On March 17, bars throughout our great land will throw open their doors before the sun comes up. And, bedecked in leprechaun hats and ridiculous green beads, folks will line up for green beer and whiskey and eggs, angling for 11 on the blotto meter before the morning news is over.
Yes, the Feast of St. Patrick is Amateur Day. It's the one moment each year when we seek a momentary escape from the 9-to-5 grind for the pursuit of finding a place to pee that will not get us arrested.
But for a privileged few, this is life. The third-shifters who toil while the rest of us sleep need their booze too; it just so happens they need it when you need toast.
In the days when Cleveland's ports and factories churned 'round the clock, countless bars awaited the swell of thirsty workers ending their day at the exact moment everyone else's day was starting. Today, only a noble handful of them still cater to the morning crowd, firing up their neon signs and slinging shots at 5:30 a.m. — the earliest hour at which Ohio law allows alcohol to be served.
There aren't many, and they aren't particularly easy to find. But they are out there, quietly providing the retirees, the overnighters, the unemployed, and the vaguely degenerate with beer and liquor. They are propping up your America.
As the rest of mankind joins them for a day, we celebrate Cleveland's dawn drinkers with a tour of their world — a land where vodka and gin flow like coffee and juice, and where green beer might just get your ass kicked. Here's hoping you'll join them someday.
Rowley Inn, Tremont; 7:13 a.m.
The Rowley Inn is tucked away on a residential street on the non-yuppie side of Tremont — the part with no fancy chefs.
The two-story building sits opposite the famed Christmas Story House, and its perpetually illuminated leg lamp advertises exactly what it is: a watering hole for blue-collar workers and neighborhood folks who congregate for budget booze and talking. Or not talking.
This morning there are three old men sitting on consecutive stools in an otherwise empty bar. They are drinking, in order: vodka neat, Stroh's poured from a bottle into a short glass mug, and a Budweiser can poured into a pint glass. Not one of them says a word.
Perched on a homemade wooden shelf is an unwieldy box TV tuned to Encore Westerns. Cheyenne — a generic cowboy and Indian flick from 1947 — is on, its whoops and hollers and gunshots the only sounds filling the air.
The trio looks like three attentive cats frozen in time at the exact moment they noticed a passing bird. Each is slouched low in his stool and leans back slightly with his head turned to the left and angled up 45 degrees toward the TV. Each moves only to swig from his drink, and even then with careful economy. It feels leisurely and earned, communal and peaceful. And then the movie ends.
As the credits roll, the man in the middle settles up and turns to leave. Before he reaches the door one of the others calls out, "See ya later, Mike."
A half-second later Mike stops and pirouettes. "Don't you fucking talk to me," he screams at the man he had just sat quietly alongside for an untold number of hours. "Don't fucking say hi to me, don't fucking say bye to me. I don't want you to talk to me at all. I thought I've made myself clear that I don't like you. Fuck you." The last two words come out louder and slower than the rest.
And with that he leaves, making sure to slam the door behind him. On the screen, the credits finish rolling: Move along, Cheyenne, the next pasture's always so green. Driftin' on, Cheyenne, don't forget the things you have seen.
"That guy ain't right," mutters the bartender before shuffling off to the backroom.
The lesson: Drama isn't just for the night crowd.
Union House, Parma, 6:15 a.m.
The Union House at six in the morning is exactly what you'd imagine.
The stand-alone white building sits on Brookpark Rd. across from a trailer park, a dart's throw from I-480. The sun has yet to rise, but there are seven cars in the parking lot. An extra-large flower pot with no flowers sits by the door, sprouting a bouquet of cigarette butts.
Inside, six men are spaced equally around the large rectangular bar, each with four or five stools as buffers from the nearest company. Four are drinking a shot and a beer. Three are reading the paper. Two are wearing teamster hats.
Bill is the shepherd of this operation — has been for nine years, since the place opened. His head's topped with salt and pepper hair, and he wears a buttoned-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, tucked into faded blue jeans. He moves deliberately and silently, refilling drinks instinctively.
