Early this year, Tom Chiarella wrote a fantastic profile of Jeff Magill for Chicago magazine. So when a boss suggested that I was the person to serenade Magill into retirement, I almost blurted out: "It's already been done!" But that sounded kind of lame, and Jeff's a complex enough guy that a little room could exist for my own take on the man. Though I deliberately left myself out of the equation—didn't want to get between him and the reader.
Jeff Magill stands behind the bar at the Billy Goat Tavern and hooks his right arm around a Schlitz beer tap as he speaks, a gesture of utter confidence and familiarity, as if he's part of the bar itself, which of course he is.
He has been tending bar at the subterranean landmark at the corner of Lower Michigan and Hubbard for nearly 35 years. His 35th anniversary would be March 4, if he stayed that long.
But he won't; Magill is retiring when his shift ends at 7 p.m. Christmas Eve.
"It's one of the happiest days of the year," says Magill, in a soft, pleasant voice you lean forward and strain to hear above the bar clatter. "Especially with this place. It starts out, very frenetic in the morning. People are tying up loose ends, with shopping. Almost a crescendo down here. Early afternoon, people peter out. For the most part, quiet. When I walk out the door it's very quiet. So there's a wonderful contrast, the activity of the morning and the quiet of the evening. I love that. I always have. For whatever it's worth, I found a little bit of a symbolic parallel there, trying to figure out the right day to retire on."
If his language—"frenetic," "crescendo" "symbolic" "—does not sound like the typical "Whaddaya have, pal?" bartender snarl, well, that's Jeff.
"Jeff has a background in psychology," says long-time patron Michael Gillespie, 72. "Very apropos to this job. He's probably the most eclectic bartender I've ever met, and I used to be in the business."
And yet there is nothing pretentious about him. He wears his erudition lightly.
Magill once offered a shot and a beer to Hillary Clinton as she was visiting the bar—equal part sincere hospitality and sly taunt, also characteristic. He was there when Julia Child got behind the grill to flip burgers and when George H.W. Bush stopped by for lunch, none of which be brings up. Nor does he mention Mike Royko, the great columnist. But I do.
"He kind of tested me," remembers Jeff, recalling a moment about six months after he started."Some guy at the bar was talking, and he said, 'Mike, you live in the suburbs.'
Jeff drops his voice to a growl to imitate Royko: "'I don't live in the suburbs! I hate the fuckin' suburbs! When I go out to the suburbs I throw up on the steering wheel.'" Jeff jerks his thumb.
"He looked at me and said, 'He lives in the suburbs!"
"I said, 'Mike, as a matter of fact, I don't. Live at Diversey and Ashland. But you live in Edgebrook. Literally just a couple of blocks from the suburbs, a neighborhood indiscernible from the suburbs.' He hesitated for a minute and said, 'I pay my taxes in the city.' And that was it. And I never had any kind of negative thing with Mike from the on. We got along from then on. We played golf a handful of times together."
Hours can pass like this, but time is short. What has Jeff learned from his 35 years behind the bar?
'Certainly a lot is revealed in a tavern," he replies. "We know that. We know that sometimes, for good or for bad, alcohol can be a kind of truth serum. For a lot of people, it can reduce inhibitions, in a good sense. I see good fellowship. I'm amazed at how people of disparate backgrounds, income, social status, can get along famously and develop real intimacy. That's the great joy of this business. To see that. All of those friendships, truly devoted to each other. It sounds grandiose, But to preside over that, there's really an honor in that. I don't want to be corny about it, but it really is."
So what will he do when he retires?
"No plans," he says. "I've never been good at compartmentalizing my life. I admire people who can. I think they're the most successful among us. But I won't know until I enter that space. That's my intention. Get there first and decide what to do next. Doing repairs around the house that are long overdue."
Patrons drift in. A couple of pilots, so conversation floats to Meigs Field and, of course, wings back to Jeff.
"Jeff symbolizes, to me, the era when a local bar was part of Chicago's personality," says Tim Coverick, a retired pilot. "He was able to perpetuate the true essence of a local bar, a classy bar, to downtown and it will never be the same."
Bars aren't supposed to change. The Goat has stayed the same for half a century, the same yellowed clippings, the same black and white photos for forgotten politicians and beauty queens.
But the people inside change.
"I've seen people's lives evolve over 35 years," Magill says. "I've had the good fortune to have enough regulars. A lot of lives develop and change. the irony is what people look for coming here down in a tavern is a constant, something you shouldn't change. Perhaps that's the function of me being here all those years. Leaving, and some recognition of my leaving, confirms that. I'm finding that this meant more to me probably than I thought it did. There's an ordering of our lives, conscious or unconscious, and you find you're a profound part of that order for a significant number of people..."
Something catches his eye and he breaks off and hurries down the bar.
"What will you have?" he says.