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Friday, November 16, 2012

Friday night memories



* This is the story of a place, some people and a huckster.

The setting is an old side-street bar on Chicago's Near Northwest Side. Believe me when I say the place was nothing special. There was a cigarette machine and a modern (for the times) juke box. There was an old parking meter mounted on the bar, which I'm sure had some special meaning, even though no one ever said a word about it the entire time I went there

If you were hungry, you could get a little pack of M&Ms or Andy Capp's Hot Fries or a handful of Charles Chips. Or a pickled egg and a dash of hot sauce. One time someone brought in a big jar of pickled pigs feet. The coffee pot was always going.

The only restroom had one of those round-top trash cans on which someone had scrawled "R2D2" with a big black marker. I always figured they must have gone en masse to the movies one time to come up with that one.

I started going there in... I think it was.... the summer of '81. The regulars called themselves The Organization. However, they were anything but an organization. They were really just a loose-knit group of old-timers. They'd been going there all their lives it seemed. It was nearly impossible for outsiders to become a member of The Organization, to put it mildly.

They said I was a hillbilly. But they were worse than hillbillies. They referred to me as a mental defect. But they were the real mental defects. I had a job in a big law firm down in the Loop. They hung out in a dimly lit back-alley bar all day getting soused and betting on daytime television. They started drinking at 8:00 in the morning. I was riding the L to work at 8:00 in the morning.

They were mostly retirees, disability types, laundromat operators, mailmen, and basically the kind of people who could get away during the day for a drink or two or three or more and not worry about getting fired. I, on the other hand, couldn't get away during the day, so I had to catch up with them after I got off work and before they stumbled home for the night.

Even though the place was nothing to write home about, those people, while definitely from the rough side of life, were quite special. And I'd broken into their little enclave from the outside. But, because one of their own brought me there, they tolerated me well. I learned a lot from them. I don't know if they learned anything from me. They liked me. I wanted to help them.

People came and went during the day at the tavern. These people were all sources for later conversation and reminiscing by The Organization. Especially the beer truck drivers, the liquor distributors, the pop guy, the candy and chip guys. Salesmen hawking wares out of their sample cases. The occasional lost soul who wandered in for a beer unaware of what he was getting himself into.

You'd have thought they were aspiring romance novelists, the way they could spin a tale about anyone who entered their line of vision. But, always after the fact -- they couldn't stand the thought of anyone thinking they were in favor with The Organization. Well, sometimes.

And then there was their bookie. This was not your run-of-the-mill bookie.

Among many things, the bookie was good for placing bets at Hawthorne, Arlington, Maywood, and maybe some other places. "Number 3 in the 6th is gonna be really hot. A week from tomorrow. How much can I put you down for?" You have got to be kidding me. It's never a good idea to bet a week in advance on a horse race, I'd say. They'd just look at me like I had no idea what I was talking about.

One of the bookie's specialties was selling five cent shares of Illinois lottery tickets. Five. Cent. Shares. I'd tell them lottery tickets sell for a dollar at the store. You guys can afford a dollar. Of course, there was no place to buy lottery tickets within the blocks surrounding the bar. And no one had a car. And it wouldn't make sense to take a bus, I guess.

Anyway, the deal was, you'd buy a share of a lottery ticket, any winnings would go half to the bookie, and the other half would be divided among the shareholders. If the bookie was unable to sell all the shares, the money was his to keep.

I said, that guy ain't no bookie. He's a huckster. Whereupon, ridiculous arguing over the meaning of huckster ensued. Whatever. I want to meet this bookie. "Well, he comes in every Friday afternoon. Be there or be square," they said and laughed.

So, one Friday I got off work at noon, hurried home to change clothes, and hot footed it to the tavern. As I turned the corner from my street, down the block I saw a tall, slim, young man in a leisure suit exit the tavern and head off in the opposite direction. "You just missed him," they said, and got to betting on Let's Make a Deal. That young man was him? I expected some hunched over, cigar smoking, old codger, with a limp, in a shiny black suit. Surprisingly, from what I could glimpse, the bookie looked to be the same age as me and very clean-cut.

I never did meet the bookie. But, one Saturday evening I rented a van and took them on a field trip out to Arlington, where much to their delight, I kissed the starter horse on the snout. We spent the rest of the evening huddled in the club house sharing two dollar bets on every race, with seconds to spare on each one.

Thus ends the story of the huckster. But not the tavern or The Organization. Though the tavern was later torn down and replaced by high-end condos, and the members of The Organization have all been dispersed by the wind (or died), we'll come back to them another day.

* Bernie Schoenberg gives a good review to “Golden: How Rod Blagojevich Talked Himself Out of the Governor’s Office and Into Prison." I haven't read it yet, but it is on my list.

* I have read Natasha Korecki's "Only in Chicago: How the Rod Blagojevich Scandal Engulfed Illinois; Embroiled Barack Obama, Rahm Emanuel, and Jesse Jackson, Jr.; and Enthralled the Nation [Kindle Edition]." One of the reviewers said it reads like a novel, and it does. Maybe better than a novel.

One question that always bugged me about Rod, was why he wanted his brother to come back to Chicago to work on the campaign. While reading the book, it occurred to me that his brother, who had a good and decent life and career in Tennessee, was brought on to add a dimension of legitimacy and respectability -- something I think Rod must have realized was lacking.

Korecki is such a good author that after reading this book, you'll have a hard time going back to the likes of James Patterson and John Grisham. Highly recommended.

Posted by Marie at November 16, 2012 11:46 PM