|Phyllis Smith, right, shakes hands with Gov. Jim Edgar at the Taste of Chicago. Sam Sianis is at center.|
“How’s the family?”
Phyllis always asked. About Edie. About the boys. Any why not? She had met them all. My parents too. She’d been to our house.
Still, she surprised me by asking now; it was I who called, spurred by bad news.
I gave a brief update then cut to the chase.
But you, Phyllis, how are you?
“Ehh,” she said. “I’ve had better days.”
Yes, she had.
Phyllis Smith was a bartender, for more than 20 years at the Billy Goat Tavern and then at Harry Caray’s in Lombard. She was “a tough lady,” in the words of Goat owner Sam Sianis, with a blunt manner and a big, braying laugh she unleashed often.
“A Chicago character: the real old-school bartender,” said Grant DePorter, owner of Harry Caray’s. “That would be her.”
And if that’s all Phyllis was, I wouldn’t be writing about her now. There was a fine Chicago journalistic tradition of chronicling bars and their denizens, what they say and did, as if it mattered, from Mr. Dooley to Mike Royko. But that tradition, like newspapering itself, has gone into steep decline.
Nor is booze so charming a topic. As a recovering alcoholic, there is something queasy about rhapsodizing your bartender, even one as good at topping off a drink or listening to a woe as Phyllis.
Were Phyllis simply a bartender, I wouldn’t bother.
But she was also my friend. We kept up for a dozen years after she served me my last drink. Nor was it just me.
“She took great pride in her work and in her customers and their lives,” said her daughter, Laurie Manzardo.
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