Nov. 4 2009 12:00 AM

Late nights with Lansing's insomniacs


There’s a magic time of day some of us seldom, if ever, see. For most of us, it’s too late to stay up and too early to rise. But somewhere in the city at this time, people are doing important work, hashing out the world’s problems, prepping for a test or sobering up.

We asked our journalism interns from Michigan State University to spend part of the graveyard shift at late-night hangouts to give us a glimpse into what we’re missing. Here’s what they found.

Theio’s: Feels like Christmas

Late at night, Theio’s “feels like Christmas.” Regular Sarah Sturgeon said so on a recent Thursday night visit, and taking a step back to watch the bar crowd congregate well into the lazy hours of the early morning, it makes sense.

Like Sturgeon said, it’s like being with your family. There are the drunk and boisterous aunts and uncles and assorted cousins — from those who always know the coolest new bands to the ones sitting in the corner playing Magic cards; there are the quiet types and the gossipers, and, playing the role of grandparents, there’s the waitresses holding it all together.

Sturgeon, 27, said she’s been “doing this” for 13 years. “This” means joining in the kind of atmosphere you can only find in the middle of the night at a 24-hour diner. Theio’s is one of those places that have become a regular part of her routine. “If you’re having a bad day, coffee can fix anything,” she said, gripping a mug in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other.

Sturgeon’s boyfriend, Jayme Lawton, 33, said he’s been coming to Theio’s for almost two decades. The two met about 10 years ago, but they just started dating recently. On this night, Lawton came over from a show at Mac’s Bar, a popular venue for local and touring bands on the lot just east of Theio’s, 2650 E. Michigan Ave., Lansing.

The proximity to Mac’s keeps a steady clientele of closing-time patrons stumbling across the parking lot to rest their ears and soak up the booze with some food (which Lawton joked is best eaten drunk). But Mac’s isn’t the only tributary feeding bar-goers in search of a cheap meal and rowdy companionship into Theio’s after last call. “If you go to any bar within a several-mile radius, chances are, several people from each bar will be coming here,” Lawton said.

Most nights, there’s also a quiet crowd, too, who either put up with the drunk pack or come after the bar rush. On this visit, mother Kristin Ryan and children Haley Dunckel and Brandon Ballmer brought some reality to the idea of the Theio’s “family.” Ryan and Dunckel came to Theio’s for a late-night meal after watching a movie and unexpectedly found Ballmer, who had come to do some writing. Ryan used to work at the diner, and she and her kids love the homey feel. “They don’t care if you sit all night long and just drink coffee,” Ryan said.

She joked that on some visits, she’s “sat here so long they should charge me rent.”

Cecilee Hill, a waitress at Theio’s, said she likes the characters who pass through on the night shift, from drag queens to people who yell and make a scene (“not even drunk,” she noted). She laughed while recalling a story about an older man who came in dressed in a police uniform completely covered in clear tape.

It’s well into the night, after the bar rush, when the waitresses finally have a chance to register that it’s 3:30 a.m., and they’re tired. Hill rested her head in her arms and leaned against a booth for a moment, looking wearily at the last few holdouts from the bar crowd. She was busily serving and cleaning tables all night, bringing out plate after plate and clearing messy tables, including one that a group dumped salt all over.

The breaks don’t last for long, and Hill had more than three hours left in the night shift. As a crowd of people brought their bills to the register, Hill shrugged off the exhaustion and met them with the cheery smile she started with when the night was young.

Most customers at Theio’s this late have been there for hours, slowly picking away at a slice of chocolate cake or contemplating a term paper or a story, as they click away on the keys of their laptops. Many of the bar-goers have fled, but although dawn is approaching, Theio’s is still buzzing — a 24-hour nest for Lansing’s night owls.

—Gabi Moore

24-Hour Biggby: Strange brew

A Halloween weekend night brought a strange brew of customers out to Biggby Coffee in East Lansing last Friday.

Known by students and locals as “the 24-hour,” this Biggby location at 270 W. Grand River Ave. has a fairly consistent stream of customers who come in after the rest of the city turns out the lights. But there is no formula to determine who might show up on any given night.

“We get a lot of students in here who are cramming for tests or projects,” said Christine Patterson, a Biggby employee since September. “They usually come in on Sunday nights, but we definitely have a few here tonight.”

Jessie Waters, a sophomore at Michigan State University, said she comes to Biggby at least once a week to study. Undistracted by the folly of Halloween partiers, Waters spent her Thursday night studying for an accounting test and writing a biology paper.

“It’s so close to campus and it never closes,” Waters said. “They won’t kick me out, no matter how late I stay, unlike other places I used to study at. It’s not a library by any means, but I guess I kind of like that.”

