The Muffin Lady was finally busted. As the habitues of a handful of Wicker Park bars know, Shirley Pena--aka Shirley the Muffin Lady, aka the Bread Lady, aka Beverly Spahos--is celebrated less for her all-natural cookies and fruit breads than for her muffins, which sell for five bucks apiece and produce powerful effects on perception and coordination due to a "green leafy substance," as the police report puts it, incorporated into the batter.
Pena's been on the make in barrooms with her pool sticks and bread basket for more than six years. The magic muffins have been available for only five and a half--though how she managed to stay in business for that long is anybody's guess. "There's condos going up everywhere, and people are wanting to get a little more secure about this area," says Heather Stumps, a bartender at Tuman's. "It was gonna come down at some point."
Pena, 59, was having a fine night on Friday the 13th of August. Early in the evening she hit a postage-stamp bingo jackpot at Saint Helen's, winning $500. She spent the next few hours shooting pool at Ten 56, on North Damen, and just after midnight went to deliver 98 muffins--a gift, she says--to a visiting Hollywood film crew she'd befriended in the previous weeks. Driving east on Iowa in her youngest daughter's Suzuki Sidekick, she hung a right at Wolcott and a squad car lit up and curbed her. She says the patrolmen kept her standing by the car, haranguing her for about 90 minutes and calling her a cunt, among other things. One cop she recognized from a traffic stop years ago briefed his partner on her muffin MO, and they grilled her, she says, to give up her connections.
Pena swears she wasn't arguing, but she's a prickly old lady, and it's easy to imagine her rubbing the boys the wrong way. Though she hasn't had a valid driver's license since 1995, she says she gave the cops her real name and was carrying a state ID. When they found another state ID in her purse--one with her picture beside her sister's maiden name, Beverly Spahos--they read her her rights and called for backup. Pena tried to pass the fake ID off, claiming that she only used it to score free cigarettes from marketers. The cops told her Beverly Spahos had an outstanding larceny charge on her record, and that's how they were going to book her. At the Wood Street station she was charged with running a stop sign, driving without insurance and with a suspended license, and with possession of $10,560 worth of marijuana--a felony. The police impounded the car, her cue sticks, and her bingo loot along with the muffins.
Pena was amazed--not just because she'd baked the muffins with only about an ounce in the batter, a misdemeanor's worth, but because she'd thought she was operating under the benign neglect of the 13th District. "They've always known it," she says. "I've sold my breads in many police stations and many bars. They'd say something like, 'If you've got any banana-chocolate-chip bread I'll take some of that, but none of that funny stuff because we have to take piss tests.'" Pena says she stopped selling her straight baked goods at police stations because she got tired of all the ribbing cops would give her about the muffins.
To hear her tell it, the life story of the Muffin Lady has been one of sad luck and bad choices: poor health, unplanned pregnancies, marriages gone sour, a murdered alcoholic mother, car wrecks, mountains of parking tickets, a jail-bound son, two suspended driver's licenses, a house fire, blown court dates, and her own ill-advised attempts to deal with it all.
"Everything I've ever done in my life has pretty much been a bad decision," she says. "I'm just impulsive. Like my first husband--I knew him ten days before we got married. My second husband I knew five weeks--stupid things that have long-lasting consequences."
In 1964 she was an overweight 18-year-old who ditched Beloit for the big city. She found work as an office clerk and short-order cook in a 24-hour hamburger joint, but the next year a fellow hash slinger got her pregnant, and she waited out her delivery in a home for unwed mothers. Six months after giving birth to her first daughter, Pena lost her job and her home and had to give the girl up for adoption.
In 1966 she married a fellow Greek--"a good-looking pig," she says--only to divorce him after seven weeks. Three years later she took the name of her second husband, a "cute" Mexican. She learned Spanish and had two more daughters and a son with him. She has their portraits tattooed on her right forearm.
Today Pena is gaunt, almost spectral, but in her youth she loved to cook and eat. After her second divorce she maxed out at 420 pounds, and in 1980 she had gastric-bypass surgery. In those days it was not uncommon to die from the procedure, and she developed a series of bowel complaints--though she dropped 200 pounds in the first eight months. She couldn't drink alcohol, but she began going out to bars and playing pool for something to do. She also began studying for a degree in criminal justice, hoping to support her children and a string of kids she took in with a job in customs or immigration. It was a police detective, one of her teachers at Lewis University, who suggested she start selling her baked goods for extra cash.
