27 April 2004

Subdivision Street: America: the passing of an era at Leo's Lunchroom

Studs Terkel used Division Street as a metaphor for America. The years I've lived here, I've always counted on it for a sandwich or a cup of coffee.

Last Thursday night, Leo's Lunchroom, once the only place for a bite on the block, has its windows covered with brown paper. Handwritten signs say they're closed for "stuff and things," "repairs and stuff."

It's the fifteenth anniversary party, or at least that's what I knew walking in the door. Sheila McCoy, 41, has been running its small, friendly confines since May 1989, and for the past ten years, by herself. Almost all the staff's been there almost as long. Ten years, twelve years, not uncommon. (One of the cooks has never held another job, starting as a dishwasher when she was a teenager.)

Not everyone in the room knows that McCoy's passing the restaurant on to new owners in a few days, just as she took up the small diner space from the real-life Leo. She'd long resisted the entreaties of "speculators," who were interested in offering a sweet price for a teardown. If there was to be a new Leo, she wanted it to be someone who'd keep the place going, pretty much the way it is.

So she found a restaurant realtor instead of a regular realtor. It was Christmas of 2003. "I'm just done, I dunno, you reach a point..." She thinks, then puts it simply. "I'm not learning anything."

Toward Memorial Day, other employees will likely leave. Everyone's thinking of a life change after years in the place. It's centrifugal. "Out of the nest," she jokes. "Here we go, everyone's going.

"It'll be a new energy, their own way, building on what's existed," she tells me between hugs, kisses and friends bringing champagne and whiskey and good wishes. She's wearing red-and-white cowboy boots and an intermittent volley of tears.

Twelve-year veteran and Sunday brunch mainstay Terry West is moving to Florida to fundraise for the Kerry campaign. He's calling it a "sexy house party." Someone's sent an Irish-green horseshoe floral arrangement that seems as funereal as it is lucky. "This has to be the saddest party I've ever been to," another patron says, her coffee cup topped with red wine.

In "Division Street: America," Terkel talks a lot about community being the basis of faith in one's fellow man and in the future itself, while recognizing that "the nomadic, transient nature of contemporary life has made diffusion the order--or disorder--of the city."

It's a belief in the faces you swim amongst through a given day. At the party, faces you can't quite put to names remember the olden days, that century past when Wicker Park was an affordable option for the young, poor and artistic.

McCoy turned 41 last Monday, moved to Pilsen from above Leo's on Wednesday, had the party on Thursday, then flew to Cleveland on Friday for her brother's fiftieth birthday.

It had been a hectic week, but running a smaller restaurant is always hectic. She bought Leo's in 1988 and opened in May 1989, and hasn't had a partner for ten years.

It's not a prefab lifestyle. "I'm not much of a boss," she says. "I just expected everybody to respect others. Don't show up, you get yourself fired." There was the occasional bad egg. She'd "feel almost violated" when money would disappear. "You'd know who it was."

In a café--and especially, a kitchen--that small, "you're working with the same people all the time. I'd try to rotate the schedule enough so nobody's stuck with the same person. I know there's a lot of screaming and yelling when I'm not around. It's kind of like Mom walks in? Everyone calms down."

After college, she moved to Chicago from Cleveland. "It was the way Pilsen can be now, cheap places to live," McCoy recalls. "A bunch of us lived in a six-flat, $400 for a three-bedroom."

"It's my favorite bar that's not a bar," a passing patron says. It's like everyone offering good, if bittersweet, wishes about the one who got away.

Before McCoy took over, "Leo's wife was the driving force. She died in 1986 or so, he didn't really care anymore. The hours changed to 5am to 11am, for the guys with the Racing Forms." Leo was raring to go. "He handed me the keys, said, `There's split-pea soup in the fridge.'"

The back of the house changed, she says, but the paneling, the black-and-red asbestos tile floor and the curved S of a counter with the thirteen stools remain the same. "We never thought of it as thirteen," she says as if she'd never counted them. "The numbering started with the tables, one-two-three, and then the stools start at four." The walls are peeling with layers of postcards, almost two decades of yellowing Wish-I-Was-Theres. The "CA$H ONLY" is still in place.

"There wasn't anyplace to eat around here except the Busy Bee" (the Polish diner under the Blue Line at Damen, gone now almost five years). There's food piled throughout Leo's tonight. Customers mingle behind the counter, in the kitchen and the back patio.

On the line, employees and patrons are "doin' the Hustle." As with any house party, people are congregating in the tight, cramped kitchen. "It's like a party on a submarine," another customer jokes.

More 1970s standards play, common fare at Leo's. "Where do we go from here?" the Alan Parsons Project song goes, "Now that all the children have gone?"

