May 24, 2013

Bay City Bill's, a South End bar complete with the Mighty Mac, Skittles and a taste of old home week

The hairy guy's report:

Bill's: The soul of the city?
Harry, a recent immigrant to town, is fascinated by the old things he runs across. For instance, Keit's flower shop downtown still uses a cash register that looks like it came out of a saloon in a John Wayne movie. (It works fine, except for the "3" key, a woman at the counter said, but "we work around it.")

So when the bald guy took him to Bay City Bill's, he shouldn't have been so surprised to find the Mackinac Bridge. But still he was. You walk into an unassuming-looking small South End neighborhood bar, you figure on a shot and a beer and a clean glass.

Yes, we concede some stereotyping here. But when you see an old bar with an old picnic table out front (with an old coffee can for cigarette butts) and an old guy across the street fixing his old lawn mower, you don't expect to walk in and find frou-frou drinks like Bloody Marys with salt on the rim and all kinds of vegetables on a skewer. Or a bunch of dollar bills folded up like cute little bow-ties. And you wouldn't  expect to find the Mackinac Bridge either, except maybe after a few Bloody Marys. The Lafayette Street bridge you might expect, but it doesn't look anywhere near as impressive, even on a good day.

But life here is full of surprises.

So when Baldo struck up a conversation with a guy sitting at the bar, it turned out they had all sorts of things in common. Knew the same people. Had worked at the same places. It was like that guy and this bar were the missing links in his life.

The hairy guy had no connections to any of this. But it wasn't as if he was feeling like he didn't belong. He felt right at home. Except he doesn't have the Mackinac Bridge at home.

Model of the Mackinac Bridge

It's not the actual bridge, of course. That wouldn't fit in a bar. It's a model, displayed proudly on the wall along with a chalkboard, a clock and a Miller Lite sign. Turns out, according to a bartender with the alluring name of Amandia, that Bill's once was a hangout for iron workers, including some who worked on building the bridge (the real one). A wall of photos across the room serves as a shrine of sorts to those days.

If you want to raise a toast to those guys, or just have a beer for your own benefit,, Bill's has five on tap (Michelob Light, Bud Light and Miller Lite are $1.25 a shell; Sam Adams Cherry Wheat and Leinenkugel's Creamy Dark are $2.50). A bucket of beer -- not an actual pail of beer but 6 bottles on ice in a pail -- is $11.50.  (We did the math for you; it works out to almost $2 a bottle. More of a convenience than anything.)

And there are those frou-frou drinks. When we stopped in, the Bloody Mary with all the fixins was the drink of the month at $4.50. Something called Skittles was the shot of the month, also $4.50. (We asked, and Amandia told us what's in Skittles; it was too complicated to write down and didn't sound like anything we'd want to down anyway, even in one gulp.)

Men working with iron

It's all an interesting lesson in how life changes with time. We can't quite see a burly iron worker, looking forward to a shot and a beer after a day slinging rivets, ending up with a shot of Skittles and a tall cold cherry wheat. But you gotta go with the flow of business.

Bill's also stretches the definition of happy hour to say it runs from opening at 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., which means it lasts almost as long as the, well, unhappy hour. There's a full menu, with daily specials. On Sundays, there are $1.50 burgers (they're smaller than the regular burgers; other places might call them sliders).

One more thing: On our last outing, we met a bartender named Stefenie. Now Amandia. If we find another person behind the bar with a twist on a usual name, we can declare a local trend. We're looking.

The bald guy's report: He calls an audible, has a flashback,

meets another Bum and has an epiphany

Preparing to go out, I did the shower and shave, deodorant and cologne, clean socks and underwear, etc. (didn’t have to do anything with my hair.  Hah! Take that, hirsute ones) and was ready to leave when I heard an old familiar voice in my head -- I call him Coach.  Sure, they may have been a little long, but not too long, I didn’t think they really needed it, not like you could braid 'em or anything, but as I tried to leave the bathroom, Coach stopped me dead:  “Dude. You’re going out in public. Fer Chrissakes, trim your nose hairs.”

So I did.  Now, let's see was it worth it.

Figuring to lend our blogging endeavor the legitimacy it deserves (vs., as some people I know think, just two creepy old guys out on a lark), Harry and I went shopping for business cards. And since we were going shopping downtown, once we took care of business it only made sense to pick a bar close to where we were.

“Kook’s,” I offered.  Close and two degrees.  (I‘ll explain later.)

“Isn’t it closed?” 

I didn’t think so, at least as far as I knew. I'd been by it Thursday a week and it was open.  'Twould've been a speedy demise, though in the bar world not unheard of. So off we go. 

Kook’s was indeed open and peopled.  However, when we pulled up, I heard The Coach again:  "Omaha!  Omaha!” (what NFL QBs say to call an audible, that is, call off the current play and follow with a new one).  “BCB on two!”

So The Coach had a change of play!  Heart. Mind. Whatever. Evidently The Coach thought it a Bay City Bill’s kinda day. So, making sense be damned, off to the South End we went.  The last time I was at Bill's, maybe six months ago, there'd been a lively crowd, grist for the blogger's mill, so perhaps once again The Coach knew what he was talking about.