Pena gave up on a law-enforcement career when she learned she was too old to land a federal job. In the early 90s she expanded her baking business to around 45 recipes--from cran-apple to broccoli-cheese bread--and bunked in a storefront kitchen on the west side. She did all the baking, while her son's ex-girlfriend made the rounds of police stations and bars. After she canned the girl because of a falling-out Pena was forced to begin making her own sales.
"People didn't want to buy from me, and I went broke," she says, explaining that she was too friendly: "I'm not a salesperson."
A bar worker and former friend to the Muffin Lady who didn't want his name used remembers the first impression she made differently. "She was really abrasive," he recalls. "And I would always talk to her and say, 'Look, you gotta be cool. And ask people to throw their wrappers away.'"
"Shirley is a hustler in the classic sense of the word," says Kevin Stacy, a manager at Danny's. "She's like a character out of an Algren novel."
Pena had another side business sewing patchwork quilts and crocheting baby blankets, sweaters, scarves, hats, and afghans, but it wasn't enough to pay the bills. She lost her storefront and moved into her middle daughter's condo in Willowbrook. Though she commuted into the city for late-night bread and blanket sales, business still stank. One night she complained to a doorman at one of her regular stops. "I said, 'What's the matter? My breads are the same. Why isn't anybody buying from me?'" she says. "He was stoned and he goes, 'Gotta start selling space cakes.' So I said, 'Well, what's that?'"
She got hold of an ounce of marijuana and, working without a recipe, turned out 12 muffins. "I threw it all in the batter--stems, seeds, everything." She tested the first one on herself, and it was her last: "I was stoned on my ass for three days," she says. "I couldn't focus my eyes. I couldn't walk, I couldn't eat. I had diarrhea for five. So here I am--'What do people see in this shit?'" She tinkered with the recipe for a few months using her 24-year-old son as a guinea pig--"because he's a pot lover"--until she got the proportions right.
"The only thing I ever wanted was my own little coffee shop, selling my breads," she says. "I never wanted to do the muffins, but I had to survive."
At the Wood Street station the Muffin Lady was cuffed to a bench until morning, when she was transferred to the lockup at Harrison and Kedzie for a strip search, fingerprinting, and mug shots. She might have moved on to 26th and California a lot sooner, but the bologna sandwiches on the jailhouse menu started to disagree with her stomach, which is a tenth of its original size due to her surgery. Already nursing a cold and aching from a herniated disk, she was sent to the emergency room at Saint Anthony's Hospital, but she was given only Tylenol there.
Two days after her arrest Pena was transferred to County Jail, where her bond was set at $50,000. She called her daughter for help. "The first thing she said to me was, 'I'm packing up all your shit and I'm putting it in storage. You are no longer welcome here,'" Pena says. "She said she didn't want to live with the stigma of having a mother in jail."
Pena's preliminary hearing wasn't scheduled for nearly a month. She was assigned to a unit for inmates with medical conditions, but since there was no room in the tier reserved for sick prisoners she was given a cell among pregnant but otherwise healthy ones. At her intake physical the doctor told her she'd need to be on a restricted diet--six small meals a day with ice to help her system break them down--but she only got what everyone else did. When she complained to the guards, she says, "they'd say, 'Then you shouldn't get arrested.' That's what everybody's response always was."
Over the course of her stay in County, Pena wrote a 32-page narrative of the various unpleasantries she and her fellow inmates suffered: sadistic guards and favored inmates, rats and roaches scurrying across filthy floors, an underground economy based on smuggled cigarettes. But the biggest problem for Pena was the high-carb diet, which for her was literally indigestible. Eight days after her arrest, a severe bowel impaction caused her hemorrhoids to bleed. On the few occasions this had happened to her before she'd had to be hospitalized. "To be quite explicit," she wrote, "the feces is a solid ball that will not pass without being dug out. It's as though my rectum is hanging out, and I can't sit or lay down at all."
Bleeding and doubled over in pain, she was taken to the nurse, who she says professed to be ignorant of the condition: "She said she'd never heard anything like that before--'Ewwww, I can't do anything for you.'" Pena was forced to help herself. "I had to go back to my room practically crawling from the third floor. The pain was excruciating and I was bleeding in clots. It took me more than an hour and a half to dig myself out with the handle of a toothbrush."
