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The Final Hours of a Neighborhood Tavern

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By Neal Pollack

It's 3 PM on the last day in the life of Rest 'n' Pieces, a storefront saloon on Western Avenue across from Rosehill Cemetery, and the place is already crowded. Old regulars have come in from as far away as Crystal Lake, Gurnee, and Northbrook and from as near as next door. Members of a band called the Rockwells are setting up their gear by the front door. They're a bunch of white guys, mostly from the neighborhood, and also world-class bluesmen who've shared a stage with Lonnie Brooks, Otis Clay, and the Mighty Blue Kings. They only play together occasionally, and then only at Rest 'n' Pieces.

In the parking lot out back, a group of people are smoking pot. Inside, a bunch of old-timers, new-timers, and barflies for life are sucking down domestic beer and glasses of red wine. There's no food because the owner, Larry Sams, cleaned out the kitchen the day before.

John Hader, lead singer of the Rockwells and one of Sams's bartenders, takes the microphone. "The Lord said, "Larry, buy a bar and they will come.' And they came! But where's the goddamn hot dogs?"

Sams is glad-handing people in the back of the room. Kenny Sadjak, the band's keyboardist, launches into a New Orleans-style rendition of Jerry Lee Lewis's "Crazy Arms." The crowd whistles and sings along.

"You know something, John?" Sadjak says after the song ends.

"What?"

"This is the best gig in town."

"Yeah," Hader says. "Apocalypse now." Then he says, "We got some people from way out in the boondocks here. Algonquin. God bless you, Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea. We got some people from Arkansas here, for Christ's sake. Here's a little rock 'n' roll medley by one of my favorites, Mr. Chuck Berry. I love that guy."

They play "Roll Over Beethoven." When they swing into "Johnny B. Goode," Sams leaps up onto the bar, pumps his fist, rips off his sweater, and throws it at Hader's feet. Hader lifts a beer in his direction. The crowd goes berserk. Sams's wife, Marie, gets up on the bar with him and they dance the twist. The song ends, and Sams stumbles outside.

"I had my first drink in 16 months," he says. "Figured I'd get the dancing outta the way before I fell down."

When Sams bought the place 17 years ago, his first act was to take down the neon beer signs. "If you don't know the place is here, you don't come here," Sams said. "It's been like that forever. It's the idea that the guy who's half stiff drivin' down the street, he sees an Old Style sign, pulls over, boom, he wants one more beer. We don't worry about that. They don't pull over."

In the bar's 50 years of operation it was owned by three different men and had three different names. Bill Cody christened the place Cody's in 1946 and put in a long oak bar high enough to lean your elbows on while standing. He didn't bother to order any stools, since he mainly intended for his customers to stay as long as it took to gulp down a pint and get the hell out. He sold the place in the 60s to a neighborhood fellow named Johnny Martin, who named the place Johnny Martin's. Martin painted the place black and replaced the original bar with one that had glass blocks and neon lights. The core of Martin's customers was a bunch of crusty old anglers with whom he took fishing vacations in Wisconsin. They covered the walls with their catch, mostly marlin and walleyed pike.

Sams bought the place in 1979 after living down the street from it most of his life. At 54, he's short and waddling, with most of his weight concentrated in the belly. He has a round, ruddy face, a clipped mustache, and thick black glasses always slightly askew. Around the neighborhood Sams is known as the cheapest man alive. When his name comes up in conversation, it often elicits the sound of a cash register. "Larry," people say, "ka-ching!"

For the first six months that he owned the bar, he retained the Johnny Martin's moniker, intending to let his customers rename the place in a contest. But when he started sponsoring local basketball teams, he needed something to put on their T-shirts. One night Sams says he went out with some friends, got stinking drunk, and wrote down a bunch of names on his cocktail napkin. When he woke up the next afternoon, Rest 'n' Pieces stood out.

Sams stripped Rest 'n' Pieces of all ornament and restored the original oak bar. A few framed Cubs pictures hung on the back wall and softball and bowling trophies adorned a high shelf in the front of the room. There was a dartboard, a jukebox featuring mostly greatest-hits albums, a kitchen in back, a few Formica tables, two video slot machines, and a video gambling game called Turbo Poker II. Four mirrors lined a side wall, all depicting tombstones against somewhat psychedelic pictures of a forest. Each mirror bore a different word: Rest. 'N'. Pieces. Pub.

The bar's steady clientele was once a mix of city workers who didn't live in the neighborhood, city workers who did, and neighborhood folk who didn't work for the city. Most were Irish Catholic, with a few German Catholics thrown in for diversity. On a good night, a typical patron could stop in and hoist a beer with his grandfather, his father, his sister, his brother, his uncles, and assorted cousins. "A neighborhood bar is not a fuckin' bar near your house," Hader says. "It's that your dad went there, your uncle. The old folks know ya. There's like no generation gap in a way. You sit there with old Vic, and he talks his shit, and everybody knows everybody, and you have a fucking ball. Cheers wasn't even a neighborhood bar on that stupid show. That was like a yuppie bar, a fern bar."

