Ryan Patrick Hooper Special to the Detroit Free Press
Published 6:00 AM EST Dec 26, 2018
After almost 42 years of slinging beers and burgers at the Bronx Bar on Second Avenue, one of the most infamous bartenders in the Cass Corridor is calling it quits.
On Wednesday, 69-year-old Charleen Dexter will serve her last drink at the same bar where she first waited tables back in 1977.
“Nobody has worked any of these bars for almost 42 … years,” says Dexter, inserting a profanity. “We can’t keep a cook for six months much less 42 years.”
She started as a 27-year-old single mother hoping the tips she made at the Bronx would support her three kids. Living across the street at the Sheridan Court apartments, she’d walk to work from her $120-a-month two-bedroom unit (rent in the same building today starts at $875).
Four decades later, she still lives a block away.
Bartender at the Bronx will likely be the last job title she’ll have.
And while the neighborhood has changed around her, Dexter remains uncompromisingly true to herself.
Short with a shock of white hair and a quick-witted, vulgar vocabulary, Dexter has become a living legend in the neighborhood for both her career longevity and brash, honest and sometimes-crude approach to customer service.
Her reputation has even spawned its own merchandise. Across the street at the Marcus Market convenience store, T-shirts depicting her likeness — giving the bird — quickly sold out. Even Dexter herself wears one behind the bar sometimes.
Like many staring down retirement after spending half their life or more at the same job, Dexter has mixed emotions about pouring her last pint at the Bronx.
Over a series of interviews during her final week, she’s expressed fears about the future.
Her trips downtown to the MGM Grand Detroit casino will likely be cut back from three days a week to just one without a steady diet of tips to pump into her favorite safari-themed slot machines.
And she’s frustrated by the idea that she could’ve kept working for at least another year or two, even with a rash of health issues in recent years that meant dialing back her workload from full-time to three afternoon shifts a week, Monday through Wednesday.
“I had a good run, but I could’ve lasted a few more years,” says Dexter.
She says she’ll miss “the kids” the most — the generations of Wayne State University students who still drop by years after graduation to say hello; the twentysomethings living in the neighborhood eager to please the tough, matriarchal bartender whom they end up calling “mama” once they finally win over Dexter’s sweeter side.
“I love talking to the kids,” says Dexter. “When I’m at home four days a week, I talk to very few people. So I come in here and I bulls— with the kids, you know. I see these kids more than my grandkids.”
It’s a symbiotic relationship. There’s something comforting about befriending the bartender who has been around the longest.
At her second-to-last afternoon shift last week, Dexter’s status as a bona fide attraction was on full display as she served a stout to bar regular Dianne Nelson.
Nelson first started coming into the Bronx 12 years ago when she was studying social work at Wayne State.
“I love her, but she used to terrify me,” says Nelson, 35. “Especially when I wanted to order a grilled cheese.”
Without missing a beat, Dexter retorts: “Well, why would you pay $6.25 for a (profanity) grilled cheese? You could make 20 grilled cheeses for that.”
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Midtown or Cass Corridor?
If you aren’t initiated, it’s easy to find Dexter’s demeanor jarring in a neighborhood that has transformed from Detroit’s unofficial red-light district into a poster child for its rebirth today.
“Oh honey, it was a pimp-and-hooker haven,” says Dexter of the late-’70s era when her career was just beginning.
It’s tough to imagine today.
The mirrors behind the bar reflect the faces of a neighborhood gentrified since those days just as much as they reflect tweaks and renovations at the storied Detroit dive that first opened sometime around 1938.
When Paul Howard bought the Bronx back in 2001, Dexter came with the place.
“Charleen has been a fixture in the Bronx for (more than) 40 years,” says Howard, who co-owns the bar with his business partner Scott Lowell in addition to downtown jazz club Cliff Bell’s and its neighbor, the Park Bar.
“When we bought the Bronx, we were happy to keep her around,” he says.
Unlike Dexter herself, the Bronx isn’t completely frozen in time.
It’s still mostly shots, beers and simple mixed drinks served across the original bar, but Howard welcomed the idea of allowing natural light into a spot that was darkened by design. He added large garage doors that open to a wraparound patio. On a busy summer night, it feels like a crowded town square buzzing with alcohol and energy.
The bar still maintains one of the most eclectic jukeboxes in town and a burger that customers brag about.
“The Bronx has not changed a whole lot, but the neighborhood has certainly changed around it,” says Howard, who cited concerns over Dexter’s health issues as the primary reason for discussing retirement plans with her earlier this year.
