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Roger Ebert wrote recently with dry-eyed nostalgia for Granta and his blog about his drinking days in the 70s. O’Rourke’s, the bar of wits and writers on the fringe of Old Town, “was our stage,” says Ebert, “and we displayed our personas there nightly.” He tells us, “From the day it opened on December 30, 1966 until the day I stopped drinking in 1979, I drank there more or less every night when I was in town. So did a lot of people.”
For most of that time the city had four dailies — the Sun-Times, the Tribune, Chicago's American, which became Chicago Today before it folded in 1974, and the Daily News, which folded four years later. Chicago back then "was as competitive as any newspaper town in America," Ebert tells us, "and many of the reporters and photographers knew one another. Trucks would deliver bundles of the early editions [to O’Rourke’s] for us to pore over. The day's Royko column might be read aloud. Editors were libelled and publishers despised.”
Neil Steinberg had asked Ebert about those good old days, which he’d come along too late to experience but understood to be a time when the flame from Chicago’s Front Page era again burned brightly. “Steinberg said he'd heard that on a good night you might see Mike Royko, Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren there all at the same time. Yes, you might,” Ebert writes, “but it was not always a good night.” He writes nonjudgmentally, but we know that he knows that barflies mortgage years to buy hours. “Royko appeared one night after midnight, being supported by two volunteers, his trench coat a shambles,” Ebert remembers. “He was scheduled to appear the following morning on the Phil Donahue Show. I made it a point to watch. To my amazement, he was lucid and didn't seem hung over.”
When Mike Royko died in 1997 he left left behind a box of letters that he’d written Carol Duckman, the girl back home he was nuts about, while he served in the air force in the early 50s. A few months ago their son David, a psychologist and author of the book Voices of Children of Divorce organized a batch of them into a feature for Chicago magazine, “Royko in Love.” David read Ebert's reminiscence, with its nods to his father’s eminence and antics, at a time when his parents were very much on his mind.
I happened to be talking to David Royko Wednesday and he brought up the Ebert piece.“I’m at the stage of my life where I’m older than my mother ever was,” David told me. He is 50, and his mom was 44 when she died suddenly of a stroke in 1979. “And my father was younger than I am when he was deeply involved in that.” By that, David means O’Rourke’s.
“O’Rourke’s was a dirty word in our house,” David told me. “O’Rourke’s was the place where we knew Dad was, or if not that the Goat, or Riccardo’s, or the Boul Mich, one of those places, and they were where he was and not at home. Ninety percent of the time that was the life, and it was really, really miserable for my mother. It was everything that comes with that scene and I fucking hated those places. Except maybe the Goat, where he spent Sundays after the softball games and it’s where the family was. We'd go to the game and then afterward — it was usually around lunch time — we'’d head over to the Goat and we’d often be there well into the evening. I remember being there with my first girlfriend, Laura, I mean, it seems funny to me, this is how you spend your day with a girlfriend when you’re 13, you spend the whole day in the bar. When I think back on it it seems downright wholesome."
On his Web site, David Royko has linked to a video of his father taken by Scott Jacobs at the Billy Goat after a softball game. "That video is one of my favorite things I have of Dad," David said. "He's very happy. It looks to me like he's probably had one or two drinks, he’s certainly sober, and he’s on. That’s the thing. He's surrounded by not just friends but softball friends. The Goat is the one tavern or bar or night spot that I've always had more mixed feelings about, and now it's just positive feelings. Jake [his son] loves the Goat. That’s where he had his 16th birthday party this past summer."
But more often Mike Royko would be drinking with other friends, and his family would be at home waiting for him. “And if he did come home," said David, "there’d be battles between my mother and him, screaming matches, or we’d be waiting to go to Wisconsin Friday nights and he wouldn't be home, he wouldn’t be home, and we’d go up without him. Sometimes he'd call and say he was working late quote unquote."
Ebert showed him another way of looking back. "It is what it is, an extraordinary time,” said David Royko. “And I understand now in a way I couldn’t understand as a kid how my father could be drawn, more than drawn, having grown up in a tavern and this being very comfortable — homelike almost — for him. Being a guy in his position, on top of the world, the reigning rock star of columnists. Surrounded by people, intelligent people, funny people, and to be at the pinnacle of it.
“I was much more in my mother’s corner back then. But to read it from [Ebert's] perspective, now... Theres’s obviously a romanticized, idealized quality to the time — but as he said to Neil Steinberg, 'You had to be there.' I wish I had been there, instead of at home waiting with my mother. There’s almost a feeling like — what’s the word? — I feel like I’m being, not unfaithful, but when I think back 30 years ago, I wish I could have been down at O’Rourke’s with Dad.
“I don’t blame him like I blamed him then.”