"We usually have a good bunch in here," he says over sips of coffee. "That guy over there works at Mittal, he's here around 6:30. One guy works at Continental, he'll be here soon. I think everyone enjoys the camaraderie."
Whatever camaraderie exists is unspoken. In fact, nobody talks at all.
One of the teamsters, a portly, ruddy-faced gentleman in the corner, raises a finger pointing to his empty shot glass. Bill picks up a bottle of clear liquor and saunters over.
"This will be your last one," he says in a hushed voice, because he doesn't want to embarrass anyone and because the only competing noise is 19 ActionNews. The guy had passed out and fell off his stool a couple Sundays ago, thus earning a three-shot max.
The guy looks at Bill not with anger, but with understanding upon hearing the news. His half-open eyes are plaintive beneath the unironic flat brim of his teamsters hat, like a kid who wants one more piece of Halloween candy before bed. "I can still have another beer though, right?" he says, supplicating and hopeful, awaiting Bill's answer.
The lesson: You can get cut off, even at 7 in the morning.
Normandy Inn, Cleveland,
There are ten cans of Busch spread around the bar and nothing else. Three of them rest in front of a guy whose name is not Charlie.
The brick building sits on the corner of Bunts and Lorain, a busy intersection funneling residents toward I-90. Inside, the vibe is relaxing — liberating even. Day drinking is the alcohol-tinged cousin of night swimming, and it feels empowering to waste a morning this way.
And Charlie is wasting it like a champ. He's wearing a snug T-shirt that struggles to cover his belly, and he doesn't stop talking loud and fast over the Channel 5 newscast.
"You can put lines in front of me now and I won't even be tempted," he says. "There was a time where I wouldn't pass up coke, but now I would. I used to love it, though. I did.
"Yeah, I've been away for three years," he continues, talking about his recent stint in jail, before segueing seamlessly. "Well, I used to play guitar, but then I smashed the fingers on my right hand and now they don't work no more.
"You still got those chicken wings? I love those chicken wings. I used to eat those all the time before I went away."
"You know, I'll catch the next bus. It's six minutes late," he says, pacing back and forth between the door and his stool, which is still protected by a small army of Busch cans.
It's hard to focus, even with what looks like a delicious bargain breakfast on the menu. Paula the bartender, with her long blond curls cascading over a black Harley shirt, courteously listens to Charlie, asking questions here and there to be polite. But it's all too much at this hour. Stream-of-consciousness rants are barely tolerable while you're drunk, and much less so when you're not.
"You know, I cooked my money once. Yeah, I had a thousand dollars, I kept it in the stove. Then I turned on the stove one day, and holy shit, I cooked my money. Burned it to a crisp. I'll never put money in the oven no more."
The lesson: That Guy is out in the morning too. Beware. And don't be him.
Nolan's, Cleveland, 8:50 a.m.
There's a welcoming red neon sign hanging outside of Nolan's. It bears the name of the bar, but what it really says is "We're open, come on in. Spend your money here." It's the universal, unmistakable signal of a booze house open for business.
The bolted door, the electronic doorbell, and the security camera? Not so welcoming.
Once you're buzzed inside, heads immediately turn, silently saying, You are not regulars here. What are you doing? Or it could be that two twentysomethings in fancy peacoats just walked into a bar where there isn't a soul under 40.
Maureen Nolan is the owner and bartender, whose parents passed the business on to her. When told about the impending article, she quickly offers up a request: "Can you tell people we're not a private club?"
The bolted door, the electronic door bell, and the security camera do not diminish this impression.
"We sold 300 key cards a while ago, but they went quick, and I don't know if we'll do that again," she says, explaining how a select group of early guests can come and go without waiting to be buzzed in. "But just tell them to ring the doorbell. We're here, open every day at 5:30."
