Street Smart Chicago

Real Time: Tragedy and beer in the confines of the Billy Goat

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September 11, 2001. Billy Goat Tavern, 12:35pm CDT. All eyes are on the TV, set behind the bar in the southeast corner. The sound is turned up, and the place is nearly silent. Very uncharacteristic. No “cheeseborger, cheeseborger,” of reality and lore. No “no fries, chips.” No ringing order bell. Just a few crinkling bags and Tom Brokaw commenting above the sizzle of the grill. I order an Old Style, and the man next to me does the same. He’s got an armful of empties and a rocks glass. “We’re at wartime, Jeff [bartender], we’ll bus our own table.” He takes his drink and returns to his table behind me. “Can we turn this up a little?”

A man in a yellow Polo shirt walks in, joins their table. He’s a local, and he’s greeted as such. “My daughter’s all right,” he says before acknowledging them back. “Oh, thank God,” the table assures him.

Events like these bring people together. We’re all Americans today, for better or worse. But this is still Chicago. I realize this when a man breaks the tension by explaining to Jeff about how Old Style just started bottling in Somewhere again, and how it tastes like it did in high school, and how he must’ve drank ten or twelve at Pegasus in Greek Town last week ’cause they tasted so damn good. Everyone in the place wants to hear about this. Distraction. But that’s the exception; every other conversation I can eavesdrop from my stool is somehow related to this morning. Even the ones I can’t hear, over across the restaurant. You can just tell, the way they’re looking at the TV through their beer, not saying much.

The country is on hold today, says one talking head on the news. Airports, urban centers, commerce, trade, he means, but Jeff and the Billy Goat staff are not. He’s uncapping Old Styles and pouring whiskeys. It’s just another day, but it’s not. He drops another beer in front of me, takes in the room for a moment. “Unbelievable, eh,” he says, shaking his head in earnest. “It’s like a coma, the stuff on TV. But it’s real. It gets to the very center of you, seeing something like this.” Nobody hears him say this but me, but everyone in the place agrees. You can just tell, the way they’re looking at the TV through their beer, not saying much. (Jonathan Mahalak)

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