Mike Christ has owned five bars on State Street over the past 51 years. The first four bars were all named Mike's on State. They began at State and Water Streets in 1960 and moved a little farther west with each iteration, from 13th and State, to 14th Street and finally 24th and State.
Christ's fifth and latest State Street bar has a different name, Mike's A Little Bit Country, 2608 W. State St. Other than Country and Western tunes in the jukebox, there's little about Mike's that feels much like a country bar. Family and bar memorabilia, darts and Brewers items are all that adorn the bar walls, along with stuffed animals lining the tops of mirrors, shelves and the jukebox. Christ simply seems to prefer the intimation of country.
Christ likes to play up his State Street cred, exaggerating very little, if at all, when he says he's basically spent over 50 years within four blocks of State. Christ was born in Deaconess Hospital, which was just south on Wisconsin Avenue, while his parents lived at 5th and State Street. He graduated West Division High School (now Milwaukee High School of the Arts) in 1957, which is on Highland Avenue.
Christ was a bellhop at the Schroeder Hotel (now the Downtown Hilton) when his father, who owned a bar at the corner of State and Water Streets, died.
Christ wasn't too keen on taking over the family business. Christ felt he was making good enough money at the hotel and didn't want his father's bar. Friends encouraged him to try the bar for 30 days. Christ agreed, and was hooked after just one.
"I made more money that first day at the bar than I made in a month at the hotel," he says.
Other sources suggest Christ may have fallen in love with "one or two women" his first time tending bar and that's what kept him coming back. One of the sources being Christ himself on a different night telling the same story.
State Street has changed a lot in Christ's 51 years on it. That first bar of his father's is now a parking structure, the 13th Street and 14th Street bars are now playgrounds and the 24th Street one is a vacant lot.
Mike's A Little Bit Country is the only business currently open on its block. It's open Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Christ has never smoked, but he says business is down 50 percent since the smoking ban. Christ's longtime bartender, Tammy Cockrell, agrees, saying the ban has really hurt the bar, adding, "And I do smoke. I miss smoking while working."
Cockrell has worked 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Mike's for 13 years, starting about the same time Christ's third and final wife died and his bartender quit. "I like working here because of the people," Cockrell says.
The people at Mike's range a lot, reflecting the neighborhood. You won't find the well-heeled and you may not see many of the tony Third Ward workers at Mike's, but both professional and working class – black, white and poor from the toothless to the impeccably groomed – will frequent the bar.
"I've never had a problem with the people here," says Cockrell.
There's a good vibe at Mike's, which keeps Dave Mikolajek – aka, OnMilwaukee.com contributor "College Dave" – coming back.
"He's good, he's got a great style. For instance, he always displays the bottle before he pours a shot, sometimes going around the bar holding it up," says Mikolajek.
Cockrell's favorite drink to make is a Bloody Mary, but she doesn't get many opportunities, since most customers order a beer and a shot. And drinks at Mike's aren't garnished with lemons. If you ask for a lemon in your drink, you'll get the same, sad story that everyone does:
"The lemon tree we had out back burned down last night. It was a three alarm fire. But fortunately, nobody got hurt. Now we don't have any lemons left," says Christ.
Christ's favorite drink is a vodka orange (a screwdriver or something approximating it). He prefers the fewer-calorie, less-alcohol, light vodka that he stocks in his bar. And Christ loves Pabst.
All drinks at Mike's are $2.50: Scotch, top shelf, beer, everything. With happy hour pricing of just $2.00 from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m., it must vie for best happy hour in the city.
Another of Christ's favorite repeated stories is about the day he was driving on the expressway at the exact moment a photographer was taking a picture, unbeknownst to Christ.
Christ, who says he's owned approximately 20 Cadillacs, most of them El Dorados, saw what he knew to be his El Dorado in the picture when it appeared on the front page of a local daily paper. It now hangs, framed, on a wall in the bar.
When Christ isn't at the bar, he says he goes to other bars. But he also used to care for his daughter. The 7 p.m. closing time at Mike's A Little Bit Country reflects his desire, as the sole caregiver, to spend quality time with his daughter in the evenings.
Christ believes the secret to a long, happy existence is drinking a lot, having good sex and not smoking. Christ doesn't worry too much about money, or about much else for that matter.
"You're only here for so long, then the show's over," Christ says.
Royal has taught courses in critical pedagogy, writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at several schools in Wisconsin and Minnesota. He is currently Adjunct Associate Professor of Humanities at Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design.
Royal lives in Walker’s Point with his family and uses the light of the Polish Moon to illuminate his way home.