Kids in bars make sweet memories for some, leave bitter tastes for others
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Today, many craft breweries, beer gardens, tasting rooms and even some bars are attempting to be more family-friendly. And even though some people believe parenting and booze are a bad mix regardless of the environment, for some moms and dads the shift in cultural acceptance of moderate public drinking has been a godsend.
On the plus side, having a beer or two in front of kids models a healthy relationship with alcohol, something every parent hopes for their child, and doesn't make hooch the proverbial forbidden fruit. But for some kids, exposure to alcohol-focused environments might contribute to early associations with drinking and having fun. Really, it could go either way, and for these Milwaukeeans, it did.
Obviously, Patty Zastrow doesn't remember going to a South Side Milwaukee bar when she was 2 weeks old, but her sisters – who were teenagers at the time – assure her that it happened.
In 1964, Zastrow's dad – a regular at numerous local taps – was 39. Back then, someone almost 40 was considered old to have a newborn, so her dad toted her to his taverns to prove he still had the capabilities of fathering a kid in his "advanced age."
When Zastrow was 4, she had a Big Wheel-type bike that she loved to ride, but the rule was she could only pedal it to the end of the block and back so she was always in sight of a grown up.
"Well, they were never watching me very carefully, so I would sneak around the corner so I could drive past Kitzrow's tavern," says Zastrow. "I loved the rush of cool air conditioned air whenever someone walked out and the smell of liquor and cigarettes. I just loved it."
Zastrow also distinctly remembers going with her dad to the White House in 1969, when she was 5.
"I remember walking up the steps which seemed so big and everywhere there was wood. The guy that ran it was in a wheelchair. My dad introduced me as 'my youngest' and this older lady with very bright short red hair was just so thrilled to see me. I was very shy. She set me up with an orange soda and I got to sit by myself at a table," says Zastrow.
"What I remember mostly is a sunbeam coming through the front window with a haze of cigarette smoke and just looking at it and drinking my very cold orange soda on a hot summer day."
Zastrow says her dad was a quick, beer-and-a-shot drinker so she remembers him often saying to her, "Drink up we're leaving."
"In retrospect, it was probably good he didn't force me to sit around in a bar all day," says Zastrow.
Although she's never been a problem drinker, Zastrow has always enjoyed bars and bar culture as an adult.
"I usually go by myself or with my dog if they are allowed. For me it's about the socialization. I talk to anybody and everybody," says Zastrow. "It's been great especially for making connections. Whenever I've moved into a new place I go to the bar and talk to the locals. They tell me about the best butcher shop in the neighborhood, or what streets to avoid because they have sketchy people. I've even gotten job leads and furniture from these connections."
Zastrow, who is the mother of two grown sons, says when they were younger, she was careful about the amount of time they spent in bars, but she wasn't opposed to occasional visits.
"Especially if food was being served," she says.
When Dave Mikolajek was almost 8 years old, his mother gave birth to twins. Following the twins' arrival, she was very busy with the new babies and so little Dave got to spend a lot of time with his dad.
"My father was very active playing sports that were sponsored by taverns and he'd take me along with him to The Newport, Fairview Lanes, Liquid Johnny's, Stuart's, The Main Gate – to name a few," he says.
Mikolajek, now 48, says for the most part it was fun. His dad's friends were usually nice and generous – often giving him money for pinball, sodas, candy or chips.
"I can still remember back then when a guy named 'Duffy' taught me how to reach up to the coin return of a pay phone to see if there was any change in there. And when there was, it was so exciting," says Mikolajek.
Mikolajek says he also witnessed darker sides of the tavern world like intoxication and inappropriate language.
"These unpleasantries take away from a youthful innocence. And that's not cool," he says. "There's so many other things to do to help a young man or woman grow like art, music or exercise."
Ricky Becker, now in his 50s, spent most of his Sundays during the mid-1960s with his family at a bar in Grafton called Schriner's. The owners were friends with his mom and Betty Schriner, one of the owners, played poker with Becker's uncle.
"We would go to church on Sunday and then go to Schriners where my parents would meet other young couples to drink beer and watch the game," says Becker. "The beer came in little bottles called 'shorties' and there were dime taps."
Becker says all of the couples brought their kids along and they would run around the bar together or play pinball and shuffle bowling. Sometimes they got to order a pepperoni pizza.
"I loved music, so my parents gave me quarters to play the jukebox. Many times I would sit on the bar and sing 'Harper Valley P.T.A.' by Jeannie C. Reilly or 'Little Arrows' by Leapy Lee or 'Those Were the Days' and people would tip me quarters. I was a total ham. This all went on while I sipped my kiddie cocktail, which was 7-up and something red, with extra cherries," says Becker.
Becker's early experiences in bars made drinking natural and nonchalant, rather than mysterious. "It was never portrayed negatively, nor was it a big deal. When it came time to be legal, I was comfortable around alcohol and didn't really abuse it. I love a fancy cocktail on occasion, but the older I get I drink less and less," says Becker. "I will never forget being a little star, belting out tunes on the bar. Some of my happiest moments with my mom and dad were during those times. They were so loving and proud of me."
Suzy Richardson grew up at her grandmother's bar, Irene J's, on South Second Street. Her grandfather died young and her grandmother ran the bar and raised three daughters on her own. She later raised Richardson, as well.
"I started going to the bar as a child. I loved playing in the banquet hall and playing the jukebox and holidays were the best. I also loved sitting outside in summer and smelling the yeast in the air from the nearby factories and breweries," says Richardson. "And I don't think (these experiences) affected my drinking."
Eva Higgins recently started a lively Facebook debate when she posted a story about the recent uptick of kids in drinking establishments – and that she wasn't a fan.
"My main aversion to high chairs next to bar stools – especially in Wisconsin – is we are a state surrounded and permeated with drinking culture. Kids don't have a chance to stay away from it. Give them the choice. Give them the chance," says Higgins.
Higgins believes that ultimately going to a bar as a kid isn't the gateway to alcoholism, but she also doesn't think it's in their best interest.
"Some people grew up in bars and are fine. Some people grew up in bars and are alcoholics. It really depends, but to me, the bar is grown-up land," says Higgins.
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