Ass. It brought back some memories.

  3. Ahhh, the Copa. When I read my journals from those days, there was one summer where I went there every night. I mean, what else was there to do? It was either that, The Torch, or hanging out at 4th street.

    So many memories... men in skirts and eyeliner dripping down their cheeks... and those were the straight guys. There were so many areas to that bar... you could dance, or play pool or just lounge.

    The evening always ended at Angelos... or whenever someone threw up... or maybe both.

  4. I can't believe you haven't included Churchill's. I spent three nights week during my college years there! Or what about Rube's! Epic place was Rube's. And there was another place that was located on the outskirts of Windmill Place (can't remember the name) - you only had to show them your library card to get in!

  5. Michelle, I'm not a machine! If I listed all the great Flint bars that accepted bad fake I.D.s the post would have been 50,000 words long. Love the library card tidbit. Never heard that one. If I had known I could have saved a lot of time and effort on the fake I.D.

  6. Loved the Copa. Incandescent bulbs and faux sophistication on an otherwise gritty street. No Ted Nugent or WWCK sounds, but rather the Pet Shop Boys and Erasure. Met the great love of my life there, on four separate occasions.

  7. LIke others on the board, I too lived at the Copa in early 80's. Some of my friends and I were actually some of the very first straight kids to start going on Thursday nights....in a sense, we opened that bar up to a much larger and diversified crowd. Loved the bar. The music. The interesting crowd. And 20+ years later, I still have a stack of yellow "Remember Me" Copa cards. Those were good times.

    1. I was the original promoter/DJ for Thursday’s new music/college night. I moved to Houston to continue my DJ career

  8. my frinds and I would go on a Saturday night, open the place and close it we would always hang on the second floor balcony and watch the dance floor get packed from up above. The memories we made in that place. If you didn't get in line before they Opend the doors you waited all the way around the block some times on a Saturday night that's how busy that place would be. The music would be pumping all night long

  9. Never got carded at Mansour's supermarket at age 17 with a shopping cart full of 12-packs.

  10. Well in the early 70's you could change your License quite easily and it looked 'Good'.
    I do not know if any of you remember this trick I learned from someone older than me of course....

    The Trick: Take a razor blade and cut a slit along the side of your license were your birth year is.
    They were right on the edge of the license.
    THEN go to the good old fashion real MA-Bell Phone Book and using the razor blade cut out the year you needed to make yourself 'Be 18'. (A small cut square around the number)
    The Phone book was as near perfect a font as you could get.
    Once you carefully slipped that in over your last digit of your birth year you then Flicked Your Bic and carefully sealed the cut you made back up.

    Sadly I never saved mine...It would be a spiffy piece to show my kids.

    Oh and a few years later I and many of those around my age voted to raise the drinking minimum to 21.
    Yup...We knew we were A-Holes back then...LOL

  11. Who recalls the owners of the Treasure Chest?


Thanks for commenting. I moderate comments, so it may take a while for your comment to appear. You might enjoy my book about Flint called "Teardown: Memoir of a Vanishing City," a Michigan Notable Book for 2014 and a finalist for the 33rd Annual Northern California Book Award for Creative NonFiction. Filmmaker Michael Moore described Teardown as "a brilliant chronicle of the Mad Maxization of a once-great American city." More information about Teardown is available at www.teardownbook.com.