Much to Sams's surprise, in the early 80s Rest 'n' Pieces suddenly became a hangout for younger people in the neighborhood. For a decade nearly the entire crowd was between the ages of 21 and 30. Pieces, as the new generation called it, was never the hottest joint, but it was steady and reliable, and pitchers were cheap.

The new crowd asked for food, so Sams opened a kitchen. He served standard bar food--french fries, hamburgers, hot dogs, steaks, fried shrimp. A half-pound burger cost $3. Daily specials--spaghetti and meatballs or ribs or corned beef and cabbage--cost around $5. Customers sometimes got meals in exchange for services, like installing tiles or repairing the cooler.

The cooking process was always a bit haphazard. Hader came in early to the bar last summer at the height of a heat wave and found Sams standing in the kitchen, preparing the special, a pot of beef stew. Sams was shirtless, dripping with sweat, and smoking a cigarette with an ash more than an inch long. His belly protruded over a pair of dirty white sweatpants. "Whatever you do," Hader told his customers that day, "don't order the special."

During the 80s the place was filled every night except Saturdays. Sams tried any number of gimmicks, promotions, and bands, but finally he gave up, closing down at 7 PM on Saturdays. "These kids were in here with their girlfriends maybe five days a week, and their girlfriend would say on Saturday night, "What, are we going back there again? We gotta go someplace else,"' Sams says. "Hey, I understand. They gotta take them someplace else."

By the time the second set starts, around 4:15 PM, Pieces is completely packed. People are dancing and singing at the tops of their voices. A lone balloon with the words "Good Luck" floats to the top of the ceiling. A pitcher gets passed around and quickly fills up with money.

The Rockwells follow "Great Balls of Fire" with a jazzy version of "Swanee River Rock" and a hopping "Wooly Bully." They've taped a package of frozen hot dogs to a loudspeaker.

Hader sings, almost screams, his face red and his voice high, "And I fade away, and I fade away, and I fade away."

Hader is 43, a tall and garrulous bundle of muscle, energy, and wit. During his bartending shifts, Tuesday and Friday nights and Wednesday afternoons, he'd run Indian dice games out of a big black rubber container. Patrons would get to dump ten dice for a dollar bet. Five of a kind meant a free drink. Six meant half the pot. At closing time, around 2 AM, Hader and whoever was left standing would "test" the bar's sound system, blaring AC/DC until ashtrays shook on the counter.

The first time Hader came into the bar was in 1971. He was a long-haired hippie and Johnny Martin refused to serve him. Since then he's sold waterbeds, finished roofs, driven forklifts, played in two bar bands--the Chicago Diamonds and the Fabulous Fish Heads--and worked as a reggae DJ. He also has a master's in English from Loyola. (He says he was admitted on the strength of a paper called "The Pornography of Othello.") When he received his degree in 1994, he held his graduation party at Pieces. Now he teaches part-time at Olive-Harvey, a south-side community college.

Pieces regulars were treated to a running monologue from Hader, mostly about his various cultural likes and dislikes. He is, for instance, fond of Shakespeare, the Jerry Lewis telethon, new-historicist philosophy, Wayne Newton, and movies that feature people wearing ape costumes. He doesn't like Meryl Streep, Bennigan's, teen slasher movies, and movies in which animals are played by dressed-up midgets, though movies in which midgets just play midgets are fine. "The Munchkins," he says, "I'm with them."

Hader has a four-beret system for rating bars in terms of pretentiousness. Pieces, for example, would receive zero berets. The Hopleaf, which is only about a mile away, gets three and a half for serving Belgian beer. Simon's, on Clark near Foster, gets no berets during the day, when it's inhabited by a crowd similar to Pieces', and two at night, when the actors take over. Soul Jam, an underground reggae club on Clark Street where Jamaicans play dominoes next to heavy-watted speakers, gets minus four berets.

"If there's a live poet, it goes off the beret-o-meter," he says. "If there's anything like that, if there's like a puppet show, stuff like that--like the sock puppet version of the Ring cycle--that would jump off the beret-o-meter. For Wicker Park, you'd probably have to get into a ten-beret system down there.

"I like places that are like a different kind of hell. A little danger. Chaos. I'm with that. I don't want to sound snotty so people will think, "oh, who the hell does he think he is?' But it's not just chaos or danger. It's like, I know a lot of different people who are interesting. . . . I think that human beings are poetry. What we do, what we say, how we live, it's like poetry. The only work of art worth creating is yourself, your life. Making connections and all that stuff. Maybe that is the only worthwhile work of art, you know? That doesn't mean like stick pins in your fucking head. Fuck performance art. I'm talking about living."

