The number of older Americans working full time has been rising steadily for years. Many work because they have to. Some work because they want to and they feel they have something to offer that would otherwise disappear. In an occasional series called “Still Working,” Changing Gears is profiling workers still on the job in their 80s and 90s. We found one of them behind the bar in Lansing, Michigan.
Normally, when you walk into a bar, you should see one of those signs reminding you how old you have to be to drink there. Right now they read, “Your birthday must be on or before today’s date in 1989 to purchase alcohol.”
Well by 1989, Tom Malvetis was well beyond legal. He was already eligible for social security. Malvetis is the working owner of the Unicorn Tavern in Lansing, Michigan. He’ll turn 88 on Halloween.
Tom Malvetis opens his bar at 8:30 in the morning. Midday, he rests. Then he works all night and closes up at three in the morning. It’s something he’s been doing for more than 30 years, even after a whole career in the department store business.
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“My wife passed away ten years ago,” he says. “This keeps me busy and I don’t lose my mind. Empty walls at home don’t mean anything.”
But the Unicorn and his customers do mean something. Tonight the bar is filled with mostly working class men, just like it’s always been. Lansing is the state capital, but it’s also an auto town. Malvetis says it used to be crowded with workers, back when the Motor Wheel factory and other plants still ran. Once there were bars like this across the region too, in places like Anderson, Indiana and Janesville, Wisconsin. Places where workers stood three deep for a drink after work.
Tom Malvetis says that a few decades ago, he’d have 20 or 30 people waiting for him to open up in the morning, fresh off the overnight shift.
“They were from the factories and they were ready to have their breakfast and their drinks. And now, that is all gone.”
This bar might be gone too if it weren’t for Tom Malvetis. Back when he bought the place it was called The Shamrock. And it was rough. So rough, that in 1982 it was the scene of a murder. That’s when Tom Malvetis decided that changing the bar’s name might help change its image. His first choice was the Pegasus Pub, but that name was already taken. So someone suggested the Unicorn … and it stuck.
Maybe it’s all the tough love that earned Tom Malvetis his nickname: Grumpy.
Ted DeLeon is nursing a drink down by the jukebox. He’s the only one in the bar wearing a jacket, aside from Tom Malvetis. He says he remembers the place when it was a real blue collar bar.
“And you know what?” he says. “It still is. But it took a lot of effort on Tommy’s part to straighten it out.”
The neighborhood around the bar has changed as well. It’s now called Old Town Lansing, though the bar’s patrons prefer its former name, the Northside. And there are new customers in the mix as well – students, young professionals and government employees. Still, it’s not easy. Tom Malvetis is helping raise money for a bar that’s struggling just down the street. But he’s kept the Unicorn afloat and in return his loyal customers have kept him afloat.
One of them comes strolling down the street with the arrival of evening. Gaetano Maceroni is well over 90 years old, dressed all in black, with an Italian accent as thick as the night is dark. From all accounts, he’s a wicked dancer. And he’s an enthusiastic hugger. (Tom Malvetis leans towards the classic hand kiss.) The two friends settle in at the little round table in the back that Malvetis uses as an office.
Meanwhile, the men up front clear a stool and wait for the arrival of the bar’s most cherished patron, Elizabeth Artin. Like Tom Malvetis, Artin is 88. She’s been coming in for a drink for … oh, 15 or 20 years.
“Two draught beers or three if I’m here for four hours,” she tells me.
I point out that a lot of people don’t think of 88-year-olds strolling into bars at 9 PM.
“That’s right,” she says, “cause the band starts at 10.”
These customers are Tom Malvetis’s friends. This is his home. He has two grown children as well. His daughter helps him with the bar, but she doesn’t want to take over.
Tom Malvetis says he’s not a drinking man. But sometimes when he closes up at 3 in the morning, he pours himself a shot of brandy. Then he pulls down an old family photograph from the shelf behind the bar. It was taken in 1926.
“So I take a sip and I say, ‘Goodnight ma and pa, goodnight brother and sister.’ And goodnight to my wife. Take the shot of brandy and I go. And that’s goodnight for me.”
If you know people in their 80s and 90s who are still working, please write to us at changinggears (at) umich.edu. We might get to profile them down the road as well.