As a popular bartender for 32 years, Gary Jablonski is a Milwaukee institution. Known as “the Mayor of Van Buren Street,” Jablonski could be found four days a week for the last 21 years having a great time waiting tables and tending bar at Victor’s, 1230 N. Van Buren St.
Jablonski says his favorite drink to make is a “basic cosmo.”
“I am not a creator of cocktails. There are mixologists and there are bartenders and I consider myself a bartender,” he says.
While he doesn’t follow the trends, he will make anything you tell him to make. “And I might even have a few suggestions. But I’m a rum and Coke kind of guy myself,” Jablonski says.
Jablonski, who describes himself as “down-to-earth” and even “old school,” keeps things modest in order to have the life he wants. “I live a fast life. Hang out at gay bars, travel a lot, five or six vacations a year. I don’t have a fancy car. Only seven years ago I started saving for retirement, got a CD,” he says.
Jablonski only recently learned how to use a computer, and got a Facebook account. He doesn’t text. “You wanna talk to me? Call me, better yet stop by, and let’s talk,” he says.
Victor Jones, Jr., Jablonski’s boss at Victor’s, jokingly gave him the name “schmooze” because of his ability to easily interact with people.
“He had at least 10 friends he addressed at the bar each day. I never met a guy who would cultivate so many friends,” says Jones, who attempted to recruit Jablonski for a year before he finally agreed to work at Victor’s.
Two months ago, Jablonski was diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer.
A fixture in the Milwaukee bar and restaurant scene, Jablonski does not work anymore. “It’s not fair to my employers,” says Jablonski. “Scheduling me for shifts and me not being able to make it. Besides, I’m blessed to be able to fill my days with family and friends now.”
On Sunday, May 22, friends held a party for Jablonski at Victor’s. The “It’s All About Gary 50th Birthday and Fundraiser” drew close to 800 attendees.
“It was the happiest day of my life,” says Jablonski, whose birthday is actually in October.
Jablonski says his original doctors gave him three to six months to live, but his new doctor, Douglas Evans at Froedtert, doesn’t talk time frame. Evans, the chair of the surgery department at Froedtert and the Medical College, is the most sought-after doctor for people with pancreatic cancer in the country, according to Jablonski.
Recently, Jablonski underwent an operation to remove the cancer and reroute his intestines. He now goes to chemo, three weeks on, one week off. His good friend, Chris Zidanic, attends chemo with him.
“I know he must have times when he is angry and quite sad, but he still cracks jokes with the nurses and smiles and laughs with us,” says Zidanic.
Zidanic met Jablonski while working with him at Victor’s 20 years ago. Jablonski was a bridesmaid in her wedding. Zidanic reminisces about barhopping bus trips to Chicago that Jablonski would organize.
“He also would change his outfits from one bar to the next and each outfit was more fabulous than the one before,” says Zidanic.
Jablonski grew up on 13th Street and Oklahoma Avenue, graduated from Milwaukee Trade and Technical High School and later moved to Greendale. He now lives near Highway 100 in West Allis in a one bedroom apartment with his cat.
Jablonski started working at small South Side corner bars near where he grew up, but he says he never intended to be a bartender. He got his start one day while drinking at a new establishment in the neighborhood and saw that one of the co-owners was working drunk.
“He was giving away the bar, he was so bombed,” Jablonski says. “So I called up this guy’s partner, who told me to take over until he got there.”
A recovering alcoholic, Jablonski has been sober for seven years, and is very proud of this accomplishment. After rehab, Jablonski spent three months in a halfway house and says that many of his friends in Alcoholics Anonymous didn’t understand how he could bartend after going through what he did.
“People said I shouldn’t go back to Victor’s, but with all my friends there, it was one place I had to go back to,” he says.
During recent low moments, Jablonski considered drinking again.
“I was diagnosed with cancer, that seemed like a good time to have a drink. And when my mom died (six months ago). But I wasn’t going to bring her back by drinking,” he says. “Being sober is a lot of work, but anything that’s worth getting is.”
When Jablonski got sober, he got a second job to fill his day with a routine. His day job was at Harmony Inn the Village, formerly a Heinemann’s, in Greendale. This allowed him to spend more time with his parents.
Jablonski has two brothers, one younger and one older. Both are married with kids.
“When I die, I’m going to leave my car to a 16-year-old nephew. I got it tuned up for him recently, to make sure it’s in good working order,” he says.
Jablonski’s father also has cancer, but is in remission. “It looks like I’m going to go before my dad,” he says.
During the interview, Jablonski took a phone call from a friend with liver cancer. He offered to bring her mango peach applesauce because it was one of the few things he found that he could keep down after chemo.
“Gary is constantly busy doing things for his family and friends,” says Jones.
Jablonski, who travels frequently, is a Milwaukee ambassador. Wherever he travels, he looks up people he has met and then takes them out to lunch. He tells people all about the great things in Milwaukee wherever he goes. He loves local theater, especially the Broadway Theater Center, 158 N. Broadway, and says there is great talent in Milwaukee.
“Everywhere I go, I tell people about the Calatrava and all the art museums, and how the dining is comparable to Chicago and Minneapolis,” he says.
Jablonski was a member of a top-fundraising AIDS Walk Wisconsin team for seven years. Jablonski says the team disbanded last year because the team captain, who lives in Arizona, got cancer.
When asked about being a Milwaukee bar mainstay for so long, Jablonski has a lot to say.
“The good thing about being a bartender so long is the people, working with the public,” says Jablonski. “I couldn’t be a steel worker or an accountant, I need to meet fresh people everyday — and then there’s the friends and the regulars.”
Jablonski says that he doesn’t understand why anyone would work someplace they don’t like — with coworkers they can’t get along with — but maybe this is because he’s always been sought after. Building a career on his reputation, Jablonski says most of his jobs have come to him.
“You’ve got to love what you’re doing. A lot of bartenders are a dime a dozen. There’s a reason I was at Victor’s for so long,” he says.
Even though he is no longer working, Jablonski goes back to Victor’s once a week. And he won’t mince words when it comes to addressing Victor’s reputation as a “meat market.”
“What bar isn’t a pick-up joint? What do you think people are doing when they go out to have a good time?” he says. “Victor’s is the most successful bar the city has ever seen, that I’ve ever heard of anyway. It has the most diverse crowd in the city: gay, straight, white, black, old, fat, thin, judges, college kids, drug dealers, baseball players, so many different people go to Victor’s.”
Knowing he wasn’t going to marry, Jablonski says he had saved $15,000 for a big Las Vegas 50th birthday party. He planned to bring friends and family, but all that has changed since his cancer diagnosis.
However, Jablonski just got back from a spontaneous trip to Las Vegas, which two friends that he met six years ago at Victor’s paid for. The trip was a test run for him to see if he could continue his lifestyle of traveling and visiting friends.
Before he left, Jablonski got an infection and wasn’t sure he would be able to travel. But Evans and the medical team at Froedtert came through.
“They said, ‘you’re not missing this trip,'” Jablonski says.
While in Las Vegas, he got to sit fifth row center at a concert for his idol, Barry Manilow. At this point, he plans to visit Las Vegas a couple more times. And soon, instead of having his big Vegas birthday, Jablonski will take his dad and his mom’s former caregiver to Arizona to visit his aunt.
“How you treat people is how you get treated,” he says. “I’m not going to have any regrets.”