Did I mention that Tom’s Tavern is a magical place? I did, didn’t I? Well, it is, and I am in love with it. It’s like our own little Mystery Spot here in Detroit, with booze. It’s a shack, a hovel, a gloriously uneven shanty of a bar held together with spit and dried whiskey and fiercely loyal love. There’s not a straight angle in the place, so be forewarned that getting drunk here is as dangerous to your equilibrium as it is nearly inevitable, given the generous pours and the jukebox and the conviviality of its owner, Ron.
Despite all appearances, the bar isn’t falling down anytime soon. It’s weathered break-ins and car crashes and the odd kitchen fire since 1928, so no need to worry for your safety. Unless you sit in the middle stool and stand up too quickly without catching your balance first. See, the middle stool has two legs shorter than the others to account for the slope in the floor. Don’t discount that slope: I feel like a giant when I walk in the front door because I’m towering 3 feet above anyone who’s standing in the back. And the view down the bar is precarious, to say nothing of what happens when you try to set an overfull Guinness down:
Tom’s Tavern was built by a Greek immigrant named Tom Lucas in 1928. I never had the privilege of meeting Tom, but by all accounts he was an irascible, stubborn, occasionally charming crank: the kind of man who’d build a bar smack in the middle of National Prohibition, to hell with the consequences. Rumors persist that the infamous Purple Gang dropped off booze in their private limos. It’s entirely possibly, if tough to prove, because the PG did have a significant presence in the area during Prohibition. Plus, with all those university students and professors nearby, the place was in a prime location to sop up cash from booze-starved academics. Ostensibly it was a lunch counter, but woe betide anyone foolish enough to attempt to eat one of the weeks-old sandwiches that served as cover for the real reason behind the building. Of course, Tom did cook on the giant iron monster of a stove, but as with his operating hours and his prices, they were on his terms, not yours. You ordered roast turkey and got a corned beef sandwich, because that’s what Tom thought you should have. Tom was notorious for passing out–er, “resting”–on the bar and for tossing the keys to whoever happened to be in the place when he felt the need to go to the tracks and do some gambling, instructing the lucky patron to take care of things and lock up if he needed. This continued all the way until he passed away at the ripe age of 95.
After that, no one was quite sure what to do with the bar for a while. It was shuttered, and weeds overgrew the property until the place looked like just another abandoned building. But the beer was still there, and Tom’s regulars were, as it turned out, just lying in wait. One night Tom’s friend and regular Ron stopped in to check on the place. He turned on the lights and got to cleaning, assessing what needed to be done. Someone saw the lights on, stopped in, and Ron handed him a beer. Then another regular rolled up to check. Ron handed him a beer. Before anyone really knew how it had happened, the bar was back in business and Ron found himself running the place.
Ron is an old-world wit with a gentle soul, a brilliant way of inserting obscenities into the most floridly constructed sentences, and a very persnickety method of dishwashing. There’s something decidedly puckish about him. At one point, he said to me, “Don’t let anything like truth get in the way of purpose,” and it seemed like a fair summation of the operating style of the tavern. When I arrived at 6(ish), he was on the phone with a friend, so I grabbed a broom and started sweeping. About halfway through it occurred to me that I might be sweeping a fair bit of asbestos tile along with 80-some years of history, but hey, I’ve probably ingested far worse substances. Over the course of the evening, we talked history, barware, and books; he’s staggeringly well read and I left with a long list of books he thinks I absolutely must read. Around 8(ish), these guys arrived and the old-school soul and funk music starting playing:
By 10, it was pretty busy in there. Fortunately, Mark stopped in. Mark coaches at U of D, right around the corner, and has been filling in behind the bar at Tom’s since before I could drink there legally. So the two of us bantered a bit, and I got to hear quite a few stories of the 80s and 90s at the bar that, in order to protect the reputations of the not-so-innocent, I can’t share here. These were the days when Detroit’s favorite drunken newscaster, Bill Bonds, could be found on a stool just about any night of the week, when liquor licenses and health department inspections and fire code capacity were suggested rather than enforced.
The only timepiece in the place is a hand-drawn clock behind the bar: on a piece of yellow construction paper, the squiggly red hands are frozen at 11:15. It’s a fitting image for the esprit de bar at Tom’s. The time of night is early enough that you don’t have to think about going home yet, but by then the conversation is rumbling along enough that the occasional F-bomb doesn’t disturb the peace. It’s that time when the music gets a bit louder, the conversation more raucous, and maybe just one more shot and beer seem like a great idea.
Time doesn’t stop at Tom’s. Instead, it becomes fluid, and an hour can stretch to several or flit by in moments. Tom’s is open with delightful irregularity on weeknights, and often whoever happens to be on hand is staffing the bar. So if you’re driving down 7 mile, take a look for the light. Get some books recommendations from Ron, admire the Florentine beauty of old bar lights shining on immaculately cleaned glassware, and have yourself a drink. But do watch your step and your equilibrium, because spatial as well as temporal perspectives are trickier than you think here.