She had a difficult time eating the stuff that was good for her too. Because she's missing her lower teeth she couldn't chew the apples that came with her meals, so she'd chop them with the rim of a water pitcher and soak them until they were gummable. That served her well--until they were discovered during a shakedown and she was written up for making hooch.
On September 10 Pena had her preliminary hearing, and an arraignment was set for the 29th. She tried to get her file from the law library but didn't know her case number, and she couldn't get a guard to look it up for her. "When I finally did talk to her she said, 'Well, we just can't find it, and I don't have time to be fucking with it,'" Pena says.
She couldn't recall any of her friends' telephone numbers, but she convinced a guard to get her the address for Danny's and sent a letter to Kevin Stacy. He sent back $100 and promised he'd organize a benefit to raise more. Later she got a message to Tuman's after guessing the address. Heather Stumps made up flyers advertising Pena's plight, but by the time Stumps found out when visiting day was, guards at the jail said she was no longer there.
At her arraignment Pena met briefly with David Dunphy, her public defender, while waiting in the holding cell outside the courtroom. The crime lab had weighed 5,066 grams' worth of Pena's muffins, just enough to make her eligible for a Class X felony, punishable with 6 to 30 years. (The Illinois Cannabis Control Act allows authorities to take into account the weight of a drug and its medium of delivery--in this case the batch of baked goods.) Dunphy says the state's attorney knocked the amount down to between 30 and 500 grams--still a felony charge--and offered her probation; if she made it through successfully the case would be dismissed in two years. He says Pena readily accepted the plea agreement because she wanted to go home. "Just so you know," Dunphy says, "this was my first muffin case."
The judge told Pena to stay out of the bars, but she wasn't sprung yet: since there was a warrant out for Beverly Spahos in Du Page County, she was headed right back to jail. While she was waiting to be transferred, fellow inmates robbed her of her commissary items, she says, and after she complained to the guards her tiermates wanted blood. "I know that I may not have survived that night had I not been transferred," she wrote in her jailhouse journal.
Pena's explanation for why she was arrested under her sister's name is tortured and more than a little confusing. As she tells it, she lost her driver's license sometime in the mid-80s after she had a car accident and a lien was filed against her for some $700. Since she was unable to pay and her license was suspended, she applied for a new one under the maiden name of her sister, whom she'd been out of touch with for most of the decade. Pena also registered a car in her sister's name, but because she failed to get an emissions test the Spahos license was suspended. Meanwhile, her own license was restored after she managed to pay the judgment. But in 1995, after she'd amassed some $6,000 in parking tickets and fines, her own license was suspended yet again. She never bothered to get a new one and didn't have any problems until a year ago, when patrolmen pulled her over on the expressway for a broken taillight. On that occasion she handed over the state ID she'd also obtained in her sister's name--"I didn't have my glasses on"--and Beverly Spahos's old license suspension showed up.
Pena went to court and received a continuance. Her youngest daughter, meanwhile, was about to deliver a baby in Sicily, where she was stationed with the navy, and Pena flew to Europe to help out. Just before her scheduled return her middle daughter's condominium burned down; with no place else to stay in Chicago, she was stranded in Sicily for months while the condo was rebuilt. Pena missed two court dates related to her license suspension charges. Then in August she was pulled over again for merging onto the expressway too soon. She was arrested and fined $850 for the license suspension. Since she never paid it, the warrant was reinstated--though she didn't know it until the cops ran Beverly Spahos's ID again this summer.
After 48 days, Heather Stumps caught up with Pena and bailed her out of Du Page County Jail. They drove to Pena's daughter's home in Willowbrook, but she turned them away with only the combination to the storage space where her things were stashed. Pena says she doesn't get along with her daughter, but she's still heartbroken. "My mother was not a nice person, but I never turned her away," she says.
Pena had no money and no place to live. Stumps let her stay overnight, but her roommate wouldn't agree to put her up any longer. Kevin Stacy loaned Pena another hundred bucks, and she took a dismal little room in a flophouse above Betty's Blue Star Lounge.
