- Wright Thompson, Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
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CHICAGO -- We all have a list. You know, the things we want to accomplish before we die. For some, these goals have gravitas. Invent a cure for cancer. Win a Super Bowl. Climb Everest.
Then you have my list:
1. Be a Waffle House short order cook, just to yell, "Hey, Soup Jockey! Does that gallery want life preservers in the alley?"
2. Discover my wife's father is actually the long lost heir to the Maker's Mark distillery.
3. Sling booze in an old-fashioned saloon, the kind where writers and bums and off-duty cops drink man drinks and swear.
On Sunday afternoon, as I stepped behind the bar at the Billy Goat Tavern for my Super Bowl shift, Dream No. 3 came true. I was going to be a bartender for a glorious evening at one of America's most renowned drinking establishments, home of the famous Cubs curse, located in the bowels of Chicago. It's the place lionized in Saturday Night Live's old "Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger! Cheeseburger!" skit.
Do you know that scene from "Harold and Kumar" when they first see the White Castle, the building awash in a beatific glow? This was like that. I damn near achieved pure energy as I tied on the white apron, looking longingly at the 122 bottles behind me, the rows of taps in front. I was giddier than Angelina Jolie in a Cambodian orphanage.
"You ever been here before?" a fellow bartender asked.
Never on this side of the bar, I told him.
Before we go any further, here's my bartending experience: (A) making cocktails at parties from time to time back in the day, and (B) mixing for myself. Quickly, I learned that "B" was gonna do me no good. As I poured one of my first mixed drinks, a fellow employee ran over and frantically told me not to dump so much Jack Daniel's in one glass.
Soon, I figured out the tricky beer tap: You let it run for a second then slam the side of the glass to it quickly. I figured out the old-fashioned cash register. Settling into a rhythm, eyeing the level of beer in my customers' bottles and glasses, I began to learn a bit about them.
Down at the end, Jennifer and Dwight are huge Bears fans from North Carolina. They couldn't get Super Bowl tickets, so they did the next big thing: Get their butts to Chicago, park 'em at a stool in the Billy Goat.
Near them were a group of three rowdy women, including mother Jean, daughter Kelly and friend Sheri. They flew in from Tampa and Iowa to meet up to watch the game, too, and had spent eight hours at the Billy Goat the day before. Immediately, they were my favorites: fun, big tippers, helpful. They'd been here long before I came in, because the mom was already promising -- threatening? -- to flash me. Or, worse, order a drink that had moving parts.
"She's gonna get a coffee liqueur drink," Kelly said.
I leaned in.
"Don't do that to me," I said, pointing to the other bartender. "Wait until he comes over."
"All you do is put a shot in a cup of coffee," Mom said.
Oh. I dumped two glugs of Drambuie in her cup and slid it across the bar, moving on down the line, listening to snippets of conversation, watching their every move.
There was the guy they called OTB Bob, who was drinking Cuba Libres when I arrived and drinking Cuba Libres when I left. He tipped as well or better than some of the more well-dressed patrons. He had long, dirty fingernails, a scar on his hand, a crushed soft pack of Pall Malls, unkempt hair and piercing blue eyes. Once, he'd been a handsome man, and I wished I knew what went wrong. Instead, I called him "sir" and poured his rum with a heavy hand.
And, of course, the Bears fans, a legion of them, staring at the televisions, all smiles and stiff drinks. After the first touchdown, I looked down at the North Carolina crew.
"Who wants to buy some shots?"
Dwight held up two fingers. They wanted Jagermeister, which has made many a good night go bad. I shivered as I poured. They shivered as they drank.
"Empty that bottle tonight," Rob from Minnesota said. "I like the karma from you."
"It's all about bar chi," I assured them.
Their positive energy held. They started drinking shots when they hoped the Bears would score. I suggested they drink shots when they wanted their luck to change, so they did that. And, wouldn't you know it, moments after a round of Jager went down, just before halftime, the Colts fumbled.
"That was us!" one yelled.
I pointed to the tip jar.
"You better remember that at the end of the evening," I said.
Then the Bears fumbled right back, the air slowly leaking out of the room.
"You should have had another," I said, walking away.
Afterward, the Bears fans seemed desperate.
"Never give up," Jennifer said. "Ditka would tell you that if he were standing here. Jim McMahon would tell you that."
"Neither of them are here," her husband said.
A man named Des McDonough was here, though, and as he pounded beer after beer, I went to hear his story. He'd just flown in from Ireland. Landed a few hours ago and was on a layover until tomorrow morning.
"How'd you end up here?" I asked.
"Damn fine question," he said.
Then, looking at his new friends from North Carolina, he asked me: "Do you have Irish whiskey?"
"We have Bushmills and Jameson."
"Four shots of Bushmills," he said strongly, preferring the Protestant hooch.
The wheels were coming off, both for the customers and the Bears. Marco, my fellow bartender for the night shift, shook his head after another Bad Rex throw.
"You know," he said, "the Bears are like a soccer team without a goalkeeper."
Finally, it was over. The Bears had lost. The cheering silenced, patrons stared down into their glasses. Some bundled up and headed for the door. I walked back down to the out-of-town fans.
"You guys want a shot to celebrate the season?" I asked.
"We wanted champagne," Jennifer said. "You didn't have any."
Champagne? This was the freaking Billy Goat, where we think Schramsberg is a suburb west of town.
"We have the champagne of beers," I offered.
Down the way, Kelly wanted a shot of something lemony and sweet. I turned back to the bar. Feigning confidence, I took a shaker, added ice, some lemon-flavored Bacardi, vodka, a few squeezed limes and some strange green liquid in an unmarked bottle. I shook it up, strained it and poured it into a glass.
"What did you make me?" she asked.
"A lemon...," I said, stretching the word, mumbling at the end.
"Lemon Drop?" she said.
I nodded, walking away quickly, untying the apron. Bundled up, I left the drinkers on their stools. My night was over. Theirs was just beginning.
Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Bears didn't win. But at least their fans found a way to drown their sorrows at the Billy Goat Tavern, thanks to Wright Thompson's heavy pouring hand.