That old Detroit magic

You just never know what you’ll find in Detroit when you open that door or turn that corner.

Ring the buzzer

We spent Derby weekend up there (that’s the Kentucky Derby for all you non-Kentucky folks) since we rented our ‘real’ house out for the weekend, doing some research for a couple of stories I’m working on, and meeting with Glen and Ann, the contractor/realtor couple we’re working with to buy our house. We’d hoped to find that the house was nearly ready to close, but nope, not so much. In fact, they said it would be the end of May. Maybe longer. An entire month now wiped off the calendar of getting the house ready, I was much in need of a bourbon when we left them.

We headed to a place called Abick’s that I’d heard about it while researching my story on Detroit for whiskey lovers. By the time we left I was all smiles again — and not from the bourbon (well, not entirely, at least).

Shadow, the resident bar puppy

The bar is on a non-descript corner. In fact, the bar itself is pretty non-descript. You wouldn’t likely know it was there unless you were looking for it. Being that it was something like 4 p.m. and we realize that’s not exactly a hopping time for a bar, we weren’t sure it was open. Brian waited in the car with Truffs while I tried the door. After a moment it opened and, giving Brian a quick thumbs up I stepped into the dark space crowded with pool table and memorabilia.

Settling in at one end of the bar, I leaned forward to get a better look at the selection. “What kind of bourbon do you have?” I asked the bartender, a friendly-looking white-haired gent. He showed me the Jim Beam and Jack Daniels. I elected not to go into my definition of bourbon vs. whiskey, and instead leaned my elbows on the bar to peer further into the cluster of bottles. There! Turned sideways, I spotted a bottle of Knob Creek. “On the rocks, please,” I asked, as Brian joined me.

“Where are you from?” our bartender asked, launching into a conversation that went on amiably for some indeterminate amount of time. His son lives in Louisville, it turns out, so we chatted about this and that over the blaring TV, which he was kind enough to turn down a few decibels when I finally asked if he wouldn’t mind to do so (I guess I’m that old). The bar dog wandered out at one point, a 130 pound Bull Mastiff puppy. Well, now that I knew this was a dog-friendly bar, I darted outside to get Truffle. After being buzzed back in (yep) we let the dogs sniff each other a bit, then returned to our sipping and chatting.

This bar has been around for more than a hundred years, its owner nearly as long. She was born in the apartment upstairs 90 years ago, and is still in charge. I saw her white hair in the back room but didn’t want to barge in and disturb her. Police and firefighters like to hang out here, our new friend Greg told us. And a tour bus brings people in now and then, which he thinks is pretty nice. The owner’s nephew, George, rolled in after a while and introductions were made all around. After he retired to the cigar room (!?) the Knob Creek came back out. “Another round on George? He thinks it’s nice that you’re visiting from Louisville.” You don’t have to ask me twice.

The fellow at the other end of the bar, by the way, a husky guy in dog tags wearing a T-shirt reading “I’m so tough I vacation in Detroit” popped down to our end now and then to offer our Pomeranian dog treats. Shadow, the bull mastiff, looked on with distrust at our little fluff perched up on a seat.

Curiosity got the better of me finally, and I asked if we could check out the cigar room.

A dog walks into a bar

“Come on!” We stepped behind the bar and opened the door into a snug room packed with cushy black leather sofas and a wood-paneled wall lined with multiple little drawers. Each drawer bore a brass tag engraved with initials. Despite a system meant to filter the air, the cigar smoke aroma hung heavy. I felt bad about taking Truffle in there, thought about leaving him alone in the car, and picked the cigar room. We sunk into a loveseat, ice tinkling in our glasses and I tried to act like I hang out in hidden cigar rooms in southwest Detroit every day. (Probably to little avail.)

I’ve tried once or twice to smoke a cigar, learning the hard way — quickly — not to inhale. “What’s a good starter cigar?” I asked George, who was puffing on his stogie, a study of nonchalance. He really does hang out in a southwest Detroit cigar room every day. “Something in a light wrapper,” he mused. “I know just the thing.” He disappeared, leaving Brian and me to sip our bourbon and grin, and returned brandishing a reasonably sized cigar, in light wrapper as promised.

I tried without success to light it and finally handed it to Brian. Where do guys learn this skill, cub scouts? Once it was alight I took my first puff with better success, judging by George’s smile hearty “good job.” We wondered aloud what was in all the compartments. Locked, they were. “Is it just cigars?” Brian asked.

“Cigars,” said George. “And maybe things the guys don’t want their wives to see.”

I stepped out to find the ladies’ (one of the most spic and span bar bathrooms I’ve ever seen, bar or otherwise) and stopped at the bar for a glass of water, where I chatted a few more minutes with Greg – who used to be a regular here, and after retiring, just sort of moved behind the bar.  We talked about Detroit. His son wants him to move to Louisville but he likes it just fine right here. “Detroit is making a comeback,” he said. This isn’t anybody the tourism board gives their stamp of approval to. This isn’t somebody who thinks he’s being interviewed — I hadn’t even told him my job or that I sometimes write about Detroit. This is a guy who believes in his city and appreciates visitors.

I returned to the cigar room to find Brian and George engrossed in a talk about local politics (when I inquired later how that happened Brian explained that of course in a cigar room the conversation topics ought to include firearms or politics). I would’ve liked to have settled in for the night with another whiskey and just listened to Detroit stories, but Brian’s family was waiting an hour’s drive away so we made our goodbyes.

We asked to cash out our tab back at the bar. “Nah,” came the answer. “It’s nice that you came up from Louisville for the weekend. First round’s on me. George got the second, and that was just one of his personal cigars, so no charge. Welcome to Detroit.”

I stopped to pat the big puppy’s head (who was easier with me now that Brian had Truffle) while Brian tried to surreptitiously leave a tip (this isn’t the kind of place with a big glass TIPS bowl) and thanked them profusely. “We’ll see you all again soon,” I said, which elicited a big smile and laughter from Greg. “I love the way you guys talk,” he said by way of explanation. I smiled and laughed too. I love the way these guys roll. Welcome to Detroit.