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Here comes Santa Claus

December 19th, 2012

Santa doesn’t look much different than the homeless people seated around him.

John Ratkov is at the Crossroads soup kitchen on West Grand Boulevard on a cold, misty afternoon, wearing a torn flannel coat with the stuffing poking out, faded baggy jeans and an old frumpy hat.

But to those gathered here for a meal, he stands out. His stout build, his bushy white beard and his long white hair have earned him the nickname Santa Claus among them. His looks aren’t the only reason, though.

Every Sunday, all year long, volunteers here pack up dozens of brown-bagged lunches for him to deliver to the homebound poor. Nobody gave him this task; it’s something he came up with on his own.

Ratkov worked for years in recycling, spent some time in prison, and when he got out he began serving others by giving rides, delivering lunches, visiting the lonely. It was partly to give him something to do, and perhaps partly to redeem his lost years. He’s taken it upon himself to visit the worst parts of the inner city, places where the safety net and civic order have essentially collapsed, where someone like him is often all that stands between them and sheer desperation.

For the rest of the story, click here.

Last days

December 5th, 2012

There’s not a single customer in the bar tonight. Just like most of last night. Just like most nights before that.

Steve Francis, the bar’s owner, sits at a table by the wall, huddled inside his wool sweater, with a blanket covering his lap. “Cold,” he says, simply. “Costs too much to heat.”

It’s Friday night at Steve’s Place, one of the oldest, loneliest dive bars in Detroit. It manages to be both legendary and obscure, a place that most people have heard of but not many visit, except those loyal few who check in now and then to see if its elderly proprietors are still improbably in place behind the bar.

“Nobody in here,” Steve says, meaning not just tonight but always. “Sometimes there are birthday parties, the bachelor parties once in a while. Occasionally, a few lovers come in here. But now, very bad. No business.”

He and his wife Sophie, who run the place, could’ve retired years ago, but then what? They live upstairs; the bar is their home and this is all they’ve done half their lives. Despite worsening health and advancing age, their bar is going to remain here as long as they do. “I have no choice,” Steve says. “We’ve worked hard all our life over here. I work like slave over here. This is my job and my house.”

For the rest of the story, click here.

Mainstay

November 21st, 2012

Barry Beal just doesn’t give up.

He didn’t give up when thieves broke into his store and stole nearly every single thing inside, plunging him into bankruptcy. He didn’t give up after the big box stores started offering the same things he sells, but cheaper. And he didn’t give up on the neighborhood he’s in even as it vanished from around him.

His store, Shantinique Music and Sportswear, sits on a stretch of Harper that passes along blocks of grassy fields. It’s very different now here than when he started, back when a thousand 45s of a new hit would sell in a single day, when the blocks around him were filled with kids eager to buy what the Billboard charts said was hot. Back when there was a neighborhood.

“Now there’s like two houses on every block, or five houses on every block,” the 59-year-old says. “It’s a big difference.”

If it weren’t for his regular customers, he might be gone by now. Out here, in this east side neighborhood, where just about every little family business has moved or closed, the fact that Beal has stayed through the area’s collapse has earned him a diehard loyalty.

For the rest of the story, click here.

No show

November 7th, 2012

His booth is dark and locked tight. It’s early afternoon inside the Russell Industrial Center’s weekend bazaar, and Darrell Banks is late for work. Behind the black metal gate are his dollar store elephants, his quaint figurines, his little bags of incense and his hand puppets, all unreachable by anyone who might wander past, because the store is still closed.

Though he lives in the nearby New Center area, in a senior apartment complex, he has no car and depends on others for rides to work. He could take the bus, but he has difficulty walking to and from stops. Sometimes he relies on his brother, who sometimes proves unreliable. So he often arrives places late or not at all.

For the rest of the story, click here.

Herbal essences

October 17th, 2012

Silence lingers in the old shop the way it would inside a library, as if to say that here too, years of accumulated wisdom are stored and revered.

This small room is home to Nature’s Products, a bulk herb store whose simple name reflects the essence of its conviction — that long before the modern drug industry, nature provided cures to most of our ailments. It sits in a plain building on Conant by Seven Mile, a dusty stretch of road where its closest neighbor is a noisy collision shop that strews crumpled cars along what little parking the road affords. With its dim lighting and old tin ceiling, the shop has the air of an apothecary a century ago.

For the rest of the story, click here.