By 6:30 everyone's pretty much ripped. Jerry Lambert, one of the longtime regulars, puts on his jacket and gets ready to leave. All evening he's been buying beers for anyone within earshot. Lambert's been coming to the place since it was Johnny Martin's, and he can remember when it was Cody's. But now he's had enough.

He storms out the back door, where Hader is having a cigarette between sets.

"Jerry, where you going, man?"

"Fuck you," Lambert says. "I'm leaving."

"No, Jerry! No!"

"Fuck you. You didn't do "Caldonia.' I'm leaving."

"No, no, Jerry. I'll do it right now."

"You can't tell me what to do. I'm Jerry Lambert. I'm outta here."

Hader looks panicked. "You can't leave," he says. "I'll stop the jukebox. I'll do it right now."

"I can do whatever I want to," Lambert says, walking away.

Hader grabs his sleeve. "No, no, Jerry, you can't leave. Not now. Not yet."

Hader runs into the bar and unplugs the juke. "This is for you, Jerry," he says into the microphone. "We love you Jerry. Hey everyone! Don't let Jerry leave."

They play his song.

Lambert dances back in. "Whoooo!" he says as he grooves nearly out of his pants, "Caldonia'!"

Out back, the people from Algonquin unbolt a wooden sign for Rest 'n' Pieces. They march down the street carrying the sign and load it into their car.

"How easily it's laid to rest," one of them says. "Rest 'n' Pieces goes down easy."

Sams is wandering around outside carrying a whiskey and water. He shakes his head at the burglars. "What makes me mad about that is that they weren't even regulars," he says. "That's what's wrong with Chicago. That's what ruined the business for me. That's why everything's changing."

He picks a beer up off the hood of his Chevy Caprice Classic. "Ten years ago," he says, "they wouldn'ta done that."

In the last few years, even as Hader grew increasingly enthusiastic about Rest 'n' Pieces, Sams was burning out. Many of his old friends from the neighborhood were dying or moving away. The city and state liquor commissions were cracking down on underage drinking. Property and beer taxes were skyrocketing. The cost of an entertainment license had soared from $75 to $150 to $600. Last year the bar was robbed for the first time.

Sams gave up. In April he began negotiations to sell the bar to a consortium that owns the north-side bars Moonlighting and Top Hat. Though the deal hasn't been finalized yet, rumors abounded at Pieces about what was going to happen to the place. They heard that the prospective new owners would knock out the front wall and replace it with glass. They heard they might serve imported beer and hire a Swiss chef. But no matter what happened, they knew it wouldn't be the same.

"In the old days, a place like this was owned and operated by the owner and you were part of the neighborhood," Sams says. "It's just not there anymore. Very few places are like this. I grew up in this business when there wasn't TVs in bars. People sat there and they talked to each other, had conversations. When the person walked out the door, you said, "Boy, I'm glad that asshole left.' So why'd you talk to him for two hours? Because that's what happened."

When Sams announced that he planned to close the bar for good, he caught everyone off guard, including Hader.

Hader pulled Sams aside. "Larry, just stay open two more weeks," Hader said. "I'm gonna throw you one last party."

Eight o'clock nears, the official final closing time. Hader has had about a dozen beers, and there are more to come. Sams has promised to empty out the stock when the show ends, offering free booze to anyone who's left. The Rockwells play a ripping version of "Gloria." Hader delivers a long monologue about drinking acid-spiked wine as a teenager.

"Oh yeah," he says, "a buncha old fat punks up here."

Bob Carter, the drummer, sings "I Saw Her Standing There." They play "The Hokey Pokey." Sams is standing in a corner, grinning. The songs continue: "Mustang Sally," "Shotgun," a polka. People are dancing on the bar and throwing themselves all over the room.

The band launches into a high-spirited rendition of "Turn On Your Love Light." A line of people leap up onto the bar from end to end. Sams leaves his corner, joins them, and throws his hands in the air. The crowd starts to chant.

"Lar-eee! Lar-eee! Lar-eee! Lar-eee!"

Someone leaps up on top of Turbo Poker II and starts to rock the machine.

"Lar-eee! Lar-eee! Lar-eee! Lar-eee!"

"Thank you guys for coming," Hader shouts. "Larry's had this place for 17 years. Many brain cells been lost in this place."

He introduces the band.

"Lar-eee! Lar-eee!"

"Larry," Hader says, "we're hungry!"

Sams asks for the microphone.

"We thank you, we thank you," he says. "And I've got to say one thing. I'm gonna pass the jug. The band gets whatever's in the jug. And I'll match your total."

The music continues. A pitcher circulates around the room, and people start dropping in bills. Hader leans into the microphone.

"Well, I'll be damned," he says as the pitcher fills up with cash. "God bless you, Larry!"

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by Llloyd DeGrane.

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