Friday, January 6, 2012

[EID Feature] AJ's Music Cafe: A Community Coffee House

All photos by Nicole Rupersburg.

I'm sitting with AJ O'Neil and one of his "kids" - a college student named Derrick who's home for the holidays and hanging out at AJ's. The thing about AJ's Music Cafe, which has been called "Ferndale's living room" more than once, is that it's the kind of place that, once you know it, you gravitate towards it. For better or worse, it's home.

AJ's is a coffee house in the bohemian '90s sense, when coffee houses were community hubs where people gathered specifically to interact with each other (and not sit solo at small tables in highly-polished environments, squinting at their Mac Books with ear buds in). The furniture is a mismatched collection of found, salvaged and donated items, all of it contributing to the place's overall eclectic d├ęcor. Works from local artists adorn the walls; one wall is a massive chalkboard that customers can decorate at will; there is a sign in a corner by the window that boldly proclaims "YOU ARE LOVED."

Now that may sound hokey to you. And possibly so does the idea of a "community coffee house" - nowadays it seems like every place is a community this-or-that, to the point that the word has started to lose meaning. But at AJ's the sentiment is utterly sincere, the kind of sincere a cynic like me thought only existed in irony. At AJ's, you ARE loved.

"You get people who aren't mentally able to withstand the rigors of normalcy," AJ says. "They're in need of assistance that just isn't there. They find a place like this and it's a place of hope and refuge. It's a very humbling place." AJ talks about a guy named Lucky who has been coming around the cafe for a couple of years now. "He's like one of my adopted kids," he says. "He has no firm roots and always seems to be left out of the system, he's hungry or in need of medicine and doesn't have any other way. He never wants a handout. He always says, 'Let me do something; let me help clean up.' How do I say no? It's nothing for us to barter soup for sweeping."

AJ is a champion of those he calls "the lost people" - the ones who don't qualify for public assistance but who wouldn't be able to live without assistance. Maybe it's because the issue hits close to home: his brother, a more than capable and productive member of society, also has special needs. "He [should be] afforded every dignity anyone else should have, but that's the kind of thing most people don't even see. I see it because I've lived with it a long time. I don't think people should leave those people out, and I don't think those people are looking for a handout. They're looking to feel like a viable part of the community."
"'Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!'"
Emma Lazarus, 1883

Is AJ the New Colussus? He certainly doesn't think so, but others sure seem to. AJ was asked to run for Michigan's 12th congressional district against Congressman Sandy Levin in this year's election. "[He's probably] one of the most entrenched politicians in the nation. David is going to crush Goliath!" he jokes. "I know it's about my ability to speak on behalf of ordinary people from my perspective here. It has nothing to do with elevating my ego; I'm humbled every day here!" He says that no one wants to hear what he has to say - not the politicians, not the Big Three, not even President Obama himself. "We’re going to invoke things on behalf of ordinary people. Whether you're a Democrat or Republican, come on folks, the gig is up. That’s why I resonate; because I'm at the level they are and I serve them their coffee every day. They will equally get respect [here] without regard to what they look like, who they pray to and who they love."

His run for Congress was prompted by his work at the cafe and the message that comes out of it. AJ's is known internationally for their Assembly Line concerts, which have been awarded "World's Longest Continuous Concert" by the Guinness Book of World Records twice now, most recently in 2011 with a 360-hour show. It all started when a guy came into the cafe and said to AJ, "I'm going to lose my job, can you do something?" "What do you want me to do?" This was after AJ had hosted a "Danny Boy" marathon at the cafe, and he had just received notice that Guinness wouldn't honor the record. So he thought to do a concert for the auto workers, and that's how "Assembly Line" was born.

"None of this is me," he says. "It's their brilliance. I'm just here serving coffee. That's the same as Congress." He explains that his function as a congressman, the function of any congressman, is to represent the people. "I’m there as their arbiter gving them a voice at a level they deserve in a political arena. That’s what [Congress is] there to do and that’s been totally lost. That’s your JOB to represent us in Congress, not to take money from a lobby, not to get caught up on committees. Whether you're Democrat or Republican you don’t have a good track record of doing that."

"[The cafe has] been elevated to such an international level," he explains. "I represent everyday people from all walks of life to have the representation they feel they deserve and get here [at the cafe]. It should be no different there [in Congress]." AJ speaks of a cross-trickle economy: "When someone has a job, I have a customer. When you take that corporate greed mentality you take away an integral part of society." He says that Main Streets don’t have boarded up windows with "for lease" signs in front of them because they didn’t have successful, hard-working entrepreneurs behind them: they get boarded up because they don’t have customers anymore. "That's in large part due to the corporatization of not just the economy but politics as well. The most important part of that is the ordinary every day person; without them none of [these politicians'] jobs are necessary either. I'm trying to remind them of that here."

