Memories of the Billy Goat

Posted: Oct 06, 2006 12:01 AM

Dear Former Chicagoan,

It was wholly a pleasure to see that my mentioning Mike Royko in a column brought back memories of that toddlin' town, where they do things they don't do on Broadway.

I do have to admit that, being part of a family whose roots go back to the South Side, I'm a White Sox fan rather than a devotee of your Cubbies. (I wear a Cubs ball cap from time to time, but only to attract sympathy.)

Your tribute to the Sage of the Windy City is the highest compliment any columnist can hope to earn: "We always looked forward to Mike Royko's column, it started our day." Lots of folks in Chicago did the same.

You say you never got to Royko's favorite watering hole - "Never went to the Billy Goat but I can see it in my mind as quite a place!"

I'm not sure you missed much. I speak as an erstwhile junior editorial writer at the late great Chicago Daily News, which unfortunately ceased to be great long before I got there in the late '60s. Its distinguished stable of foreign correspondents was already being cut back, and Royko's column was one of the few bright spots left among the general ruin.

The sense of authority and depth that the Daily News once had wielded dwindled daily before my disillusioned eyes. I would hurry back to Arkansas a year to the day, sorry to leave Chicago, but happy to desert the sinking ship that the Daily News had become.

I spent my brief year at the Daily News hanging on to Mike Royko's every printed word, and trying in vain to imitate his hard-boiled style. But some things just have to come naturally.

As a member in devoted standing of the Royko fan club and cult, I made the Billy Goat tavern one of my first stops after getting to town.

Hoping it might help me write like Royko, I once ordered a boilermaker - a shot of bourbon and a beer chaser. (Exact ingredients and method of intake may differ from grimy bar to grimy bar.) All I can remember is that it put me out for the rest of the day.

There must be something about Chicago and taverns that produces great columnists, since Mike Royko was preceded in columnizing annals by another legend, Finley Peter Dunne of the now otherwise forgotten Chicago Evening Post.

Mr. Dunne's alter ego in the pages of the Evening Post was the immortal Mister Dooley, Irish barkeep and doctor of philosophy.

Many of his sayings have become staples of American political science. For example, his observation that, no matter whether constitutional rights follow the flag, the Supreme Court "follows the iliction returns."

Some of Mister Dooley's judgments had the ring of instant folk wisdom. As when he advised: Trust everybody but cut the cards. And some Dooleyisms are still all too relevant: "A vote on th' tallysheet is worth two in the box."

Mister Dooley's place on Archey Road was a product of Finley Peter Dunne's rich imagination, but the Billy Goat Tavern is all too real. Located under Michigan Avenue, the Billy Goat is almost as dismal inside as out, although on a good day the cheeseburgers (pronounced Cheezeborgers) are the best this side of the Sno-White Grill in Pine Bluff, Ark.

But you don't go to the Billy Goat for the food. You go to pay your respects. You go because Mike Royko went there, and because it's so Chicago.

You go because Royko's Slats Grobnik could walk in any minute. Along with with Studs Lonigan (of James T. Farrell's heartbreaking Chicago trilogy), or maybe the real Studs Terkel. How describe Mr. Terkel - sociologist, raconteur, sidewalk sage, local institution? He is to Chicago as Jimmy Breslin has been to New York.

Charming as such fancies are, the thought of spending a beery old age in the friendly confines of the Billy Goat Tavern and Historical Site was less than cheering.

Besides, I never could flourish above a certain degree of latitude. And as much as I love shade, a dark, dank place not far from the El tracks lacked the attraction of a leafy oak in the Arkansas delta.


Inky Wretch