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A Night at Nye's: Toasting the Past with the Regulars

Enjoying a round at Nye's Piano Bar

Enjoying a round at Nye's Piano Bar

At 4 p.m. when the bar opens, one day after news hit that stalwart bar Nye's Polonaise would be closing next year, many details appear to be business as usual. A beer truck's hazard lights flash in the hazy afternoon light as it idles next to the front door. The linen truck is pulling into the parking lot for a delivery of fresh kitchen towels, aprons, and napkins. Other things are less than usual: television cameras set up and trained on old-timers as they head inside. A stooped-over gentleman is telling an anchor how he feels about the news.

Inside, two ladies of a certain age sit at the end of the bar in faux fur coats and hats. They nurse lowballs and glasses of red wine. Dan Richardson, Nye's barman of 19 years, knows each of them by name, and they address him by his. He's setting up his bar as he would any other night, filling small glasses with matches and checking the pars on bottles.

As the steady stream of guests trickles in, there's only one subject on people's lips -- they're heartbroken over the news.

See also: Closing of Nye's Polonaise Room Inspires Citywide Heartache, Mourning, Sniping

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Servers, hosts, and bartenders are doing triple duty by keeping up with the near-constant jangling of telephones, one at the host stand and the other behind the bar. A hostess can be heard trying to make accommodations for the many reservation requests for the month. She says the books are filling fast.

"Don't make me cry," she says into the phone. As she walks away she's stifling a sniffle. She's in a signature red and black uniform, heavy eyeliner, and a pallor on her face to suggest she's seen it all.

Richardson seems more stoic. He's tall, handsome, and gray with an impressive mustache of the same color. "This is the just name of the game," he tells me, and comments that the building is very old, and is sitting on valuable real estate.

"Apartment buildings," he says simply. He's a suburbs guy -- he needs grass to mow and a place for his labs to run.

It was a desire to spend more time at home and with family that brought him to bartending in the first place.

"Before this I was a suit. I was never at home. My daughters showed horses and I could never go and watch. It occurred to me that if I was doing something more like this, I could just have my shift covered and take a day off once in a while." His sister was a Nye's manager and she had some bartending shifts open up. He picked them up and never looked back. The fact that the place is a union house helped -- they receive healthcare benefits, a rarity in the biz. Tony and Rob Jacob have also been very good to staff over the years, he says, and points to the fact that employees were given almost a year's notice to make plans for their next move, also a rarity.

Later, he's overheard telling the ladies at the end of the bar that he's probably going to be having some more sleepless nights.

Phil Barker has been a Nye's bartender for more than twice as long as Richardson.

"I'm having my 15 minutes of fame right now," he says. He's been fielding plenty of interviews as the establishment's most veteran employee. He's funny and flirtatious and impeccably fits the part of the hospitable older gent with a twinkle in his eye. His dry wit comes off smooth as silk.

He likes to calculate the time he's worked at the bar down to, practically, the moment: 45 years, 10 months, and 1 day, as of today. He's collected one W-2 in his entire life, met his wife of 43 years, Rita, at his bar, and still puts in two afternoon shifts a week, though he's semi-retired and collecting Social Security and a pension from the union.

Is he sad about the closing? Yes, of course he is.

"When you spend your whole life in a place..." He trails off. But, he says, he's got lots of options, and he may continue to work elsewhere, he's just not sure yet.

When I probe him for a good old-fashioned bartender's tale of debauchery -- seriously, I try every angle -- he just won't spill. He'll only say that there are more stories than not, most of them not fit to print, and if you want to know about them you may have to take a look at the book he says he's writing.

"It's going to be called The Rise and Fall of the Virgin Bartender or The Truth About Nye's. Each chapter is going to be about a different customer. The first page is going to be a disclaimer which will say, 'This is strictly seen through my eyes and my eyes only, but this is what I saw.'"

I can't tell if he's putting me on, but so far, your secrets are safe with him. As with any good barman with his ethics intact, what happens at his bar stays at his bar.

Why did he stick around for so long?

"Because I was having fun! This was a place where I could act out and still get paid. Why get a job that's work?"

Customer Jeannne Ruiz bellies up to the bar and announces that she's there for her birthday drink. If I'm doing my math correctly, it's her 70th. She orders a White Russian, and says she's in town from Iowa for some doctor visits. She and her family were going to celebrate her birthday at Nye's anyway later in the week, but after hearing the news, she thought she'd stop in a little early.

"It's not just that you came to this place and had good times, it's that you have history here." She remembers her 80-year-old mother coming in and dancing with the younger folks. "She just loved it that even the 20- and 30-year-olds knew how to polka." She also said her late husband had worked at the bar as did his sister.

Only one man hadn't already heard about the closing. He had simply stopped in, as he has done for most of the last 25 years for a post-work jumbo whiskey Coke and a plate of potato pierogies. He admits he hadn't been in for a while and vowed to come back more often in the coming year. He chats it up with Richardson and Ruiz about dogs, deer hunting, and grandchildren.

"This is the kind of place where you can come in and insert yourself into someone's conversation and nobody minds," says Ruiz. It's notable that nobody is thumbing a cellphone.

Both bartenders say that they won't be going anywhere for now -- the next year is bound to be busy with everyone stopping by for a last round, and Barker encourages people to do just that.

"Then, you can see the real me. I always say if you think the customer is always right, then you're in the wrong bar."

Try telling that to the regulars.

Nye's Polonaise Room has been open since 1950 and is scheduled to close after August of 2015.

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