Nov 4, 2013

Stretch's Curve: A bar with good beer, good food and toes that stay put but a whole foot that went astray

Stretch's Curve: Also sandwiches and salads
The hairy guy’s report:

Bars have been known to have all sorts of odd things. One of the strangest is surely the Sourtoe Cocktail at the Downtown Hotel bar in Dawson City, in Canada's Yukon Territory. It's usually made with whiskey (but anything will apparently do) and has an actual mummified human toe plopped into the glass.

Successfully partaking gives you membership in the Sourtoe Cocktail Club  and a nice certificate to show your friends. The goal isn't to swallow the toe, but just to make contact. The rule is: "You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow. But the lips have gotta touch the toe." There's nothing like a rule that rhymes, which might explain why thousands of people have joined the club.


Stretch's Curve, a bar on South Henry, doesn't have anything like that going on, we're sure. In fact, it has a surprisingly good menu (and we don't mean good just in comparison to an old toe), a good beer selection, good bartenders and two good pool tables.

But it does have one strange thing.

There's a clear imprint of a human shoe forming a rust spot in the men's room urinal. It's
The mystery footprint

sort of like those images of Jesus or the Virgin Mary that people say they find in pretzels and grilled cheese sandwiches. But this one looks like a foot burned into the enamel, as if the devil came in one night and got a bit too rowdy.

The urinal still works fine, but questions remain: How'd the footprint get there? Is the urinal haunted? Is the other shoe somewhere in the ladies' room?

Nobody seems to know anything about it. "Must be that nighttime crowd," said an afternoon regular.

Jeff, one of the bartenders, said he'd never noticed it and had no idea how it got there. "Anything's possible at Stretch's," he said.

Dawn, another bartender, said it's been there for at least the year and a half she's worked there and that customers call it a turkey gizzard and other things. "They've got names for it," she said.

Oh, well. It's just one of those mysteries of life. And maybe it's better that way.

The "curve" in the bar's name is less of a mystery. It comes from the slight bend in Henry Street out front, where Walnut and Fisher streets meet up. The "Stretch" part comes from the owner's nickname. Earlier, the place was named Cubby's, and before that it was the Brennan Bar.

Dawn called Stretch's a neighborhood place. And in keeping with the friendly neighborhood vibe, she makes a point of giving customers her name. "It's easier than having them say 'Hey!' when they want another drink," she said.

Sandwich board
What really makes Stretch's is the food: an assortment of great sandwiches and salads, mostly with cute names. The Just-a-Great BLT actually was great, with lots of bacon (oven-baked, the menu says, and it wasn't all greasy) and grilled egg bread. The Original Healthnut Salad (with Havarti cheese and dried cranberries, among other stuff) isn't one of those things you expect to find in a neighborhood place. The kitchen is open till 10 p.m.

The standard light beer triumvirate -- Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light -- is on tap. (Busch Light is available in cans.) Many canned beers are $2.50; others are $3 or $3.50. Drafts are 75 cents during happy hour (3-6 p.m.) A sign advertises a Jager bomb for $4.50. The back bar has a bottle of Hot Damn prominently displayed, but there's no sweet vermouth, so Harry had no luck trying to get a Manhattan.

Decor is the usual bar fare: assorted beer posters, photos of customers and sponsored teams. There are dartboards, as well as the pool tables -- which cost only 50 cents a game.

The bar is open 11 a.m. to 2:30 a.m., though Jeff said food is available earlier.

By the way, if you swallow the toe at that bar in the Yukon, there's a hefty fine. A few toes have been lost that way over the years, and spares are hard to find. After an unnamed guy -- apparently an American, wouldn't you know -- did it on purpose in August and paid $500, the fine was raised to $2,500. And these days, with the Canadian dollar at par with U.S. currency, that's, well, $2,500 -- which would be much better spent on piles of sandwiches and beers at Stretch's.

The bald guy's report: A window to the world

(or across the Saginaw River, at least),  
a well-traveled bartender and well-prepared food

Finally, mercifully, my hanging begonias are begone-ia.  Sounds like a metaphor, doesn’t it?  But it’s not.  Frost.  Thus I no longer need to water them.  It was a stretch lifting that heavy, slow-pouring watering can as high and for as long as it took.  About two-gallon a day.  As delicate as they are to touch, against cold they hung in there a vibrant and lush scarlet against a landscape of drooping and fallen leaves until almost November.

