It was a standard barroom argument. But it happened in the bar of the Heartland Cafe, the Rogers Park watering hole for refugees from an earlier, earthier era.
On this Thursday night, the female bartender broke with barroom tradition--which dictates that the bartender, in concert with a few hunch-shouldered regulars, decides which sports event the rest of those present will watch on TV--and openly polled the half-dozen customers. We voted for Cheers.
And so we sat, imported dark beers before us, watching a bunch of yellow draft-beer drinkers on TV joke about sports and sex. By the time the owner of the Heartland came barreling in, affable Sam Malone had gotten a lot of laughs from us for falling for a fetching single mother and her daughter--both of them acquaintances from an era when Sam and most of the tube-watching relics in the bar were in their promiscuous prime.
"Hey, duh Bulls are playin'!" the owner grumped, and made a move toward the channel changer. A big guy who probably used to be an athlete, with an ostrich egg of a bald spot nestled in a shaggy nest of blondish hair, he moved in quick spurts, a little like Dick Butkus making his way to the refrigerator for some cocktail weenies. To the owner's dismay, his way was blocked by the female bartender, who was backed up by the barstoolers' muffled groans of protest. "We took a vote," the bartender said to him.
His eyes wide with amazement at our audacity, the owner grilled his patrons. "Who voted for Cheers? Did you?" he accused a guy in a beret. The Francophile admitted that, well, yes, he had. Then the owner raised an eyebrow menacingly and shoved his forefinger at me like a dagger. "Did you?" he said. I told the truth, and one at a time, the rest of those who'd cast their lot with Sam and Nahmy stood up for their constitutional right to sit around in a bar nursing beers and watching a show that makes sitting around in a bar swilling beers seem like something eventful. Some of us felt like less of a man for owning up, but we did.
Infuriated, the owner bellowed, "I want everyone here to know that there's one rule in this bar, and that's whenever the Bulls or the Bears or the White Sox or the Cubs are on TV, that's what we watch. And if you don't like it, you can buy the place from me."
With that he stormed off, leaving us a little unnerved by his outburst and feeling vaguely guilty for not supporting the home team, as we'd been taught to do since around the time we were watching Dobie Gillis with the baby-sitter. We sat there enjoying Cheers a little less, knowing good and well that we should have been watching the Bulls, but also feeling that, by golly, we were not going to let some fanatical, haranguing, balding ex-jock dictate what show we'd watch. We'd lived through the 60s, we knew our rights.
The guilt was too much for the bartender, though, who abruptly switched to the Bulls game just prior to the no doubt sidesplitting denouement of Cheers. "It was over anyway," she said, leaving us to look at each other with furrowed brows that asked, "Is she nuts?" But we let it pass, and clearing our TV-watching palates with a collective slurp on our beers, we settled into watching the Bulls game.
It was midway through the fourth quarter and the Bulls were just a few points behind the Cleveland Cavaliers. The hottest team in the NBA this season, the Cavs had run up a string of nine consecutive victories. A number of us at the bar were Bulls fans--enough at least to be cheered by the prospect of a Bulls win over the Cavs, perhaps as much as we were by Sam Malone's prospective conquest of the mother-daughter team.
The game continued to be close, with the Cavs inching a little further ahead every once in a while. With less than three minutes to go, the Cavs pulled ahead by seven points.
"This game is over!" a guy with a three-inch ponytail declared. Waging a species of personal war against the absent owner, he had been agitating for the bartender to change the channel to Night Court throughout the Bulls game (even though Night Court isn't on after Cheers anymore). Not discerning the ponytail's rather personal motive, the bartender took his pronouncement as fact and switched the channel, producing some new show about a loud-talking divorced guy.
Someone at the bar said it was a good show. A couple others rolled their eyes. A frantic little voice in the corner pleaded, "But there's two and a half minutes in the game; anything could happen."
I slid off my stool, frustrated, bewildered, and a little amused, and put on my down-filled Eddie Bauer coat. Then I headed through the sleet and ice of that winter night to my car, where I listened to the last 28 seconds of the game.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce powell.