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Here There Be Cheeseheads

Will's Northwoods Tavern and Supper Club on a Sunday afternoon is no place for nonpartisans.

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On a quiet Sunday morning near Racine and Belmont, a man in chinos rolls a plush baby carriage past a block of condos. Across the street, over a row of hedges, looms a fiberglass moose. A group of guys in green-and-gold getups rounds the corner. One of them sports a football helmet. They spot someone in a number four jersey. "Hey, Favre!" they yell. They don't know this person, but they all high-five the stranger before entering Will's Northwoods Tavern and Supper Club, a Packer bar.

Inside, all eyes are on the game. The steamer full of brats is about the only thing that can distract a Green Bay fan, but everyone will stop mid-gobble to shout at the TV. The air is thick with flatus.

Will's looks like a working-class holdout in Lakeview, but it's owned by a wealthy lawyer, Jon Bunge, who took over the neighborhood watering hole ten years ago. Bill Kruse, who's been tending bar there since 1986, says he couldn't work for a more benign potentate: Bunge gives his employees health insurance and a 401(k) plan. "How many bars in the city will give you that?" he asks.

Bunge, a La Crosse native now in his 60s, stands behind the bar and slaps hands with his cheering patrons. He's short, yet his happy roar can always be heard above the shoulder-to-shoulder melee.

Why's it so crowded? Most Packer games can't be seen on regular cable, but Will's has a subscription for the entire Green Bay schedule. The games draw people in, and Kruse's Bloody Marys make for fast acquaintances. He says customers "just strike up a conversation about the game, and then I'll introduce them." The meetings aren't always friendly--some people try to steal seats and get hurt.

Other people hurt themselves. One Sunday after a Packer touchdown, transplanted Wisconsinite Brendan O'Mara, half in the bag at 2 PM, jumped on his bar stool in glee and bashed his head on a hanging lamp. The swinging light threw a drunk-time strobe effect over the crowd, which howled along to the Gary Glitter song playing on the Lambeau Field PA. "Rock and Roooooll!" sang a guy with a handlebar mustache.

Someone high-fived O'Mara's drinking buddy, Chris Carey, who settled back with his beer and smiled sweetly. O'Mara rubbed his head and scorned the competition: "Now's the time they're going to try and score some kind of moral victory by hanging in there. We must destroy that feeling. We must make them feel stupid for even trying."

O'Mara and Carey compare Will's to the Paradise Lounge, the pit in Madison where they watched football games before they came to Chicago to seek their fortunes. O'Mara, who earned an English degree five years ago, works in a liquor store; Carey, a computer programmer, is unemployed. The Paradise offered an all-you-can-eat-and-drink Packer special, and Carey wonders whether people showed up for the football or the cheap beer. Will's serves up free food during the game--the Vienna hot dogs are boiled in beer with the Wisconsin bratwurst. "Call it culinary fusion," says Carey.

O'Mara says his grunt work at the liquor store is no better than the pizza delivery job he had in Madison, but since he's found true love in Chicago he doesn't feel homesick. Watching the game at Will's "helps a lot, to be honest," he says. "It sounds corny, but I feel something like a community here--like I'm around a community of expatriates."

Not everyone is from up north. Many were raised in Illinois, even in Chicago. Matt Regan, a regular from Oak Park, says his mother grew up in the city but raised him as a Packer fan "to spite my grandfather. She had a crush on Bart Starr." She bribed Regan with paraphernalia--pillowcases, hats, and shirts with green-and-gold logos that he foolishly wore to school. "I got beat up a lot as a kid."

Many Illinois fans also root for the Bears, and among these ambifaithful not all favor Green Bay. Last Sunday a contingent showed up decked out in Bears regalia. Though they huddled in back under a chandelier made of deer antlers, they yelled as loud as they could.

The game was at noon, but all the tables were claimed before 10:45. The hot dogs were gone by 11:30. By kickoff the crowd was so drunk that shoving matches broke out over standing room. Kruse says the fights never get out of hand--he's small, but he keeps a sawed-off baseball bat under the bar. "Somebody gets too rowdy, I just give 'em a stern look and go, 'Hey, that's enough!'" he says, waving the bat not unconvincingly. A few weeks ago he ended a tiff by ringing the bar bell and reminding everyone, "The Packers won!" One of the brawlers later apologized. "He says, 'You know, I wouldn't disrespect the bar--if it got to the point where we would come to blows, we woulda gone outside.'"

During the Packers-Bears game, O'Mara and Carey are pinned in a corner with a pitcher of Leinenkugel's and O'Mara's girl, Terriann Mueller, a Bears fan from the south suburbs. For her first few drinks, she lays low. She turns down a free ticket for the halftime raffle of Packer gear. "I can't," she explains. "I'm a traitor."

"There's a lot of mixed couples here," says O'Mara. He points to an obese pair on TV: the woman wears a cheese-wedge hat while the man's covered in Bears war paint. "See! That's sweet."

"That's sick," says Carey. "Their child will be a mutant."

By the time Brett Favre throws an interception it's too crammed to throw a punch or get to the bathroom. When Chicago dinks in a field goal off the crossbar, a round, red-eared Bears fan waves a cigarette in his fist like a middle finger. A wrinkled blond yells at him but can't be heard; she settles for glaring.

The Packers pull out the win, and the sound of a couple of hundred drunks screaming "The Bears still suck!" rumbles down Racine. Once the celebration fades, a bartender announces, "Terriann Mueller, your wallet's at the bar."

"Shit!" she says, as she vaults the pool table. She slithers back with the wallet and a round of bourbon shots in plastic cups.

"I can't believe somebody tried to take my wallet," she says, though nothing's missing from the billfold. "I don't feel safe here! I'm in hostile territory!"

"How do you think we feel out on the streets every day?" says Carey. "When I come in here, I feel like whipping off my coat and yelling, 'Sanctuary!'"

"What are all you fuckers doing in Chicago?" Mueller asks.

"Getting laid," says O'Mara.

"You came to this city! Pack your motherfucking tepee up and go home."

O'Mara is unfazed. "All of us think there's a better life down here, job opportunities. Well, I guess some of us have found it. But no matter how much money you make, it's not enough to root for the Bears."

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