Of the 2,000 bars in Milwaukee, Big John’s Tap was one of the smallest. “Seating Capacity 12,000,” claimed the tavern’s matchbook covers, adding in fine print, “12 at a Time.” That was about the size of it when I first saw the place in 1972: a dozen stools lined up against a plain Formica bar, a table in one corner, a jukebox in the other, and between them an electric bowling machine that was eventually replaced by an upright piano.
Modest as it was, Big John’s Tap played a formative role in my life at a time when I was decidedly a work in progress. Some people go to mountain peaks or desert islands to find themselves; for me, it was this little bar on Milwaukee’s South Side.
The “Big John” on the neon sign above the front door was John Kwiatkowski, an appropriately plus-size South Sider who ran the tavern as a sort of recreational adjunct to his small roofing business. John and his wife, Esther, shared cramped quarters behind the bar, and their son, Billy, the night bartender and eventually my good friend, lived in a tiny bedroom directly above.
This mom-pop-and-son establishment was shoehorned into a 30-foot lot at 2508 S. 12th St., two doors off the intersection of 12th and Arthur in the very heart of the old South Side Polish district. The street was lined with Polish flats and small duplexes from the early years of the 20th century. The Polish National Catholic church was two blocks away, St. Josaphat’s Basilica four blocks farther. In 1980, 51% of the residents of Big John’s census tract claimed Polish ancestry, one of the highest concentrations in the city.
John did not have the shot-and-a-beer market to himself in such a crowded working-class neighborhood. There were, by actual count in the 1975 city directory, 67 taverns in the surrounding square mile, each dispensing its own blend of community and escape. Most were interchangeable with Big John’s: small, family-owned thirst emporiums with names like Stan & Verna’s, Tom’s Place, Ted and Marilyn’s, Hank’s on Sixth, Gordy & Kathy’s.
I lived across the street from Big John’s for five years in the mid-1970s, renting the upper rear unit of a brick four-family owned by Roman Marzec, an ancient Polish immigrant who had retired from the International Harvester factory decades earlier. Roman wore thermal underwear in season and out, and there was a permanent dent in his lower lip from an ever-present cigar. For $125 a month, I had the use of four small rooms, with a bathroom in the hall and a back porch just large enough for a single lawn chair. I was 25 when I moved in, a long-haired kid three years out of college, precariously employed and, it turned out, on the verge of grad school. I was just starting to immerse myself in Milwaukee’s story; Big John’s made that story a living, breathing reality.
I don’t remember the first time I pulled up a stool at the tavern; it was probably just to watch a ballgame and have a beer. I do recall the moment when I knew I was a regular. I walked in one fall evening to find that Esther had made me a liver sausage sandwich, complete with onions and a pickle. Esther had me pegged as a somewhat disorganized young man of uncertain dietary habits, which was true enough. Later I learned that she would see me walking across the street from my apartment and say, “John’s coming. I better make a sandwich.”
Nearly all of my fellow regulars lived within a few blocks of the bar, and their ethnic profile was hard to mistake – Ciszewskis, Zielinskis, Przybylskis and Rzatkiewiczes. The major exceptions to the walking-distance rule were the Perfex guys, coming off second shift at a radiator factory on nearby Oklahoma Avenue. After bending metal at their turret lathes and punch presses for eight hours, they were ready to spend a few more bending elbows. My closest friends on the Perfex crew were Tommy and Larry Chaulklin, brothers from Up North built like middleweight wrestlers with rough-and-tumble dispositions to match.
I was different from most of Big John’s regulars in two respects: I’d spent more time in school, and I didn’t work with my hands. Those differences were acknowledged and accepted with a bare minimum of fuss. Big John’s Tap served all of us as a community living room, the place where we socialized, watched the Brewers and Packers, played games and wasted time at our own chosen speeds.
What I discovered, after a month or two of Esther’s liver sausage sandwiches, was that I had happened into an urban village. If Milwaukee was indeed a “big small town,” that identity was due in part to the abundance of small towns in the city’s neighborhoods. For the regulars, Big John’s Tap was a self-contained and impressively complete social system. We knew each other by our stories, and they flowed like Pabst Blue Ribbon in the unforced intimacy of the bar. Big John recounted more than once the terrors of driving a tank against the Nazis in World War II. At any point on any evening, one regular or another might have been talking about his high school glory days, her doomed first marriage, or why the hell Bart Starr was such a great player and such a lousy coach.
