The marquee at Paul’s Coney Island is big enough, almost billboard-sized, and it gets straight to the point. The problem is that people don’t believe it.
The cheap chili dogs are plausible. Enticing, even. But Paul Margaris’ restaurant sits on the west side of Center Road in suburban Burton, whose 71/2-mile border with Flint divides more than two cities.
Since the water went bad, it has become a line between haves and have-nots, winners and losers. A line between unleaded and leaded.
“It’s hard for everyone to trust us,” Margaris said. “We’re too close.”
Two-tenths of a mile north of the restaurant he has owned for 12 years, Center becomes the city limit. You can stand on the east side of the street drinking from a garden hose and look across to the west side, where people have to pick up their water in bottles from the fire station.
But the border, with its series of right angles, falls four safe blocks behind the cash register where Margaris sat chewing a toothpick and greeting too few customers at the height of dinner hour.
While improperly treated water from the Flint River was channeling lead and noxious impurities through the faucets of Flint for nearly two years, Burton remained worry free. Its water comes from the Genesee County system, pumped from Lake Huron and supplied by Detroit.
Flint finally has Detroit water, too, but in too much of the city, it courses through tainted pipes.
The geography “is confusing to people,” Margaris said. “We get bombarded by calls.”
He tells everyone it’s OK, he said — and then they drive east to eat in Davison anyway.
‘Water smells like eggs’
At the Double Dragon karate studio a mile north of Paul’s Coney Island, owner Jeff Wheeler had called city hall hours before to double-check that his business was on Burton water.
The studio is on the east side of Center, trouble-free. Across the street, one of 13 Target stores nationwide to be guillotined for poor sales stood in Flint.
Wheeler, 54 and health conscious, lives in Flint, where he’d paid $2,200 several years ago to have his house outfitted with a filtration system. “Not everybody,” he noted, “can do that.”
In the main room of the studio, mothers of students were playing ZIP code bingo, and there were no winners.
“My daughter’s in 48507,” said Tonya Williams of Flint. “Her water smells like eggs.”
Someone asked Ida Johnson — 48504 — how the water was at her house.
“I got about 10 cases,” she said.
Sign of the times
At Dort Highway and Atherton Road, the Rite Aid is on the southeast corner. That’s Burton.
Cross the street to the Walgreens, it’s Flint.
It’s not random, of course, even if it seems that way. The borders were there before the businesses, and before a combination of incompetence and indifference put children at risk for lead poisoning.
So a Little Caesars stands by itself in Burton, and four lanes north, the dancers practicing their pole routines at the Men’s Club are in Flint.
A manager at the Men’s Club, reopened only a month ago after a January 2015 fire, said it has a filter for ice and the occasional pop.
He can’t recall anyone checking before ordering, but the water issue did come up when the disc jockey played a song by Disturbed called “Down With the Sickness.”
“Why are you playing that, man?” a customer asked angrily. “Don’t you know about the situation in Flint?”
Score one for an attempt at social consciousness at the strip joint — and one for generosity at Paul’s Coney Island.
A neighbor from the Flint side came in with an empty milk container and asked if he could fill it with water.
Margaris told him to bring in every jug he had, which turned out to be four of them.
It’s only water, after all. It flowed right out of the tap the way it was supposed to, clean and pure, just like the marquee said.