If you spend enough time anywhere in or around Milwaukee, you’re bound to eventually see a bumper sticker proudly proclaiming “I Closed Wolski’s.” Established more than 100 years ago, the East Side tavern that’s been virtually untouched by time has become a point of Milwaukee pride that, through the sticker, has spread throughout Wisconsin, the U.S., and various corners of the world. If you really think about it, though, is one’s mere presence at a bar come closing time really an acceptable source of pride? Apart from being up late, what part of closing Wolski’s is really that impressive?
One fabled weekend afternoon, Rachel Olson, Mark Flehmer, and Danielle Dahl set out to restore significance to the widely distributed sticker’s assertion. Not only did the trio of brave young Milwaukeeans close Wolski’s, they did so after opening the bar, staying all day, and putting down a staggering amount of Miller High Life in the process. Thousands upon thousands have closed Wolski’s, but not like these three did. Here is their story…
Danielle: My stomach begins to sink as we wait outside for the doors to open. I am so nervous. What if I don’t last? I’ve never had to pace 14.5 hours of drinking. I turn to Rachel and remind her that we don’t have to do this; no one is forcing us. But that reminder is deemed irrelevant as I lift my shaking hand to open the door.
Rachel: We arrive, slightly hungover, and slightly unsure of what we’re doing. Maybe this isn’t a good idea. We ask for three Miller High Lifes and sit at the bar. The bartender, PJ, is confused when we ask for separate tabs, alerting us that the bar adheres to a strict $15 minimum. We assure him that we plan on not only opening Wolski’s, but on closing it too. He smiles and says, “Oh, this is will be fun,” and begins to introduce us to his regulars. They laugh at us now, but I can sense that they don’t doubt our mission.
Mark: My biggest concern at this point is somewhat in regard to the potential booze to be consumed, but really it’s about the potential of having to use the Wolski’s toilet with the Wild West swinging doors. I’m given no pity from the group and will swallow this internal bowel-based dialogue for the rest of the night.
Rachel: I notice the first #openclosewolskis hashtag. Our mission has been posted to Instagram. There’s no backing down now.
Danielle: To make it through a challenge like this, you have to be prepared. There are a few things that will get you through the day: food, water, and most importantly, entertainment. Trying to take advantage of the remainder of my sobriety, we crack open a fresh round of High Lifes and bust out Splendor, a strategic board game of wealthy Renaissance merchants, gems, and nobility.
Mark: I swallow a nervous laugh induced by the fact that the bartender suggested we should aim for two beers an hour, locking down 28 on the night.
Mark: At this point I’m just wishing I could go back in time and decide not to do this. I had to tell my sister I couldn’t see my one-year-old niece at Estabook Park because I was trying to spend 14.5 hours in a bar. I’m already sweating through my shirt from dehydration and sunlight. Bomb threats cross my mind, especially after hearing a third song by The National in a 45-minute span.
Rachel: I snap a Polaroid to remember our agony. A regular at the next table hasn’t seen this occur in years. He looks at our developing picture as if we arrived in a time capsule from 1972. I notice how pissed off I am when he grabs the photo and shakes it “to make it develop faster.” My anger is a good reflection of my sobriety. The more I drink, the less I care, and contrary to what Outkast may have taught you, you are not supposed to “shake it like a Polaroid picture.”
Danielle: I go inside for another beer. “That’s one of them!” PJ, the bartender announces as I walk up to the bar. Our presence is known. At Wolski’s we are famous. We can’t back down now and disappoint our adoring fans.
Danielle: A few beers in and our confidence begins to grow, Mark’s a little more than the rest of us. We’re testing new limits of height and friendship, embracing the absurdity of this endeavor.
Mark: Full-fledged adrenaline rush at this point. Pretty rock solid High Life buzz going and a man with a feather in his cap just told me life was beautiful and that he would die without music. I regret not popping off the shirt a couple more times. I know the dad bod is popular these days, but I fantasize about being the poster boy for the “Wolski’s Bod.”
Rachel: As the afternoon begins to linger, we become more intoxicated and want to be higher. When I drink, I like to climb things. I am human.
Mark: Looking at this picture you wouldn’t be able to tell if it was 10 a.m. or midnight. Next to Landmark Lanes, Wolski’s might eliminate reference of time more than any other bar on the East Side.
Rachel: I walk up to the bar to order our eighth round of High Life. PJ seems proud of our endurance. He smiles and says, “You guys are all a little more smiley than when you came in, but otherwise I can’t tell a difference.”
Rachel: PJ, our beloved bartender, is leaving us because he has to supervise a 14-year-old co-ed sleepover, inducing the ever-immature “Oooooooo,” a tell-tale sign of our inebriation. Nonetheless, he is proud of us, and confident in our mission.
Rachel: This is the worst that I feel all day. Waist deep in High Life, I am left to contemplate the meaning of this, and the meaning of life as we know it. Why am I doing this? Why did I think this was a good idea? Anyone willing to spend 14.5 hours in the beautiful cave that is Wolski’s Tavern with me on one of the last days of summer is worth having in my life. Friendships like this are hard to come by. I’ll cheers to that. But hey, at this point I’ll cheers to most anything.
Danielle: I try hard not to look at the clock and think about the remaining hours. I try even harder not to look at the High Life tally on the back of my hand. It’s time for another beer. Cheers, guys.
Rachel: We probably should have asked Miller to sponsor us.
Danielle: Confidence is at an all-time high. Time to do some cool shit.
Rachel: Her Majesty The Decemberists is playing in full for the third time today. I have lost all inhibition and beg our new bartender to turn it off. He is less than impressed and claims we aren’t drinking enough to warrant that kind of request.
Mark: After being apprehensive to consume too much too soon, I give myself permission to saturate myself with beer in every way possible. My friends appear to be unhappy unless I’m on the brink of doing something stupid.
Danielle: As if we needed to perpetuate our drinking even further, we’re now several rounds deep in a circle of death. I swallow my dignity and wash it down with another High Life.
Rachel: “Mr. Brightside” is turned up loud and I am high on life, and High Life. The cocktail waitress wants me off the table, but I stay. I am a rebel and I don’t care.
Mark: One hundred percent miserable at this point. Regret wearing pants. Regret not wearing sandals. Regret not asking my crush to a dance in 8th grade. Regret not petting my cat more as a child before my parents put it down. Can no longer think in complete sentences.
Rachel: We did it, so they gave us a free t-shirt. Had I known this would be our reward from the start, I never would have doubted our self-imposed misery. I actually feel sad that we have to leave. Wolski’s is my home now.
Danielle: As everyone files out of the bar, we receive high-fives, bumper stickers, and well-deserved t-shirts. While this was a definite high
lifelight of the summer, I miss my cats and am ready to go home.