“There’s an old payphone back here that doesn’t work,” said server Rob Bell to me one hazy afternoon, as I stopped by the restaurant where he worked. “One night this total crazy person was talking on it … one of our regulars dealt with it and went over there and hung up on the phone and the guy was like, ‘That’s really rude’ and (the regular) was like, ‘You gotta go man.’ ”
Welcome to the Fleetwood Diner.
Just hugging the edge of downtown Ann Arbor, Fleetwood squats at the corner of two intersecting streets, its brightly striped awning a beacon against the monochromatic pavement line. It promises food ‘round the clock, a pair of the dirtiest bathrooms to ever grace mankind and, most importantly, a dining experience like no other.
The first time I visited Fleetwood, it was as a wide-eyed freshman late one random Tuesday night. Eager to escape the confines of my residence hall, I grabbed the hand of my closest friend at the time — a girl whom I knew for all of three days — and marched us both resolutely toward the infamous diner. Situated so far away from Central Campus, it had almost seemed like a myth — the house that all the older kids in your neighborhood had sworn was haunted but nobody dared visit. When we passed underneath its flickering neon sign for the first time that night, I had half expected the inside of the diner to be filled with ghostly mist: hallowed ground nestled between railroad tracks and a tattoo parlor.
Instead, disturbingly normal fluorescent lights stabbed the corners of our eyes as we were hastily seated at a table in the corner. The menus haphazardly tossed in our general direction were lined with creases, various stains forming technicolor abstractions across the pages. Eager to play the role of beguiling tourist, we both ordered what Fleetwood is most acclaimed for: the Hippie Hash.
Our food arrived as a verifiable feast heaped on top of plates spiderwebbed with cracks. We worked through our meals in relative silence, engrossed in studying the multitude of stickers that embellished almost every available flat surface. Portraying everything from clean-cut business logos to elaborate illustrations, every decal was distinctive. In that moment, they seemed like fingerprints of a city that was still very much unknown to me. The kaleidoscope of shapes and colors was subtly compelling, enticing unfamiliar eyes to repeatedly wander the expanse of the diner. There was an unconventionality in even the simplest of objects: a green ribbon tied around a random mustard bottle; tables that were constantly pushed into new configurations to accommodate incoming customers. I ate. I observed.
Fleetwood spat us back onto the street around an hour later — uncomfortably full and still reeling. I was more than a little surprised and, walking back up the endless line of East Liberty, more than a little disappointed. Fleetwood hadn’t been the fantastical experience I had romanticized. There were no grandiose, Broadway-worthy performances of Weird Shit.
Instead, the abnormality of Fleetwood manifested itself in deceptively modest ways. Rather than the mass pandemonium I had been expecting, several bizarre fragments of eccentricity all occurred simultaneously, scattered within the cramped space. A man seated on top of a haggard barstool had endlessly stirred his coffee with a single pinky finger while our waitress harassed a set of poor-tipping customers. The long tendrils of her hair whipped around like snakes, almost colliding with the people who had sat at the table adjacent to ours. They had taken no notice, focused more on decorating their empty plates with ketchup bottles held aloft like paintbrushes. In the other corner of the restaurant, detached from it all, a man had fallen fast asleep, cheek pillowed on a stack of pancakes.
Fleetwood Diner’s brand of peculiarity manifests in the little things.
Minuscule details that include the building itself. Like any piece of architecture with a history, the diner seems to have a life of its own. The cacophony of scrawled graffiti signatures and tattered pieces of art on the walls spiral like the rings of a redwood, each tattered layer corresponding with a particular time period. Underneath the dust and discoloration, the checkered tile of the floor stretches into roots that are wrapped around the very heart of the city; a tree grows on South Ashley Street.
However, first and foremost, it is the people who trail in and out of the diner that truly make its space come to life.
Fleetwood is contingent on its customers in a way that is distinctive from surrounding restaurants. Their influence lies beyond solely monetary value; the very essence of Fleetwood, the qualities that make it unique, is only maintained as a result of the people who walk in through its doors. After all, it is an interactive diner — one that is able to be altered by any person who decides they want to leave their mark, whether that be through a sticker plastered on off-white walls or hurriedly engraved initials on a table corner.
It is this communal quality that makes Fleetwood so singular. Within its crooked walls, it holds various stories from various individuals. It is a restaurant anybody can stumble into and instantly feel welcome.
The Fleetwood Diner has remained stubbornly relevant since its creation in 1947. Not one for being overly fixated on remodeling, it seems to let its different parts grow independently, resulting in a restaurant that is a blend of retro and modern. Fleetwood can’t be pinned down to an exact time period. Eighties-esque black-and-white barstools stand next to decal based off contemporary pop culture. The primitive cash register is a tan-and-brown monstrosity always surrounded by a sea of sleek iPhones. A mess of contrasts, Fleetwood appears to exist in a slightly different world than the rest of Ann Arbor.
Even the restaurant workers seem like they have been molded from Fleetwood itself, traversing the cramped corners with a practiced ease.
Take Rob Bell. A waiter at the diner for almost 13 years, he balances numerous tasks with an easy smile. As he runs from the cash register to the kitchen to customers’ tables, he still somehow finds spare time to share accounts of his most memorable Fleetwood moments.
“A lady brought a birdcage in here in the middle of the night,” Bell said. “Like maybe 12:30, 1:00 a.m., and she had two birds in there and one of them was dead … she thought it was sleeping.”
Though not as surreal as deceased birds, Bell went on to describe the numerous small fights that occurred within Fleetwood’s history. The relative tranquility in his voice as he described tables being flipped and food being thrown made it seem like late-night diner brawls were normal incidents.
“A guy threw the cash register at me about 10 years ago,” Bell said.
When asked why, Bell responded, “He threatened to kick my ass so I said, ‘C’mon, player, I got the knife.’ ”
Apart from the overall amiability, there was also a distinct candidness as Bell talked about the occasional dead fowl and airborne cash register: he didn’t strive to make Fleetwood appear picture-perfect. There was no pretense of false honesty in order to gain customer approval.
“(Fleetwood) is a very real place … you can tell that the people who work here aren’t faking it,” Bell said. “And I think a lot of people can tell that and appreciate that it’s not fake … we say, ‘I appreciate you,’ and we appreciate you; we say, ‘Get the fuck out,’ and we mean ‘Get the fuck out.’ ”
I thought the plain-spoken forthrightness was refreshing. And if the popularity of Fleetwood is anything to go off, many other individuals do as well.
The biggest spectacle of Fleetwood lies in its genuineness. What you see is what you get. Open and honest, Fleetwood truly is a diner for the people: accessible to all, regardless of whether it was hobbled into at 3 a.m. for respite or purposefully sought out at 11 a.m. for a family brunch.
The Fleetwood Diner has a knack of quietly storing memories within its rickety walls. It’s not extravagant, nor is it embellished, but everyone manages to have their own set of outlandishly distinctive experiences. The diner manages to represent the surrounding community, all its traditions and idiosyncrasies, with a tireless integrity that persuades customers to keep coming back.
Well, that and the Hippie Hash.