Bay City Bill’s bar faces west on Michigan. The outside is a kind of dark, old-timey green, but inside it’s a bright, cheerful-looking place. There's something about it that reminded me of a side-trip I once took in Milwaukee.  I was there on an annual debauch that Harry and a bunch of other crazy knuckleheads put together when younger.  FWIW, the theme of this, shall I say "youthful frolic," was "excess," and its goal was to take in as much beer and baseball as possible in a weekend.  It was called the Hack Wilson Tour, T-shirts and everything, after the Hall of Famer who set the still-standing RBI record (191) in 1930 and died penniless 18 years later, having drank himself to death, both stories for another day.

Anyway, I was up in Milwaukee for the final leg of the tour and after the Brewers’ game, in spite of being exhausted, hung over, and in light of my next move, morally bankrupt, instead of heading home, (the intelligent thing to do -- where was The Coach then?) I went to a bunch of locals’ bars.

What struck me about these places was it was like walking into someone's house, which in many cases it was.  The bar was in front, the rest of the house in back.  At one place, the barmaid kept hustling back and forth between serving customers in the front room and rushing back to the kitchen, two steps up from the bar, where she had supper going for her family and was helping her son with his homework.  Or if you've ever been to Iva's Chicken Dinners in Sterling (IMHO, as far as chicken dinners go, much better than Frankenmuth), it was like that.

Bill's isn't quite like that, but I get that vibe.  Maybe because for one, behind it there's a
Backbar at Bay City Bill's
house attached.  I don't know if the owners live back there now but BITD, when it was Hulda's, I guess that's where she lived.  For another, those bars in Milwaukee were, by necessity, small and thus focused.  People went there to drink and visit or drink and not. Sports or news would be on the single TV, otherwise no distractions.  Food was in a bag or jar and came on paper plates.

Like those, Bill’s is focused.  Unlike those, food’s big at Bill's and from what I hear, getting bigger. Food and drink, drink and food -- split it down the middle, one big room, bar south, dining north.  And sometimes they’re all in one, like in the monster Bloody Mary I watched the bartender prepare, bundling a pickle spear, a big green olive and a couple other things, I’m not sure.  But I’m sure there were four veggie-things in a tall hurricane glass (black olive and celery, perhaps).  I remember thinking it looked like the top shelf of my refrigerator.  They were $4.50. Is that a lot?  About right?  All I know is if I was a Bloody Mary aficionado, I’d definitely have to try one of those “bad girls.” Me?  I’m drinkin’ a nice, cold beer for a buck or buck-fifty in a glass that should have had a handle.  (16-ouncer?)  Daytime beer prices in Bay City are insane.

Also like Milwaukee, Bill’s ain’t stuck on TV, though they’ve got all the viewing angles covered.  Small ones on shelves in the two corners opposite the bar (still the old tube type and off) and two decent flat-screens, one smack dab above the center of the bar tuned, of course, to a Tigers game and the other on the opposite wall, streaming maybe CNN, more likely Fox. (News and sports!  Hooray!)  Nor is it big on posters and signs, although again
there’s the requisite amount, all clean and neat and shiny.  And I didn’t see a lot of lottery stuff, although they may have had a terminal.  And off in the NE corner, bereft of any company, one forlorn electronic dart game. The token. As I’d said, focused; you come here to eat and/or drink and visit or not. 

Continuing the series of creative bartendress names or spellings (First Joni, then Stefenie),
Amandia behind the bar at Bill's
today it was Amandia.  She was young and pleasant and eager to serve and as soon as she took our drink order asked if we wanted menus, following up a few minutes later by asking again. I got the impression strangers didn’t often drop in just to drink.  As I said, Bill’s is big on food. I’ve got friends in Midland who often come to Bay City to eat, and Bill's is one of their regular stops.

We introduced ourselves -- she knew of us from the Jake's article -- and I repeated the line my alter ego uses, that I was searching for the soul of a city. 

"You'll find it in every bar in Bay City," Amandia said, with not the slightest trace of irony.

I looked around for something familiar. Up until six months ago I’d been here a couple, three times before, when it was Hulda’s. And according to one of the other patrons -- Amandia called him Bum and he said I could call him that, too -- it hasn't been Hulda's for at least 25 years. 

I was introduced to Hulda’s when I was worked second-shift assembly at the local transformer factory and one night at lunchtime some of the other guys asked me if I wanted to go with them to Hulda’s for “the three-course meal." I was intrigued. Hulda’s was a bar; what kind of three-course pub grub could she have for a hungry crew who, with travel time, had 20 minutes tops? Simple. Appetizer: boilermaker. Entree: short beer and a plate of crackers and cheese with homemade pickled bologna, egg, pig's foot or tongue. Dessert: another boilermaker. I couldn’t make it past the first course. And they did this for years, at least once or more per week. I wonder how many of them beside me are still living? I know one who didn't make it. Pure conjecture, but probable cause? Lunch.

