Menjo's is perhaps the best-known gay bar in Detroit and has been a mainstay in the community for more than 40 years. Now, temporarily shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic, the adjoining theater has been transformed into a food pantry by manager Tim McKee-Zazo who sprang into action the day after he locked the doors on March 15. He was quick to explain how he saw his effort as history repeating itself.
"The reason I do it is — I'm 54 years old, so I clearly remember the original AIDS epidemic," McKee-Zazo said. "This is what we used to do: gay people taking care of gay people. When there were no government services, there was none of that stuff. It was literally us taking care of each other. I used to do this back in the '80s for friends that were [HIV] positive back then or had full-blown [AIDS]."
He described how friends would deliver groceries and other necessities to people's porches to limit exposure because they were immunocompromised and therefore susceptible to secondary illness.
McKee-Zazo said he goes to stores like Sam's Club and Kroger, searching for sales and purchasing a variety of items including produce and proteins — "not all junk and all sugar." Once bags are loaded up in the theater/grocery, which McKee-Zazo has sanitized, he hangs a sign outside reading "food pantry drop" for individuals in the service industry or those living in the neighborhood who are in need. To follow social distancing protocol, McKee-Zazo places a bag at the entrance on McNichols when someone comes by to pick it up in order to avoid person-to-person contact.
"We're not sponsored by anybody, except the community 100 percent," McKee-Zazo emphasized. "So far we've served over 1,200 meals. A lot of generous people out there. Like tomorrow, I'm driving to Bay City. One of my Facebook friends that works for S.C. Johnson Wax, he just retired, and apparently, they have a company store. So he bought me a whole truckload of cleaning products and stuff like that."
How to Give or Get Help
There are various ways one can receive help from or give to the food pantry, McKee-Zazo said. For those who are able to give, using Cash App is one convenient way; check, cash or food donations are gladly accepted, too. McKee-Zazo suggested reaching out to him via Facebook Messenger to coordinate any drop-offs or pickups. Again, he said, individuals are not allowed inside the theater where he assembles the bags.
McKee-Zazo explained how someone in the service industry who might earn $400 per week can benefit from the food pantry.
"Whatever limited money you've got, that means you're covering your phone, your rent and stuff like that. Each bag averages about $27. I tell people, if you were to come in once a week and grab a bag, in a month's time, that would save you $108 of your cash, which you could put towards another bill and thereby saved money by not spending it on food. [It's] not just to help people that are going hungry."
At a time when so many are out of work due to no fault of their own, McKee-Zazo stressed there is no shame in asking for help. He was emphatic on this point.
"Some people feel that there's a shame or a stigma along with using a food pantry," McKee-Zazo said. "And while it's very real that they feel that, it freaks me out that anybody would be more embarrassed than they are hungry. There's no shame.
"If anybody wants a bag, I will deliver it to your house. And I will put it on your porch. You don't even got to see me. I don't have to see you. You can put that in there, because I don't want anybody going hungry because they're embarrassed or somehow they've done something wrong," he continued. "Somebody told me that yesterday. And I told them, I said, 26 million people are out of jobs — that's why they're using food pantries."
McKee-Zazo has been manager of Menjo's Entertainment Complex, which employs around 50 people, since 2013. He said the pandemic is taking a toll on his staff, not just financially but also emotionally. However, he's determined to take care of his "kids."
"When I get done with the food pantry, the employees that I know that don't have cars, this is their only source of income — I know that they're sitting there hungry. So about every three days, I'll take groceries and put them in bags and drop them off on their porches throughout Metro Detroit because I don't want — I don't want nobody going hungry but especially not — those are my kids. They ain't going hungry.
"I know some of them are struggling with the psychological stuff. A lot of these people, because of the industry that they work in, they're very outgoing, they're very personable. Now, all of a sudden, that whole contact has been cut off and they're just somewhat out of place," he continued. "So we're always checking on each other, making sure everybody's mentally in a good space. Just like you would care for any of your friends or family."
For his part, McKee-Zazo is, in his own words, a very "active, on-the-go person" who's always looking out for others. But he explained the reason he does what he does is more than just that he has a big heart. It's kind of a calling.
"I'm a recovering alcoholic of 14 years and the biggest tenet of my sobriety is to be of service to others," McKee-Zazo said. "If I don't do that, my sobriety program doesn't work for me. I'm a firm believer that — I'll leave it at this: you should always give more to life than you take. If you don't give, there ain't nothing left for nobody else."
There may be an upside amid the fear and hardship so many are currently experiencing, McKee-Zazo said, and that's the feeling of community that comes from people putting aside their differences and helping one another.
"That's what makes it feel like the days of AIDS — there was something dire going on, but it made everybody kind of coalesce and come together. If there's any positive side to this virus thing, it's just like people have stopped being mean," he said. "Everybody's doing their part, pitching in in some way. And that's what's good about this, anyway, in my opinion."
To reach Tim McKee-Zazo via Facebook Messenger visit Tim M. Zazo here. Donations can be made via Cash App at $TimothyMcKeeZazo.