Remembering the queen of Corktown’s parking lots

Signs like this greeted drivers as they parked near Tiger Stadium in downtown Detroit.

There’s plenty to miss about Tiger Stadium, which hosted its last major-league game 13 years ago this month. The stale cigar smoke, the vendors hawking their dogs and beer, the crabby-ass ushers wiping down seats. All part of the ballpark ambience. But for some reason I recently found myself reminiscing about Irene Sember and her E-Z In, E-Z Out lot, where I often parked my wheels on game day. The place was so easy to find. “Just look for the plastic rabbit,” I’d tell friends.

For some 30 summers, Irene waved baseball fans into parking spaces with a smile. Her immaculately landscaped 60-car lot and attached corner house on West Elizabeth, three blocks east of the ballpark, were the pride of Corktown. Parking at Irene’s was like pulling into your grandma’s driveway. If you’d had one too many beers, she’d even let you use her bathroom.

Irene Sember was a gentle soul, the kind to step around an ant on the sidewalk. But, hoo boy, just let someone accost one of her patrons. “She can be a tough lady,” one of her regular customers once told me. “I remember one time there was a wino panhandling by the lot. She chased right after him. ‘Get outta here!’ she was yelling at him.”

Irene, a roundish but sprightly 70-something as I remembered her, was a bit of an icon, but she never sought publicity. She was always friendly enough, but a reluctant conversation was unlikely to reveal much. OK, she once admitted to me, her husband came from “the old country” (Russia) and she had her perfectly coiffed lawn fertilized four times a year by ChemLawn. Anything else I wanted to know, I could just interview the pink flamingo out back. She wasn’t being mysterious, a friend explained, just careful.

It was impossible to miss Irene’s place. Her house had the only flowers in about a quarter-mile area. (You have to remember, this was before hipsters took over Corktown.) She also had the only welcome signs—plus rabbits, flamingos, and other assorted plastic animals and whirligigs. In the backyard, an American flag attached to an 8-foot whitewashed pole rose Suribachi-like over the otherwise drab neighborhood.

Irene’s neatness was contagious. I wasn’t the only regular who felt obligated to clean the candy-bar wrappers out of my ashtray before pulling in.

I don’t know what happened to Irene, but I do know what happened to the ballpark she was a part of for so long. I miss them both.

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About Richard Bak

Richard Bak grew up on Detroit's west side doing poor imitations of Dick McAuliffe's batting stance and Denny McLain's leg kick. He is a contributing writer to Hour Detroit magazine and the author of nearly 30 books, including biographies of Ty Cobb and Joe Louis. Bak's most recent books are The Big Jump, the story of Charles Lindbergh and the great New York-to-Paris air race of the 1920s, and Detroitland, a collection of his history pieces. He currently is finishing two more books of history: Soldier of Misfortune: The Execution of Private Eddie Slovik and Its Aftermath (DaCapo) and When Lions Were Kings: The Detroit Lions and the Fabulous Fifties (Wayne State University Press), both of which will be published in 2015.