John and Esther kept this strong with a full calendar of social events: an annual picnic in Greenfield Park, occasional pig roasts in the backyard, a yearly buffet at Pabst for the brewery’s best customers and their patrons, bar-sponsored softball teams. I played outfield on every one of Big John’s teams, and I still have a team jacket somewhere in the attic – too frayed to wear, too precious to toss. My favorite coach was Ziggie Majchszak, who took his manager’s role every bit as seriously as George Bamberger with the Brewers. Irene, Ziggie’s wife and our devoted fan, was known for the huge purse she lugged around. I once asked if she had a hammer in there; without a moment’s hesitation, Irene fished around in the depths of that enormous satchel and pulled one out.
There were enough characters in the Big John’s crowd to fill a caricaturist’s sketchbook. The regulars included Harry the Hat, Richie Fingers, Kissing Ray, Gino the Mailman and Bubsie, a New Berlin farmer whose entire wardrobe consisted of flannel shirts and bib overalls. Big John’s brother, Tony, banged away on the bar’s piano every Saturday night.
And Billy Kwiatkowski himself was the soul of the evening shift. Billy had attended art school in Brooklyn, with a specialty in scene-painting for the theater. There were precious few openings in that field when he came home, but the tavern became Billy’s canvas. He once spent weeks covering the entire back bar with a scene from the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland, carefully crafting a castle, an inn, a church. The regulars were genuinely impressed, but after a year or two the mural became wallpaper. Meaning no disrespect to his son, Big John hung a trophy walleye between the two highest peaks. Billy eventually painted over the entire panorama with a more predictable Up North scene.
I delighted in bringing friends down to Big John’s, including the occasional tenured professor. Billy was always good for a round or two. When my future wife, Sonja, became a mainstay in my life, she naturally became a Big John’s regular as well, and she and Billy and I developed an especially close friendship. He was always making bets he knew he couldn’t win – quitting smoking, losing weight – as a flimsy pretext for taking us out to dinner, usually at the Lone Pine Inn on 16th and Grant.
Those dinners were high points in my years as a regular, but one of my proudest moments at Big John’s illustrated the power of the written word. I was already writing about Milwaukee in the late 1970s, and National Geographic tracked me down when the magazine was preparing a profile of the city. My first thought, naturally, was to take the reporter, Louise Levathes, down to Big John’s Tap on a Saturday night. She was enthralled. Levathes gave the tavern a full two paragraphs in the August 1980, issue, borrowing my “community living room” line and highlighting Tony Kwiatkowski’s informal piano concerts. For weeks after the article appeared, complete strangers, most of them passing through from other states, would drop by on Saturday nights to hear Tony play his learned-by-ear renditions of “Harbor Lights,” “Blueberry Hill,” and other standards. I basked in the reflected glory.
Was there a dark side to this South Side idyll? Oh, yes. Big John’s was the closest I’ll ever come to living in a small town, with the same spectrum of strengths and weaknesses. The tavern had all the stereotypical virtues of a rural community – a relaxed pace, mutual support, inherent modesty – but some of the faults as well, including a prohibitively foreshortened view of the world. In that little hothouse on 12th Street, people’s favorite subject was other people. Gossip was currency, and feuds played out in the open. I also witnessed more than one near-fight. Whenever violence seemed imminent, John would bellow, “Cut it out or I’ll sit on you!” which usually settled the matter. These uniformly white villagers held some insular attitudes as well, including a reflexive racism. I recall being tutored one night in the manifold differences between a Black man and a (N-word), the first deserving utmost respect and the second utter scorn.
There were also physical hazards. Big John’s was, remember, a tavern. Practically every regular smoked in the 1970s, and the few who didn’t might as well have. And we all drank. The balm for our tensions, the solvent for our inhibitions, was alcohol. Most of us stayed safely on the near side of oblivion, but there were nights when the bar’s collective mood became irrepressibly buoyant and Billy started pouring shots. He’d raise a glass from his left side and say, “First one today – with this hand.” His shooter of choice was the aber gut – German for “but good”– which consisted of brandy poured to the line and then topped with peppermint schnapps. Two or three of those usually meant a 2:30 a.m. breakfast with Billy at Cunningham’s on 13th Street and a headache the next morning.
Hazards and hangovers aside, I wouldn’t have traded my years as a regular for a Fulbright fellowship. Big John’s Tap is where I became a true South Sider. Not that I didn’t have a solid head start. My grandfather was born in Poland, my father spoke the language, and I was raised on South 34th Street, and then in Hales Corners. I also had vivid childhood memories of Gurda patriarchs breaking out the sheepshead deck and firing up cigars after Christmas dinner.
