At Rowley's bar on Pratt Street, patrons drink in lots of good cheer In TOM'S PLACE

May 01, 1994|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,Sun Staff Writer

The green traffic light is on, meaning this nitty-gritty, neighborhood bar is open. Mike "The Magician" and Vince "The Musician" are here. The college kids are at one table, Bunky's on a bar stool nursing his Coors, and Fran is behind the century-old bar, keeping tabs on everything.

It's Tom Rowley's buck-a-beer bar on Pratt Street, across from the B & O Railroad Museum. You can't miss it. Actually, you can. There is no street number or bar phone. To spot the two-story Formstone building, look for the green traffic light attached to the second-floor wall.

"It's the only green light on Pratt you stop for," is a favorite saying of Tom's cult of regulars.

"It's Tom," says Elmer "Bunky" Smith, 62. "He's the whole thing."

The whole thing, 77-year-old Thomas Rowley, is really a little thing. The elfin Irishman is only 116 pounds and too thin, he

admits. But he rigorously runs a clean and tight bar here in Southwest Baltimore, just as his people did before him.

Tom's mother's uncle, Patrick Healy, opened the bar in 1862 at Pratt and Schroeder streets. In this former Irish neighborhood, Healy's Bar was a popular spot with thousands of men employed the B & O Railroad's Mount Clare Shops, where they made railroad cars. Workers would drop by Healy's after their rugged shifts ended. Saloons were the center of the railroader's life, and Healy's was located on the front doorstep of the industry that symbolized Baltimore.

Rowley's is still a typical working-class bar, but much more. Baltimore is loaded with neighborhood bars, but you won't find too many as old, quirky, and diverse. Black and white, old and young, professionals and nonprofessionals come here.

The neighborhood has, of course, changed since Prohibition days -- when Tom had his own microbrewery of sorts. But he says the neighborhood still has a good bunch of folks who stick together and look out for one another. Older people who grew up in the neighborhood have been coming for years; younger residents stumble on Rowley's.

"I walked past it for two years before I figured out it wasn't some AA meeting or something," says Jon Tarrant, a 29-year-old computer programmer.

A popular hide-out

The front door of Rowley's (pronounced Roll-eys) has a dull brass plaque that reads: Thos. A. Rowley. Beers and Wines. Tonight, Friday at 9:30, Jon is sitting with Delia Young -- but everybody calls her Bridgette. They met here about a month ago and keep meeting here. She worked for Baltimore filmmaker John Waters for about 20 years. If you've seen his earlier movies, you'd recognize her.

"I hide out here," Bridgette says. "Do you think you could omit the address?"

That's the thing. The regulars don't want this bar to become popular. This is family, and while people certainly marry into families, you don't want the entire population living in your home and coming over for drinks.

Inside Rowley's, ferns don't hang, and nothing resembles the set of "Cheers." Tom did hang up one of those magnifying glasses used to front black-and-white televisions so people could better see Friday Night at the Fights. The bar -- maybe 16 by 50 feet -- seats about 40 people, although Tom says he can pack in many more.

There's no menu at Rowley's. So, forget about ordering Buffalo wings or popcorn shrimp. How about Pretzel Stix?

Tom doesn't sell liquor; he hasn't for more than 50 years. It's just one of his ways, just another Tomism. For example: Tom doesn't have cigarette machines or a jukebox in his bar. He does play music, pop music, from two mammoth speakers mounted by the side entrance. Without shame, Tom admits he loved to disco dance.

The bar is open Wednesdays through Saturdays, from around 7 p.m. to whenever Tom gets tired, usually around midnight.

More Tomisms: He closes the bar in August, because the place has no air-conditioning. He doesn't open on St. Patrick's Day -- he can't stand the Irish when they drink too much. "I've never been loaded in my life," he says. Tom doesn't permit dirty language in his bar. People behave here.

And it seems that regulars get their first round on the house. Regulars who are short on money also reap the benefit of Tom's generosity. They pay him back later, but they get beer now.

"It's the only bar I know where I have to force them to take my money," Bunky says.

Regulars say the only thing holding up Rowley's is red tape. Bar stools, curtains, signs all show strips of red tape, another Tom trademark. He's forever vacuuming the red rug, polishing the long-neck bar, and wiping off the nearly 50 mirrors in the tavern.

And Tom loves to rearrange the furniture. One day, the credenza is against the back wall, another day it's moved again. The microwave for popcorn keeps getting moved. One year, Tom moved the bar top and tap across the room.

"This place hasn't changed since last night," says 49-year-old John Johnson, a supervisor for a trucking company. John was born and raised on the next block and was brought here when he was toddler.

'Hobby' is close to home

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