GAMBLE: A night at Wolski’s

In Milwaukee, there are almost more bars scattered throughout our city streets than fire hydrants. Irish pubs, Italian-themed lounges, German beer halls — you can travel all of Europe in one night, if you please. But if you want to stick close to home, literally and figuratively, there is one spot you need to visit: Wolski’s Tavern. This true-blue Milwaukee bar is nestled a couple of blocks off Brady Street at 1836 N. Pulaski St. It’s a locale my friends often call “Narnia” — between the one-ways and roundabout streets, you never really know how you got there.

When you walk into the legendary Wolski’s, two things can happen. If you’re an unknown, you get a head nod from the bartender. If you’re a regular, Johnny will point his left index finger at you before you’re seven steps in the bar. He’ll raise his brow, recite your favorite drink, put down his bar rag, grab a glass and get to work.

Johnny’s kind of scruffy, with a short beard, curly brown hair and a brown shirt on his back. He always refers to customers by their first name and is quick to refill drinks. He’s the kind of bartender who’ll take good care of you.

He’s been bartending at this 102-year-old tavern for eight years. He used to be an anthropology student attending grad school in McHenry, Ill., but dropped out and moved to Milwaukee with his best friend on a whim in 2001. He says he lost his interest in anthropology, but don’t believe him. Johnny has people-smarts.

Johnny doesn’t like going out to bars anymore. On his time off, he plays kickball or Frisbee golf. Oh, and he loves Phish. He first hooked up with his wife at a Phish concert.

“She’s my buddy’s sister. He caught us making out on the couch. I mean, you know, after a Phish concert. After a good dose of ’shrooms,” he says. He pauses, folds and unfolds his security blanket of a bar rag, and wipes the bar.

After, his friend only punched him once. It was in the arm, and it wasn’t that hard.

“I hate New Years,” he says. “New Years is amateur night. You get all these people that don’t know how to drink.”

Speak of the devil. A fresh 21-year-old slaps his ID down on the bar. His name is Brendan, and he has his eyebrow pierced. A friend stands beside him.

“He’s ready for his Chalice of Maturity!” the friend yells, grabbing Brendan’s angular shoulders and giving him a congratulatory squeeze.

“Oh, all right. Happy birthday, man,” says Johnny. He closely examines the Wisconsin license and then sets it by the gold-enameled cash register behind the bar, a trade-off for lending out the sacred chalice — a Wolski’s tradition.

He goes to the left side of the bar and retrieves a metal chalice the size of a fishbowl from a cabinet. Into it go three straws, a dash of vodka, a dash of rum and a dash of everything else in sight. When asked what exactly goes into the Chalice of Maturity, Johnny says he doesn’t know.

“I basically make it up every time,” he says.

He drags his bar rag over and over across the same spot on the wooden bar, like there’s a smudge only he can see. Over his head, flags hang across the ceiling, old pictures adorn the walls, a neon sign buzzes in the window. Patrons nosh on the salty popcorn and play rowdy games of darts and pool. It’s not a bad place to call a second home.

“I don’t really think about if I’m going to be doing this the rest of my life,” he says. “But I could do this for a while.”

He likes the gig because it allows him to travel. When you’re a bartender, you have a bit more flexibility to zip around the world. Johnny likes Scotland. That’s where he saw some of the most beautiful rainbows in his life.

“I could — clear as day — see where they started and where they ended.”

And Johnny raises that same left index finger and traces the curve of a Scottish rainbow, both ends touching the wooden bar with that smudge that just won’t go away.