Jackie Schaller died last Saturday at 90. The owner of Schaller's Pump, the legendary Bridgeport tavern, was given the proper affectionate send-off by our inimitable Maureen O'Donnell in the Sun-Times. But these old South Side guys, they weren't Teddy bears. They had a toughness that lingered right into old age, as I found out, a little, when the great Ed McElroy took me to Schaller's in 2009, leading to Jackie Schaller's memorable cameo in my 2012 memoir, You Were Never in Chicago:
For lunch today, Ed takes me to Schaller's Pump. From the outside, the place seems unremarkable—a modest two-story brick building, a large welcome to White Sox fans painted across the wall. In the gravel parking lot, I mention that I was last here with Mary Mitchell, a black Sun-Times columnist who was hesitant to walk into Schaller's because of its reputation, unsure of how she would be received, though the regulars warmly welcomed her once she did muster the courage to go in.
"The only black you'll see here is the cook," says Ed.
"Who took you to your first World Series?" Ed says, and they both laugh. To St. Louis in 1946 to see the Cardinals beat the Red Sox. "I drove down in my car," says Ed. "The Chase Hotel. A guy I knew took care of us."
Schaller is cooler toward me. Though in Ed's company, I'm still a stranger and a newspaperman at that.
Did Schaller know his grandfather, I ask. Did he know the man who started the tavern?
"Yes," Schaller replies.
What was he like?
A pause. "Five foot one," Schaller says, without a trace of warmth. Nothing more.
An older black couple arrives and is shown to a table nearby, where they quietly eat. Times have changed, in some ways, and not in others. I ask Schaller how old he is.
"My birthday is Jan. 15," says Schaller. "Do you know what day that is?"
I shrug—nothing comes to mind.
"Martin Luther King Day," Schaller says, with a quick flick of the thumb toward the black couple. There doesn't seem to be malice in the gesture—those days are gone—but maybe the memory of malice....
Ed orders a hamburger and a glass of milk. I order a steak sandwich and a cup of coffee, with only the briefest glance of instinctive longing at the men having Budweisers at the bar. Jackie moves off, to see after a big group of tourists arriving at the back room. Ed tells me a little about him. "World War II guy. I think he got hit," Ed says, describing how Schaller went from an eighteen-year-old playing on the St. Leo Light Basketball Squad and mouthing off to the priests to a soldier fighting in the jungles of the Pacific. A common path for the boys of Ed's generation. They played ball, they went overseas, they fought, they got hit, they came home.
"All those guys. Overseas. Bronze stars. You couldn't get a better bunch of people," says Ed. "All out of Visitation Parish. In Chicago, you know, we go by parish. Especially South Side. Visitation—it's like the pope lived there." Ed holds up his hands in amazement. "Unbelievable, Visitation. So may priests came out of there. So many policeman. Commanders. Firemen. It was so friendly."
Friendly, of course, if you belonged.