Location surely isn’t the reason Wolski’s Tavern has become a household name. The 109-year-old bar is easy to miss, barely distinguishable from the residences that flank it on Pulaski Street in the Lower East Side. I ask Bernie Bondar, the bartender and a great-grandson of the bar’s founder, how the “I Closed Wolksi’s” tradition got its start. According to Bondar, it dates back to the mid-‘70s. A crew of drinkers would stay from noon until 2 in the morning and claimed they felt underappreciated for their enduring patronage. One of Bondar’s predecessors caved and made them stickers, both to honor them and to shut them up. The gag caught on and now you can’t go around Milwaukee without seeing an “I CLOSED WOLSKI’S” bumper sticker every few blocks. “You can find them all over the country now,” Bondar says proudly.
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As we approach the witching hour on a snowy December night, a handful of happy drunks dance over enthusiastically to indistinct rock ‘n’ roll. A couple kiss at a table behind me. Two college-aged guys are having an “I love you, man” conversation by the bar.
At 2 a.m., the music is muted and last call is announced.
Somebody yells, “Hey, we closed Wolski’s!” Nobody responds. The patrons shuffle back into the single-digit cold, some of us with a souvenir.