Queen of the Bronx

Charleen Dexter has held court in this Cass Corridor dive bar for 40 years

When she was 27 years old, Charleen started a job waitressing at the Bronx Bar, which is in the neighborhood now called Midtown. On her first shift as bartender, she accidentally put a bottle of Kessler whiskey through a glass clock behind the bar. She was sure she’d be fired.

The owner at the time, George Jordan, brushed it off and kept her on payroll.

“We were right in the Cass Corridor, honey,” says Charleen during a weekday afternoon shift. “Pimp and hooker haven. From 12 to 75 years old.”

Since 1977, Charleen has established herself as an icon at the Bronx — and the block it sits on. (Her last name is Dexter, but like Cher, Sting, or Aretha, icons only need to be referenced by their first name.)

That’s a 40-year stint. Patrons view her with a mix of love and amusement, anxious to hear who or what is on her “sh** list.” She’s regularly gifted newspapers (for the crossword puzzle), Cokes in a glass bottle (a favorite), and other trinkets of affection.

The names, places, and stories have blurred together over the decades, but Charleen remains sharp — mentally and -tongued — as ever, dishing out sass to college students and longtime regulars.

Without missing a beat, a customer walks in and Charleen welcomes them with a signature salutation: “What the f*** do you want, sweetie?”

Charleen has become a Cass Corridor legend while the neighborhood has transformed itself under the more marketable Midtown moniker.

As she smokes on the bar’s patio that overlooks Second Street, it’s clear which version she prefers.

“I would walk the streets back then more than I’d walk the streets now,” says Charleen. “It just seemed like people looked out for each other back then more than they do now.”

Visiting an Original

When you walk into the Bronx today, you can feel the history pouring out of it like the draft beer taps behind the bar. But there are only two things that are 100 percent original — the bar from when the Bronx opened in 1937 and Charleen herself.

Charleen grew up on Detroit’s east side as the daughter of an autoworker and a stay-at-home mom who later worked at a stone container company. By the mid-’70s, Charleen was a single mother raising three daughters off tips made at the Bronx.

“That was nuts,” laughs Charleen.

When she first started, draft beer cost less than a quarter. A burger, fries, and a Coke would set you back $2.75. The crowd was diverse but skewed older: veteran residents celebrating birthdays and holidays at the neighborhood watering hole.

Today, a PBR and a shot of Tullamore Dew is $7.50. The Bronx burger — one of the best in the state — clocks in at $9 (add $1 if you want cheese). It’s mostly college students on a Friday night now.

In 1976, Charleen was paying about $120 for her Sheridan Court apartment across the street. A studio there goes for $650 a month today. She’s changed buildings, but still lives within a block of the Bronx.

At the time, the Cass Corridor had a reputation as a red-light district. Roughly 750 prostitutes worked the area. Trouble outside, however, rarely spilled into the bar. Then-owner Jordan had befriended the Detroit Police Department. Night or day, there’d be a cop at the bar or at least a cop car parked outside.

Jordan came to Detroit to porter in 1946 out of the army, says Charleen. “He put his brothers and sisters through school with this bar.”

With the fact that Jordan was known to carry a .38 Smith & Wesson Special, plus the Bronx’s status as a cop bar, Charleen felt safe, but the vices of the neighborhood crept into her life regardless.

During our second interview at the MGM Grand Detroit — Charleen plays the slots on her days off; she’s slow and deliberate behind the bar, but floats across the gambling floor — she recounts one of her most harrowing Cass Corridor memories.

The Blackstone Hotel next door to the Bronx — now converted into $750-a-month apartments — was once a hub for drugs and prostitution. “You could go in there and buy anything you wanted,” recalls Charleen. “Booze, drugs, condoms, pantyhose — you could go into the Blackstone and buy it.”

After closing the bar one night, Charleen spotted her sister being taken away in an ambulance outside the Blackstone. She had been left unconscious and unresponsive in the hallway. She died the next day.

“Once I found out that she had got her drugs from the Blackstone, I went over there and told the owner, ‘Where’s the motherf***** who gave my sister the drugs?’” says Charleen. “She had eight kids when she died at 32 years old. My mother fought and got them all adopted … every one.”

The Surrogate Mom

Today, Charleen plays the role of mom to dozens of her customers. Whether celebrating good news or watching them cry into their beers, she’s ready to listen and serve them another.

“Ninety percent of everybody that comes in here calls me mama,” laughs Charleen.

Once the threshold is crossed from bar regular to friend, there’s little Charleen wouldn’t do for her Bronx family. They call her mama; she calls them her sons. It’s a protective relationship on both sides of the bar.

The maternal role is on full display with Steven Gross, who has known Charleen since 1996. He remembers being terrified to walk into the Bronx for the first time.

“We walked in one day and it was my first time getting yelled at by her,” laughs Gross. “We started coming in every day. It was a rite of passage at that point. If you’re getting the silent treatment, she doesn’t like you. She’s not going to waste her breath on someone she doesn’t like.”

Five years into their friendship, Gross became a fixture at Charleen’s family functions. Her daughters and granddaughters now call him on holidays. Gross and Charleen remain close friends today.

As the neighborhood continues to transform, Gross hopes Charleen’s influence at the Bronx lives on — the last vestige of a neighborhood from another time, another era.

“When you get over her quirks, there’s a wonderful woman there,” says Gross. “She’s seen Detroit at its worst and Midtown at its best. I don’t want to see her erased like chalk on a chalkboard. I hope her dogma and her attitude [are] able to transcend the walls of the Bronx and keep going.”

Charleen says she sees herself in her granddaughter Angela Sabolo, who laughs at the comparison.

“I get a lot of my personality from her,” says Sabolo. “She is very feisty and I definitely get that quality from her.”

But Sabolo says that, while there is some play-acting to Charleen’s behind-the-bar demeanor, she’s as sincere and caring as any grandmother.

“Behind that sassy, sometimes mean old lady, she’s one of the most caring people I’ve ever met,” says Sabolo. “My grandma is my best friend, but she’s like that with everybody. If something is on her mind, she says it, which is good — sometimes.”

Last November, Charleen suffered a heart attack while tending bar. She received a stent to correct a blocked artery. She’s lost 50 pounds since and says she feels healthy. Before that, in 1972, a stroke sidelined her for weeks and resulted in her losing control of one of her eyes. For a while, she wore a custom eye patch a group of customers had made her that said “F*** you.”

Charleen says the role of a bartender is to bullsh** and serve beers. And 40 years later, she’s delivering. Still, with her health catching up to her, she plans on retiring on her own terms in the next two years (current Bronx owner Paul Howard says she’s been threatening that for a decade).

When her time comes, Charleen doesn’t want to be buried — she’s too claustrophobic. She’d prefer to be cremated. “If something happens to me and they put me on life support, I’ll come back and haunt them for the rest of their f****** lives.”

The queen of the Bronx has spoken.