Shop manager Anthony Sanchez said the majority of late night customers are of the partying variety, stopping by for a quick cup of Joe on their way back home. “The bars all close at 2 a.m., so we see tend to see a jump in sales around then, but only about 5 to 6 percent of our sales come from these shifts,” Sanchez said.

Eric Guthaus has seen just about everything there is to see as a café barista. He has been working at Biggby for more than a year at a few different locations and shifts. Guthaus now primarily works the late-night shift at “the 24-hour” by choice.

“I like working here, because I get to meet a lot more interesting people who will sometimes just want to come in and talk with you,” Guthaus said. “The work just seems more fun at night than in the day. It’s not just students coming in to study, either. We get a few regulars who come just about every night.”

Friends Niko Goutselis and David Kakar are a couple of those regulars. Goutselis claimed he has come to this Biggby nearly every night since the location opened about 15 years ago. “There’s really no other place to come out to this late at night,” Goutselis said.

As he traded dating and
pickup tips with Goutselis, Kakar said Biggby is the place to go when
you are looking for new friends. “It’s a great place to meet new
people. Everyone is friendly here,” Kakar said.

obvious highlight of a late-night shift during the Halloween weekend
were the costumed party-goers, regardless of whether or not they were
in the shop to buy a drink.

MSU students, who preferred to go by their costume names — “Plumber,”
“Cowboy,” “Mario,” “Luigi” and “Tickle Me Elmo” — stopped by just to
give the customers a good laugh. “Elmo” provocatively danced, with
plenty of hip thrusts and booty shakes to go around, to the amusement,
or possibly repulsion, of the couple sitting opposite of the window.
When complimented by his growing audience, “Elmo” responded with a wave
and a, “I do what I can.”

—Eric Freeman

Fleetwood Diner: There when you need it

never know when it will hit. Inevitably though, it will. It always
does. It’s the late-night craving. It can happen at any moment, maybe
in the middle of an all-night cram session for a test for which you’ll
never be ready, or perhaps at the end of a grueling shift at work.

those who feel the pang of hunger long after most restaurants have
closed shop, Lansing’s Fleetwood Diner serves as a beacon of hope.

five and a half years ago, the Fleetwood Diner, 2211 S. Cedar St.,
Lansing, stays true to its namesake as a genuine diner, with chrome
detailing and smooth lines reminiscent of the Airstream trailers from
the 1950s and ‘60s. Add to that bar seating, booths and retro styling,
and you have all the ingredients for an original late-night experience.

and foremost, a late-night diner wouldn’t be worth its weight in grease
if the food weren’t tasty, filling and fast. And Fleetwood doesn’t
disappoint, with a large menu covering everything from huge breakfast
platters to burgers and hotdogs to home-style dinners. Like any good
diner, the Fleetwood also features a signature dish — Hippie Hash.

really popular,” said Mike Wong, Fleetwood’s owner and operator. “It’s
homemade hash browns topped with grilled onions, green peppers,
broccoli, mushrooms, tomatoes and feta cheese.”

course, no matter how good the food is, nobody wants to hang out
somewhere they feel uncomfortable or unwelcome. This doesn’t seem to be
an issue at the Fleetwood either.

Morgan, who has worked the latenight shift at the Fleetwood for two
years, said the restaurant maintains a community atmosphere, despite
the wide array of people who come in. “We get everyone from coffee kids
to the homeless to rockers,” Morgan said. “All sorts of people.”

Regulars Mike Inhulsen and Rita Pizana, who visit the Fleetwood almost daily, agreed

Morgan during a recent late-night visit, saying the environment at
night is laid back and enjoyable. “It’s like you’ve [all] been friends
forever,” Pizana said.

Inhulsen said the diner is “a fun kickback to the way restaurants used to be run.”

“Even when I get out of work waitressing, this is where I come to unwind,” Pizana added.

must also share those sentiments, because by 1 a.m. on a recent
Thursday, the eatery was transformed into a functioning cross-section
of Lansing.

filtered in and out, still wearing their boots and caps from work. Old
friends played cards in the corner, while regulars sipped coffee in
front of their laptops. The requisite post-party groups of
socially-lubricated friends dotted the diner, trying to sneak “It’s
Always Sunny in Philadelphia” quotes into this reporter’s story, while
looking for something to eat after an evening on the town.

wore tight jeans and thick-rimmed glasses and sported dyed hair, while
others were outfitted in baggy pants, hooded sweatshirts and baseball
caps. More outgoing diners tossed jokes into conversations a table away
or offered a light to someone in need. Others tried sneaking into the
background of pictures with funny faces.

whatever superficial differences were on display, everyone seemed to
enjoy themselves and each other’s company, whether they were relaxing
after a long day or capping off a long night.

the bustle of the breakfast rush or the lunchtime push packs the place
daily, Morgan said once the sun falls, the diner seems to breathe more
easily. “I think it’s a lot more laid back at night, because it’s more
open,” Morgan said.

recounted a recent night when one of the regulars was playing music at
their table on a laptop while sipping coffee. Instead of complaining
about the music, other customers started an impromptu line dance
between tables.

