From dusk 'til dawn-ish at the Fleetwood Diner
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Note: contains some adult content.
I picked a bad night to spend dusk till dawn-ish at the Fleetwood Diner. The Ann Arbor Rolling Car Sculpture Show is revving 50 feet away with hungry ZZ Top families casting sideways glances at the Fleetwood, full of burgers, Greek salads and hippie hash. I feel like a mouse in a cage waiting to be fed to the pet snake in a much bigger cage.
The Fleetwood Diner is an Ann Arbor institution — home to poets, philosophers, punks and psychos. It never closes. It has the worst bathroom in Ann Arbor. It gets really good around 2 a.m. Who better to deliver you a report from the mouth of heck itself?
Adorable punk rock couple and horn tattoo forehead man
At 8:30 p.m., the sun is still fairly high in the sky and former roller derby girl (now derby coach) Betty Beretta is near the end of her shift when I’m just starting mine.
The Fleetwood has indoor and outdoor seating for somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 people. Sturdy plastic chairs inside and out along with black and white square tile on the interior that runs all the way up the side of the kitchen counter top. Little plastic cups of mayo. Little plastic cups of Thousand Island dressing. Red plastic Coca-Cola cups and brown coffee mugs full of steaming drip coffee, of which I end up drinking 13.
A table outside fills up with a mosh of teenage punks. I don’t use that term in some sort of old-man-shaking-my-fist-on-the-porch way. These kids have mohawks, leather, chains — it’s a compliment to them to call them punks. Included in the collection is the most adorable little punk couple, lightly holding hands and sitting next to each other at the table, his mohawk rising high and proud despite the humidity.
“You gotta go to Above Ground now to get your mohawk done,” the cook says.
“We used to use egg and Elmer’s glue,” Betty joins in. “You know they’re just gonna order chili fries.”
The don’t. They order coffee. Anarchy in the USA.
Things get a little weirder just after 9 p.m. when a man with horns tattooed on his forehead takes a alone seat outside. He is an enigma. Lots of bad, scary tattoos (unfinished clowns, indecipherable symbols I can only assume are Cthulhu related), chains around his neck and bracelets with swear words on them. But he’s also got a Samsung smartphone with a hip holster, prescription eye glasses and a Joe’s Crab Shack tank top. He’s a cross between someone who would be accused of robbing a liquor store with a kayak and that guy in the office who won’t stop saying, “It’s five o’clock somewhere!”
He yells some version of “I used to own one of those!” at any passing muscle car unfortunate enough to get stuck at the light. This is especially torturous because a car show is disbanding, and the streets are full of rolling thunder.
“He’s writing down what we say for the Ann Arbor News,” Betty Beretta says to the cook.
“Knock it off, you ass,” the cook yells. I assume they’re kidding?
A cute couple takes a seat outside, orders, chats, eats. They’re recent law school grads studying for the bar. He's a clean-cut, handsome fellow from Miami, and she's a clean-cut, beautiful girl from Pittsburgh. They’re modest, nice to me and after I bus their table and eat some of her leftover fries, I truly start to miss them. That’s when my photographer shows up.
My very own Ralph Steadman. Or something
I need to pull back the curtain of my creative process for a second. When on assignment for these up-close observational pieces, I lay low and mind my own business. I’m almost always alone and, until this story, never had a photographer assigned to capture the action.
Daniel Brenner seems like a good guy and he’s a great photographer, but I feel awkward enough with myself. It’s hard to work with someone new. I always think I want a Ralph Steadman to accompany me on stories (and it worked pretty well the one time I did it) but it’s hard to remain semi-conspicuous when the guy sitting across from you has a giant expensive camera.
Two tables of folks sit next to us and other than jotting in my notebook (“Why do people keep jogging past the Fleetwood? They have to be showing off, right?”) I’m not perceptibly working on this story. I sense Daniel getting a bit bored but my choice of interview subjects is a table of young professionals and a table of American Apparel models.
