I just got an email and some photos from Ben Hamper, the bestselling author of Rivethead: Tales from the Assembly Line, one of my favorite books. Combine Rivethead with Theodore Weesner's The Car Thief, and Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis, and you've got an impressive triumvirate of Buick Town literature.
For a few days a week in the seventies, Ben drove a contingent of Civic Parkers across town to St. Mary's for school. I remember me, his brother, sister, and daughter in his AMC Pacer.
"I was raised in the Civic Park area," Ben writes. "Specifically, I grew up on the corner of Dayton and Lawndale. I went to grade school at St. Lukes. Once I hit 9th grade, I also used to catch the bus downtown to go to St. Mike's. I would either grab the Dupont bus, at the corner of Dupont & Dayton, or the Civic Park bus, in front of the laundromat at Dayton & Forest Hill. When Powers opened, I went there -- graduating in 1973.
"At that time, the Civic Park area was a wonderful spot to grow up in. I used to haunt many of the places you or your readers mention — Bassett Park, Haskel , Dayton Pharmacy, Double D Market (my class E baseball team was sponsored one summer by Comber's Market, its original name), the Civic Park library, Balkan Bakery, the barber shop that switched into Ski Haus, and later on, Jack Gilbert's Wayside Inn and the Civic Park Lounge. Fine memories, all.
Like many in the neighborhood, Ben spent some time at Jack Gilbert's Wayside Inn. My family often went there on Fridays during Lent for fish. I still remember an old guy teetering on his bar stool to give me a quarter one time.
"Ah, good old Jack Gilbert's," Ben writes in his email. "That place was always like a magic mystery land to me while I was a student at St. Luke's. I always craved to know what went on in there. Many of our fathers hung out there but they weren't much on information. Fortunately I got to experience the place for myself a few years later. Great fish & chips! I always ordered the frog legs & battered potatoes. Will include a photo of the place I took a couple years back. I still recall sitting there sucking on a beer on a lazy Saturday afternoon when I got the call to report to GM."
This seems like a perfect time for an excerpt from Rivethead:
I wasn't home the day GM finally called. It was a Saturday and I was planted on a barstool up at Jack Gilbert's Wayside Inn. I didn't expect to get called in on a weekend, so I left the house with no instructions to where anyone could reach me. My little brother, a real wiseacre, told them that I could be reached at any number of North Flint area bars. I'm sure this tickled them pink.
Fortunately, I had given GM my in-laws' number as a backup and my sister-in-law came racing into the Wayside where I was in the process of getting shit-faced with her boyfriend Rick.
"Ben. BEN! GM just called you! They want you to come to work."
"Shit," I hollered, "it's about time those bastards rang me. On a weekend, no less. That gives me and the old Ricker here time to do some much-deserved celebrating. Did they mention what time they needed me on Monday?"
"No, no, no! They want you to work TODAY! The said to be there at four and to wear some work boots if possible."
"TODAY? Saturday? It is Saturday, isn't it? Four o'clock? WORK BOOTS?"
"Four o'clock," my sister-in-law repeated. "Work boots if possible."
This was some heavy shit. To be called in during the middle of the weekend smelled like an emergency. GM was now in the midst of one of their all-time boom-boom quota years, so I supposed reinforcements were needed on Saturdays, Sundays, Salad days- any time was the right time. This also marked the first time I ever remembered being asked out on a Saturday night by a corporation.
"I better move out," I told Rick. "Musn't keep Papa Jimmy waitin'."
"Wear something sexy, ratboy," Rick laughed. "And don't forget to write."
I hustled home. I didn't have any work boots, so I just threw on a pair of old Converse hightops along with a T-shirt and a pair of filthy jeans. My head was reciting all the advice my distant aunt had filled me with: Keep your guard out for troublemakers. Don't be coerced into drinking. Be on time. Do everything you're told, try to do extra, don't engage in horseplay, address your supervisor as "sir." Check, check, check.
Ben was the host of the radio show "Other Voices" in Flint in the eighties. It later became "Take No Prisoners" and expanded to TV. It was one of the few options for punk, alternative or music you'd never here on Live 105. He still has a show up north on WNMC. You can listen to it on the internet on Fridays from 9-11. Or if you want the classics, Aaron Stengel has an amazing supply of old shows and samples at the Flint Underground Music Archive.
"I curently live in Suttons Bay, 20 miles north of ," Ben writes. "I go down to every other month or so. I always tour the old neighborhood. It's a dismal cascade of drek, but it's still home."