We were sitting in the middle of the bar. Besides Bum on our right, there was one other patron at the bar, to our left -- a nice-looking young lad in a fluorescent green tee.  Bum commented on the bright color and the lad explained it was a safety measure for work (construction), that it made him a lot more visible on a busy and dusty site.  Pretty smart.  Plus, it makes him a lot easier to spot in a crowd like at a River Roar concert or at St. Stan's Summer Festival beer tent.  Note to self:  Get a fluorescent green T-shirt.

Like Harry, Bum had a beard and long hair and we ascertained he was around 10 years younger than me, which would put him around 58.  He was the one who knew Hulda's history.  Also, it turns out at one time about 35 years ago or more, we lived within a block of each other near St. Mary’s.

I started ticking off the people I knew from there -- the next door neighbor kid who sold weed out of a brown paper bag on his bicycle, the woman across the street who sat on her porch during the summer drinking beer out of a coffee cup (so the neighbors wouldn't know) and was joined every day in the summer by the mailman who also shared a "cup of coffee" and the two women kitty-corner who one day would be zinging softballs back and forth a hundred miles an hour and the next be out rolling around the ground, slapping and pulling hair and screaming at each other. This happened at least once a summer.  

As I went through these, Bum would say with a nod “Yup! Knew ’em." And when I got to “the battling lesbians,” he busted out laughing, “They’re STILL there." Well, I laughed too.  What a coincidence.  Evidently they solved their battling.  Good for them.  That’s a long-term relationship. 

Sign in a window at Bill's
And then we found out we both worked at the power plant but at slightly different times, he as a contractor tradesman (iron worker?) and me as an auxiliary operator.  Yet he named off people that were still there that I knew.  I then asked who the bar's present owner was and Bum said Bill Borch. I knew a Bill Borch growing up. "Was he crazy?"  Bum asked with a laugh.  He wasn't, at least not then, but like any of us, could've grown into it.  All of these acquaintances, two degrees.

Let me explain. You’ve probably heard of the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.  From Wikipedia:  "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a parlor game based on the 'six degrees of separation' concept, which posits that any two people on Earth are, on average, about six acquaintance links apart. That idea eventually morphed into this parlor game, wherein movie buffs challenge each other to find the shortest path between an arbitrary actor and venerated Hollywood character actor Kevin Bacon.” 

One of the things I love about Bay City is that I’m finding on average you only need two degrees of separation, maybe three, before you each know the same person.  For example, the aforementioned Kook’s. Kook’s mother and I grew up together next-door neighbors.  Two degrees. A picture on top of the bar of a former BCB bartender, turns out was Mouse, a guy I used to pal with -- one degree. The “battling lesbians,” one degree. Bay City is a close village. To me, one of its charms.

And while I’m talking about Bay City and a guy named Bum, let's talk nicknames.  Bum is a fairly common nickname in these parts. I’ve known a bunch of Bums in my life (heh, heh), and in almost all cases it was a form of Baumgart. They're always called Bum, Bummy or Bummer. It's probably the same everywhere, but here’s the thing about Bay City nicknames: they’re usually hereditary. If your dad was a Bum, chances are you’re going to be one too. And, except to the guys he grew up with, where he's forever a Bum,  Dad advances to Mr. Baumgart. Then if you happen to get a younger brother, you automatically become Big Bum and he’s Little Bum. And should another brother come along, it’s Big Bum, Little Bum and Tiny Bum. And, God forbid, but you know in these old-time families, another brother surfaces and he’s Baby Bum, and pretty soon it's your turn to be Mr. Baumgart. No one writes these rules; that’s just how it works. One more thing, to my mind, to love about Bay City.

While Bum and I were tripping down Memory Lane, Harry was attending to business with Amandia.  He's got 40 years or so in the newspaper business, thus is a 5-W kind of guy (Who? What? Where? etc.)  Thank God or we'd never get any details about these establishments, 'cause I'm a 2-H kinda guy (Huh?  Holy cow!).

So one final observation:  When I started this endeavor, that is, writing about the "unsung bars of Bay City," I thought of bartending as a toss-away job, something you did until a better job came along. However, the way Amandia said it -- twice -- and the certitude of her assertion that the soul of the city was to be found in every bar in Bay City plus the fact she's the granddaughter of Joe LaRose (a legendary distributor's rep,
according to Bum) has me thinking differently.

Like nicknames, some families have a long proud line of hereditary occupation -- cops, for example, or farmers or, like in my family, machinists -- and I'm beginning to see it's the same in bars.  When I think of Joni and Stefenie and Amandia and the pride they evidence in their work, I no longer think they're just biding time. I think they are exactly where they want to be and doing exactly what they want to do, which is give you the best experience in the hospitality field they can. 

Well, the day was getting on, the place filling up. There were now three couples there to eat and two more folks at the bar (getting the monster Bloody Mary’s, which, IMHO, except for no lettuce was like a trip to the salad bar).  And so we left.

Later, re-visiting this experience, The Coach paid me another call.

"Well, Scooter," he asked, "was it worth those few nose hairs?"

I may not have found "the soul of a city" but I'm getting a clearer picture.

The answer?  Yes it was, Coach.  Definitely.

  The particulars:
  Bay City Bill's
  1215 Michigan near 31st

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