I will never forget the first time I walked into a saloon. I was four years old. My father took me to a corner saloon on North Avenue and Wolcott. The place was dark, woody, and smelled of cigarette smoke and stale beer. My dad lifted me onto the barstool. The bartender wore a black vest, white shirt, and a tie. Dad ordered a beer for himself and a Green River for me. The Green River came in a beer mug, just like my dad’s beer. We sat and sipped our drinks. A bicycle store occupies the space now.
I spent, some would say wasted, the better part of my life in saloons. I joke that I paid for the educations of many bartenders and cocktail waitresses’ children. Chicago used to be a great saloon town. There were mom and pop places and workingmen bars, the latter usually near factories. These were open from 7AM until 2AM to service shift workers. Many had what was called a working man’s lunch. It was a table with lunchmeat or ham on the bone, bread, and condiments. If you bought a drink you could eat for free. On payday they would cash workers’ checks. Many left their pay at the bar.
Right around the time I turned 18 a law was passed allowing 18 year olds to buy beer and wine. That was right up my alley. I drank in polka lounges, neighborhood haunts, and then while in college, Billy Goats Tavern under Hubbard street. I also had a membership to the Playboy Club and the Millionaires Club on Wabash. The Millionaires Club was great. You got unlimited drinks with the purchase of dinner.
Several years later, right after I became a police officer, I wandered into Billy Goats. Big Warren was still behind the bar reading his Wall Street Journal. He sauntered over and put my brand of beer on the bar. He smiled at the shocked look on my face. He told me he remembered all his customers, especially the college kids. It was one of the worst nights of my life. Mike Royko and Studs Terkel were at the end of the bar. Warren had me walk over and he introduced me to them as the new cop in town.
I was an amateur drinker compared to those two. By closing time they staggered up the stairs and out into the night. Me, I reeled out, trying to remember where I parked my car.
I also drank at the Earl of Old Town for several years. One night I met a guy who said he was a businessman. We got to know each other and every time he came in we would drink together. About six months later the bartender, Jimmy Johnson, asked me if I heard about my pal Frank. I did not know what he was talking about. He threw a newspaper at me. There on the front page was my drinking businessman pal Frank. Miami Frank, Frank Schweis, the notorious hitman for the Chicago outfit. He had been indicted for extortion.
There were also a few nights at the Earl of Old Town when I and the bartender drank after hours until the sun came up. That rarely, if ever, happens today.
There were also the cop bars. If there was ever a license to print money, it was opening a saloon across the street from a police station. My Mistake was caddy corner from the old Marquette Station at 23rd and Damen. Three shifts of off duty police officers were in there seven days a week from 7AM til closing. After closing we would buy a few cases of beer from them and repair to the police parking lot to drink some more.
Then there was Mikes on Webster. Mike Lucas ran that saloon. Cops from all over the city would go there when the 2AM joints closed. Mikes was open until 4AM. Cops, reporters, bartenders, and other night denizens were habitues of Mikes.
There were also the sneak joints or private clubs which operated 24hrs a day. Many times we went to Cicero after the 4AM saloons in Chicago closed. Some of those places resembled the bar scene from Star Wars.
Until it was “discovered” Iras on Madison Street was one of the last great old time saloons in the city. It was a true dive. It had a pot belly stove to heat the place in the winter. Joyce, Ira’s wife, was one of the great bartenders of all time. Iras had to have the longest bar in the city and the coldest beer. The beer was so cold it made your teeth hurt.
There was another place on Madison street whose name escapes me. When I transfered to the 12th District I was brought there while on duty one night. It was nothing more than an old wooden shack leaning askew against the building next door. It was named after the woman who owned it. She and her husband were elderly and operated the place. It was the hangout for the transvestite prostitutes who practiced their trade between Madison and Lake Streets and Halsted and Ashland in the early morning hours.
When I was introduced to the proprietor she kindly asked me what I drank. I told her. She pulled out a bottle and handed me a marker. She told me to write my name on the label. Then she told me that was my bottle. Any time I came in while working all I had to do was say my name and my drink would be poured from my own bottle.
Mort’s was a saloon near Grand and Halsted. It had two entrances, one on Grand Avenue and one on Milwaukee. The old cash register sat in the middle of the bar. If you were Black you were relegated to sit on the Milwaukee Avenue side of the cash register. The reason was the only Blacks who came in the place worked at the day labor shop down the street. They only came in to cash and drink up their daily wage. Mort did not want them mixing with the other regulars.
Stop and Drink was another gold mine. It was located behind the East Chicago Avenue police station. It served generations of police officers until the station closed and moved to its current location on Larabee Street. Now it is called the Clark Street Ale House.
Some of the better saloons I frequented were the bar in the Palm Court at the Drake Hotel and Gibsons on Rush Street. I still go to Gibsons. Gibsons is one of the few places where you can meet people from all over the country and all over the world. It is for adults. Even younger people act like polite adults when drinking at Gibsons. I met a wine producer from France, a retired FBI agent who handled the Patti Hearst case in San Francisco, and many Chicago luminaries who drink and dine there and next door at Hugos Frog Bar.
But, my fondest memories are of the old time neighborhood saloons run by a husband and wife. They were nice clean places where you had to be on your best manners, no matter how drunk you got. They also knew their customers. They watched over them. They would not let them spend their whole paychecks on Friday night. They would tell them to go home to their families. If you were too drunk to walk home they would send one or two people to escort you there.
Chicago used to be a great drinking town. Now it is all over. There are very few real saloons and dives left. Most are commercial wannabes catering to hipsters and others who want to feel cool drinking in what appears to be an old time saloon.
You will never meet a Royko, Terkel, or outfit hitman anymore in a Chicago saloon. You will never walk into a place and smell beer, cigarette smoke, or corned beef and cabbage cooking. There are no real shot and beer joints left either. Chicago has suburbanized its drinking industry. It is to its detriment.
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