AJ isn't looking for power or glory. He's looking to give voice to the people who seem to have lost it - in our current lexicon, the 99%. "You either work for Wall Street or you work for Main Street or you work to make sure they both work together nicely for the greater good," AJ says. And AJ, he represents Main Street. Not in the way flashy politicians with thousand-dollar smiles say they do - AJ was a roofer before he was a cafe owner. His background is thoroughly blue collar, but he doesn't want any pats on the back for it either. "I was asked to do this. I didn't ask for any of this. I always say, things happen in spite of me, not because of me."

AJ opened the cafe five years ago when his career as a roofer came to an abrupt end. "This cafe found me when I fell off a roof and they told me to stay off ladders. I took the last of what I had and figured I could make soup; there's not much more to it." Now he and his brother Dennis work together to keep AJ's viable. Dennis is the chef, and their menu offers a wide variety of vegetarian and vegan items made from scratch.

"This is not a place you can get a cheeseburger, but we have the best seitan in world and it's all homemade." They make all the cakes, cookies, and select pies from scratch. They do what they can with what they have (which includes a Suzy Bake oven, a microwave, some soup cookers, and that's about it.) "We're as unpretentious as they come!" The homemade hummus is outstanding, and their popular Sloppy Joe's are made with TVP (texturized vegetable protein) that is flavored with spices and BBQ sauce."I'm not a vegan and wasn’t ever acclimated to vegan food until I got here in Ferndale, but you cater to your customers and we found our crowd to be vegan-friendly."

They have their own special blend of coffee called Detroit Bold which they get from Chazzano Coffee Roasters. AJ worked together with Chazzano owner and roaster Frank Lanzkron-Tamarazo. "My coffee had to refect the working class ethic I came from that this place represents," AJ says. "I get people coming from the assembly line and there's nothing wrong with the good strong cup of Joe they want." Customers can buy the coffee by the pound and half-pound. AJ also makes his own Chai mix, and they serve Cuban coffee (strong espresso brewed with brown sugar).

But the cafe is best-known for their open mics and community activism. Recently AJ's was featured in the second-ever issue of the acclaimed "nomadic publication" Boat Magazine (view an excerpt here). The story goes - and AJ is very deliberate in telling me that this is simply how the story was told to him, lest I think he's trying to showboat (an assumption you would never make after just two minutes talking to the guy) - that the journalists got off the plane at DTW and asked, "Where can we go to hear about what's going on in Detroit?" AJ's Music Cafe was the answer.

"Our eclecticness betrays our value in things beyond currency," AJ notes. "We exchange ideas, cultural creativity, talents, and skills to send a message out that money can’t buy. AJ’s is an environment that invites people to think." In the cafe, everyone is a doctor, even if they're a janitor. On stage, people in high-powered, high-stress jobs are relieved in anonymity and can show who they really are. "This is not so much a business as it is a community service coffee shop." Wednesday is open mic night and weekends are for featured artists. AJ also continues to offer a home for those who might not feel welcome elsewhere: on Monday nights he holds meetings for the alcohol recovery community, an issue close to him as well.

"I don’t like people. I don’t like lattes. I don’t particularly like music," he comments as to why he chose to open the cafe. "It’s a part of my upbringing, a part of the gift this community has given me. I've overcome a lot of my own adversities in life, and when I was finally able to live without alcohol I understood the way to do that was to help other people and not worry about my own problems so much. I got the idea if I quit putting conditions on [recovery] and just helped anyone who comes in the door, that’s what I am supposed to do and its been working a long time now. That’s how I understand how you recover from things – you get out of the way and help someone else and that’s how recovery comes to you. And it's fun. It's tempting to say 'What about me?' sometimes, but there's a lot of joy in giving people dignity and respect."

AJ isn't sure what the future will hold, both for the cafe and for his congressional run. "I would have no regrets if I left it today," he says. "It’s been such an important institution for what it's done for the community. It's been an honor, and it gives me what I need. I’m very grateful to be here in Ferndale and for the community at large."

After a wonderful talk, it's time for AJ to get back to work. "My time is not mine!" he laughs. He has to get food ready for a big party that night; another one of his "kids," another individual with special needs, is having a going-away party before heading off to college, and he wanted to have it at AJ's.

"Hey, do you know Nicole?" AJ asks a customer buying a coffee. Well no, in fact we do not know each other, but we do now. This is AJ's way of starting conversations between strangers, and sure enough - without being awkward or uncomfortable - it works. AJ runs back into the kitchen. Derrick is in the back helping out. "Only in a community coffee house will you get the customers helping you!" AJ says with a big smile on his face as he runs back to the front. He introduces me to a few more people in his refreshingly unpretentious way then says, "See? You're part of the family now!"

If you want to help AJ with his congressional run, buy a cup of coffee and sign the nomination form.

Want to see more? View the Flickr set here.