Booze in the news

December 4, 2012

Rick Kogan

The bars of Division Street: where a man named Vanecko hit a man name Koschman. And in a Northwest Side bar, a policeman named Abbate beat a bartender named Karolina Obrycka.

Sorrowful, both, but the city has a rich and lengthy tradition of booze and taverns. It can be traced to early settler Marc Beaubien, who would enliven his Sauganash Inn with fine fiddle-playing in the 1830s. Ever since, the tavern has functioned as an important social focal point, though few have been willing to admit — or understand — its significance as a culturally enriching agent. 

In Drink: A Social History of America, Andrew Barr writes about taverns in the early years of this century: "In a saloon every man was equal. The saloon provided newspapers, billiards, card tables, bowling alleys, lavatories and washing facilities. It provided information and company." 

Chicago was never thirstier than a few minutes before 4:32 p.m. on December 5, 1933, as thousands waited for the repeal of the 18th Amendment to end a drought that had lasted — but who was counting? — 13 years, 10 months and 19 days.

Though a number of neighborhood taverns — former speakeasies mostly — jumped the gun by a few hours, many of the large downtown drinking establishments kept packs of patrons waiting until the appointed legal minute. Huge crowds lined up five and six deep along the bars, and they had stamina, staying into the early morning hours. 

The celebration was relatively sedate: Only 27 people were arrested for intoxication. The Congress Hotel, emptied 100 cases of champagne, 75 cases of whiskey, 75 cases of gin and 100 cases of wine. The Sherman House served more than 10,000 people at its three bars and grand ballroom. A number of older bartenders complained about the increase in female customers, one of them worrying that "If the talk gets rough, we'll have to defend the ladies."

Flash forward a couple of decades and writer A.J. Liebling spent some time here and wrote a series of articles for the New Yorke r— later collected in book form — that would become famous for giving the city its Second City moniker. 

Liebling observed this: "A thing about Chicago that impressed me from the hour I got there was the saloons. New York bars operate on the principle that you want a drink or you wouldn't be there. If you are civil and don't mind waiting, they will sell you one when they get around to it. Chicago bars assume that nobody likes liquor, and that to induce the customers to purchase even a minute quantity, they have to provide a show.”

That’s nice (and true) but I still prefer the observation by the great late piano bar man Buddy Charles when he told me late one night at The Acorn on Oak: “What makes taverns and saloons work is that people are inherently eager for intimacy."