Some days, there's a line of folks at the door, waiting for her to open. "Like this morning, there were some ... I can't divulge their names, but they were here waiting, and I can promise you they were off-duty. I swear," she says, thinly hinting that they were cops, which is strange since third-shift cops don't get off by 5:30.
Eight seats are filled, and seven folks are nursing the champagne of beers, Miller High Life.
Nolan continues chatting — about the history of the bar, the various locales along Lorain it's occupied over the years, and other bars in the area that service the pre-dawn crowd. When somebody mentions a place that opens at 8:30, Nolan scoffs. "8:30? Hell, that's noon for us."
The lesson: Don't be scared off by frowning faces and elaborate security measures. Be bold, be adventurous, and you will be rewarded.
Ugly Broad, Cleveland, 9:24 a.m.
Bars that allow dogs hold a special place in the pantheon of drinking establishments. Bars that have their own dog mascot sit forever atop those rankings. So it is at the Ugly Broad, just around the bend on Denison, north of Fulton.
Read any online review of the place, and you'll learn about Shiloh, a young Rottweiler who makes her home at the bar. Shiloh, it is claimed, complements her friendly demeanor with delightful parlor tricks. Stick a dollar bill in your back pocket with a bit hanging out, and Shiloh will pick your pocket, then sprint in circles around the pool table until you catch her.
Shiloh is there this morning, curled up behind a row of barstools that hold a handful of regulars. When she's awake, they promise, she will in fact rob you.
Reviews tend to mention two other things: first, that the Ugly Broad is one of the last great Cleveland bars not yet ruined by hipsters, and second, that there is a lot — a lot — of John Wayne memorabilia here.
Indeed, the Duke stares out from every angle: in framed movie posters, candid shots, cardboard cutouts, and autographed pictures covering the walls above, beside, and behind the long, worn wooden bar. This certainly looks like a place hipsters would enjoy, if hipsters ever ventured down Denison Avenue. Alas, they do not.
It's warm over by the window, and the atmosphere feels decidedly upbeat — more let's-get-a-beer excursion than I-need-one lifestyle, perhaps because we've progressed into normal waking hours now.
And then it happens. On the way to the bathroom, a reporter's foot finds a dog's paw. The din of conversation is silenced by a loud yelp. Heads turn and a chorus of regulars exclaims, "Oh no! What happened, Shiloh?"
A quick path is beaten to the bathroom, and options are pondered. The locals are clearly concerned. Would they be waiting outside, broken beer bottles in hand? Would they utter a secret word that would send Shiloh into a retaliatory rage? Would bans be issued?
Tepid steps are taken back to the bar. No waiting mob. No angry dog. Shiloh is back to napping in the corner.
"Thanks for stopping in, guys," Dave the bartender says with a wave. "Come back again."
The lesson: Don't step on a bar's dog. It's bad form and karma, even if they forgive you.
Harbor Inn, Cleveland,
If there is one man who can faithfully relate how wee-hour drinkslingers used to rake in the dough, it's Wally Pisorn, owner of the Harbor Inn on the west bank of the Flats. The grandfatherly Slovenian bought Cleveland's oldest bar in 1969, manning it straight through the heyday of Great Lakes shipping and the Forest City's booming steel industry, back when tired butts filled every stool within 20 miles of the Cuyahoga for an after-work nip.
He would open at 7 a.m., pouring cheap whiskey straight through lunch. Now he opens at 9. No reason to go earlier. Ten years ago, the morning crews stopped coming.
"There used to be 60 big ships that came through here," he says, his face forever looking a bit like Dopey, his hair still coal-black. "Now, I think there's six."
He has a couple regulars — guys who clean fish overnight — but besides them, business is slow at the start of the workday.
Not even the Harbor Inn can draw the breakfast crowd. And Wally knows why.
"You can't drink before work anymore," he says. "Used to be, guys would come in and have two shots before they go to work. You can't do that anymore, you know?"
Unless, of course, you're writing an article about it.
