At 75, Ron Gurdjian isn't just a bartender. He's a steward of history. The Highland Park native has been many things in his life — a teacher, a metal fabricator, a toymaker, an antique restorer — but it seems he's finally found his firmest situation yet. Several nights a week, he sets up behind the famously tilted bar of Tom's Tavern and buzzes the customers in and shares the bar's stories.
Stories come easily at Tom's. Even in Detroit, it's hard to find a bar this unusual. It's hidden inside an ancient house on Seven Mile Road. The floor slopes backward and the bar lists to one side. It was originally a speakeasy when founder Tom Lucas, a bushy-browed Greek immigrant, opened it in 1928. Lucas was famous for being a character, the kind of owner who'd tell the president of Stroh Brewery to "fuck off," but who'd also put a sizzling steak in front of a down-in-the-mouth 16-year-old kid 60 years ago.
That kid was Gurdjian, and that steak made him see Lucas and his tavern in a whole new light. "Tom was an amazing person," Gurdjian says. "I started hanging out here in the mid- to late '70s. And Tom never remembered my name. So I was at the end of the bar one day and I said, 'Hey, Tom, you look like Sisyphus pushing the rock up the hill.' Tom was born in Greece, and he loved Greek mythology, and his eyes got big and round and he never forgot my name after that."
The tavern has always had a knack for attracting interesting people, and its customers (and benefactors) have included celebrities like news anchor Bill Bonds, Mike Ilitch, Little Caesars executive Charlie Jones, and even Henry Ford II on at least one occasion.
It's a good thing too, because Gurdjian is continually financing and fortifying the place. In the last 15 years, Gurdjian has dealt with exorbitant city fees, failed public lighting, a half-dozen break-ins, stolen power hookups, cut gas and water lines, a car crash that caved in the front of the tavern, and a truck that rammed in the back of the bar in a robbery.
But that's nothing compared to the old days.
"There was a time in the '80s when it seemed every Sunday night the place was broken into, and then I'd go weld iron together and put it over the next window and the next window," Gurdjian says. "They always took the television. Every time they broke in, Charlie Jones would come here the next day with another television set. Charlie was like, 'Don't worry, Tom. We're gonna wear the fuckers out.'"
After Lucas died, Jones helped keep the bar going for a while, but finally decided enough was enough. He met Gurdjian at the bar. They both parked in front, poked their way through the cobwebs and disarray, and found that the beer was still ice-cold.
"Because we parked in front, people kept dropping in," he says. "And I sold them the beer and I kept the money. And I thought to myself, 'I don't want this place to close.' ... And it's still here."