And so ended a Bar Month like never before – and (*knocks on all the wood in the house*) hopefully never again.
But after a year that's collectively tried us like no year before, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. We have vaccines – strong, effective vaccines that not only apparently stop the virus' worst effects but also might prevent them from infecting, period – and Wisconsin has proven itself excellent at putting them in arms. No, this doesn't mean we should ditch social distancing and have a big collective mask bonfire and doorknob-licking party (not that you should've ever been having the latter). But it sure feels like we're finally closer to reaching the other side of this moment, safely returning to our social lives and no longer having to refer to everything as "unprecedented."
A return to normalcy also means something very exciting: a return to bars. All this unexpected and heartbreaking time away from our favorite drinking holes and dives has likely only made them seem fonder in our minds. I know it's made me think about the things I miss the most about local bars and things I can't wait to experience again (hopefully soon, if we keep being smart and doing things right).
Here's a tribute to Milwaukee's bars – and eight things I can't wait to drink in again – come more precedented times.
1. The decor
Even with all of Netflix's help and support, I am so tired of my apartment. Over the past year, I have memorized the number of tiles on the backsplash, planks of wood in the floor and stucco dots on the walls. I have now implanted butt grooves into every sit-able surface in the place – even the wooden chairs. I have played Connect the Dots with all the old leftover tack holes in the walls, and after joining everything together, the puzzle revealed nothing but my own tragic boredom and need to escape and visit a place that's not the same.
I must sit on a barstool, whether it be wooden, cushioned or even cushioned that's been ripped over time. I must see the longest bar in Wisconsin, Milwaukee's smallest bar and a bar shaped like a penis. I must see carpetted walls and celebrity photos. I want to walk into a place that's flashy and new; I want to walk into a place that's kitschy and old. There are so many places in Milwaukee and beyond with such a sense of place and personality that have only housed echoes and shadows of their former energy, character on the walls with stories to tell but nobody to tell them to. Everywhere is going to seem so exciting after being gone for so long, and I can't wait to explore it all, old favorites and new.
2. The music
Sure, you can play your favorite '90s one-hit wonders at home – but blasting "The Way" by Fastball or "Tubthumping" just isn't the same without a crowd of strangers, friends and strangers-turned-friends all blissfully smiling or knowingly groaning when the first notes hit. I can't wait for that sensation of an entire crowd uniting in love (or hate) for a song from the jukebox. I hope y'all like Eagle Eye Cherry.
3. The food
Bars and restaurants have done a remarkable job of pivoting – for their sake, the sake of feeding their employees and the sake of feeding the community – throughout the pandemic, and we've all hopefully done our part in supporting them during these hard times (and will continue to do even when things settle back down). But there are just some dishes that just can't quite make the travel home or just don't taste the same without the bar ambiance there helping to season the food.
For my money, Points East Pub's wings are the finest, most craveable in the city, but I've been stuck merely craving them throughout the pandemic. That's because wings (especially their particularly crackly dry rub) don't quite travel the best, and they're simply too delicious to not have at their finest. In fact, I've painfully gone mostly cold turkey on chicken wings overall for the past year since they just don't quite taste the same after being shlupped in a car.
I'm sure many of you have experienced the same feeling while eating a fish fry this Lenten season, thankful for the restaurants working hard to make an excellent product in brutal circumstances, but yearning for the pre-pandemic version served as usual, the way you remember it best. And even the meals that do travel well, they just don't seem the same without the bar atmosphere.
You don't just taste with your tongue. It's the whole experience: the smells, the sights, the sounds, the company. What can be just a frozen pizza, popcorn or hot ham and rolls can taste like manna from heaven in the right bar. So here's to tasting that special flavor once more.
4. The sports
Between the lack of fans (or the horrifying introduction of digital fans) and the out-of-whack schedules, watching our usual beloved sports has been an odd and distanced experience over the past year. It always felt like the Uncanny Valley of sporting events, close enough to normal but just different enough to completely throw it into the realm of the bizarre and unpleasant.
The other key thing missing? Bars. Whether you're watching your beloved hometeam or watching some random XFL game or marble race, being in a bar makes it the most captivating television on the planet. (The alcohol helps make everything seem fascinating, too.) At a bar, everybody turns into a gambler, everybody turns into Tony Romo analyzing the teams and strategies, and everybody turns into a fan.
Without the ruckus and commotion of people, sports felt like it revealed what it truly is at its core: merely a distraction.
5. The bartender therapy
A trip to the therapist's couch can be an important and helpful thing – but so can a trip to a bartender's stool. Of course, it helps that one is ethically and professionally allowed to pour you alcohol, that most famous of truth elixirs, but even without the booze's help, bartenders just seem to have the perfect wisdom to help guide you through whatever you're drinking about. Or maybe they just have the perfect drink. No matter the case, they help clear your mind while filling your liver, a good deal if you ask me. And I'd love to clear my mind of a 2020 that still – despite my best efforts – continues to live there rent free.
We haven't mentioned the booze part of bars thus far because, let's be honest, alcohol has not been lacking during this pandemic. But while we've been guzzling beer, wine, cocktail kits and, heck, maybe hand sanitizer when things got really rough, what you probably haven't had a lot of are shots. That's because shots are generally social, celebratory drinks. They're a toast to the night or to your colleagues, and there just hasn't been much to toast over the past year.
I don't even particularly like hard liquor – but here's to once again knocking back a cherry bomb, a shot of whiskey or even one of those nasty nightmare concoctions that are more of a prank than a beverage. Because, if we all do this right, we will soon have something to celebrate with people once again.
7. The gossip
Sure, you can get your news from the paper or a website, but everybody knows that if you REALLY want to know what's going on in the neighborhood, you go to the corner tap. There, you'll find the juiciest headlines – and sorry, Nextdoor – you'll never beat the bar when it comes to hearing the funniest and most informative stories from around the block in person, fueled by adult beverages.
It's more than a year since we've been able to properly gather around the barstool fire and share stories – which means we're going to have a lot to catch up on when we're all back. Hope the taps are ready ...
Beer, cocktails and liquors are all just drinks. Bars are just four walls and a roof. What makes these places so special, what makes them so embedded in our state's culture, are the people inside of them. There's an energy when you walk into a bar – the electricity of people talking, of games being played and of spirits being served, cured and raised – that's indescribable. It sounds romantic and sentimental, but it's impossible not to feel sentimental for something you haven't truly felt in over a year, something that's uniquely human, that desire to gather, alone or together in a group.
I miss the strangers we randomly talked to about college team mascots or that bad movie we watched the other night or why the Bucks are struggling. I miss the longtime friends who we'll always meet out, no matter the night and no matter the circumstances, because sometimes a drink and a chat is all the reasoning you need. I even miss the hot messes and annoying people who, for better or worse, made us feel alive and feel a part of a big, loud humanity.
In short, I miss you, Milwaukee. And I can't wait to cheers you all again properly – hopefully soon.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.