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Monday, April 30, 2012

The best dive bar in Michigan?

Tim Chilcote
This just in! We're giving writer and longtime Siciliano's friend Tim Chilcote free and unfettered access to cover events at the 9th Annual Homebrew Party at Johnson Park.

Why the need for press credentials? Partly we thought it would be interesting if someone other than a Siciliano's employee wrote an account of the event. We're also just big fans of Tim's workevident in the many, many times we've reposted content from his blog, The Great Lakes Guru.

Here's another instance of us pulling something good straight from Tim's blog. It's an entertaining review of that most venerable of Kalamazoo institutions, The Green Top Tavern, which Tim suggests might well be the best dive bar in Michigan. (Originally published on October 5, 2010 as "Green Top Olympics".)

By Tim Chilcote

The Green Top in downtown Kalamazoo might well be the best dive bar in Michigan. Dark and grimy with a wood bar that runs the length of the room, the Green Top is populated by local drunks and WMU students. But the Green Top is not a hipster dive bar. Oh no, the WMU students who frequent the Green Top are generally in search of cheap drinks and hometown flavor, and are not at all interested in making any hipster dive-bar scene. On almost any night or day, the owners, an older married couple, play bartender. They pour stiff drinks and make average sandwiches to soak up the booze.

For the purposes of this blog post, it’s important to note that the Green Top has a front and back door. The back door opens into an alley and a downtown Kalamazoo parking lot. The front door opens onto Michigan Avenue, Kalamazoo’s downtown thoroughfare.

In the winter of 2002 I was sitting at a banquet table between the jukebox and the pool table. The snow was coming down like a bastard; the kind of wet snow that sounds hypnotic, like television fuzz, the kind of snow that turns a city into a ghost town. So the Green Top was sparsely populated that night with a few die-hards at the bar, and maybe a couple students sitting in the corner.

But the person of note was playing pool, or rather, hovering around the pool table and leaning on his cue. A smallish Mexican man, he looked to be around 50, never removed his stocking cap. To this day, he is hands-down the most intoxicated human being I’ve ever seen standing. He threw back shots of bourbon and glasses of beer at an alarming pace. At some point I remember predicting to my table that he would soon go down.

And then he did. The stout little drunk stepped to the bar, brought his beer to his mouth, and in one fluid motion fell straight back. But the interesting part is he didn’t fall like a normal person, didn’t crumple or try to brace himself, just fell, stiff as a chopped tree. I’d like to think someone said “timber,” but I doubt there was time, because about halfway to the floor, he cracked the back of his head square on the corner of the pool table. I swear to god, I thought he died.

One of the drunks from the bar, likely destined for the same eventual fate, jumped from his seat and pulled the little drunk back to his feet. To my astonishment, he stood again. This noble do-gooder from the bar offered the little drunk a ride home and told him that he just had to run out back and pull his car up, to which the drunk may or may not have replied.

So the good Samaritan went out the back door to get the car, and the little drunk hurriedly stumbled out the front door, whether in an escape attempt or because of an impending prior obligation was unclear. He then walked straight onto Michigan Avenue without even considering traffic; perhaps didn’t even know it was a road thanks to the snow cover.

I stepped outside to watch him disappear down a side street. He wore only jeans, a flannel button-up, and his stocking cap, a cap that might have gone on to save his life twice that night; first as a knit helmet, second as his only protection against the snow storm.

Flash forward six years…

So last time I was in the Green Top (about two years ago) I was with my wife after attending a wedding reception. We were still dressed in formal evening garb.

Unlike the 2002 winter tale, the Green Top was packed; chalk it up to a home football game and nice weather. We were lucky to find one open seat at the end of the bar. I stood. Within minutes, a middle-aged woman appeared on my right and asked if my name was Leroy. No context.

“Leroy?” I said.

“Yeah, Bad Bad Leroy Brown. You’re wearing that suit.”

Fortunately, I’d been drinking scotch at the wedding reception, which tends to make me witty and clever. “Yes, I said, Leroy is the name.”

Then a white-haired man (too young to have white hair) stepped over from the pool table on our left. “Hey, it’s Michael Phelps,” he said, pointing at me, quizzing my wife on the matter. Note: The 2008 Summer Olympics were in full swing. “He’s Michael Phelps, right, the swimmer?” Knowing the Green Top, there was a 50/50 chance that he was messing with us or really thought I was an Olympic gold-medalist.

“In fact, I am Michael Phelps. Pleased to meet you.”

After our brief introductions, the conversation quickly devolved into a good-spirited argument between the two, with a point of contention having something to do with a “dolphin stroke,” including physical reenactments from both parties.

Finally the woman left a dollar at the bar for a diet Coke - shocking - and asked that I pay the bartender and hand her the drink at the table behind us when it arrived.

When the bartender brought the Coke, the cost was $1.25 (probably the Green Top’s most expensive drink). I covered the extra quarter for my new friend and delivered the drink to the table, announcing, “Here’s your goddamn diet Coke,” to which her fellow drunks erupted in laughter.

Bad Bad Leroy Brown indeed.

1 comment:

  1. Tim,

    I discovered The Green Top as a WMU student myself. I was lucky to make friends with some native Kalamazoo boys whose Dads used to frequent the bar. I had some good times in that bar and your story brought back a lot of great memories. My Dad and uncles once taught me how to judge a great dive bar. It's pretty subjective but some of the criteria include the look of the bar itself; the 'stuff' they have lying around or hanging on the walls; the personality of the bar tender. But they contended and I contend the best judge of a great dive bar is the people you interact with while you're there--whether it is good, bad or way out there. And man, you can find some characters in the Green Top. Good work.

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