But I was in some ways a casualty of the ’60s, preoccupied with Big Questions and adrift in the firmament with the likes of T.S. Eliot and James Joyce. I had moved to 12th Street as a refugee from both academia and the Age of Aquarius. I was already a self-proclaimed “born-again ethnic,” looking to my roots for a firmer connection with the world than anything the counterculture could offer. Big John’s provided that and more; the tavern community did me the great favor of bringing me down to earth. I had begun to find my feet at Journey House, the South Side youth center where I worked for three years after college, but that tiny tavern on 12th Street is where I started walking.
Learning how to play sheepshead at one end of the bar and when to farm aces with a dice cup at the other were only superficial accomplishments. The real lesson was learning to live in an authentic community that was rooted in my own ancestral culture, one that rose from the very foundation of Milwaukee. It meant following my grandfather’s footsteps into the late 20th century and beyond. I had obviously been a South Sider all my life. Big John’s Tap added the critical dimension of belonging; I could feel in my bones what I knew in my brain. My Milwaukee education, I realize, was radically incomplete – people of color were totally absent – but an informed and open grounding in my own world has proven to be a powerful starting point for understanding and appreciating other worlds.
Memories of that world are indelible. When Sonja and I got engaged in 1977, Big John’s was the first place we went to share the news, and Big John helped make our wedding reception a success, providing barrels of PBR at cost and booking our two-piece polka band. Of the 300 or so people who celebrated with us at the old Sons of Norway hall on Greenfield Avenue, a dozen or two were fellow regulars. And there were those incandescent nights at the bar, when the cards were falling right, one story led seamlessly to another, and the table was brimming with good will. There was no place in the world I would rather have been on those occasions, no people on earth whose company I would have preferred. What I felt on those evenings was freedom. What I felt was family.
Eventually, perhaps inevitably, the family broke up. Esther Kwiatkowski died of a heart attack in 1978 at the impossibly young age of 53, and with her passing the bar’s soul was materially diminished. I was a pallbearer at her funeral – small repayment for all those sandwiches. Perfex closed its plant and moved production to Mississippi, eliminating more than 200 jobs. The casualties included Tommy and Larry Chaulklin, who moved north to Fremont, a town of 700 on the Wolf River. One by one, the regulars left the neighborhood, Sonja and I among them. In 1978, we bought the last $36,000 house in Bay View and started to have kids. Big John finally sold the tavern in 1981 and retired. Billy decamped for West Allis as the manager of a bar attached to a Chinese restaurant, where he resisted the temptation to paint a mural of the Great Wall. We stopped at his place and the old bar on 12th Street once in a while, but it was never the same. The weeks between visits became months, and the months became years.
It’s been almost half a century since I lifted my first 20-cent tapper at Big John’s. I went for a stroll around the old neighborhood on a recent summer evening. Big John’s has long since been converted to a small residence, but 12th Street otherwise looks largely the same. What has changed is the culture. The population of my old census tract was more Latino in 2019 (63%) than it was Polish in 1980 (51%). The Ciszewskis and Zielinskis on my former block were replaced by Garcias and Santiagos years ago. I stopped at one of the few surviving taverns for a beer – cerveza now, no longer piwo – and felt a glimmer of the old sense of community, but that world is closed to me, forever sealed off by language, custom and age.
I’ll never be a regular again; I simply don’t have the stamina, the desire, or the time. But I look back on my life as a barfly with nothing but fondness. The person who comes most often to mind is Billy Kwiatkowski. The last time I saw him was at the Wilson Park Senior Center, where I was giving a talk and he had just directed a play starring his fellow seniors. He told me that he was battling health problems and living alone in subsidized housing on the South Side. There was more than a whisper of disappointment about him, but Billy told stories during the question-and-answer session as if he were right back at the bar.
Then, in March of 2019, I received the sad news from his sister-in-law that Billy had died. His funeral was stark evidence of how completely our old world had disintegrated. There was no reunion of aging barmates, not even a service – just a handful of relatives and friends at the funeral home, sharing wistful memories of a singular figure in their lives. I found myself wanting a heartier send-off for a person who had played such a vital role at such a pivotal point in my life. And so this story’s for you, Billy. With it I raise a glass to your memory, old friend. First one today – with this hand.