If people-watching is your secret pleasure, forget the Diag and head over to the legendary Fleetwood Diner on Ashley Street. Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, this little greasy spoon is a true microcosm of Ann Arbor life. On a typical evening, you might find a white-collared businessman returning from the office, a nurse grabbing a quick bite before her night shift, a disgruntled student in Gothic garb writing angsty poetry and even the occasional bum devouring a good, cheap meal. If you go on a Wednesday night you’ll also run into waitress Emilye Bangham, a 26-year-old free spirit.
“I like the flexibility of the code of conduct here,” Bangham says, “The customer doesn’t always have to be right.”
According to Bangham, waitresses are entitled to mirror their customer’s attitudes. “Certain people are encouraged to stay a long time,” she explains, “but someone who comes in and acts like a jerk has fewer privileges.”
As Bangham – the only waitress during her shift – easily handles six orders while joking with the diner’s regulars at the counter, the job seems second nature to her. In reality, she’s only worked there for about a year and a half. “But, I’ve been eating here for over 10,” she says.
Bangham’s career at the Fleetwood began when she returned to her native Ann Arbor after her travels in Asia. “My boyfriend was going to India, so I followed him and we lived in New Delhi for six months,” she recalls. Soon after coming back to the States, she felt the desire to journey again, but this time, to Bangkok.
“I had an interest in Thai massage, so we found a school,” explains Bangham. Unable to speak Thai, she learned by watching and imitating her instructors. Eventually, she mastered the art and began teaching it herself in Thai schools and juvenile centers. “It was wonderful to be able to give something back,” she comments.
Bangham describes the differences between Bangkok and New Delhi as dramatic. “Thailand is very idyllic, with white sand, bamboo huts and thick forests, so you have to pay extra for adventure,” she laughs. “But in India, just getting food is an adventure. It’s a place that represents everything gorgeous and horrible jumbled together.”
Although she found life in New Delhi more challenging, she was fascinated by the people’s mentality. “There could be a cow in the middle of a six-lane highway and people won’t get upset; They would just drive around it. They don’t think of things as they should be, but as they are.”
Now working at the Fleetwood, she too attempts to be at peace with things as they are. “You have to breathe. There is a precious, full spectrum of people who come here, so you shouldn’t think that everyone will behave a certain way.”
Although Bangham enjoys her work, she’s beginning to feel the itch to move on. “As a waitress at the diner, I frame my interactions with a certain amount of game-playing and conflict. You can’t be totally honest all the time.”
Understandably, for someone as outspoken and self-assured as Bangham, this lack of sincerity would be stifling. But, there’s a deeper reason for her desire to alter her path.
“I want to start an artists’ collective called I.N.D.I.Y., which stands for Independent Network Do-It-Yourself,” she explains. “I’d like to have a store in Kerrytown or near the Fleetwood where local artists could sell their work on consignment.”
Currently, Bangham is working on an I.N.D.I.Y. website. After presenting it online for a year, she hopes to have enough support to put her idea into practice.
While she recognizes the amount of effort this project will involve, she’s committed to the cause: “I want to re-instill people’s faith in this place as an artistic community.”
Bangham also sees I.N.D.I.Y. as a possible venue for her own artwork. A self-taught graphic designer, Bangham uses a scanner and Photoshop to “make flat maps of people’s faces,” the goal of which is to “create a single image portraying a period of time.”
With the help of friend and art-show organizer Connie McKinney, Bangham had her work displayed at Leopold Brothers a Main Street brewery.
Although she has others plans for the future, for the moment, Bangham is proud to be an employee at the Fleetwood. Her favorite dish is the “Hippie Hash” – a concoction of fried potatoes, feta cheese, tomatoes, onions and broccoli – which she calls a “marvel of diet creation.”
“The story behind the ‘Hippie Hash’ is that one day a bum came in and described what he wanted,” she recalls. “Then, Karen, another waitress here, named it.”
Besides the food, Bangham loves the fact that there are “80-year-old U of M grads who remember eating at the Dagwood,” the Fleetwood’s former name – from 1949 until it switched owners in 1971. For this reason, she’s opposed to development of the block, which is now for sale. According to Bangham, the Fleetwood would never close, but it could be housed in a new building and lose its “historic value.”
“I think there would be a real uprising,” she comments. “You can make Ann Arbor a carbon copy of other cities, but that’s not what it truly is. At the Fleetwood, you’re not trying to turn Ann Arbor into something cosmetic.”
To emphasize her point, she describes one wall of the Fleetwood, on which, over the years, diners have left a collage of stickers with such sayings as “You have no mind of your own” and “Killer Coke can’t hide its crimes.” “Sure, I can spruce up that wall every so often, but it’s a canvas that will always be there.” Returning to her lesson in India, she adds, “The Fleetwood is a place that represents the soul of this town – its true face, regardless of what it should be.”