Waitress and artist
by Shelley Daily
For more than twenty-five years, waitress Liz Davis has walked the wooden floor of the Old Town Tavern. "When I first started working here, this was a rough corner," she recalls in a husky voice. At the time she was in her early twenties and planned to stay just a few months to earn enough money to return to art school in New York City.
The Old Town was one of three bars on Liberty between Main and Ashley. Sometimes, inebriated customers from the others would stagger over to Davis's domain, demanding to be served. Sometimes, she'd have to bounce them.
"I'm old school," she says. "I'm not a delicate flower. I want it to be a safe environment--and I'm not afraid of big, drunk guys." A man once came at her with a barstool but backed off when she threatened to call the cops.
As high-end restaurants have replaced blue collar bars, the neighborhood has gotten more peaceful. The Old Town itself, Davis says, has "become a restaurant with tavern hours." But bartender Misty Lyn Bergeron says Davis is still the "regulator of the environment.
"She's seen it all," Bergeron says. "You can always trust her to do the right thing."
It's a rainy Friday night, and the place is nearly full, the sounds of loud voices and laughter greeting arrivals in the dimly lit room. Tables of chatty grad students, couples cozying up in booths, older singles sitting silent at the bar--Davis cheerfully keeps tabs on them all. A tall, sturdy woman with her brown hair in a ponytail, a pen sticking out at the back, she's a "sassy broad," says regular Tina Ezekiel, who's here with her husband and another couple. "We love her and respect her."
Davis "remembers all the important occasions and finds a reason to celebrate," Ezekiel says, from putting up holiday decorations to highlighting milestones in her customers' lives, like the recent birth of the Ezekiels' first grandchild. "She makes Old Town feel like our
Davis has been part of her customers' graduations, weddings, and funerals--sometimes waiting tables and sometimes as a guest--and has even been thanked on the pages of dissertations. "Working at Old Town is not just a job to me," she says. It's "a gathering spot to relax around familiar faces."
Her eclectic list of regulars include several groups of U-M grad students, "lots of writers," a men's softball team, a fencing club, and neighbors who walk here from the Old West Side. Former customers who've left town often stop by the Old Town on visits to greet her. "People like to be recognized when they come in--and I like to be recognized," she says. "Day-to-day life can be hard."
Born in Manhattan, and raised on Long Island, Davis moved here in junior high when her father, a graphic designer, accepted a job at Car and Driver magazine. Within a year, her parents divorced, and he went back to the east coast. Her mother raised the family, making ends meet by working at the former Jacobson's department store.
Attending Community High "before it was popular"--her graduating class had just forty-five students--she started college at U-M, transferred to the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, then returned to Ann Arbor. Going to school while working at the Old Town and as an assistant to the art teachers at Community, she was thirty by the time she finished her BFA in printmaking. She subsequently switched to painting when a drawing teacher told her she "drew like a painter." Her specialty is large, abstract oil paintings, inspired by Japanese calligraphy and its "large, unfussy brushstrokes."
Davis, who studied art in Japan, meditates before starting a painting and before making big life decisions. A couple years ago she brought home the grand prize in a statewide-juried fine arts competition. She shares studio art space and is now finishing a website to sell her work, but financially it's a struggle. A single woman, she's currently carless but makes enough to rent an upper floor of a house on the Old West Side and dreams of having her own large studio to work in.
Customers worried last summer when she took several weeks off to undergo surgery for early stage uterine cancer (she told most of them only that she had "health issues"). Happy as she was to get back to work, she faced a "level of exhaustion" that made her question how long she could continue in her job. Stronger now, she's back on "autopilot," but says, "I can't see myself physically doing this job in another twenty years." The long, late hours also take their toll. She often doesn't return home until 4 a.m., sometimes after getting a drink at the bar--Jameson with ginger ale and an orange slice is her current favorite. But she can't imagine working at a fine dining or chain restaurant because "I couldn't be myself there."
She recounts a few highlights from her more than two decades at the Old Town. One was hanging out with the cast of The Five-Year Engagement, which filmed some scenes at the bar: "Oh, Liz, can I try a sip of your Cosmo?" she says, mimicking Emily Blunt's British accent. Then there's the "surreal" times she served Robert Reed--the dad in The Brady Bunch--and joked around with singer Colin Hay of Men at Work. Her funny moments include the time she dropped a bowl of salsa into a woman's purse--"She was cool about it!" And scary times, too: one New Year's Eve she fell, landed on broken glass, and bled profusely.
Asked to name any waitressing pet peeves, she mentions customers who sit down at a table before it's been bussed and the rare ones who'll snap their fingers to get her attention--"I give them the look of death," she laughs.
A group of men who drop by for food and drinks each week after they work out at the YMCA are sitting at the big round table. As they get up to leave, they flag down Davis to say goodbye. "These tough guys have a soft spot for Liz," one says. Someone says something I can't hear, and Davis throws her head back and laughs. She hugs them, and they head out the door.
[Originally published in November, 2013.]