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Last modified on March 6th, 2019 at 10:18 am
After nearly 60 years bartending at Tiger’s Tap Room in Hotel Congress, a beloved octogenarian has learned some pretty powerful lessons.
The sweater-savvy Tom Ziegler, much more commonly known as Tiger, has served drinks at the bar since 1959.
He still loves his job and he loves you — the customer.
To put his employment longevity into perspective, he has worked the same job for over half the lifespan of one of Arizona’s oldest hotels. The hotel and bar have their 100-year birthday this year, he noted.
When Tiger arrived in Tucson in 1952, it had 52,000 residents, just about the same size as Dubuque, Iowa, from whence he came. He had worked for a year after graduating high school, got two weeks of vacation time, and came to visit his aunt and uncle in Tucson.
“I can handle a city of this size,” he thought.
Tiger can’t recall what month he started working at the Tap Room but he definitely remembers how he began the job. He didn’t apply for it: per his MO, he was doing someone a kindness.
“I was a patron and the bartender needed someone. He asked me if I minded taking over.” Tiger started working that minute and has (almost) never left — except for a five-month vehicle accident recovery in 2014.
He went full time in the late-1960s and he has no plans to stop.
“I’ll retire if I die tomorrow,” he joked. “Or,” he said to a sizable Hotel Congress tour group who popped in to meet him, “I’ll keep the job until I get fired.”
“There’s lots of love in Tiger’s Tap Room. Tiger has made this place a safe place.”
He absolutely loves being of service. Customers make him happy. Even though Tiger has been featured in publications ranging from The New York Times, celebrating his 80th birthday, to the February/March edition of National Geographic Traveler, Tiger takes a backstage to his guests.
“Customers,” he said, and not himself and not the myriad famous people he has served, “are the celebrities in his bar.”
And when he says “customers,” he means ALL customers.
“Any single lady coming in my bar isn’t going to be bothered,” he said. “They have as much of a right here as anyone. Doesn’t matter if I’m 85, 86 in May, [I’ll stand up for them].”
Protecting a lady in distress is precisely how Ziegler got his nickname. As the story goes, some years ago, he defended a crying woman against a giant man who was groping her breast — right there at his bar. Tiger calmly pointed out the Tap Room’s two doors to the big, drunk groper, and said he didn’t care which one he exited through, the back or the front, but that it was time to go.
The man left in a hurry, even though according to Tiger — who was sent back home to Tucson when he tried to enlist in the Korean War because he weighed in too light at 110 pounds — the man could have squashed him.
Once the aggressor staggered off, a bar customer shouted, “Get ’em, Tiger!” and it was then that he left his Tom (cat) ways — and name — behind and became a wild cat.
Hotel Congress changed the bar’s name to Tiger’s Tap Room to commemorate his eightieth birthday and Tiger has never changed his woman-honoring stripes.
“You better respect ladies,” he said. “They’re someone’s mother or sister or aunt.”
He lamented the recent losses of two of his sisters, both of whom died within the last few years. One was 92 and the other 94 years old. The one who died most recently “had a smile on her face” as she passed away, Tiger said. “She was happy to be reunited with her husband.”
He has a brother and sister-in-law in Gilbert, AZ, who visit often. “She’s like my sister,” he said of his brother’s wife.
Tiger credits his mama for teaching him the trick to dealing with belligerent drunks.
“You have to be kind if they’re inebriated,” he said. “I used to scream and yell and they would laugh at me. Mother said ‘kill them with kindness,’ and she was right. They leave.”
It would not be an overstatement to call Tiger the Mister Rogers of the Tucson bar scene, snazzy sweater-and-bolo-tie fashion and all. He’s just that nice.
Another story of Tiger’s kindness involves Benny, a black Tucsonan man who regularly frequented the Tap Room some years ago.
Tiger said that he overheard someone using the “N-word” about Benny. Per his mother’s advice, Tiger whispered — not shouted — to the insulter that that word is unacceptable in his bar. Like women, Benny had every right to enjoy a beer, Tiger said then and there.
Upon his death, Benny bequeathed his fabulous photographs to Hotel Congress; several are on display in the corner of the bar near where he liked to sit.
The Hotel Congress tour guide who introduced Tiger to her group summarized it perfectly: “There’s lots of love in Tiger’s Tap Room. Tiger has made this place a safe place.”
Tiger responded by saying to the crowd, “No one’s perfect and no one’s forever… you gotta watch your ways. I watch my ways.”
The tour left and he took what he called a ‘crank call’ on his flip phone, gently hung up on them and went outside to smoke a cigarette. When he came back in, he talked about how much the bar (and hospitality in general) has changed since he stopped working in the trucking industry.
For example, over the years, Tiger’s had to learn to concoct what he calls “specialty drinks,” fancy cocktails that he says he’ll surely make but which younger people are “much better at.” When he started, he said that they had Coors on tap — just Coors on tap, and booze like whiskey. (Beer was something like 15 cents and mixed drinks something like 20 cents, he noted.)
Crafting complicated cocktails is not his pet peeve, though. His service pet peeve is yet another unkindness: when a bartender slams a drink down before a patron instead of placing it gently in front of them.
“I get goose pimples when I see that stuff,” he said.
Perhaps his biggest lesson from working at the Tap Room has been tolerance. “If only there was more respect in the world,” he lamented. “Why not just be kind to someone?”
He was referring to the mentally ill population of Tucson specifically, which he said he has seen grow exponentially since he began bartending. “They used to be institutionalized and have a place to go. They are not responsible for not knowing where they are or for talking to the sidewalk and should be rehabilitated and helped. And so should prisoners,” he added.
Tiger doesn’t want to impress anyone with his employment staying power — or with anything, really. He said he can’t blame someone for leaving a job if they can better themselves. He stays because he loves his job.
“Everyone helps each other out [at Hotel Congress],” he said. “There’s no jealousy, drama, no friction. We are for the customer, number one, that’s it. I’ve had two marvelous owners since I started and they’ve treated me very well. I like to talk to people and I love to listen.”
“I can’t be an old sourpuss. They have their own problems. I see someone with no arms or legs, and then I see someone talking to themselves with nowhere to go, and I think, ‘that’s what problems look like. I have no problems,’” he said, compassionately. At his job, he said, he learns something every day. “Mostly to have patience,” he said. “Tolerance.”
When he leaves the bar, lessons learned for the day, he goes home. He loves his neighbors and the “marvelous lady who manages the apartment complex” where he’s lived for years. He used to go out to the bars a long time ago but now watches TV and talks with his friends.
“I’m 85 years old, 86 in May,” he reiterated. “A lot of people are in rocking chairs. This is my time to enjoy me. I do that by going home.”
If you’ve always wanted to have a neighbor just like Tiger, you do. He’s in every Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. He hopes you drop by.
Tiger’s Tap Room at Hotel Congress is located at 311 Congress St. For more information, visit hotelcongress.com.