Door County Writes: ‘Bartenders’

Nonfiction by Michael Brecke

Mamie Nyberg, John Padjen, Ted Tafelski, Nina Wiese, Old George, Matt Deverens, Jim Stadler, Mark Terry, Travis, J.B., Bonnie: and the list of some of the bartenders in my life goes on.

Mamie Nyberg owned and operated a bar just off Main Street in my hometown. It was one of my dad’s bars. When I was five or six, I was allowed to accompany my father on one of his visits to The Commercial House. I climbed up on the barstool next to my father and ordered an orange soda, my drink of choice in those days. If my memory is not playing tricks, this was the first time I was allowed to sit next to my father. Other times, I was relegated to a booth across from the bar. 

I was a bundle of bouncy excitement. I had reached the pinnacle of early manhood, sitting on the barstool next to my father, listening to the conversation, pretending I knew what everyone was talking about. 

Strategically located along the bar were spittoons. I didn’t know what those strangely shaped bowls were for, but I was an observant young man and watched one of my father’s cronies spit into the one closest to him. I decided I would be just as manly as my father’s friend and spit into the spittoon nearest me. 

But what would I spit? All I had was my orange soda. While I was not terribly experienced at drinking from a bottle at the bar, the procedure seemed simple: drink, swallow some, spit the rest.

I lifted the bottle to my lips, took a mouthful, swallowed some, then leaned precariously over to spit into the spittoon. As I leaned, I started to lose my balance. I tried to lean back onto the stool and spit, expelling half a mouthful of orange soda toward the spittoon.

The problem was there was little rhythm in my movements. Orange soda splattered everywhere, totally missing the spittoon. Trying to regain my balance, I grabbed for the bar, losing my grip on my soda bottle. It shattered in a million pieces on the floor, where I was sure I was going to land. Except that my father reached over and snatched me from midair, pulling me back to the barstool. 

I was frantically trying to form an explanation when I looked up into Mamie’s eyes. Before my father smacked or scolded me, Mamie said, “Let me take care of this.” With incredible speed, she came around the end of the bar and took me from my father’s grasp and said, “Let’s clean this up.” Down on the floor, rescued from the lofty barstool heights, my hand firmly in hers, we walked to the closet that held mop, broom and dustpan. 

“Hold the dustpan,” she said, as she swept the glass into the old, black tin pan. She told me to carry the dustpan carefully to the trash container at the end of the bar, nearest my tragic fall from grace. “Dump the glass,” she said. With three quick swipes of the mop, she cleaned up the orange soda. Then she told me to get back up on the stool.

I scrambled to return to my perch with some degree of dignity. She placed another bottle of orange soda in front of me. I looked sideways at my father, who was still angry, but with one glance from Mamie, he relented and returned to his conversation with his cronies, most of which was about unruly children.

Mamie was the first in that long line of bartenders listed above, each with a story to tell or that I could tell about my relationship with them. Each story is about that unique bond that bartenders have with the people they talk to, pour drinks for, sometimes lie for, and many times save from embarrassment or law enforcement. When you have a good bartender, you have a confessor and a friend for life.

Think about those folks who have tended to you, served you, talked with you, heard your hopes and dreams, and watched you shed the tears of life. As you remember, write a story about the bartenders who watched you go from one stage of life to another. 

For many years, Michael Brecke – former pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and a founding board member of Write On, Door County – has written a column for Write On’s website to encourage people to write or share their own stories.

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