Speaking of Stretch’s -- another in a series of neighborhood bars.  Not “Ho-hum, another
The curve in front of Stretch's
neighborhood bar” but “Oh boy, another neighborhood bar” and I’ll cover that later.  Plus this place has an added fillip that might make it another of Bay City’s hidden dining gems.

The interior is nice, windows on the north and south sides providing natural daylight, knotty pine on the walls and ceiling, beer and whiskey signs ringing the interior, donations to a charity -- most likely breast cancer -- tallied on football-shaped pieces of paper and taped to the bar mirror either in green (MSU) or blue (U-M).

Two rooms, the  barroom/kitchen, which runs east/west and the pool room (two tables), which also runs east/west.  Along with the pool tables, some smaller tables and chairs to sit at with friends.  Also, on the east end of the pool room, a sliding patio door opening to a wooden deck, adding to the daylight. But wait, there’s more.  

From this vantage point -- Stretch’s window to the world -- looking east toward the river, you see the distinctive City Hall clock tower. And slightly to the south is the new Uptown development, a sight which later made me pensive.

“Where we goin’ this week,” Doc asked

“Time for West Side.  Stretch’s Curve?”

“I’ll bring the bat.”


It’s listed as “Stretch’s Curve” ... but the City straightened Henry at that corner years ago so the stretch is calling it a curve.  “Stretch’s Swerve,” maybe.

It sits on the river’s flood plain bluff and, to my chagrin, its once-sweeping view of the riverfront and City Hall beyond is blocked by trees and a big blue pole barn housing a power plant. A tiny voice said in my ear, “Wake up, Sonny, you’re not in Disney World anymore.”

Dawn at the bar
The first bartender we talked to was Dawn -- gray sweatshirt, average height, shoulder-length hair, blond -- who cast us a wary eye.  But after convincing her we were who we said we were -- bloggers on a mission -- she warmed.

Turns out she was between teaching jobs, another victim of “right-sizing” during the “Great” Recession.  [Aside:  “Right-sizing” and “Great” -- some PR flack’s attempt to make us think our national malaise is something special.  Lipstick on a pig.]  She has a master’s in history but unfortunately didn’t know any of the bar’s, in which there is something Greek-comedy ironic.

But then, she’s young, attractive, educated, world-traveled, knows ancient Greek history and just returned from Machu Picchu, while I am old, wizened, watched the World Series, like Greek yogurt and just returned from Meijer’s with nachos and peaches.  So where’s the irony now?  Different worlds, I chuckle, smaller playing field.  And yet, at this moment, we’re both here.

The other bartender, Jeff -- built like a linebacker, shaved head, thin little earring -- also doubled as cook that day.  His history is bars -- either tending, bouncing or partaking.  But as strapping a lad as he is, I watched him put our food together with the care and delicate hand of an artist.

I don’t know what Doc expected but where he’d been wrong before he was wrong again.  Sometimes I think he’s paranoid.  Stretch’s was another nice neighborhood bar.  I could tell as soon as I saw the knotty pine walls and ceiling and signs and posters on the wall.  Familiar.  Unpretentious.  The kind of place where an honest Joe might get some straight answers.

I noticed here, as in most of our visits, if other patrons are present we’re checked out and promptly tuned out.  Nothing strange in that; I probably do, too.  But even after making no secret who we are and why we’re here, if we didn’t initiate it we’d never get the regulars to engage and we love talking with them. 
The afternoon gang
They usually know some of the bar’s history, at least theirs in relation to it, and some bar tales in general.  

Yet I understand it; a guy’s enjoying a quiet drink by himself or with buddies and we breeze in, three unknown geezers all loud, happy and friendly who start throwing business cards on the bar and asking a lot of questions.  I now know how cops feel, fiction cops anyway, like in TV and movies when plainclothes police enter a bar or restaurant or carnie camp or crack house and immediately everyone makes them.   Except, of course, we’re none of those but for the happy-friendly part.

And while regulars may see us like we’re from Amway, in none of the bars we’ve visited so far have I felt threatened, unwelcome or uncomfortable.   That’s why I say “Oh boy, another neighborhood bar.”  I know it’s a place where we might be ignored but never hassled.  It’s like a barnyard with a pecking order.  Until we prove ourselves, we’re just the new chickens in the coop.  One visit and a few business cards aren’t likely to change that.  OTOH, now and then we’ve run into folks (other than bartenders, of course) who were downright friendly. Bill’s and Northern come to mind.  But I still sometimes feel we must look like cops.

