For a small stretch of life, I worked the morning shift at a dive bar in Wrigleyville. It was on the corner of a former gang territory border in the 60’s and 70’s.
On one side of the street where condos and a wine bar now live, the Latin Eagles would reign. On the other, where drunken Cubs fans and stroller moms are now the majority, a rival gang would rule. Like any proper day bartender, I had my regulars. I liked my guys. They were rough around the edges and full of stories from back in the day.
I served drinks to all the night shifters. There was Vinnie, a former Latin Eagle gang member, who was rumored (by Jesus) to be the toughest guy in the whole city. They warned me my first day get on Vinnie’s good side. You don’t want him as an enemy. Oh. Ok.
When I first met him, he stepped gently off his bicycle and diligently locked it up. He walked in to the bar- all beef. I am not kidding. This guy was probably 50 and absolutely jacked. Vinnie’s shoulders were a cartoon strongman and he almost had to waddle because he was stiff. From all the muscles. He plopped on his barstool (they all had one) and sized me up. Not in a creepy way, but in a manner that suggested he was reviewing my character. Then, apparently satisfied that I was worthy of his attention, ordered a vodka sprite in the sweetest voice I’ve ever heard. Thank you, Mami.
Then he smiled. One of those smiles that make you forget everything that had happened right up to that moment between you and no doubt make you forgive him for whatever happens next.
Vinnie and I became cautious friends. Cautious because we still didn’t fully understand each other and everyone constantly spoke of how dangerous his temper was. But he loved to tell stories. He would look out the window at people rushing to the train, heads buried in their cell phones and wistfully remember his gang days on the corner. He lamented modern day gangs and their inability to aim for and shoot their intended victim. Vinnie told me that they rarely used guns back when he was active- only fists and occasional knives. All the guys could remember a time when they would cash their checks at the moving company on the corner where a UPS store now lives. Every Friday, there would be a line of guys around the block, checks in hand. Then they would come to the bar and blow the whole thing.
All my regulars agreed on one thing- they hated the owner, a beehive hairdo wearing shrill voiced old woman named Lee. She was a woman who would scare a nursing puppy off a teat.(I wanted to try making up a phrase and I’m lukewarm about it). She was also kind of a badass who had managed to keep that dump running forever. The guys would giggle telling me how they used to sneak cases of beer into the bar. Vinnie would pass the cans down from the end so that every customer had one at their feet. They were 19 again and full of trouble. And possibly, of shit. It was hard to tell who was lying and who was just embellishing but I honestly didn’t care because they were so entertaining.
There was Jesus, a Cuban immigrant who used to rob banks. The secret, he would tell me, is to rob banks in the rain. That way when you’re running, no one suspects any wrongdoing. He paid his debt in a solitary holding cell for some years and now lived down the street where his 15 year old son would come to visit. There’s Tim, who lost his wife to cancer last year and drinks away his sorrow. Every once in a while, I would tell him stories about a break up I was going through and he would offer me counsel via Jagermeister.
He sounds like an asshole.That was his final judgment, swift and harsh. I think he just appreciated a break from his pain, even for a minute. And there was Robby T., who played college football and drank glasses of vodka until I would start watering them down. He used to call the other guys “The Mensa Convention,” based on their repetitive and often boneheaded conversation matter. Robby would not realize he did the same thing by his fifth vodka. He also had a daughter my age and would always share pictures with me. I alternately felt like a journalist scribbling down a scoop and a tiger trapped in a cage of old man stories.
My boss at this establishment told me in the interview that he’s a convicted felon. He murdered his brother and fed him to the pigs. Everyone else described him with the old man joke how do you know Jessie is lying? Because his mouth is moving. I heard that joke over 50 times.
He and I didn’t exactly see eye to eye. He preferred to rule with intimidation. He once asked me to do his personal laundry along with the bar towels. Jesse had been pushing my buttons since the beginning but that day, I had reached a shit-taking threshold. I told him no.
He stepped toward me, all ugly beady dark eyes and pinchy lips.
What did you say to me?
I planted my feet. This was one of those moments where you have to fight, even though you hate it. Because if you don’t, guys like this win. I remembered the shotgun and baseball bat he kept behind the bar, now positioned somewhere between us. I hoped he didn’t have some rage induced impulse to grab one. I told him there was no universe in which I would ever do his personal laundry.
He said something nasty that I can’t even remember now.He put his finger in my face and I waited for his head to pop off with rage. I told him not to talk to me like he was. He really did not like that.
I’ll talk to you however the F*** I want to talk to you. This is my bar.
And all I could do was stay calm. No you won’t. You won’t talk to me like that or I will leave and never come back.
We each held our ground for a long few minutes. I realized it then- he needed me more than I needed him. Truthfully I am not crazy about power plays but I loved this one. It was an uprising. An Erin Spring. The moment in a situation where enough is enough and you become your own advocate and activist. I didn’t quit or storm off. I just held his eye until he broke contact, slumped down and made a joke. He walked away and a collective breath was released from myself and all my regulars who sat with their mouths hanging open.
I, the only woman in the joint, had poked the bear. Jesse never asked me to do laundry again. In fact, he stayed out of my way and learned to say please when he did have to ask me for something. We were fine. When I quit a month later, I left on fine terms because I chose to.
But I will always have a little moldy soft spot for that bar.