Talking to bartender Gary Pikala is like opening a human time capsule on the North Side of Minneapolis.
From his perch behind the bar at Broadway Bar & Pizza on West River Road, up the rise from the old train car on the corner, the stories flow like the tap beer.
Until last week, anyway. After 38 years tending bar, Pikala poured his last drink Friday. Management told him he no longer fit in its plans.
“Maybe I’ll write a book,” he said, with a shrug.
The fourth of 11 kids from a Czech family in the Ascension Catholic parish, Pikala grew up punching. He was the city’s middleweight boxing runner-up in the late 1950s. He joined the Air Force as a traffic controller in the ’60s, getting out just as the Vietnam War escalated. He considered going into early computers, when he bumped into Irwin Gearty, a barkeeper at the 200 Club on West Broadway. Gearty got him in the bar business.
“Back then, bartenders wore long white aprons and took pride in their work,” Pikala said. “Irwin had an identical twin brother, Edward, two Irish kids born on St. Patrick’s Day.”
While Irwin tended bar, his brother became a prominent lawyer and legislator. Back then, before racial riots scuttled the tradition, parades were held on the North Side. Pikala recalls Irwin, clad in his white apron, running out to his brother’s convertible during one such parade and yelling: “You’re ugly” to his identical twin. Pikala’s boxing connections, promoters Joe Daskiewicz and George Glover, helped him land a job at Papa Joe’s A Go-Go bar on Broadway. Asked if the joint employed go-go dancers, Pikala smiled.
He and his ex-wife have a daughter, Sheila, who lives in Winton, Minn. Pikala and his longtime girlfriend, Carol Karpinski, split their time between northeast Minneapolis and their place on Clearwater Lake near Annandale — where the bass have been biting nicely this summer.
Pikala remembers going to North High with mostly Jewish kids, and he’s watched the area change and diversify.
He laments his ouster, saying he hoped to hang around two more years. But the bar’s management, like its neighborhood, have changed since he started in the mid-1970s.
“Used to be four deep at the bar and we had four bartenders,” he said. “Now you can shoot a cannon off here after 10 p.m.”
A survivor of prostate cancer, Pikala says he’ll deeply miss talking with his customers and co-workers — folks such Teri Eidem, 54, who now sells pulltabs at Broadway Pizza’s Fridley location. Pikala has served four generations of her family, from her grandmother to her kids.
“Gary puts on this facade of being mean and grumpy, but once you warm up to him, you realize he’s a sweet, sweet man,” she said. “I love listening to him talk to the younger people about what the North Side used to be.”
When she talks about the stores she’d pass on her girlhood walks to Ascension school, “Gary can tell me exactly what was next to each one,” Eidem said.
“He’s a fixture.”