The doll behind the bar was cordial but wary.  She was between jobs right now -- a school teacher, History, who got caught in the downturn but it couldn’t have worked out any better for me.  History is about time, right? If anyone would, she would know the recent history of the bar, like the patrons who spend time here -- well, one in particular.

I could tell she wasn’t the kinda dame for idle chit-chat, so after giving her my order I cut right to the chase.  “A guy named Artie Banaszak ever stop in?”

She shot me the stink-eye.  “You guys cops?”

As if.  I assured her we weren’t.

“What’s he look like? Another geezer? No offense.”

None taken.  If you saw Artie you’d remember him. He has a cherry-sized bump in the middle of his forehead and, vanity not one of his traits, never had anything done to or with it. 

“Has a bump” -- indicating on my forehead -- “right here.”

“I'd remember that.  Can’t say’s I've ever seen it.   Why you lookin’?"

And three stools down, one of the regulars ignoring us came alive. “That sonofabitch!”

Turns out I was on the right trail -- Artie owes him money too.

The last time I was in Stretch’s, it was advertised as “Stretch’s On The Curve” with “Jack’s
The scene in front
Deli” -- the peripatetic Jack of Wanigan, Washington Lanes, Gypsies fame et al.  The bad news is -- surprise, surprise -- Jack is gone.  The good news is that his recipes stayed, making Stretch’s possibly Bay City’s next hidden dining gem.  Stretch’s is re-inventing itself, quietly, simply, going with the times.

I had Jack’s signature Healthnut Salad and a bowl of vegetable beef soup and watched it prepared as well as Harry’s grilled cheese.  It was as good as Jack ever made and, other than the soup, which was prepared ahead of time, everything was fresh, but even the soup veggies were firm and tasty, not mushy and bland like most prepared soups.  All of Stretch’s breads come from local sources, Sutherland’s and Old World Bakery, so you know they’re made recent and not shot full of preservatives.   And I watched Jeff carefully cutting righteous slabs of challah bread for Harry’s sandwich and chopping the salad lettuce, not out of a bag but off a head.  You want fresh deli or a break from standard pub grub, try Stretch’s.

I commiserated with the regular who gave Artie $500 for two flat screens that “fell off a truck, if you know what I mean.” He never saw him again. “They were supposed to be Christmas presents” [Note to self:  I don’t think hot TV’s are quite in the spirit.]  Meanwhile, Harry wandered off to check the facilities and Doc went to check the pool tables.  You might remember he had one in his basement growing up.  Pretty soon, Harry came back all atwitter about an “alien footprint in the urinal trough.”  This I had to see.  Of all the places on God’s green earth, why would an alien choose Stretch’s and why stand in the urinal?  Could male human urine be the extraterrestrial equivalent of 5-Hour Energy?  If you believed in aliens, that is.

It looked like a footprint alright, of about a 6-year old human.  I tried squinting and looking at it from different angles to see if it could possibly be something else, but no matter what I did it still only looked like piss-worn porcelain.  Nonetheless, I told him to tell people it was the Virgin (talk about “stretches”) my thought being without some religious tie-in, no Leno, no “Inside Edition,” no 15 minutes of fame for him and Stretch.  Nobody’s going to come see just an alien footprint in, of all places, a urinal.  Well, Trekkies …

After that, we shot pool. Doc, a.k.a. Basement Fats, once again had a rough go.  My guess is
The pool tables
he’s actually better than both of us -- definitely better than me -- because he’s probably played a lot more than either of us but there’s nothing to prove, no money at stake, no need for his A-game.  And in truth, we’ve only played in three bars, maybe nine games, hardly a representative sample.  I’m sure even Fats of the Minnesota genotype scratched once in awhile.  [Side note:  I’m not sure I used “genotype” correctly but it’s been a hot phrase in the news lately so I thought I’d give ‘er a spin, make me sound hip, smart; I originally just had “variety.”]

Every now and again, Dawn popped in to see if we needed anything.  She wasn’t obtrusive, merely solicitous, efficient. But as I watched her move about, my blog thought was “she moves with an effortless grace.”  Not like WATCHING watching, creepy watching, it’s just the sense I had as she glided about the periphery taking care of business.

I was eliminated from our pool tournament early, but that was okay.   I found myself drawn to the sliding door.  Eventually I stepped outside and sat down at a little table on the deck.