I don’t know either group. I know I’ll get along better with the young professionals than the American Apparel models, but I can see Dan drawn to their vertically integrated fashion. That was officially my first American Apparel joke ever.
Maybe it’s the Apparel group’s constant use of swearing for emphasis: “We (expletive deleted) watched Battle Royale last night. Holy (expletive deleted)! It’s kids (expletive deleted) killing kids.” Or maybe it’s the fact that they all seem so blown away to talk about Battle Royale, like it’s 2003 or something. See, now who’s the hipster. Maybe I hate in them what I can’t have myself, but their table confirms something I’ve known for a long time: You can get away with saying anything if you have good hair and nice clothes. Battle Royale? Do go on! Garden parties last summer? Tell me more!
Dan takes their picture. I don’t blame him, they’ll probably look amazing. When he asks them for their names, they do that terribly stupid annoying thing and waffle.
“Do we need to give our real names?” guy number one asks. Dan shrugs.
“Then my name is Cooper,” and somehow this is hilarious. “Hangin’ with Mr. Cooper and friends.” This is a second, better joke somehow. I contemplate how to tell Dan that I’ve written a page and a half of terrible things about these people in my notebook.
I swivel and talk to the young professionals—Steve and Linda Lai with friends Vincent Giang and Pang Truong. This is their first time at the Fleetwood after spending most of their munchie money on North Campus or South University.
“Everyone talks about it but we’ve never been.” They mention Bill’s Beer Garden, which seems to be either the source or the eventually destination for quite a few of their patrons this night.
“Foursquare says to come here after 2 a.m.,” Steve says. I look at my cell phone, which reads 10:52 p.m. And I die a little inside.
I drink my sixth cup of coffee and watch the first patron wearing sunglasses bump into the front door and plop down inside at 11:04 p.m. The shift change begins, and I tip out Betty and the cook and meet Bell, who’ll be with me for the night. I’ve already been here for three hours after a full day at my real job, and I need to use not the worst bathroom in Ann Arbor. I grab my bag and head five blocks away to my apartment to freshen up.
Glassy eyes, full stomachs, can't lose
At some point following my one-hour sabbatical, the Fleetwood adds a second cook and a second server named Melissa. Right away, I sense that Melissa doesn’t like me. Maybe she just takes some time to warm to people, but even wearing my PRESS hat, I’m warned that once the late-night rush starts, I’m going to have to get the heck out of the way.
A number of glassy-eyed patrons have also appeared in my absence. One wears a crisp blue polo shirt, a classy gold watch and a look that tells me he’s seen things. A man sitting outside with a cast from elbow all the way up to his thumb is at first a little perturbed when I ask him how he shattered his wing, then gets increasingly upset at my mere presence.
Two girls out for a late-night breakfast following a Hawaiian-themed birthday party wear leis and go down the steps to the worst bathroom in Ann Arbor holding hands. When they emerge, I ask them about their experience.
“I’ve seen worse,” says the girl in the glasses. “Have you ever been to a frat party bathroom?” I have not.
The late-night, low-level drunk patrons are a lot warier than the clean-cut law school grads, young professionals and American Apparel models of a few hours earlier. They distrust a man with a Moleskine. They cast squinty glances my way, which could be hostility or just trouble focusing on fixed objects. Maybe it’s the tuxedo I’m wearing.
A 1:14 a.m. someone complains about his eggs. I swear Melissa is going to flip the guy’s plate and hit him with something solid. She doesn’t. He sucks it up and eats his semi-overeasy eggs.
I see Melissa eyeing me and my valuable two-top real estate, so I order a club sandwich and sip my ninth cup of coffee. I can stay if I pay, right?
The kitchen runs steadily, punk music blaring from device unseen in the back, and the tables are completely full by 1:30 a.m. Tickets stack up five and six deep with most of the product carried out of the kitchen belonging to the potato family. Hash, fries, more hash. Breakfast for dinner is a popular item at the Fleetwood.
I eat my club and move outside at 1:40 a.m to get a good look at the madness unfolding in the outdoors. Bell the server comes out to have a quick cigarette and says, “They’re lurking on the corners, ready to pounce.” He’s not wrong.
