July 27, 2008

A Chicago Tavern:
A Goat, A Curse, And the American Dream
Rick Kogan

Nitty-Gritty Pub Crawl – Picture an evening more than 20 years ago. The Billy Goat Tavern on Hubbard Street beneath Michigan Avenue is crowded shoulder-to-shoulder with newspapermen and newspaperwomen, young journalism students and old journalism teachers from Northern Illinois University, others. I do not recall the occasion. I do recall having downed more than a few beers and feeling well-cheered from that as well as from the camaraderie of being a part of this loud, boozy crowd with my two good friends, Jim Slonoff and Ed Underhill. At some point during the festivities – that’s the way many stories go at the Goat (that’s why they’re stories and that’s frequently what happens when you combine beer and crowds and a cramped downstairs space) the evening took a turn. First, to entertain an attractive, young female stranger, I for some reason began doing my impression of a former NIU professor, Tony Scanlon. “When I worked at the Kansas City Star,” I began, expertly mimicking Tony’s distinctive voice and vocal pattern (to my ear, at least). Then I began riffing into some winding, now long-forgotten patter that was hilarious (to my ear, at least). The young woman’s smile vanished. “I’m Tony’s wife,” she interrupted. “Oh,” I said. Then – “Sorry,” I said, switching back to my real voice. “I didn’t mean to …” Slonoff and Underhill, standing beside me, burst out laughing the way only the best of friends can. At that moment, the Chicago Tribune’s no-nonsense investigative reporter Ray Gibson stepped in front of Slonoff and used his bony index finger to poke Slonoff’s hand-written name sticker. To be witty, instead of writing “Jim Slonoff” on his sticky name tag, Slonoff thought it would be amusing to write, “Roy G. Campbell” and slap it onto his own lapel. Roy G. Campbell was the much-beloved but now-deceased faculty advisor to our old student newspaper, The Northern Star. “I buried Roy Campbell,” Ray Gibson snarled at Slonoff. He poked Slonoff’s lapel again. “I found him after he died and I buried him.” A third, fourth and final poke punctuated with: “That’s. Not. Funny.” Jim sheepishly peeled the sticker from his sports jacket. “Oh,” he said. “Sorry,” he said. “I didn’t mean to …” Underhill and I burst out laughing. A more recent recollection from just three or four weeks ago: Slonoff and I are back at the Billy Goat Tavern. He is now a newspaper publisher – The Hinsdalean, which he and his business partner, Pamela Lannom, founded about a year ago despite the sad fact that the newspaper industry is convulsing. Slonoff and Pam started the newspaper because, simply, they love newspapers – which, strangely, is not a sentiment shared by many newspaper publishers. We’re drinking beer, again, surrounded by newspaperwomen and newspapermen: our friend from The Northern Star, Colin O’Donnell, who now works at The Daily Herald; Colin’s colleague, Pete Nenni; Benji Feldheim, from the DeKalb Daily Chronicle; the Chicago Sun-Times’ Mark Brown and Tom McNamee; Monroe Anderson and his wife, artist Joyce Owens. We’ve all just retired to the Goat after a Chicago Headline Club panel discussion, which, like every conversation these days when newspaper people get together, sounded like dinosaurs talking to other dinosaurs bemoaning the icy chill in the air. There are, however, occasional bright spots in these conversations: Slonoff’s newspaper is thriving thanks to its focus on local news; Monroe’s blog broke the story a few weeks earlier that Barack Obama was leaving Trinity Church; the general consensus is that “journalism” will survive even as printed newspapers wither and disappear as quickly as the smile of an un-amused young woman. The sense of mourning that accompanies each of these conversations runs deeper than just the lament that newspapers are dying; it’s a way of life that’s dying, too – and it’s a slow, painful death to witness. I was back in the Billy Goat Tavern three nights ago to help kick-off the Nitty-Gritty Pub Crawl celebrating the Community Media Workshop’s 20th anniversary. The Workshop connects reporters with people in Chicago’s communities to tell stories that matter. Robert Charles, my old friend Ed Underhill, Karen McCarten and about 60 others joined us. Chicago newspaperman Rick Kogan was generous enough to offer a handful of recollections and ruminations – about the Goat, about newspapers, about men and women who love newspapers. Rick also was kind enough to supply copies of this excellent brief history of the Billy Goat Tavern and all of its many accompanying legends connected to journalism, politics and, of course, the Cubs. Rick ended his remarks with a toast to the young students present. “You’re the future,” he said, lifting his glass. From the Billy Goat, the gang of us stumbled up Hubbard Street to the old Ricardo’s where Don Rose shared some recollections and, finally, to Andy’s Jazz Club, where Workshop Executive Director Thom Clark noted our organization held its first-ever Studs Terkel Awards for Journalistic Excellence. The next afternoon, I found myself inside Wrigley Field, sitting in a field box along the third-base line, soaking up a sky-full of hot sunshine, gulping a beer. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with three pals from the Community Media Workshop – Thom Clark and two fellow Board members, Mike Roach (our longest-serving Board member) and Nick Delgado (our new Board chair). The four of us had all pub-crawled the night before and we were now enjoying what can only be described as a perfect summer afternoon in Chicago – laughing, drinking, gobbling hot dogs, telling stories, sharing memories, wiping sweat from our faces, cheering the Cubs, talking politics, confident of all good things to come. At one point, Mike Roach, the world’s biggest Cubs’ fan, tells a couple from Connecticut sitting in front of us the tale of the famous Billy Goat and the curse. A few hours later, after saying good-bye to my friends and walking home from the game, I picked up Rick Kogan’s book and began reading. And I realized we each search for a sense of community, a sense of belonging, in many different places, in many different ways. For some, it’s in a church pew. For some, it’s through political affiliation. For some, it's in the inky pages of a hometown newspaper. And for some, "community" is found in a neighborhood tavern, a chosen profession and joking with buddies at the ballpark on an afternoon when the sun is high in the sky and blazing white into your eyes and it feels good to roll back your head and sigh, to feel a long drop of sweat slip down your right cheek, to squint and to bless the glory of the day by saying aloud: “These are the good days. These are the best days. Things change and come what may.”


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