"It started as a joke," Vince Francone says. "Just a joke. It was just a goofy thing. I'm kind of a crazy guy." Francone drew his first face on the black blank wall of the Trio Lounge in 1973. Trio's owner, Dominick "Snooky" Santore, and another regular more or less prodded him into it, he says. "After that they gave me carte blanche. It got pretty crazy. People would give me drinks--sometimes they'd pay me, you know, $20, to put them on the wall. I was drinking a lot in those days."
Francone smiles and shakes his head. He doesn't drink at all these days. These days he doesn't even smoke. He still comes to the Trio, a neighborhood bar on Augusta at Paulina, every day like any other regular. Only now he sits at the bar and drinks a cup of coffee, reads the paper, and watches a little football.
For 13 years Francone chalked Trio regulars--cops, firemen, truck drivers, butchers, and drunks--on the long wall that runs the length of the bar. But he says he hasn't touched the wall in at least two years. "Just a little bit now. Sort of touch up." The wall is beginning to show signs of its neglect. Some of the faces are fading, slowly succumbing to the clinging cigarette smoke and to the occasional arm that brushes against them. Yet many of the portraits are still striking.
Francone is embarrassed by compliments. "I won't bullshit you," he says. "I'm known as a--What do you call it? A never do well, a ne'er do well--whatever you call it." He's never made any real money from his work, and he never had any formal training, though he says he has enjoyed drawing since he was a child.
He says he does his portraits to please himself
"A lot of them were spur-of-the-moment things. I'd look at a guy and something about his face caught me. I'd put him up. A lot of them wouldn't even know I was doing it."
How long a face stayed up was pretty much up to Francone. "I had a problem. I'd get drunk. Somebody might say something to offend me, or somebody'd do something to annoy me. You know, we'd get into a fight at the bar. I'd take their faces off. I'd just go up and towel them off."
Women didn't often get on the wall and, once on, didn't often stay on. Asked why, Francone shrugs. "I don't know. I like women. There was one woman--Annie--I had her up, and she said she thought her nose was too big. Right in front of her I just got up and I took the--you know, the bar towel, and I walked over and I toweled her off. Just like that. She said, 'What are you doing?.' I said, 'You didn't like it. I took it off.'"' Francone shakes his head. "I'm not a camera. What the fuck."
Many of the regulars who've been on the wall were up and down as many as three times during Francone's "erratic" drinking days. "I came in one night; somebody told me this guy Rocky--he was a sheriff--they told me he called me a name. I took him off. He came in the next night; he was almost crying, he wanted me to put him back up. There was a girl I had up there--on and off, on and off--over garbage, over bullshit.
"One of the girls had a police dog," he says, grinning broadly. "I put 'em both up. She just died--alcohol. She was just 34. She used to be a dancer, a beautiful girl." Francone says a number of the people on his wall have been too fond of drink.
"But you couldn't call them alcoholics," says Joe Grau, a Trio regular who admires Francone's wall. "It goes different ways. You know, you'd say they were alcoholics, but what does that mean? They drink every day. So what? Don't you? Does that make them alcoholics? They wouldn't think so. They'd be offended."
Francone nods his head in agreement.
"Some of them were alcoholics though," he says.
"Oh, sure," says Grau, nodding in turn.
At the peak of his creative output, Francone probably had 60 faces on the wall. About 45 still cling to it. On the right comer of the wall, a profile of a man Francone calls the Irishman glares across the bar. His face, as Francone drew it in the mid-70s, is sharp and ambitious. The Irishman who comes into the Trio now is softer, fuller, and grayer.
Many of the subjects of Francone's portraits have died. "A couple of guys got shot," he says. "One guy was a good friend of mine. He got five bullets in the head. They put him in a trunk.
Francone gestures toward a drawing of a pleasant-faced young man gazing blankly through a pair of thick aviator glasses. "Tommy--he's still up. He was a good friend. He stays up."
A man nicknamed Momo because he resembled a certain Chicago underworld figure smiles skeptically beneath a bar of black sunglasses. "Mickey" is a balding man of about 50 who inhabits the left-hand corner of the wall. "He was a real nice guy," Francone says, smiling warmly toward Mickey's face. "He used to come in here and drink, and he'd wake up with a hangover. He'd forget what day it was--on Sunday he'd go to work, and he'd be wondering why there was nobody on the subway. And then he'd get to work, and it'd be all closed up." He laughs. "We cracked up. He must have done that three times. What'd he--He worked at Armstrong Tools, Al?"
Al Faczek, the bartender, doesn't even look up. "Forty-three years," he says.
"Yeah, forty-three years," Francone repeats, nodding.
"Only job he ever had," Faczek says
"Forty-three years," Francone says again. "He retired--I guess he retired about two years agoand he dropped dead. He dropped dead within the year after he retired." Francone is silent for a moment. "I guess he had nothing to do. He'd just come here and sit at the bar, you know. He'd just come to the bar and drink."
There's some talk that the wall has gotten too dirty, too sloppy looking--that the owners are talking about painting it over. Francone doesn't believe they ever will, but he says it wouldn't bother him if they did. "It ain't my wall," he says and shrugs. "It's their wall." Anyway, he says, he's got other things to do. He often stays at home, working on his landscapes, and says he might start taking some art classes--maybe he can make a living at it. "I always thought about it," he says. "I never really pushed myself"
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jon Randolph.