Saturday, August 29th, 2009
When traveling, I generally try to avoid obvious tourist spots.
A few years ago, my wife and I were in New York City, staying in a Manhattan Hotel. I observed (just by watching) a steady stream of hotel guests exiting the elevators, making a beeline for the front desk, pleading for directions to “The Soup Nazi Place”. I’m not that big a fan of Seinfeld, but I knew what they were referring to. I just didn’t want to spend time going there.
I did spend a lot of quality time running through Central Park. We saw a Broadway show. We wined, dined, sipped and supped (thank you, Tom Waits) in great restaurants and delis. The high point of the trip might have been catching two Monday night sets at The Iridium with Les Paul. Now that was special.
We were in NYC for a week and I can tell you we didn’t make it to The Soup Nazi Place.
A few years later a similar meeting occurred in my home town of Chicago. We decided to do the “Tourist Thing” and stay at a hotel for the week, although we could have easily commuted. Since I was the local boy, all week long I was asked for directions and recommendations, which I was only too happy to provide.
I mention this because one pleasant evening, as we returned to the hotel on foot, a group of friends made a beeline for me on the sidewalk, and just bubbling with enthusiasm, pleaded for directions to “Billy Goat’s”.
Now I’ve got nothing against “The Billy Goat Tavern” (established 1934). I’ve been in a lot of taverns. Hell, I grew up in a tavern. So I tried to explain to our friends that between where we were standing (on South Michigan Avenue), and where The Billy Goat is located (under North Michigan Avenue), there are plenty of places to get a burger and fries (“No fries, Cheeps”) and a Coke (“No Pepsi, Coke”) or anything else you might want. But they would not be deterred.
So I directed their attention about 2 miles north along the west sidewalk of Michigan Avenue to the beautifully illuminated white terra-cotta facade of the Wrigley Building and said: “Walk up to that building, then wrap tightly around it (indicating a counterclockwise direction with my hand). Go down the stairs in the sidewalk, turn right, cross the street, turn right again, walk about 100 feet, and you will find yourselves standing in front of Billy Goat Tavern. Go in and have a great time.
Which, I can only assume, they did.
I was reminded of that occasion as I paged through “A Chicago Tavern – A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream – First Edition” by Rick Kogan. (Author Rick Kogan is a Chicago newspaperman.) This book was published in 2006 and contains some definitely Chicago, definitely historic photographs.
William Sianis (the original “Billy Goat”) was a hustling 16 year old Greek immigrant who became a self-promoting entrepreneur. I have to admire the stories told herein. This is definitely Chicago barroom inside skinny.
A paragraph captures this hustling spirit:
– On the first day of the 1944 Republican National Convention (taking place right across the street from his saloon), Billy is disappointed to have done only $20 in business. That night he puts a hand-made sign in the window: “No Republicans Served Here.” Word spreads quickly across the convention floor and soon dozens of angry delegates, most of them wearing buttons touting the eventual nominee, Thomas Dewey, pack the tavern and demand to be served. When they stumble from the bar and back to the arena, they proudly announce, “I guess we showed that Democratic son of a bitch! Go over there and make him serve you a drink.” Meanwhile, Billy is on the phone: “Send over five more barrels of beer. Business has never been better.” That day he takes in $2,600.
My grandfather would have appreciated that one.
Another paragraph describes Billy’s “three favorite types of customers – politicians, policemen, and newspaper reporters – in addition to members of whatever shows are at the Stadium: circus clowns, ice skaters, cowboys, bearded ladies, tattooed men, hockey players, midgets…and their fans.”
Billy’s nephew Sam was also born in Greece. “On July 4, 1960 he arrives in Chicago to work at the Billy Goat Inn.” Sam currently owns and operates the franchise brand.
The infamous “Billy Goat Curse” is exposed in great detail, including numerous retractions and semi-retractions.
There are numerous Mike Royko stories and column excerpts included here.
Another paragraph tells a story, beginning: “Frank Sinatra, Joe DiMaggio, and Leo Durocher walk into a bar…”
The Wendella Sightseeing Boat cruises are mentioned. I remember taking one Chicago River and Lake Michigan boat ride during our previously mentioned “Chicago Tourist Week”. I especially enjoyed the narration, which was presented in an unmistakable heavy Chicago accent. Truly music to my ears.
A man who has been tending bar at Billy Goat’s since 1981 is introduced. Since he’s been there a long time, he is quoted extensively. His name is the same as a guy who was a high school classmate of mine (and of my wife’s). I guess I’ll have to stop in and see if they are one and the same person.
Sam Sianis tells the story of enlisting the aid of Cub pitcher Ferguson Jenkins in a 1973 attempt to once again get his goat into Wrigley Field. “He was the only one to understand” Sam says. “So, whenever he pitches, the curse will not be in effect.” Although Fergie’s Hall of Fame numbers would seem to indicate that no curse affected his pitching career, I do not recall him mentioning the goat incident in his most recent autobiography.
When the bachelor Sam Sianis inherited his Uncle Billy’s bar, customer Mike Royko “urged him to go back to his native Greece and find a nice girl who knows nothing of checking accounts, charge accounts, Bonwit Teller, Gloria Steinem, tennis clubs, and property laws. My motives were partly selfish. Billy Goat is my favorite tavern, and a tavern is only as happy as its owner, and a tavern owner cannot be happy with a wife who expects him home before 3 am.”
I do not, routinely, divulge the endings of books I review, but I am going to make an exception in this case. The book ends with three pages of acknowledgments, the last one thanking “the Cubs for being the Cubs.”
Reading “A Chicago Tavern” was a wonderful, nostalgic, emotional roller coaster for me. I recommend it very highly, especially to Cubs fans and to Native Chicagoans.
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