COLUMN: Mae on tap for 43 years and counting

Originally published in the Business Section of the York Daily Record/Sunday News on Sunday, March 20, 2011.

Daily Record/Sunday News

Maybe it was the DARE program or my parents’ stern warnings about alcoholism, but something seemed disconcerting about watching people crack

At 4'11" Mae Kreiger, age 86, is dwarfed by the taps at the White Rose. © 2011 York Daily Record/Sunday News -- Paul Kuehnel

open beers before the crack of dawn.

Reluctantly, I crawled out of bed, half-dreading the chilly, four-block trek between my house and Stogies, the White Rose Bar & Grill smoking lounge.

But I wanted to meet her.  Mae Kreiger, that is. She’s the 86-year-old bartender who unlocks the place at 5:30 a.m. weekdays, welcoming third-shift workers and those seeking a little something extra in their morning coffee.

Curiosity dragged me to a room where an age-old smokey odor had permanently stained the air.

I took a stool at the bar, where one of three patrons clutched a shotglass of clear liquor, perhaps vodka. My stomach churned.

But unlike myself, quick to pass judgement, I soon learned that “Miss  Mae,” as she’s often called, doesn’t ask questions, despite societal critics of early-morning booze breaks.

For the past 43 years, she’s served your tired, your poor, your drunken masses, who have filed into the York bar to toast the good times and drink away the bad ones.

“I listen to their problems, and they listen to mine,” she said. “I wouldn’t have it no other way.”

And despite a few health scares, she’s never skipped a shift.

“I just feel like I’ve got to do it,” she said. “I keep going.”

And she does just that, albeit slower than she used to. That day, the drops of gray in her trademark red shoulder-length hair sparkled as she shuffled across the dark bar to top off a glass of lager. At 4-feet, 11-inches tall, she can barely reach the tap.

“It’s not happy hour yet,” Kreiger said, lifting herself — all 83 pounds — into the stool beside me.

Happy hour runs from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m. The special: $1.50 draft beer.

But truthfully, she told me, she’s seen happier hours.

Years ago, the booming manufacturing climate reeled in dozens of thirsty third shifters, fresh off the lines. It was an era, she said, when two Rolling Rock bottles cost just 25 cents.

“Prices changed, then everything else changed,”  Mae said.

York was different in 1944, the year  Mae moved to the city with her new husband, whom she met on an airforce base near her hometown of Greensboro, S.C. While the marriage ended after 27 years, Kreiger stuck with her city.

There’s been other changes since February 1968, when Kreiger started at the White Rose. We’ve watched a lunar landing. There’s been eight U.S. presidents. Mankind has created Facebook. Ketchup-flavored potato chips. The Snuggie.

But despite it all, time stands still for  Mae, who won’t use the bar’s computerized, touch-screen cash registers. She’ll ring you up on her old-fashioned push-button machine.

And if she calls it quits, White Rose owner Tom Sibol said he’d likely change his hours.

“It gets her out of the house,” he said. “She’s been with our family for so long. I feel a lot of compassion towards her. It’s in my best interest. She loves what she does.”

And she does it to support herself and her 60-year-old daughter, Joanne, who suffered a brain aneurysm at age 43.

Kreiger continues to care for her, just as she cares for her patrons, day after day.

“I don’t know all the faces,” she said. “Not anymore. Not now. They’ve changed over the years. I usually know them by what they drink.”

Intrigued, I gazed into the fading hazel eyes of a woman who had been bartending nearly double the time I had been alive.

I imagined what those eyes have seen. Forty-three years is a long time to commit to anything, let alone a group of strangers. Kreiger doesn’t even drink. She hasn’t for 32 years.

I’ve been a reporter for one. That’s rookie territory in any industry.

But when I’m 86, if I make it that far, I can only hope I’m blessed with  Mae’s stamina, independence and will to keep on going.


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