June 10 2009 12:00 AM

An evening spent with the strange characters that hang out in front of downtown Lansing’s only party store.


It’s Friday night and activity is slow at the Downtown Party Store at the edge of Lansing’s loft and trendy bar-filled downtown. A homeless man shuffles behind a red shopping cart from across the street toward the store. His face is weathered, his beard is gray and he’s wearing a heavy coat, a hooded sweatshirt and a black hat with a fading MasterCard logo. A wad of toilet paper stuffed in his back left pocket is dangling in the wind.

He nudges his old newspaper and clothing-filled cart along as a couple of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans rattle — kind of like a bell announcing his presence — against its side. The man smells like vinegar and is talking to himself. He approaches a customer coming out of the store and mutters in a soft voice, “Spare some change?”

The patron obliges, pressing a few coins into his hand. Successful, the man moves on to the next person.

“Spare some change?”

Such scenes are common at the Downtown Pa r t y Store, 4 2 8 S o u t h Washington Sq. On any given night the store is a gathering spot for a wide range of people: the homeless sparechange monger, the state government employee, the alcoholic, the gambler and the occasional irate man or woman who goes about screaming at someone or something.

A Lansing Police Department security camera mounted on top of the swanky Arbaugh Building, which offers pricey loft condominiums and office space, across the street keeps an eye on those that come and go. The camera was one of several installed around the city last year to watch over crime-ridden areas.

As homeless people hover around the store looking to score change, others cast it aside. A man wearing a brown hoodie and dark pants walks toward the store. He spots a coin on the ground and picks it up.

“Is this motherfuckin’ heads?” he asks aloud.

Seeing that it’s not, he tosses it away and continues into the store eventually leaving with a paper bag.

On a corner near the store, an older man is interested in trying to sell a passerby some marijuana.

“I got that good bud,” he says.

The front door is constantly squeaking open and closed as people come and go. There’s a couple sporting bandanas. There’s a man wearing a shirt and tie. There’s a man in T-shirt and jeans who’s missing most of his upper row of teeth. Most of them leave the store, clutching black plastic bags, presumably full of alcohol.

With so much daily store traffic, the store is never without a cast of colorful characters.

Take Lance for instance, a Vietnam War veteran who’s been banned from the store. Wearing a purple T-shirt and jeans as he sits on his bike, he talks about how it’s unfair how people from the Middle East can come to America and be given opportunity to succeed.

“We invented the light bulb. We invented the traffic light. We can’t even get reparations,” he says. “I can’t even get a job. How is that a good system? They come here, get $25,000 and do what? Send it back to Iran or Iraq or wherever.”

Lance’s outrage seems directed at the workers behind the counter at the store who are of Middle Eastern descent.

The store is located at the end of the Washington Square mall next to a barbershop and the restaurant Palace of Jamaica and is across the street from the city’s Economic Development Corp. offices and one block west of the Capitol Area Transportation Authority bus station. It’s an area some refer to affectionately as "little Detroit."

There is never a shortage of people, but while such activity can be good for business, it can also lead to problems. Even with the watchful eye of security cameras, store employee Larry Johnson stands guard outside the store to make sure things are kept orderly.

“Everybody goes about their business. I let them go in the store and buy something. If they don’t, they can leave,” Johnson said.

Even with the odd goings-on at the Downtown Party Store, some patrons say that the store is generally safe and inviting.

“They’re good people,” Lansing resident Terrie Williams says of the store’s employees.

Williams says the employees are generally friendly and willing to help people out.

“Sometimes if I’m 50 cents short or a dollar (short), they’ll let me slide. And I’ll just pay the next time,” he said.

Meanwhile, the homeless man continues his quest for change. He tries a few more people in front of the store with no luck. Store employees tell him to leave. Undeterred, he moves a few feet away and with what little money he has he begins asking people to go in and buy him a beer.

Another employee comes out having had enough and admonishes the man to leave.

“Don’t ask money from nobody. We don’t allow that. If I see you again I’ll call the cops,” he says.

Coming up empty handed, the man heads down the street toward the bus station, picking up his own conversation once again.