Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The night I bothered Mike Royko at the Billy Goat

The entry of Tom Sam Sianis, a member of the family that owns the Billy Goat Taverns, into the forthcoming judicial primary reminds me of my favorite Billy Goat story....

I was a big fan of Mike Royko from a very young age. I'll pause here while any Millennials in the audience decide if the unfamiliar name is worth a Google.

(Are we ready to move on, kids?)

It was a rite of passage when, as a first year law student, I could pick up my very own copy of the Daily News on my way to the 4:42 express train, where I’d sit next to my father and nod off, just like nearly everyone else in the car – but never, in my case, before reading Royko’s column.

The Daily News didn’t make it all the way through my first year of law school.

My law school extracurricular was Blackacre, the Loyola Law School newspaper. It was where old Loyola Phoenix editors went to die. I was never the editor of the Phoenix, but I was on the editorial board during my undergraduate years. I would eventually become co-editor of Blackacre along with my old Phoenix colleague, Phil Zukowsky.

Although we would usually slake our thirsts at Pippins or whatever they were calling Streeter’s Tavern in those days, Phil and I would occasionally venture south on, and under, Michigan Avenue to the original Billy Goat Tavern. We’d have a drink or two and read the walls and hope to run into Mike Royko. We didn’t.

Fast forward to the late 1980s: Royko had moved to the Tribune. Zukowsky was well on his way to becoming one of the leading lights of the tax bar of Dayton, Ohio. I was no longer taking express trains; I’d married and bought a house in Norwood Park. I was working in an insurance defense practice. I was only writing motions in those days, or discovery responses. But when Phil came through Chicago on this particular occasion, we decided to revisit the Billy Goat.

I don’t remember who spotted Royko first but, as I recall, Phil had more sense than to bother a legend taking his ease. I didn’t. No doubt a tad more eloquent than usual (after a couple of drinks) I intruded upon the great man and his companion, introducing myself and professing my sincere appreciation for his work.

Mr. Royko was unimpressed.

I think gruff and crusty were his default attitudes. I think my intrusion brought him down a couple of notches from there.

I don’t remember all the exact words used – if he included a profanity or two it was certainly his right, given that I was interrupting his evening – but the one thing I do remember, clearly, was that he called me a “yuppie.”

Yuppie was a fighting word insofar as I was concerned. I live in Chicago, I responded angrily, I have three kids (this puts the encounter somewhere between the Fall of 1987 and the Fall of 1989), I drive a Plymouth K-car – with a stick shift – and I do not own a pasta maker!

Roughly 30 years later, I can better imagine what must have been going through Royko’s mind: How can I make this crazy person go away? But, at the time, I thought his reply a complete vindication: “OK, kid, you’re not a yuppie.”

And Royko got what he no doubt wanted as well: I went away.

For more (and no doubt better) about Mr. Royko, and other things, consider this Neil Steinberg blog post from 2016. Steinberg re-ran the post this morning.