That kind of atmosphere is something the Fleetwood embraces.

“It’s almost like a little after-party,” Morgan said.

the evening, staff intermingled with customers, more than happy to sit
down for a second and tell a story or share a laugh.

“If you need something, you can see us at any time,” Morgan said.

(The Fleetwood is closed from 1 a.m. to 5 a.m. Saturday and Sunday morning.)

—Chris Parks

Denny’s: Grand slam

1:52 a.m. last Thursday, the smoking section was quiet, the non-smoking
uninhibited. Six tables were occupied, five computer screens glowed and
the free Cajun fries tasted fabulous. Distant conversation between a
lone customer and a server trailed to the topic of a woman who can
sling a man over her shoulders in one heave.

Welcome to East Lansing’s Denny’s on a "Free Fry Thursday."

When asked if they cared for the fries, diners at a nearby three-top table seemed more
amused than excited, but accepted anyway. The special began last week,
at the East Lansing Denny’s at 2701 E. Grand River Ave., 10 p.m.
Thursday to 5 a.m. Friday.

the restaurant was mostly empty, a twinge of electricity hung in the
air. A few people were studying and a few were chatting.

server wore a shirt that read, "Get your crave on" across her shoulder
blades. "This is Princess," a voice said from a booth at my right,
indicating our 20-year-old server. Kerry Pullum, of Haslett, is a
Denny’s regular, and he knows all of the staff.

smiled when I asked about her name. “It just kind of stuck; I did it as
a joke," said Princess, pointing to her real name, Nicole Mills, on the
tag under the "Princess" label. "When you’re serving, it’s obviously a
job, but it’s like acting in a certain way; it’s like I have two
different lives going on."

Her co-server Michael Parker usually goes by Batman, but he wasn’t working on this night.

Mills left, a discussion on the merits of late-night Denny’s versus
day-time Denny’s revs up. "[In the daytime] it’s boring and you can’t
smoke," said Todd Kenney, of Bath Township. Smoking is allowed from 5
p.m. to 5 a.m.

agreed. The 33-year-old (who admits 33 is a lie) described himself as a
"night owl.” He seeks Denny’s after finishing his afternoon shift from
2 p.m. to 10 p.m. "It’s almost three o’clock; it’s still early,” he
said. “Usually I’m not in bed until 8.”

joins the Denny’s crew three nights a week, spending five to six hours
each visit. He prefers late-night weekdays to weekends, partially to
avoid the drunk scene, but mostly because he likes to stay up. He even
runs his errands, like perusing through Meijer, around the same time of
night. During this visit he wore a red and blue Superman ball-cap and a
forest green sweatshirt with a tiny Krispy Kreme logo over his chest.
He sipped on a Dr. Pepper.

Denny’s is definitely a
haven for insomniacs. Whether having just been released from a night
job at Bell’s Greek Pizza or crawling over from Paul Revere’s, studying
or hanging out with friends who share the same love for the dark,
everyone has an interesting story.

probably won’t be working late nights when I start popping," said
Mills, who is pregnant and just finished her first trimester. "We have
a lot of pregnant girls, I swear.”

A girl from the threetop piped, in saying she came to Denny’s at least once a week when she was pregnant.

hears these kinds of intimate details of her customers’ lives all the
time. "They want me to hear their problems, that’s what I’m here for,"
she said.

started at the restaurant in April and is one of two girls who work the
night shift. Before she started there, Mills’ mother worked at the same
Denny’s, and she grew up eating at the restaurant.

little later in the night, Sheryl Crow’s “The First Cut is the
Deepest” began playing lazily in the background, as I tuned into
another conversation. "He’s a nice guy, he showed me his taser," said
Kenny to Pullum, as he relayed a story about an East Lansing policemen.
He is remembering a high-speed chase out loud. "I don’t know how he fit
that SUV down that alley, he was going at least 30 or 40."

flopped from high-speed chases to cranberry juice to the repercussions
of penciling in shaved eyebrows to epidurals over the span of the next
20 minutes.

is known for its enormous breakfasts, like the Lumberjack Slam, made up
of two pancakes, ham, bacon and sausage, two eggs and toast, and either
grits or hash browns. But not many could muster through all of the
carbs after the free fries, and it was clear more people were in the
restaurant for company than eggs.

just come here because I like the atmosphere; people are nice, I know
all the servers and I like the food." Pullum said, still sipping his
soda and turning back to the computer. "And I love the Dr. Pepper."

—Megan Peters