Ann Arbor’s night prowlers
A glimpse of some of the characters who thrive in Ann Arbor long after the sun sets
Story by David Alexander
Photos by Benjamin Weatherston
Samuel Burns is six hours into a 14-hour shift in his cab.
It’s just before 1:30 a.m. on a Saturday, and the Prius he’s driving carves through downtown and around campus. He’s been working these long shifts, four to six days a week, since he started in late August.
As an independent contractor who rents his cab from Yellow Car, Samuel is responsible for the gas in his cab and basically works for himself, which suits him fine because it allows him to drive when he wants.
“This is kind of my natural schedule,” he said. “I kind of had to fight against it when I had day jobs. Nobody tells me when to come to work. I love that … I don’t ever have any stress because I don’t have a boss.”
Cabbies have to be OK with an unstable income. Samuel manages because he lives modestly as he waits to be accepted to a Ph.D. program. He only occasionally goes out to the 8-Ball Saloon and lives on McDonald’s, Fleetwood Diner and copious amounts of coffee.
He doesn’t have a car of his own, so he runs all his errands in his cab. But he never buys groceries, preferring to eat on the go. Having to eat out forces him to rent the cab and get to work.
As he drives, Samuel peers at the glowing screen that has his GPS and a queue of all the people waiting for cabs. He selects a fare and dials the number the rider gave dispatch. A voice comes over the car’s speakers. Samuel confirms the ride and begins driving to Heidelberg on Main Street.
Working nights has shaped his network of friends. “It kind of weeds out your social circle,” he says. “My friends are all vampires.”
Being a cabbie is kind of like being a therapist, Samuel maintains. He tries to just listen to his passengers and not offer advice, but it’s hard sometimes. Like when one of his frequent fares starts ranting that a local hospital steals newborns for medical experiments.
Later, when Samuel pulls up to a house with a cadre of drunk college kids out front, he rolls down the window and asks if any of them is Kayla. One of the men becomes belligerent, threatening to “beat his ass.” Someone calls him a derogatory name. It’s the second time he was called that name on the same night. He brushes it off and drives away.
Cancellations are common after the bars close. “You see some really bad sides of people,” he says.
At the same time, driving a cab has opened Samuel’s eyes to Ann Arbor’s diversity. “It’s amazing how you get set in your little places,” he says. “The city is a big place.”
. . .
Karen Fogarty enjoys working nights. She’s been at the Fleetwood Diner for 31 years, since she was 16. She’s seen four owners come and go. She even remembers when the diner’s sticker-laden walls were bare.
The Fleetwood is open 24 hours. A local landmark, it harkens back to the lunch trailers of the 1940s and ’50s, its metallic panels drawing both students and working class Joes to its cramped confines.
Karen has been working weekday nights from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. for two years. Her internal clock has always been set to a night schedule, she says, so she’s glad to be working when she’s most productive.
“If I work breakfast, I’m always dragging my ass,” she says.
In addition to the independence her job affords her, Karen likes the colorful cast of characters who come in the diner. “There are a lot of cool people who stay out all night,” she said.
It’s where the third-shift paramedics eat. It’s where cops and street sweepers working the graveyard shift eat. People like Bear, a burly, bearded man who sat at the bar on a recent night during Karen’s shift. Bear is a roadie and used to work the door at The Blind Pig, a bar just a block up from the Fleetwood.
“Getting up before noon is sacrilegious,” he says.
Weekday nights are when mostly townies, specifically those in the service industry, come in for the diner’s greasy-spoon fare. They tend to be kindred spirits, Karen said, so they tip better. She has a kid in college, so the difference between 52 cents and $5 on the tip line of a credit card receipt can make a huge difference.
But the job is not without its stress. Because of its round-the-clock hours, the Fleetwood attracts many of Ann Arbor’s mentally ill, homeless and, of course, inebriated. It’s easy to become frazzled, Karen said.
“It’s fun to be old and tough,” she said. “I hear all sorts of strange things,” she says while working her way down the short counter with a coffee pot. “You have to know people. You have to be a social worker of sorts. … I can always go mom on them at any moment.”
The odd hours impede her social life, but she says working at the Fleetwood is all she knows at this point in her life.
“They keep coming back,” she said, “so I must be doing something right.”
. . .
In the back of Extended Stay America, bath towels and bed sheets sit neatly folded on their shelves.
April marks five years that Judy Macafee has been working the night shift at the hotel. It’s her responsibility to fold the laundry, and she takes it seriously.
Her co-workers say she’s OCD, but she says she’s just committed to doing things correctly. “To me, first impressions are the most important,” she says. “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it right. My father taught me that no matter what you are — a toilet cleaner, a street sweeper — be the best you can be.”