Public displays of affection and nonsense talk
The lights at the intersection flash red and yellow and people stream across the street, heading for late night food. A decent number clock in at the Fleetwood.
A young man with a flannel shirt unbuttoned to his xiphoid process needs a good deal of assistance from his girlfriend to first navigate the crowds, then slip through the front door and finally find his seat inside. He orders breakfast for dinner.
A trio of ladies men sit across from me and deconstruct their night in the worst possible way.
“I like quality over quantity.” “I like quality.” “I don’t chase either. Everybody knows that.” “Her friend was bitchy.” “It think it was the red hair.” “Yeah. Those facial expressions.” “You so didn’t get laid tonight.”
I keep waiting for them to tell each other how money they are. It’s maddening and maddeningly misogynistic.
A table of high schoolers grabs a table and pecks at their cellphones, the peppy girl receiving a call on her cell from what sounds like a long lost friend. She answers with a delightful, “Hey (expletive deleted).”
A different girl drops her LG phone on the sidewalk and it explodes. A bystander taunts, “Done! It’s over!” when her friend tries to revive it.
Melissa is getting frenetic at the cash. Later in the night, Bell tells me that he’s a long-distance worker and Melissa is a sprinter. Not much later in the night I get to see Melissa literally sprint, running across the street chasing a dine-and-dasher, one of the big guys from the back room trailing close behind. She gets her man.
Three serious-looking gents with gray hair and wedding bands talk seriously at a table. When they leave, two of them produce hats from their laps and put them on. See: gentlemen.
Cars constantly idle outside with a growing procession of cabs. Couples at the counter share plates, sleepily spearing food with forks. I’m on coffee number 11. The line at the cash register is five deep, the diner is packed and somebody getting a takeout order has the temerity to ask for extra pickles. One of the cooks, an e-cigarette tucked behind his ear, dips his hand into a container of sliced dills, drops them into a tiny plastic container and hands it across the counter. The kid asks for more. This request is denied.
At 2:33 a.m. the bacon situation is dire. What was once a proud heaping plate of pre-cooked glory is now a weak pile of limp pork. A guy in a sparkly red top hat chats with a cab driver wearing a soccer jersey. A bearded man sleeps in a Saab just down the block, the back and passenger seats piled high with a life’s worth of belongings. Public displays of affection increase tenfold. Philosophical nonsense talking is off the charts.
No one pays attention to me at this hour. They’re focused on their eggs and their potatoes and bringing forks and straws to mouths. The stars in the sky aren’t visible from the sidewalk outside the Fleetwood, but it’s not an overcast night. The Fleetwood is sucking the light out of the sky and the life out of my body. I drain coffee number 12.
The misogynists mercifully clear out, but not before ogling the bottom of a girl telling a joke.
“Guy walks into a bar and orders 12 shots and just starts slamming them back. The bartender asks her why he’s drinking so fast. ‘You’d drink like this if you had what I have,” the guy says. ‘What’s that?’ the bartender asks. ‘75 cents.’”
At 3 a.m. there are finally some seats open, and I plop down front and center. Bartenders from nearby businesses are starting to trickle in. A cab driver pulls up and lets his dog out of the van, and together they walk down the block to smoke and pee.
At 4 a.m., out come the Magic: The Gathering cards. The cooks and Bell are really into the game, producing boxes of cards and flipping through them behind the counter.
“We’re the future of nerds,” says one of the cooks. “E-cigarettes and Magic. And we don’t get laid either.”
I see that the plate of bacon has regenerated to its former tower of glory. It’s 4:15 a.m. and my blood is fire. The sun isn’t up, but it’s time to go.
Richard Retyi returns to AnnArbor.com with his new column Hidden Ann Arbor. Rich will write about the hidden side of Ann Arbor and the things locals take for granted. In his day job, Rich is a social media director for a digital marketing agency in Ann Arbor. Read more of his stuff at RichRetyi.com or follow him on Twitter.