Flint Expatriate Kris Bussell looks back on his first visit to a Flint bar when he was still in diapers.
Queue the spinning lights...swirl, swirl...Saturday, May 21, 1966, FLINT, MIEEECHIGAN! 800 block of S. Saginaw before Court St. Southbound lane.
He smooths back his greased jet-black hair and contemplatively strokes a sideburn as he leisurely takes in this lovely spring drive through downtown Flint.
Don drives slowly down red-bricked Saginaw Street, through the tunnel of tall spring elms. He likes the feel of his baby-blue Chevy Corvair, as those six flat aluminum heads just purr along. He had even watched this one come down the assembly-line as a foreman in Plant#2A. Chevrolet Avenue was still black-at-noon in those days from the shadow of the towering manufacturing plants, now it’s an empty parking lot of hot black asphalt. They drive past Smith Bridgman’s on the opposite side of the street. Cheryl, his gorgeous young bride, sits in the creamy leather upholstered passenger seat next to him and gazes past Don out the window at the huge department store on the opposite side of the street. She had spent the last Christmas season working as Santa’s Helper Elf in that store. Well, Santa’s big fat pregnant helper elf. Little did she realize her bundle-of-joy, safely lap-belted (pre-shoulder belt) into his bassinet, would only a short seventeen years in the future, be hunting through the remnants of that grand structure with his pack of droogs for treasures of a dying city being torn down around him.
Cheryl loved the people-watching, all the amazing lights and holiday window displays, downtown Flint is so very busy during the Christmas season! Cheryl especially loved helping the kids onto Santa’s lap. She had a way with kids and could coax a smile out of the most terrified three-year-old, even as the parents happily stood in line to sacrifice their offspring to the jolly fat man. Santas routinely drank bourbon in those days.
They keep driving down Saginaw Street. “I hope it doesn’t rain today. Daddy was going out to Miller Lake to catch some bluegill for supper this morning.”
“It won’t,” says Don confidently.
“How do you know, smart-aleck?” Cheryl says with a hint of a smile. “The Weather Ball isn’t blinking,” Don says very matter-o-factly. The Citizens Bank Weather Ball has never been wrong, everybody in Flint knows that. Funny thing is, there is no control room for the Weather Ball and no one knows who controls its illuminated majesty, even unto this day.
The radio is on WAMM (!) 1420 as they continue through the middle of town past Kresge’s. The metal arch over the street proudly displays "FLINT." Saint Paul’s Church where the baby had received the Holy Sprinkle only a month before. The Temple Dining Room. Then Don caught the smell of Halo Burger.
“Halo Everybody, Halo!” Don starts to sing, “With a Vernor’s Float!” he adds as an after-thought when he catches site of the mural of the elves rolling out those barrels of creamy ginger goodness. “Come on?”
“We’re going to my parent’s for dinner.” Cheryl does not even bat an eye. “AND, you had a coney island.”
“Just one,” Don sulks, but only for a moment. The coney had been good…a fresh-skin Koegel, loaded with hot greasy meat, onions, yellow mustard, and Don likes his red-pepper flakes! Also, something about that bun at Angelo’s just seems to melt in the mouth. Little did Don realize that only a short seventeen year hop into the future his only male progeny would devour many a late night platter of fries and gravy at the very establishment over which he now dreamed and drooled.
That put an end to that idea but Don still thought a pre-dinner Supreme with Olives would be a perfect appetizer. "Oh-well," he thought, "I do like to go over to Chris and Bob’s for dinner! Christina is a great cook and Bob is good to have the UofM (Go Blue!) game on later. Plus, since they live on the golf course, I can pick up a Hamady-sack full of golf balls thanks to all the hacks at the 13th hole of Brookwood behind their house.
SCREECH OF TIRES
“Are you alright?” “Yes! Get the Baby!”
"He’s alright! Get him out of the back seat!” Don springs out the driver’s side door into the street.
“Oh Shit! Look at my car!” Don turns toward the driver in the car that rear-ended him with heat rising to his ears. “Dammit ALL!” but the old lady looks just like Cheryl’s little Scottish Aunt Meg Ramsey that came over on the boat with all the rest of her family, plus, she looks a bit shaken-up from the (relatively minor) fender-bender, let alone having a former Central High School linebacker jump out furious mad at you and strike you stone cold with that one look... Don eased up quick though, he is a softy underneath, but he’s also a hot head, a handsome hot-head…traits that he passed onto his only son.
“Do you have the baby?”
“Yes, I’ve got him out,” Cheryl starts to cry, not because she is hurt, but out of concern for her three-month-old son, Kris Patrick. She runs her hands over the baby's back, his arms, his legs. "Oh thank you Lord!" she breaths.
“Here Honey, let me take the baby. It looks like your man needs you."
Cheryl smiles at the kind lady as she wipes her anxious tears away. She recognized this woman, she knew her, but from where? "Oh!" Cheryl thought, “this is the lady that tends the bar down at the grill on the corner of Court St., The Genesee, or The Verdict or The Bailiwick?’ Either way, as seasonal help at Smith Bridgman’s, she had liked to sneak her sacked left-over half of King Arthur’s Pasty (with HP sauce!) in so she could sit with the make-up counter girls that were single and liked a two-martini lunch. Life was simpler then. She loved to listen to the girls talk, as they seemed to not only know everyone who worked at the store, but absolutely everyone that came into the store or anyone that lived, or had lived at any time, in Flint. Again, little did she suspect that the shining son-of-her-heart in the back, only a short seventeen years later, would also have a big thing for make-up girls on that very same block.
“Oh, thank you so very much!”
“Don’t worry hun, I’ll look after him. Hi Beautiful! Aren’t you the most gorgeous baby?”
“He won the ‘Most Beautiful Baby’ contest at Hick’s picture studio. They have a picture of him sitting in a metal bucket in their lobby.”
“Never mind hun, he’s safe. Go look after your husband.”
“Thank you,” Cheryl says over her shoulder and looks to see Don getting more agitated while looking at the Corvair’s wrinkled rear bumper and Aunt Meg (like) clutching her handbag and trembling on the sidewalk as at least a hundred eyes ogled the spectacle while enjoying their Heavenly sandwiches and cherry Cokes.
Long story made short; FPD, ambulances, fire trucks (no shortage of proud city workers that day, my friends). I ended up spending all afternoon sitting on top of the Bailiwick bar and being cooed over until my parents returned home later that afternoon, each believing the other had the heir-apparent safely stowed (Trunk? Where? Come ON!). I was finally tracked down and rescued from my expedition to Babylon.
There remains a picture in someone’s basement in Michigan of an extremely handsome smiling baby man-child wearing a conical party hat (left-over New Year's Eve '66, and a bit bar stained), no diaper, and cradling a bottle of Red Devil Rye in his bassinet. He is propped-up on top of a nice old wooden bar with about a dozen smiling anonymous happy drunk people standing over the little angel. Again, little did anyone realize that only a short seventeen years later…
People theorize that babies that young cannot remember details. However, from that day forward, for whatever weird reason, maybe they were singing at the barm but I can sing every word to Bill Doggett's "Honky-Tonk" — both Parts I and II and every now and then, I get a taste for cheap bourbon.
I am left wondering why there are so many quarters lying on and around me in that picture?
Smith Bridgmans print is courtesy of artist Bill Stolpin. For more information go here. Bailiwick photo courtesy of Joe Dennis.