“The Bronx back then was sort of a refuge of the mean streets of the Cass Corridor where if you made it in, you could be OK for a while.”
And compared to the rest of the neighborhood, it feels like a holdout from the Cass Corridor days.
The name “Midtown Detroit” started sticking in the mid-2000s. The area began to bustle with big projects, like the expansion at the Detroit Medical Center and Wayne State University’s transformation from a commuter college to a school where more students lived on campus. Retail, restaurant and residential developments have become commonplace in recent years.
There’s still a healthy debate over the naming rights of the neighborhood, but Dexter says a rebranding doesn’t wipe out the attitude or history of the area — both good and bad.
“They can call it anything they want, but it’s still the Cass Corridor,” says Dexter.
Last shift at the Bronx
Longtime regular Garrett Passiak stopped by to see Dexter on her second-to-last shift. He says the way Dexter handles customers is part of the appeal for the Bronx, which he describes as “less of a bar and more of an institution.”
“I’d rather be treated like crap by Charleen then by someone who is being pretentious behind the bar about craft cocktails,” says Passiak, a fellow bartender who has lived in the area for 18 years.
“You can see deep down that she’s actually happy, genuine and cares about people.”
Dexter’s retirement represents last call for a living, breathing connection to the neighborhood’s gritty past, says Passiak, who thinks the character and sense of community is giving way to rising rents and trendy new restaurants.
“She unlocked a piece of the old Cass Corridor for you,” says Passiak. “She’s part of the old school community here.”
When Dexter first started at the Bronx in 1977, then-owner George Jordan — a Greek immigrant who came to Detroit in 1946 after World War II — was a near-constant staple at the bar.
Jordan “kept the hookers, pimps and druggies out,” says Dexter, by making it well-known he kept a loaded .38 Smith & Wesson Special in his pocket.
He also made a habit of befriending members of the Detroit Police Department.
“No matter what time day or night you’d come by, there was always a Detroit cop in here from commanders down to the patrol guys,” says Dexter. “You’d always see a police car out front. They had all their retirement parties in here.”
That didn’t stop the vices of the Cass Corridor from slithering into her life.
After closing down the bar early one night, Dexter saw the lights of an ambulance outside the Blackstone — a former hub for drugs and prostitution just a few doors down from the Bronx (it’s home to $800-a-month apartments today).
She watched paramedics wheel out a woman on a gurney in a jacket she recognized.
It was her 32-year-old sister Brenda, a recovering addict. She had overdosed in one of the hotel rooms, was dragged unresponsive into the hallway and left for dead. She died the next day in the hospital with Dexter by her side.
Still, Dexter says she felt safer walking home late at night back then than she does today.
“People just looked out for each other,” says Dexter. “They still look out for each other today, but not as much. Everyone is in a hurry to do this, get there, do that. It’s Midtown now.”
The real Detroit
Throughout Dexter’s tenure at the Bronx, college students have steadily replaced old-school regulars at the watering hole just a few blocks from campus.
It started with theater students walking over from the nearby Hilberry Theatre in the early 1980s.
Eventually, the mortuary students discovered an afternoon happy hour that Dexter used to run — buy one beer, get one free.
“The teachers would call down here for me to send ’em back to class,” laughs Dexter.
Bronx customer Greg Bowens says he’s watched Dexter mentor college kids over the years from behind the bar.
“I’ve seen her guide students to graduation and encourage them when they’re having difficult times,” says Bowens, a public relations specialist who was press secretary to former Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer.
He counts himself among the regulars at the Bronx Bar today, but Bowens says that wasn’t the case when he lived next door back in 1990.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t come in here much because it was a scary kind of place,” says Bowens.
Today, he says the Bronx is a staple in the neighborhood that brings “a certain level of moxie that is unique to Detroit.”
“The Bronx and Charleen in particular provide a level of being rooted in Detroit that you can’t get in a lot of other places,” adds Bowens. “Look, I like some of the new places. They’re kinda cool. Little plates with little burgers. Small portions and tiny drinks and all the pretentiousness that goes along with it. It’s like people trying to fake Detroit, but Charleen brings the real Detroit because she’s not afraid to talk to people.”
That doesn’t mean Dexter has enlightened doses of wisdom ready to be scribbled down on a cocktail napkin.
She says the role of a bartender is to “bulls— people, keep ’em happy, keep ’em there as long as I can and don’t let ’em get too drunk.”
The reason why she was able to outlast everybody else in the Cass Corridor?
“ ‘Cause I don’t take no s—,” says Dexter.
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