The Muffin Lady's problems weren't close to being over. Her public defender told her she had 30 days to rescind her guilty plea, but that would put her back in the joint unless she could raise the bail. While she was in jail her son had been nabbed for possession and assaulting a peace officer. She owed the county over $1,200 in court fees, her daughter's car was still in the pound racking up charges of $35 a day, and she'd have to keep returning to court in Du Page County until she could pay off the initial $850 fine.
The first thing she'd need to deal with any of it was her bingo money. She went back to the 13th District station to retrieve it and her cue sticks, but was told she'd need a court order. "There's an officer sitting there at the desk who knows me from years, and she said, 'Well, did that teach you a lesson?' I said, 'If you're asking if I'm remorseful for selling the muffins, no, I'm not. I met a lot of nice people and I made a lot of people happy. I've had girls tell me they haven't laughed so hard since junior high off of my muffins.'"
Pena got a notarized letter from Saint Helen's attesting that the money was legit and returned to the courthouse, but her public defender told her that the judge wouldn't go for it. "Generally any drug-court judge isn't gonna give money back," says David Dunphy. "They're gonna assume that any money a person has that's been caught with drugs is proceeds from a drug sale." The judge did order her cue sticks returned, but Dunphy said she'd have to sue the county for her bingo take in small-claims court, which would cost her $135.
Stacy organized a benefit at Danny's on Soul Night, the bar's busiest night of the month. He raffled off T-shirts, six-packs, CDs, and gift certificates donated by Reckless Records, Avec restaurant, and a couple of hair salons. One man named Kumar dropped $30 in the bucket but only took one ticket. "I know how the court system works," he said. "I'm getting sued." By the end of the night Stacy had raised almost $400.
Someone had told Pena she should tell her story to NORML, and she made an appointment with Brian Brickner, head of the state chapter. The night before her appointment Pena slept soundly, warm for the first time in months thanks to a new blanket bought with the donations, but she overslept into the late afternoon, missing the meeting by hours. Brickner was annoyed but let her reschedule for the following week. "Most people show up because most of them are in a pickle," he said. "We don't charge anything. We just try to point them in the right direction and calm them down and say, 'OK, get yourself a lawyer.'" But since Pena had already pleaded guilty Brickner didn't think there was much he could do for her.
"I have no job qualifications," she says. "And now, with this felony thing on my head, I might not be able to do a goddamn thing." Pena's been banned from some of her old hangouts, and to make matters worse, she says, some of her old friends aren't speaking to her anymore--there are rumors going around that she told the cops which bars she sold muffins in and that she's gone back into the muffin business. She denies both.
Beverly Black, who recently moved back to Beloit from Oklahoma with her husband, had no idea her sister was using her identity and says she knows nothing about a larceny charge. "I don't ever use my maiden name for anything," she says. "Except I work with kids, and I just had to explain to the principal here at my granddaughter's grade school that if you see anything bad it's not me. They ask for your maiden name because they do background checks on you."
She says she's not angry with her sister but wants to teach her a lesson. "Shirley's done a lot," she says. "It's off-the-wall shit. I mean, this didn't start within the last year. She has a lot of aliases. I'm gonna press charges. I know that sounds awfully mean, but maybe it'll lead to some help for her, because she's not gonna ask for any. As far as I know she doesn't think there's anything wrong with her. The girl needs help; she doesn't need a prison sentence. She's needed help for lots of years."
"She's full of it," says Pena. "How the hell would she know?"
The Muffin Lady says her crimes were committed out of necessity. "It's not like I ever wanted to do anything that was illegal. It's just, if you've ever been in a bind and you don't have the money, you take the roads that you don't really want to take."
She's slowly started to get her life back together. After borrowing money from a friend of her son's she was able to pay the first month's rent on a small apartment near Wood and Division, close to her old haunts and to the 13th District police station. Winter's coming, and she has orders to fill for crocheted blankets. She's moved a bunch of stuff from storage into her new place and bought a cheap cell phone and some baking supplies. She still has some supporters too. Screen printer Remey Rozin and Q101 deejay Fook have taken up her cause and are whipping up "Save the Muffin Lady" T-shirts, which they'll sell in the bars and on Fook's Web site. Proceeds go to Pena, and Fook's also invited her to appear on his show.
But will she ever make her muffins again?
"I'm crocheting a lot," she says, chuckling. "Don't put me on the spot."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.