Judy, 64, wants to be able to retire or go to work in the school system working as a noon-hour supervisor. But the third-shift rhythm is so ingrained in her body clock at this point, it’s likely to carry over no matter what she does.
When she goes outside during the day, the sunlight hurts her eyes. She enjoys “the mist of peace” the night offers.
Judy started working for Extended Stay after a stint as a medical assistant when she lived in Akron, Ohio. With a caregiver’s nature, she chose Extended Stay because many of its boarders are family members of patients at U-M’s hospital.
“There’s so much cancer, so much sickness,” she says. “Sometimes people just need to talk.”
Judy understands tragedy. In 1991, she says, three men shot her son eight times, killing him. They put his body in their trunk and drove around the better part of the night before burying him. Since then, she’s vowed to keep safe anyone under her care.
The courtesy phone rings and Judy answers it, looking at the security camera that monitors the front desk. One of the guests is having trouble with the wi-fi. He seems confused that Judy is not up front.
“Don’t worry about me,” she tells him. “I can see you. You’re scratching your stomach. What do you need?”
She walks up front to talk to the man, who’s angry and litigious and can’t understand that the passcode changes every 30 days. Judy never loses her cool. She’s firm without being combative.
“You’re wearing Polo aren’t you?” she asks with a smile. “It smells good.”
The man’s demeanor shifts. Moments later, he leaves satisfied.
“Whatever comes my way, I’ll handle it,” she says. “You learn these people. You learn their likes. You learn their dislikes.”
. . .
The streets of Ann Arbor are more or less quiet. It’s a typical Thursday night and Sgt. Bill Clock is patrolling the Adam district — an area that includes Huron, Washtenaw, Main and Stadium.
Bill has 18 years of experience with the Ann Arbor Police Department, and he’s currently in the midst of a four-month rotation on nights, doing 12-hour shifts Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
A married man with three kids, Bill’s job consists mostly of ensuring the officers under his command have the support they need.
Alcohol is a catalyst that often adds to a policeman’s workload in the wee hours of the night — disturbance calls, traffic stops, fights. “It really could be just about anything,” he says of the calls. “Most of my job is babysitting.”
As shift commander he isn’t anchored to a specific area, but Bill spends most of the night driving a circuit around downtown where there’s a higher concentration of bars and college housing.
It’s just after 12:30 a.m. and a call comes over the radio about a disturbance at the Millennium Club. Bill pulls up to the scene to make his presence known, but drives off after he determines the situation is under control.
The night shift schedule impacts his life — his eating habits, his time with his family. His 11-year-old son likes it better when he’s on days.
When he started doing more night shifts, he had to buy darker curtains for his bedroom. “On those days, it seems like all I’m doing is sleeping, eating and going to work,” he says. Still, he likes having four days off a week, giving him time to visit Title Boxing for a workout or play with his two dogs.
Bill pulls his SUV into an alley near Thompson Street where Officer Justin Kandt is responding to a loud house party. Justin tells the residents they have 10 minutes to clear everyone from the home, and the party begins to break up without incident.
Just after 1 a.m., Bill passes Scorekeepers on Maynard Street where, just outside the bar, a blond man is shoving another man. He stops the car, calls dispatch and turns on his personal camera and microphone. Approaching the men, he quickly defuses the situation. Within a couple of minutes, two more squad cars pull up.
The dispute arose when the blond man brought a drink outside and the management took issue with it. Back inside the car, Bill gets on the radio.
“No medical. It’s all resolved,” he says into the black box attached to his uniform near his clavicle.
One of Bill’s biggest pet peeves is when vehicles block the streets. On his next pass along Maynard, he pulls up next to a car lingering in the road. He rolls down his window. “Move it along,” he says to the driver. “This isn’t a parking lot.”
. . .
The sun hasn’t even begun to think about peeking over the horizon, but Mark Skurda has already been at work for several hours.
It’s 5 a.m. on a Saturday, and Washtenaw Dairy just opened for business. The sweet smell of milk and sugar coats every surface of the shop.
On a typical day, Mark, the shop’s baker, gets in to work at 2 a.m. During “doughnut season” — the fall, cider season — he gets in as early as 9 p.m. On those days, because of university functions and football season, his workload can be triple the 1,800 doughnuts he has to make today.
Mark has been at Washtenaw Dairy almost five years, and the only part of his job he doesn’t like is the odd hours.
“I don’t think I ever got used to it,” he says. “My body still wants to sleep at night … If people ate doughnuts for dinner, I would work days.”
He gets Sundays and Mondays off, but he keeps a night schedule even when he isn’t at work. Being single makes working nights easier; keeping opposite schedules strained his previous relationships.
