Thank Heaven for 7-Eleven
David Mesrey writes:
St. Clair Shores is just a few miles north of Motown, and in the late 1970s, this was another world for me — a strange new world, one in which I felt freer than I did at home. The kids there were fascinated that I lived "in Detroit!" and I was equally fascinated that they had built-in swimming pools and illegal mini-bikes and kitchens in their basements.
And sometimes I would think to myself, "Man, where are all the black people?"
I started hanging out there in 1977, I believe, when I was just 8 years old. The older kids in the neighborhood who frequented my dad's 7-Eleven ... some of them were the coolest cats I'd ever laid eyes on — at least the coolest white cats. There was one guy, perhaps named Darren, who lived on the other side of I-94, and all the girls swooned over him. He was probably 16 years old. He wore GASS shoes and blue cutoff denim shorts and blue, triple-striped tube socks — and they all fit him like a glove. He, no doubt, smoked pot or maybe weed — heck, he might've even smoked grass! Darren simply exuded cool with every step he took. In fact, I thought he was so cool, he might as well have been black.
One summer day as I sat killin' time in the tennis courts of Avalon Elementary with some neighborhood kids, "Darren" came strolling by. The girls in my group gasped audibly when they spotted him. There were some vague whispers about his sex appeal and his cutoff shirt and his perfect hair. Then one of the girls made mention of Darren's generous package.
"Better get out your magnifying glass," she said to the other.
But quickly realizing her error, she corrected herself. "I mean ... oh, you know what I mean!"
Everyone in the tennis courts knew what she meant:
Darren had the biggest dick in St. Clair Shores.
Then there was an older curly-haired kid named Lee, as I recall, and he, too, was fond of cutoff denim jeans. But they didn't fit him quite as well. One day as he sat cross-legged on the sidewalk outside Stevie Ivkov's house, I noticed that his entire nut sack was protruding from his shorts. As a 10-year-old boy, I was shocked to see this and quite embarrassed for Lee. There were others around, and so I whispered to him, "Your balls are hangin' out."
Almost adamantly, Lee then made the requisite adjustment.
This was summertime in St. Clair Shores. Cutoff shorts, shag carpet, shaggy hairdos, and nuts aplenty.
To cool themselves off, all the teenagers went swimming at the Visanko house on Shady Lane. And if the Visankos weren't home, the kids would hop on their bikes and head to 7-Eleven for a Slurpee or an ice cream cone and to say hi to Eddie. There, my father, Eddie Mesrey, and I would ply them with gobs of iced sugar and corn syrup, and I'd hope to get invited for a dip in somebody's pool. It seems to me that it was always summertime in St. Clair Shores. I remember nothing about the winters there.
Our regular summertime customers were guys like Gasper the stallion and Bobby the blow-dried dreamboat and Joe the neighborhood mooch. Then there was poor, slow Jimmy Russo, who lumbered around on a big yellow Schwinn "paper bike" and had little else to do daily but check on the status of the Better Made Potato Chip man.
"Better Made guy come yet today, Ed?"
"No, not yet, Jimmy," my father would say.
"You think he'll be here Tuesday?"
"Yeah, probably Tuesday, Jimmy."
Jimmy Russo was a bit of a nuisance, but he was harmless, and my father turned a deaf ear to no one. Jimmy's father, in fact — a dark bespectacled, mustachioed man named Buster Russo — ran a Stroh's ice cream parlor up on Harper Avenue and molded me into a halfway decent little outfielder on the 1979 Avalon Tigers.
Then there were the guys my dad let sit behind the counter with him on the milk crates: the sacred, red Twin Pines milk crates, always stacked two high. Those were reserved for Billy Toler and Chuck the Truck Driver, and poor, buck-toothed Joe Randazzo. Then there was the chirpy, portly little oddball named Roger Horsnby, who claimed that his uncle or grandpa or great-great-grandpappy was St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby.
He was full of shit.
Some days when Gary from the VFW stopped by, he'd tell us about his souvenir from Vietnam: the steel plate in his head. I remember one day in June of 1980 when he and my father and one or two other grownups started another kind of pool — this one to determine a winner in their "How Long Before Richard Pryor Croaks" contest.
As a 10-year-old boy, I got in a contest pitchin' quarters at 7-Eleven with Bill Toler. I'd never played before, but Bill was glad to show me the ropes. After he schooled me repeatedly and I'd run out of quarters, that was the end of that. Advantage: Toler.
(What kind of man takes a little kid's money like that? But then again, perhaps my father the gambler instructed Bill Toler to do that to teach me a lesson.)