The lesson: You'd do well to learn a little history. And when it comes to Cleveland, there's no better teacher than Wally.
Dawn Drinking: A Beginner's Guide
Who You Will Meet: Old men! Lots of them!
"Oh yeah, we get a lot of third-shifters," says every bartender, manager, barmaid, and customer at the 11 or so bars across the city we visited. "A lot of guys coming from work."
And by "a lot," they mean not at all a lot. The cops, the firemen, the nurses, steelworkers, airport laborers, the gainfully employed under the age of 60 — they weren't there. That doesn't mean that they aren't there other days, at other hours. And that doesn't mean you shouldn't visit. If you need company to drink, you're probably not equipped for morning drinking.
Based on our soundly unscientific estimate, 62 percent of patrons before 10 a.m. are retirees. Keep in mind these septuagenarians wake up at 4, so traditional breakfast time is actually lunch, and that's as fine a time as any for a shot and a beer, especially when your most pressing decisions of the day include whether to watch the local weather or the Weather Channel, and whether to mow the grass once or twice. That's why everyone loves retirement; it's just nothing you'd want to experience sober.
Who You Won't Meet: Women.
Fact: 99.2 percent of morning drinkers are men. The remaining .8 percent are dragging their men home by the earlobes.
Work the third shift and want to find a date? Better try the Waffle House restroom.
What You Will Do: Why, you'll drink!
For your convenience, pre-dawn bar protocols are boiled down to the basics: You need do nothing more than drink and avoid drooling on the drinker next to you. At its heart, the endeavor is the same as a conventional happy hour. The purpose: Have a few, avoid going home, and convince yourself that you have a life.
The morning crew doesn't need the bells and whistles of the barfly social scene, and they sure don't get 'em. No karaoke, no bands playing bad music in the back of the house, no trivia, no old-man version of young professional nights. The booze is the thing.
The regular assortment of bar diversions are at your disposal. The best of the morning joints offer bar bowling, which is more a corollary than coincidence.
What You Will Drink: Straight alcohol, maybe with ice.
Did you know that vodka contains twice the nutritional value of orange juice?
The practiced morning boozer bypasses the Screwdriver and anything else made with fruit by-products. (Who drinks juice in the morning anyway?) Same goes for Bloody Marys. Steer clear of martinis or any other fancy concoction with créme de this or spirits of that. The post-graveyard-shift crowd hasn't lifted anything other than a beer bottle or vodka in years, so your bartender's mixology skills might be just a smidge off.
Also, stick with the specials. Busch for a dollar? Go for it. Everyone else gripping Black Labels? Do the same.
Who Will Look Upon You With Scorn? Everyone.
The great majority of your fellow citizens aren't hip to the a.m. libation scene. It's not their fault, and it will never be their priceless pleasure to sip Black Velvet with an unemployed scientist in Berea during rush hour.
But be prepared for the looks, of which there will be many. From the school bus driver who plows by while you're sneaking a smoke out on Lorain, to the guy in the sweater vest pumping gas into his Prius who spots you stumbling out of the bar rubbing your eyes. And when you stop off for a McMuffin? Yeah, that old lady behind the counter hates you too.
How Will You Smoke? Quite cleverly.
A handful of morning establishments allow smoking. Their names have been omitted here to protect the innocent. Since laying out actual ashtrays would be a blatant rejection of Ohio's smoking ban, those bars that turn a hazy eye away from the occasional — or more than occasional — lit cigarette must be just a tad subtle about it.
Two favorites stand out. First is the tavern featuring a stack of old Altoid cases, all black at the bottom, available to anyone in a nicotine fit. Perfectly suitable for ashing and for a quick snap-shut if the wrong person walks in. What? Who doesn't like fresh breath?
Second is the West Side stomping ground where everybody has a Pepsi can next to their alcohol beverage of choice. A spot of caffeine to counter the booze? No, just covert ashtrays with frustratingly tiny openings. What? Who doesn't love Pepsi?