But it’s not all bad. “I don’t have to wait for traffic,” he says. “I don’t have to wait in line at the bank or to get groceries.”
And he wouldn’t trade his love for baking for a normal schedule. He’s worked in bakeries since he was 14.
“I’m good at what I do. I take pride in my work,” he says. “It feels good to know I worked hard and did a good job. I almost look at it like a challenge.”
. . .
On the fringe of downtown Ann Arbor, near the intersection of Liberty and Second streets, the Blue Karaoke lounge sits tucked away, barely noticeable from the street. Although the lounge floats under the radar, its luminescent blue and red neon sign calls to patrons like a smoky jazz club in a 1940s noir.
Inside, the scene contrasts the view from without. A central area is well-lit and economic. The one bit of flair is a multicolored electric disco ball that peppers the room with red, green and blue confetti of light. There are 10 private rooms where Blue Karaoke’s customers can sing their lungs out.
Owner and proprietor Maria Han said that when her son was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan, she noticed that many Asian students missed Asian-style karaoke. That observation almost 10 years ago prompted her to open the lounge. Since then, Maria’s customer base has shifted. Most of them these days are American — mostly graduate students and bar employees looking for some after-hours fun.
The lounge is open until 3 a.m. on weekdays and 5 a.m. Friday and Saturday. The hours allow Maria to get the kind of clientele she wants: low-key and respectful.
On the weekend, Maria is especially selective about who can get the karaoke rooms: “On a Friday or Saturday, there’s a line outside. But not just anybody gets in.”
Being a late-night lounge can attract a rowdy crowd. That’s why Maria likes being a bit out of the way; her lounge is a destination instead of a place people stumble across. She can be exclusive, which was her goal when she started the lounge.
. . .
On the other side of downtown, on South University, in the belly of a building with bubblegum pink awnings, is a maelstrom of mechanized chaos. This time, however, the noise is that of flippers kicking pinballs, of pool balls clicking against one another, of air hockey pucks smashing against paddles, of quarters falling from change machines.
In an age of Xbox Live and computer games, Pinball Pete’s manages to stay afloat, carving out a niche as a family-oriented establishment that also caters to a late-night crowd.
It’s Friday night and a lone employee, John, a husky, dark-skinned, freckled man, monitors the arcade from behind the prize counter. The arms on a white-faced clock with a large pink elephant — the arcade’s mascot — overlap on the 1.
John is in his 30s and he has worked at Pinball Pete’s since 2008. He likes issuing challenges to customers in exchange for prizes or a free play.
“People like to be given stuff, but they also like to earn stuff,” he says. “A lot of people never test themselves.”
John likes the night shift because the crowds are bigger and he has more opportunities to interact with patrons. The owners don’t micromanage how employees distribute prizes. Instead, they allow John and others the freedom to make the customers happy.
“If it’s within reason, I can give them a bargain,” he says.
. . .
Just down the street, inside RendezVous hookah lounge, plumes of bluish smoke snake through the air. The scent of fruit and mint lingers like miasma.
It’s Monday night and the lounge’s vibe is relaxed. Small groups sit on couches with tables bearing the octopus-like smoking contraptions. Small, hockey-puck shaped coals flare atop the small cache that contains the tobacco as the patrons draw the smoke down long plastic hoses.
Three men run the shop. Azmir Peshkepija is manning the shop just after midnight, as he usually does on weekdays. He’s been working the late shift for roughly seven months and he enjoys mixing flavors of shisha, the flavored tobacco in a hookah.
However, the late hours are taking a toll. “I’m kind of missing out on a lot of things,” he says, like time with his family.
And, at age 24, dealing with drunks and rowdy students isn’t something he can see himself doing long-term. He hopes for a more normal schedule: “The older I get, the harder it gets.”
. . .
Next door, at South University Pizza, Imad Chmeissani is making pizzas. He works three nights a week, until the pizzeria closes between 2:30 and 3 a.m., and sees a lot of the bar crowd. He says he works hard to provide the best service he can, even when customers become combative or belligerent.
“Night shift is tough,” he said. “You have to swim their wave.”
Imad moved to the U.S. from Lebanon in 1990. He studies environmental science at the University of Michigan and plans to pursue a career in his field once he earns his bachelor’s degree.
Between working late, studying and attending classes, he struggles to make his schedule work. He can’t spend as much time as he’d like with his wife and in-laws. Even after working nights he tries to wake up before noon so he can work out, grocery shop and do all the other things day-shifters are able to do.
He sees his night schedule as a means to an end. “This is not normal,” he says, “working here until 3, 4, 5 o’clock in the morning.”