Last Friday night, a hundred or so of Sergio Mayora's closest friends gathered at Pop's on Chicago, a spacious and ungentrified honky-tonk just west of Damen. The party was organized by Scott Levy, who reads poetry under the name "Squat" on Monday nights at Mayora's family's bar, Weeds. When Levy told Mayora the party would be at Pop's, Mayora was excited. He'd met Tom Burton, the manager of Pop's, on an all-night drinking binge last year.
The party wasn't occasioned by anything in particular, Levy says. "People are saying, Is this a benefit for Sergio? Is he dying? No! Why do you have to wait until someone's dying or dead to have a party for him?"
Levy is a low-level promoter who organizes occasional shows at Pop's or Gallery Cabaret. They usually include two or three local bands, some poetry, some comedy, and various novelty acts Levy discovers on the subway or the street. One was a woman who could jump rope sitting down, and another was a guy who swallowed condoms and then blew them out his nose. For Sergio's party, Levy paid Tom Burton good money, and in return Burton cooked up a roast, potatoes, yams, and assorted other Thanksgiving leftovers and gave away drinks until 11:30 PM. "I always hated it when I'd go to parties in college and some guy would be asking for $2 at the door," Levy says. "I was like, Hey man, you're having a party! Let me drink for free! Besides, if you're having a party for Sergio, you've got to have free drinks. Otherwise, no one would come."
Until the early 80s, when Mayora, now 47, took over its management, Weeds was a workingman's bar called the 1555 Club, after its location at 1555 N. Dayton. The Mayora family had operated it since the early 60s. But when the factories in the area began to close, the workingmen began to disappear as well.
Sergio was the artist in the family, a sculptor, not to mention a part-time lounge singer and a poet. He decided to make Weeds a permanent home for his many friends--a cavalcade of painters, freaks, cholos, rockers, and assorted bohemians from across the city. The MC5's old manager, John Sinclair, and former White Panther Party "propaganda minister" Bob "Righteous" Rudnick, by then living in Chicago, started the open-mike poetry night on Mondays. Thursdays were for jazz, and other nights were for other things. Birth Control Night was always a popular promotion, and no one got in the door on Halloween unless he was in drag. If nothing special was going on, Sergio and his buddies would sit on the stoop and loudly pass around a bottle of tequila.
"I moved to Chicago in 1987 because of Weeds," Levy says. "I quit my job and came here because of the cultural diversity. Because it was a big city that was affordable. Everybody was very friendly. You could come here and just strike up a conversation with anybody about anything. It's just not like that anymore."
In the early 90s, as the Clybourn corridor boomed with lofts, shops, and restaurants, Weeds gradually became less of a hangout for Sergio's friends and more of an investment for the other owners. They built a beer garden out back and raised drink prices. The regulars from Mondays and Thursdays more or less stuck around, but weekends were another world. Tequila was no longer free.
Earlier this year Levy proposed to Mayora's uncle and cousin that he buy Weeds, or at least rent the space, in order to return it to its former weird glory. They weren't interested. They said that the land is too valuable, and that they're waiting for the right offer.
The night of the party Levy picked up Mayora a little after nine. Mayora was wearing his usual costume: dark sunglasses, multicolored poncho, overalls. He seemed desperately hungover, as he often does in the early evening. In fact, Sergio checked himself into the hospital for ten days in July with heart trouble, and has been forced to give up drinking. But that doesn't stop him from staying out all night.
Mayora usually comes to Weeds between seven and ten, and after Weeds closes he goes to places that are open later. First he stops at the Old Town Ale House or Underground Wonder Bar. For many years, he also enjoyed a bar on Webster called Mike's, as well as several Cicero strip clubs and a mysterious joint in Bellwood. "No one could figure out what the hell that place was," says one of his drinking buddies. "It sure as hell wasn't a bar." At 7 AM or so, Sergio and whoever he's bamboozled into crawling along show up at someone's house, often Levy's. More partying ensues, followed by crashing, and then at dusk the party begins anew.
"How's it going, Serge?" Levy said.
"Fuck," Mayora said. "Oh. Fuck."
At the bar, nearly a hundred people were already sucking down their free drinks. They greeted Mayora warmly, and he immediately went to a table to sit with his aunt May, his sister Becky, and his brother Pooch, whom he berated about his belly. Sergio ordered a nonalcoholic beer.
"It tastes like shit," he said bitterly.
Levy took the microphone. "We are here tonight as a group of people who are known as making up the Chicago underground," he said. "What the fuck does that mean? That just means that none of us can afford a real house."
A band called Plugged, featuring numerous musicians who've played at Weeds over the years, did an extended set, during which more guests arrived. Women danced for Mayora, and everybody wanted to tell him a story or slap him on the back.
"That's the beauty of Sergio," said one guest who was on his fifth free drink. "Everybody wants to perform for him. Everybody wants Sergio to see them."
Mayora's friend Anthony Aguilera, who reads at Weeds as "the Fly," read two pieces and told amusing stories. Gregorio Gomez, current host of the Monday-night open mike, sang his signature poem, "The City," about how gentrification is wiping out all the places where he used to enjoy hanging out.
Mayora drank one nonalcoholic beer after another. He sat by himself for a while, listening to his friend Nicholas Tremulis play the banjo. By midnight the party had peaked, and people began to leave; the Chicago underground is apparently getting a little long in the tooth. But after Pop's closed, the survivors went to Levy's house for more. Mayora headed to the Ale House first, but he showed up later and didn't leave until 7 AM.
"I almost had fun," Mayora said a few days afterward, "except I couldn't drink. You don't know how depressing it is. I drank every day for 20 years, and I don't mean one beer. I mean half a bottle of tequila. I wasn't an alcoholic but I was a damn good drunk. Giving up drinking is like being reborn just to drop dead."
As the party waned, a guy with a video camera who was taping the event for public-access cable asked Mayora to step outside the bar for a brief interview. Mayora stuck his hands in the pockets of his overalls and cocked his head. Behind him a sign read hardware from auction.
"Sergio," the guy said, "you just heard some words talked about you. I've interviewed a bunch of people who think you're a real nice guy. Whaddya got to say to them?"
"They don't know no better," said Mayora. "Except for my aunt and my sister. Everybody else is lying."
The cameraman looked nervous, and Mayora laughed sadistically.
"I'm very happy to be here," he said. "I hope I'm here a little longer. I feel like it's just a change of address. I'm either going up there..."
He pointed up.
"Or down there..."
He pointed down.
"But I think I'm going down there. Actually, I'm going to heaven. I'm going to Mayberry. Yeah, Mayberry's heaven to me. When I used to watch TV I thought, that's what heaven is like. Except there weren't enough fucking Mexicans there. I mean, we're all getting there soon anyway. I'll set it up for you guys. That way it'll be a lot easier for the rest of you dumb fucks. In the meantime, I hope you have a good time, and later on I'm gonna charge you before I let you in. Thank you very much. Have a good fucking night. Enjoy the party and get drunk. Adios." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos by David V. Kamba; Sergio Mayora, Nicholas Tremulis, misc. photos.