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Closing Time

Winds of change hit the Busy Bee

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Frank Potocki bursts into the Busy Bee on Monday morning, talking loudly. This is nothing new. But as Frank takes his usual seat on Millionaires' Row and orders his eggs and fried potatoes, the content of his rap is mopier than usual.

"It's not gonna be the same without Sophie," he says. "This is the first time in a long time I got something to worry about. You ever get that sinking feeling inside? I got that sinking feeling. This is the only place I've come to in 25 years, two meals a day, every day. I don't know what I'm gonna do. If this place closes, I'm gonna have to eat at Burger King. I don't know if the new owner's gonna keep the restaurant. Do you?"

Frank lives in one of the 16 apartments over the diner. Most of the residents are elderly men. Almost all of them depend on the Busy Bee for their nourishment. Since she bought the place 33 years ago, Sophie Madej has been their landlord--and their chef.

"Sophie built this place up from scratch," Frank says. "A nice family atmosphere. You know there are some restaurants today that don't want kids? If you came in with six kids, Sophie would welcome them with open arms. And the food is great. Sunday is the best day on the menu. Beef tenderloin, ribs, the mushroom soup. Nothing here is from cans, and everything is under ten bucks."

Frank's favorite waitress at the Busy Bee is a pleasant, ironic, short-haired woman named Maggie Mazur, who he calls Mama Maggie. "If there's such a thing as a perfect waitress, she's perfect," he says. "I like Maggie so much, I always leave her two dollars. If I had a restaurant, I'd steal her away from Sophie."

On Monday he says, "I'm gonna miss Mama Maggie like a lover."

"Now, don't overdo it, Frank," Maggie says.

"Like a lover. For years and years I've been telling the girls here, 'I'll see you in my dreams.' I've been saying that for 60 years. One day I said that to Maggie, and you know what she said? 'I'll be there.' Isn't that a great answer? Great answer."

"Hey Frank," shouts a cop from across the counter. "What's your plan? Watcha gonna do?"

"Right now I'm worried he's gonna kick me out," says Frank, referring to the new owner. "I don't want to leave."

"I looked this place up on the Internet," says a guy sitting next to the cop. "There was a restaurant rating on a scale from one to ten. You know what this one was? An eight-point-five. This is an eight-point-five restaurant."

The Busy Bee has been an operating restaurant under the Damen el stop since 1913, and Sophie Madej has been running it since 1965. In that time she's fed Ted Kennedy, Abbie Hoffman, Adlai Stevenson, and Luis Gutierrez, as well as hundreds of police officers and thousands of longtime Wicker Parkers. Both Mayors Daley have eaten there; so has Jane Byrne. Harold Washington was a fan of the Tuesday oxtail stew special.

Most prominent among the Busy Bee's customers, however, have been the elderly men who sit around the long horseshoe-shaped counter. They are called, alternately, the Over-the-Hill Gang or Millionaires' Row, and at one time they made up the core of Sophie's business.

"I had them all the way around the counter," she says. "Thirty-three years ago they were already close to retirement. Now it's down to only one side, and there are fewer of them all the time. But you deal with these people every day, and to them it's not just a restaurant. Most of these guys are bachelors, some of their wives passed away. My place reminds them of their wives. I bought them with the building."

Sophie purchased the building in 1972, added a dining room on an adjacent lot, and continued to rent out the upstairs apartments to elderly men in the neighborhood. Wicker Park crashed and was reborn; Sophie celebrated 25 years in the restaurant, then 30. Her four children spent every Christmas, Thanksgiving, and Mother's Day at the Busy Bee, and their children did the same. It was a life of pierogi, meat loaf, and a million eggs.

"It's no way to bring up kids," she says. "We had no family life. I go on vacation, I worry about the restaurant. I worry about the people who come here."

A couple of months ago the rumors started circulating. The Busy Bee was going to be razed and replaced by town homes. A nightclub was going up in its place. The rumors were mostly unfounded, but it was true that Sophie had sold the building.

The new owner, a 30-ish man named Mitch Gerson, says he has "no idea what he's doing" but would like to keep a "diner-style restaurant" in the space. He also says he's going to "renovate everything," including the upstairs apartments.

"I wish to Christ he would keep it a restaurant," Sophie says. "But he paid the money. He can do what he wants."

Frank Potocki, the craggy, polyester-clad oak of a regular at the end of Millionaires' Row, was born at 1457 N. Wood, above Potocki's Tavern, where his parents sold pints of Berghoff for a dime. He worked for two decades at the Ludwig drum factory on Damen, two blocks from the Busy Bee.

"Wanna see my rent envelope?" he says.

The envelope contains $325 in cash. On it Frank has written a message to his new landlord:

"I HAVE NO TV. I DON'T COOK IN APT. 4. I DON'T SMOKE. IN THE YEAR 1984 SOPHIE PUT ME IN APT. 4. NO PHONE. BATTERY RADIO. EXPENSES ARE LOW. I HOPE APT. 4 WILL ALWAYS BE MY HOME. I HAVE BEEN LIVING IN WICKER PARK FOR 76 YEARS SINCE I WAS BORN."

Frank tips Mama Maggie his customary two dollars. He's on his way to a free lunchtime concert at Daley Plaza, but he'll be back around 4 PM for dinner.

"I'll see you in my dreams," he says.

"I'll be there," Maggie says nonchalantly.

"See what I mean?" Frank says. "She's the only one who ever said that to me in my whole life."

A man even older than Frank enters the diner.

"Oh, look," Frank says. "Here he comes now--Happy Birthday Charlie."

"That's me," Charlie says. "Every day, one day older. That's what they used to call the cashier, but he quit."

Maggie comes up to take his order.

"Happy birthday, Charlie," she says, even more nonchalantly.

"See?" says Frank. "That's this place. That's the Busy Bee."

Sophie sits at the counter, gazing at the lemon yellow walls covered with pictures of old Wicker Park, the many newspaper articles written about her little diner, and an award from the Wicker Park Chamber of Commerce naming the Busy Bee the 1997 Merchant of the Year.

"It's so sad," she says. "The kids that came in here, now they got their kids. They're gonna miss Grandma Sophie. But what're you gonna do? We all die sometime. I'm probably gonna take up smoking."

"You're 70 years old," says her son Hank, who's always somewhere near the counter. "I think the best present you could have is to retire permanently. When you're running a restaurant seven days a week, you have no time for a family. Me, I'm divorced, my daughter's 22 years old, I live upstairs, I have no life. But my mother should have one."

"You gotta move on," Sophie says. "There comes a point in life where you have to move on."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Sophie Madej; Frank Potacki; lunchroom photos by Jim Alexander Newberry.

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