I ate my meals, typically, standing at the oversized silver microwave — usually a frozen cheeseburger or frozen meatball sandwich, courtesy of the Southland Corporation. Sometimes my dad would spring for my cousin Steve and me to go across Harper Avenue to a greasy spoon called The Clock.
(Steve's father, my uncle George Mesrey, was the previous manager of the 7-Eleven, but he'd dropped dead of a heart attack back in '78. So my dad often looked after Steve.)
For five bucks, Steve and I would eat meatloaf and mashed potatoes and grilled-cheese sandwiches, and we'd sit in the booth and listen to the jukebox for hours. There, I heard the likes of Chuck Berry and the Four Tops and the Platters, but also current '70s stars like Bob Seger and Fleetwood Mac and Pablo Cruise.
And no matter where I turned, there was no sign of Shap.
These were my good old days.
Perhaps my favorite 7-Eleven customer was a rotund, robust former boxer by the name of Gus Sinaris.
Gus wandered in every so often and always made his presence felt. He was in his 50s, a Burt Young, William Conrad kind of character. Salt-and-pepper stubble, flattened Greek nose, and a gruff, yet gracious manner. My head always spun toward the door, and my eyes lit up whenever I heard his voice.
"Hey, Eddie!" he'd say in his raspy, ramshackle fashion.
Gus didn't have a car, didn't have any money, and didn't appear to have any direction. He was always just plodding someplace down Harper Avenue. I couldn't understand half of what he said to my father, but I hung on every word.
Gus, I later learned, was also a popular vendor at Detroit Tigers and Pistons games at Tiger Stadium and Cobo Arena. My father and I even sat in his section once in the lower deck of left field. The fans all called him "Dancin' Gus."
I'm not sure I ever saw him dance, though. I just knew him as Gus Sinaris.
In the late '70s, my best friend Matt Narduzzi had taken boxing lessons from a guy in Detroit named Ducky Dietz. He was well-respected and his daughter, Yvanne, went to our elementary school. But my dad knew something about Ducky Dietz that I didn't.
Back in his prime, Ducky apparently, used to square off in the ring every so often with Dancin' Gus. I'm not sure who got the better of those matches, but my money's on Ducky.
When Gus would come in to 7-Eleven, he'd talk gibberish to my father and me like some kind of mentally challenged Cassius Clay. Seems like he said the same thing every time. And seemingly every time, my dad would turn to me and say, "Watch this, David."
"Hey, Gus," he'd say ... "You remember Ducky Dietz?"
"Ducky Dietz?!" Gus would yell at my dad. "DUCKY DIETZ?!"
He'd recoil in mock horror and start throwing punches wildly in the air and muttering unintelligbly, perhaps cursing the memory of Ducky Dietz for breaking his nose.
One day in the summer of 1979, I attended an end-of-the-season Little League baseball picnic at Brys Park at 8 Mile and Harper. I can remember seeing Gus strolling around the park that day, perhaps collecting empty bottles (like I once saw his son Jimmy do at the race track years later), or perhaps just taking a stroll in the park.
A few hours later, I noticed an ambulance off in the distance, parked on the grass of Brys Park.
I feared the worst, and I ran toward it. When I got there, I found Dancin' Gus keeled over on the ground, gasping for air.
The paramedics asked him what his name was, but he couldn't respond.
I spoke up and told the paramedics that his name was Sinaris. Gus Sinaris.
They asked me how to spell it, and I said I wasn't sure, but I knew it was written on the back of his T-shirt. So they proceeded to roll him over on his side (which was no small task), just to get the correct spelling of his name.
On the front of his shirt, in royal blue letters, were perhaps 30 or 40 random words strewn together, each representing something that Gus liked.
I remember it looking something like this:
TUBBY'S SUBMARINES 7-ELEVEN SECRETARIAT TIGER BASEBALL BILLY BEER DR. PEPPER SEATTLE SLEW DICK THE BRUISER ROCKY MARCIANO COLD CUTS LITTLE CAESARS BALL PARK FRANKS THE BIRD'S THE WORD
MORK FROM ORK TRY IT YOU'LL LIKE IT TASTES GREAT LESS FILLING!
The paramedics quickly carted Gus and his orange T-shirt away, and I thought I might never see him again. But the very next day, my father and I were amazed to see him walking down Harper Avenue as if nothing had happened.
Not too long ago, I ran into an old acquaintance who used to live in that neighborhood back in the late '70s. Although he and I weren't friends, we were contemporaries, and I asked him what he remembered about the store:
"I have great memories of hanging out at the 7-11 with my brother, the Andarys, and the rest of my neighborhood buddies," he wrote to me. "I’m sure we were a bunch of pests – but your father was always kind to us. It was kind of like on Sesame Street and going to Hooper’s store – only your dad was the Mr. Hooper of our neighborhood."