Letter From Milo: Gin Mill

May 19th, 2019

It’s terribly sad when a person loses the place he loves above all others. It’s even worse when a large number of people suffer the same loss.

Right now, there is a group of lost souls on Chicago’s North Side who are walking around with dazed expressions, a little frightened and a bit confused, like homeless people pushing shopping carts in the middle of a cold snap.

The reason these people are in such a sad state is that their favorite tavern, their home away from home, is shutting its doors. Now, this may not seem like much of a loss to most of you, but to people of a certain time, place and mindset the closing of this particular tavern is nothing less than a catastrophe.

This tavern, which I’ll call Swilligan’s, had been around since the early 1970s. It wasn’t much to look at, just a narrow room with a few booths tucked against one wall and perhaps a dozen stools leaning against the bar. To be honest about it, the joint was shabby. The only money the owner ever put into decorating was about 20 bucks a year for new Roach Motels — at least he claimed they were new.

Swilligan’s was located on Lincoln Avenue and it attracted a diverse and eclectic crowd. The regulars included artists, writers, musicans, gamblers, and for a short time, a touring banjo player/clog dancer. Most of the clientele, however, were regular Jills and Joes — carpenters, electricians, factory workers, cab drivers, nurses and teachers, as well as the infrequently employed and the chronically unemployable.

Oddly enough, despite Swilligan’s being a hole-in-the-wall, it attracted the occasional celebrity. Mike Royko would stop in once in a while. Bill Veeck came by to drink beer and talk baseball. The great Hunter Thompson made an appearance whenever he passed though town. The late folksinger, Fred Holstein, tended bar there when money or gigs were scarce.

It must also be admitted that a few drug dealers frequented the place. You could always purchase a little weed or something to fix your nose, if so inclined. The main attraction, however, was alcohol. Most of the regulars were heavy drinkers. In fact, I will go so far as to say that a few of them were world class drinkers. I could put it away pretty well myself in my heyday, until my health began to fail and my knees gave out, but I was always amazed at the amount of booze that some of the boys could handle — on a daily basis.

As I mentioned earlier, most of the customers were regular guys and gals, people who simply enjoyed the tavern life. For some of the regulars it was the only life they knew. For them, Swilligan’s functioned as a living room. It was where they relaxed, met friends, watched TV and entertained. A few even used the place as a mail drop or telephone answering service.

I haven’t spent much time in Swilligan’s in 10 or 15 years. For one thing, my wife never liked the place.

“How come you don’t like Swilligan’s?”

“It’s dirty, it stinks, it filled with low-lifes and losers and every time you go there you get fucked up.”

“So, what’s the problem?”

Whenever I run into an acquaintance from my Swilligan’s days and the subject of the bar’s closing comes up, there is always a palpable sense of sadness in the conversation. It’s as if the loss goes deeper than I could ever imagine. For Swilligan’s regulars, an era has passed, a way of life has gone and won’t be coming back. It’s time to move on. The problem is, where do they move to? How can they recreate what they once had? The short answer is, they can’t.

Dave Van Ronk, the New York City folksinger who passed away a while ago, captured the poignancy of a tavern habitue’s loss perfectly in his wonderful song “Last Call” from his album entitled “Songs for Aging Children.”

And so we’ve had another night
of poetry and poses
and each man knows he’ll be alone
when the sacred gin mill closes.

Sic transit gloria

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