We shot pool but my heart wasn’t in it.  Once again the trail was cold.  Artie had been here, left his spoor, and hadn’t been seen since--I never said he was stupid--but it was one of those heartbreakingly beautiful late-summer/early fall days and I wanted to be outside to enjoy it. There wouldn’t be many left.  So I went out and sat on Stretch’s little patio deck. 

The colors were just starting to turn; some leaves already on the ground.  Breeze from passing cars would stir them up, sending them skittering clab-scrabble down the roadway. The sunlight was coming from lower on the horizon with that soft, warm, golden glow of autumn.  It’s days like this that help sustain me through the pummel of another bitter winter with its savage beauty only us hardy, some say “foolhardy”, are privileged to experience.

I once gave a college professor a ration of crap about staying in the Saginaw Valley.  She was from around D.C., her dad some important international big-wig, I think spy, and like the doll in there serving her customers, had been all over the world. Yet she chose to settle here. I thought she was nuts.  Told her there was nothing here for her or anybody.  She was the most civilized person I ever knew, a college professor, yet I chose to assume I knew more than she. Well, she was right and I was wrong.  I’d been around, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t yet aware of the importance of things like environment, people, love and trust, which goes to serve as another constant humbling reminder of what a nipplehead I can be.  Nor aware yet the depth of my roots.

Eventually Doc and Harry joined me but we didn’t talk much, didn’t need to, just drank in the glory of the moment.   Three friend-geezers exercising their God-given rights as retirees to spend time in the middle of the day in the middle of the week in the middle of the city in the middle of a bar drinking beer.  Because we can, we’ve earned the right.

Along the skyline to the east (and because that necessary-but-damnable blue building forces your gaze that way) my eyes settled on the City Hall and its clock tower.  City Hall’s
The view of City Hall across the river
latest renovation is almost done (and you can’t really fault the current government for the clusterfuck it turned out to be) and I’m eager to go tour it.  I’m glad they decided to rebuild rather than replace it with some glass-and-chrome structure, though there’s a place for that also, e.g. the new YMCA.

But the building itself, massive blocks of stone once again stained dark by relentless Nature, it stands a  bulwark against Time and a testament to values of our forebears:  Steadfastness, resolution, adaptability, creativity and courage to face the challenges Life brings, handed up to us and channeled through a 110-year-old building of which there’s no one left who remembers when it wasn’t there, thus making it timeless.   Four generations of my people have grown and lived here, four generations tinged with the spirit and history borne therein.

And to its right, slightly south and in the foreground, is the Uptown development.  If you think times be hard,  Bay City has seen them before.  Lumbering, shipbuilding, heavy
Looking out to the porch
manufacturing -- each time those endeavors played out, Bay City and Bay Cityans have found a way to go on.  I look at the City Hall and see Past and Present, a symbol of continuity, with the implicit charge to take care of the building, the city and its citizens, all whose roots go down deep, deep down to the very fundament.  I also see a promise kept.  Like Stretch’s nee Cubby’s nee Brennan’s, we keep adapting and surviving.  Uptown and maybe even Stretch’s, represents the Future, a promise for keeping.

Because there’s a big blue building blotting out most of the landscape, the eye is drawn to the clock tower adistance.  Time and Timelessness.  Until you’re close enough to see the clock hands, at night, from a distance, you can mistake the big, round, backlit clock for a moon -- from a distance a plausible mistake. (Plus it was in the early ’70s, a long time ago.)

And coursing through the middle of it all, like a main artery, the Saginaw River.  Water and Time, our two most precious assets.  You can live without oil, maybe even natural gas and coal, but not without water.  And when you’re out of time?  Why does someone spend time in a bar?  What does it have they can’t get elsewhere?  Somewhere in there lies the answer to my quest.

And speaking of out of time, finally, mercifully my hanging begonias are begone-ia.  Sounds like a metaphor, doesn’t it.  It’s not. Frost.  As delicate as they are to touch, against cold they hung in there a vibrant and lush scarlet against a landscape of drooping and fallen leaves.  Until almost November.  Beautiful.  Tough. Resilient.  Like us.  Another summer passes.  Am I any closer to the soul of the city?  How much more time do I need?  Or have?

  The particulars:
  Stretch's Curve Bar
  618 S. Henry

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Once again and excellent review. It's been quite a few years since I've been in Stretch's bar. Thanks for the memories. The Bay City Flash.