I remember the first time I was in a saloon. I was four or five years old. My dad took me into a corner bar in the Wicker Park neighborhood. The building was old then and is still standing today. It is no longer a saloon.
My dad hoisted me on the barstool. He ordered a Green River pop for me and a beer for himself. The bartender was a tall, lanky guy, wearing a white shirt with garters on the sleeves. I do not remember much else except sitting on that barstool sipping pop with my dad.
There is something special about daytime drinking. I am not talking about the weekend afternoon drinking in loud, crowded sports bars where drunken puking fans cheer their favorite teams.
I mean drinking in a quiet neighborhood saloon during the week. These are not destination places. They serve people who live in the vicinity. These establishments are usually family-owned, some for generations. They open between 7:00 AM and noon until closing.
They are a dying breed. There used to be more saloons, usually on a street corner, on many neighborhood side streets in Chicago. Those were places of solace. You could spend time watching a ball game, reading a paper, magazine, book, or just stare at your drink pretending to think deep thoughts.
The bars smelled the same, stale beer and tobacco odors. Away from the windows, they were dark. The dark wood of the looming back bar added to the depth of darkness.
Daytime drinking was not for overindulging. It was one or two beers and maybe a shot of whiskey that you took your time drinking. Then, you went about your business. There was a level of comfort and familiarity in these establishments.
There might be a couple of guys playing pool. The click of balls breaking the silence. Others might be staring at the television watching sports. There was one saloon that ran porn from opening to closing if that was to your liking.
Sometimes you could strike up a conversation with one or two people at the bar. You might talk sports, jobs, your family, or anything and everything. In some of the saloons, you could place a bet on the horses or sports.
Most of the good saloons are gone. The places where the beer was so cold it hurt your teeth or get an inexpensive shot and beer. Sometimes there was a table with a spread of lunch meat or ham on the bone and condiments to make sandwiches. They also sold pickled pigs-feet, pickled eggs, and jars of pickles, a drinking man’s culinary delight.
Neighborhood people or local factory workers stopped in for a few on their way home or before their day of toil started. There were local characters who drank, Larry the Mailman, Gino the Gardener, Angry Bob, the Twins, and others with nicknames denoting their jobs or unique personalities.
Suburbanites moved to the city and ruined the neighborhoods. They demanded the corner and side street saloons be closed. It interfered with their sterile culture of manicured lawns, quaint leafy streets, or residential-only properties. They would rather drive a few miles to another neighborhood to get drunk and act stupid in themed bars. Getting drunk and acting stupid in your neighborhood is taboo. So is afternoon drinking. The stroller patrol does not want their crotch critters exposed to people leaving or standing in front of saloons.
One afternoon, I was shopping on Lincoln Avenue. On my way home, I stopped in a small neighborhood German saloon. I ordered a draft and a shot of Bourbon. Soccer was on television, Exeter versus Liverpool.
There were a couple of guys my age at the bar. We started talking about gambling. We reminisced about how easy it was to place a bet in Chicago some years back. There were bookies everywhere. Bars, barbershops, candy stores, and other small businesses were fronts for book joints. Most of the elevator operators in downtown high rises and office buildings were taking bets. Bellhops in hotels were known for the ability to help tourists or business travelers gamble.
One guy was named “Doc.” You can’t get more old school than that. He was a horseplayer. We talked about going to the track, Sportsman’s, or Hawthorne to watch the ponies.
Gambling, drinking, carousing was a way of life for many. I rarely gambled even though I knew where to place bets. Gambling is for two kinds of people, the rare professional who knows what they are doing and suckers. Most gamblers are suckers, hence the term sucker’s bet.
After two beers and a shot, it was time to go. It was a pleasant hour spent with good conversation.
There is another aspect of daytime drinking that started more years ago than I can remember. You went to the saloon for one reason. To meet like-minded friends to watch Jeopardy and see if you can compete. That still happens today, so all is not lost.
Now that Chicago opened up after the COVID pandemic, the saloons, bars, and pubs are opened. Soon, I will find a comfortable friendly neighborhood bar to sip beer and let my mind wander.