Changing Gears: Still Working

Featured Audio

(bar music)
So when you walk into any bar, you should see one of those signs reminding you how old you have to be to drink there. You know ... right now they say, "Your birthday must be on or before today's date in 1989" to buy alcohol....

Well by 1989, the owner of THIS bar was well beyond legal … he was already eligible for social security.

MALVETIS: My name is Tom Malvetis. Born Halloween night 1922. I'm going to be 88 in October.

We're in the Unicorn Tavern in Lansing - the state capital but also an auto town.

MALVETIS: I am the owner of the bar. A working owner of the bar.

Tom Malvetis opens his bar at 8:30 in the morning. And he closes up ... at three in the morning. It's something he's been doing for more than 30 years.

I asked Tom Malvetis why ... after all this time ... he's 'still working.'

MALVETIS: My wife passed away ten years ago. This keeps me busy and I don't lose my mind. Empty walls at home don't mean anything.

But the Unicorn and his customers do. Tonight the bar is filled with mostly working class men … just like it's always been. Once there were bars like this across the region… in places like Anderson, Indiana or Janesville, Wisconsin … places where workers stood three deep for a drink after work.

MALVETIS: 30 years ago, I'd have 20, 30 people waiting for me to open up in the morning. They were from the factories and they were ready to have their breakfast and their drinks. And now, that is all gone.

And this bar might be gone too if it weren't for Tom Malvetis. You see back when he bought the place it was called the Shamrock. And it was rough. So rough that in 1982 it was the scene of a murder. That's when Tom Malvetis decided to change the bar's name ... and its image.

MALVETIS: Enjoy your beer!
(bar ambi)

Ted DeLeon is nursing a drink down by the jukebox. He remembers this place when it was a real blue collar bar.

DELEON: And you know what? It still is. But it took a lot of effort on Tommy's part to straighten it out.

As the neighborhood changes, there are also new customers in the mix ... students, government employees ... Still, it's not easy. Tom Malvetis is raising money for a bar that’s struggling just down the street. But he's kept the Unicorn afloat … and in return his loyal customers have kept him afloat.

Ambi: “Check one two. Check.”

The men clear a stool and wait for the arrival of the bar's most cherished patron ... Elizabeth Artin. Like Tom, Liz is 88. She's been coming in for a drink for ... oh, 15 or 20 years.

ARTIN: Two draught beers or three if I'm here for four hours.
DAVIDSON: A lot of people don't think of 88 year olds coming in a bar at ... it's 9:05 right now.
ARTIN: Right, cause the band starts at 10. I dance a lot.

These customers are Tom Malvetis's friends. This is his home.

As the night wears on, Tom Malvetis pulls an old photograph from behind the bar. 1926.

MALVETIS: My dad, my mom, my brother and my sister. They're all gone. And I'm right here.

Tom Malvetis says he's not a drinking man. But sometimes when he closes up at 3 in the morning, he pours himself a shot of brandy.

MALVETIS: So I take a sip and I say goodnight ma and pa, goodnight brother and sister. And goodnight to my wife. Take the shot of brandy and I go. And that's goodnight for me.

Tom Malvetis will be 88 on Halloween. For Changing Gears, I'm Kate Davidson in Lansing, Michigan.

Do you know other people in their eighties and nineties who are still working? Go to changing gears dot info and tell us about them. Changing Gears is a joint project of public radio stations in Ann Arbor, Chicago and Cleveland. Support for Changing Gears comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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