A story of tradition by Henry King
A large wooden door swings open abruptly, admitting a couple of young men dressed casually. Their sweatshirts bear a trio of Greek letters, and they are chattering amiably about something amusing. They have entered a bar, mostly empty at 11:00 on a Friday morning. While both order drafts of Guinness, the signage for this Irish-style pub boasts Smithwick’s and Murphy’s as well. An impressive array of Irish whiskeys line the backbar.
The men order the house stew, making reference to having enjoyed it on past visits. The bartender makes conversation, asking about those past visits. The two young men are hardly regulars, though they behave as if the bar were familiar territory. Over their first beer, the story pours out. These two are the vanguard of a large group, assembling here at The Old Shillelagh over the next couple of hours. They’ve arrived early to sample the Irish stew, an excellent base for what lies ahead. Little by little, the bar fills up. The bartender, working alone on what should not be a busy time of day, scrambles to fill drink and food orders of the growing crowd.
The assembling group ranges in age from early college up to middle age and beyond. As it grows, the volume of speech fills the bar. They spill into the back rooms, and circle the bar in front. Over and over again, familiar greetings are exchanged. From the first two early birds, the group has swelled to thirty or more, entering by two and threes, and sometimes more. Many wear the same trio of Greek letters on a tee shirt, jacket, or hoodie. Some of these garments are faded and threadbare, perhaps only seeing the light of day once or twice a year. By the sound of the greetings by those who embrace or trade firm handshakes, it seem that many of them see one another no more than those sweatshirts see wear.
Around 12:30 pm, a plunger appears on the bar. Laminated cards on a ring are affixed to the top of it, proclaiming that the next bar is Fishbone’s. These cards flip, revealing that departure is in 15 minutes…then five. Before they know it, someone yells to finish up and roll out. Over the next few minutes, the bar drains of all those who have filled it. They stream across the street and surge into Fishbone’s, packing its bar and swelling its lunch crowd three or four-fold.
The gathering happens every year, and has for many years. The Friday before Easter, this mixed mob of friends descend on Greek Town in Detroit, Mich. For the rest of the day, they traipse back and forth across the few blocks of the bustling neighborhood near Tiger Stadium, visiting bar after bar. Drinks flow like a river, appetizers are consumed in great quantity, and nostalgia waxes strong. For many of these men and women, this is the only time they will see each other all year. For many on the extreme ends of the age range, this is the first place they will meet. Over the years, they will celebrate the anniversary again and again, in the same way. New friends show up every year, drawn by the enthusiastic stories told by past attendees.
At the midpoint of the event, around 6:00 in the evening, the crowd will be upwards of 50 people. Friends and family mingling in the confines of one bar after another, while the slightly shell-shocked staff scramble to serve an unexpected rush of customers. And just as suddenly, the entire crowd will evaporate, moving on to the next establishment at the command of a plunger-sign.
Once, this event was a small handful of young men just a couple of years out of college. Sharing a bond of having all attended Michigan Technological University in the far northern reaches of the state, they now worked in and around Detroit. They represented a couple different fraternal organizations, and a few years of friendship forged in the bars (and snowdrifts) of Houghton, MI. Now, they longed for the cluster of familiar watering holes spaced within walking distance of one another; and, the joys of a spring Friday afternoon, trudging through melting snow from one bar to the next.
Greek Town was selected as a fitting place to reenact this spring tradition. With its numerous bars and restaurants so close together, it was ideal for an afternoon and evening of walking. That first time, it was only the small group. It was everything they hoped, so they shared the story with friends. The next year, come the Friday before Easter, a few more faces showed up at the Irish pub. Some were also MTU grads, but others were office mates or drinking buddies, eager to share in this “bar crawl” experience.
Almost two decades later, the annual tradition is stronger than ever. I have many fond memories forged over the years, sharing drinks and stories with friends I only see at our pub crawl.
I remember the year we all walked into a brand new bar called Tiffany’s. To be sure, the building was not new and this was not the first bar to call it home. But Tiffany’s had just opened that week. The owner and his skeleton crew were not expecting two dozen customers early in the afternoon. The owner was overjoyed, and his staff seemed to manage our influx with good humor. It helps that we all tip generously… we are not unaware of the strain our rolling mob can place on unsuspecting bartenders. The owner treated us to free rounds, and posed with us for pictures. He was from Jamaica, and had some specialty hot sauces he shared with us. They were delicious and wonderfully spicy. And, as I learned, harsh indeed if you accidently got some even vaguely near your eyes. I learned that you can, in fact, soap your eyeballs and not mind. It took almost a decade for that to stop coming up every year. To general amusement. At my expense. Sadly, Tiffany’s did not play host to our crowd for long. The plunger issued its marching orders and we moved on. By the following year, the building was boarded up, Tiffany’s fading into its memories among the other bars who’d once called it home.
One year, we nearly gave the lone bartender at Floods a heart attack. She’d unlocked the doors maybe 15 minutes before, so a Blues musician slated to play that night could set up his equipment. A cook was banging around the back, prepping a still darkened kitchen. A custodian was still mopping the bathrooms. Our boisterous parade, three dozen strong, filled the place not unlike its namesake. No one complained at the wait, and everyone tipped well, but the strain was evident on our beleaguered bartender. She called reinforcements, and help arrived swiftly – just about the time the plunger-sign flipped over to is inevitable decree, and we all filed out. The next bar was waiting, and time was up. We must have made a good impression, because the following year they were waiting for us. The bar was brightly lit and a trio of smiling staff awaited our onslaught.
And so it goes, bar after bar. Some disappear in a year, while others remain. Some even remember us, and are ready for our annual appearance. I enjoy those establishments the most. It is nice to enter a place you haven’t seen in a year, and find a familiar face. It’s even nicer when that face lights up in a welcoming smile and you hear “Another year, yes? Welcome back!”
If you want to start a tradition like this, there are a few things to remember:
All the bars should be in walking distance of one another.
You absolutely must have designated drivers available for the end.
Pace yourselves, this is no fun for anyone if you become ill or sloppy.
Treat your bartenders well, and drink responsibly, so you are welcome back.
Start with a small group, and let word of mouth do the rest.
Rinse, lather, and repeat (about once a year).