Apropos of nothing someone's saying, "This place, Gold Star, Rainbo, that's it," considering joints that still have the same owners and similar clienteles from the past. (The manager of the Rainbo Club watches, tells an employee, "Remind me if the Rainbo ever closes, not to have a closing party.")

So many familiar faces if not names, the fiftysomethings who've moved on and away from the Wicker Park of the last decade of the century past.

The new owners take possession later this month, and McCoy will teach them the ropes. The place was on the market only a week as a going concern. "I like the new guys. They're young, they have ideas. They made an offer based on a drive-by." They're keeping the breakfast and lunch, she says, adding in Lebanese dishes, maybe delivery. A pack of three-foot blondes are underfoot, another hungry generation.

"A whole new energy," she says with enthusiasm. "I'd be as excited opening a new place myself." We talk about joints she likes to escape to, and she muses, "I wonder if I didn't work for Leo's if I'd ever have gone to Leo's."

She remembers the early days. It was working when "we started getting people's UPS deliveries." Parents would come in with regulars, they'd say, "Thank you for feeding our son!"

"There are so many old customers from out of town telling me, the first meal they had when they moved to Chicago was here." Still, she's shy. "Someone at a function downtown tells me they love my French toast? `Oh, great,'" she says, laughing.

Soon after moving to Chicago, the communications company she worked for was absorbed by IBM. Her first job, first office job, right out of school. "I took a leave of absence," she tells me.

From the job or the corporate world? "Both. I went on the [Grateful] Dead tour then!" Returning, she bonded with a band of Michiganders and bartended at Phyllis' Musical Inn. "Phyllis' never had music until the Michiganders came to town. There were old appliances stored where the stage is now." McCoy thinks the owner of Phyllis' wanted Leo's, so when she took it over, she was fired, started drinking at the now-defunct Czar Bar, then bartending. "Peter Margasak had this zine, he started booking bands in there 1989, 90." Until a change of ownership sunk Czar Bar, she split her time between Leo's by day and bartended at night.

As McCoy recounts the history, first names of fallen proprietors cascade like autumn leaves. "It was less populated then, I mean, we'd put a chair out in the middle of the intersection, you'd sit there and watch the traffic go by. The cops were more concerned about "young girls being in the wrong neighborhood. No taxis would come." But, she says, when she moved to Chicago, there's something she misses now: "little bars on every corner."

Leo's opens at 8 in the morning. The bottom of the menus reads: "Think of it as a little slice of heaven right here in Wicker Park." Rick Marshall, wearing the neighborhood's boldest horn rims and grandest goatee, has run the day shift a decade or more and gets there at 5:45 because purveyors work early.

"It's the best time of day," he says, "Make coffee, read the paper, wait for the bread guy to show up, bullshit about whatever." He doesn't consider himself a manager.

"Chaos always kind of worked," he says quietly with his shy smile. "When I first moved here, I had no money, no job. Six bucks, I could eat rice and beans from Arandas for a dollar, have three beers at the Gold Star and leave a tip."

He said he told his friends back in New York, "Wow, what a great city! $280 rent and a buck for a beer!" We're both quiet over the present beers. "What a city, man," he says.

"The neighborhood doesn't need it anymore." McCoy seems to mean, there are restaurants all around. But new blood can make it more than an artifact of the Liquor Park done gone. Wicker Park's different now, the land of the privileged 22-year-old and the walkers of Golden Retrievers. Phyllis' had their annual Fourth of July band blowout in their beer garden last year, she remembers, when the cops came, said there'd been a noise complaint, someone's baby can't sleep. "It's like this one customer said at the party, it's like a manhole cover opened in Schaumburg or somewhere, sucked everybody up and spit them out here."

She shrugs. "If not now, when?" I wonder aloud why she didn't do it sooner. "It's just the time to move out." I wait expectantly for her to continue. "I'm just tired of doing it! The aches and pains, doing it fifteen years."

Will she miss anything? "It's gonna be odd not to have to go there 7am every morning, go shopping every day. I'll miss going to the market, seeing my meat guy, my chicken guy, my dairy guy, three-four days a week."

And the future? Maybe opening another place, observe another restaurant for a while. For now? "I promised a friend I'd do a triathlon this summer for breast cancer, and I couldn't train for that while working."

Marshall's ready to move on, too, before it becomes a job rather than what I describe as "what you do." "It hasn't been a job for ten years," he says, "It's been Leo's."

Money changes everything

Veteran film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum is one of the most invested voices in writing about movies. When there's a subject he's spent decades thinking on, he's nonpareil—the legacy of Orson Welles, the urban space of Jacques Tati's movies like Playtime, the movies of his friends Jim Jarmusch and Raul Ruiz, with his playful puzzle films. The pantheon-ringing title of his new collection, "Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons," suggests that he would be taking on the likes of Harold Bloom, with some sort of embrace of Bloom's canonical harrumphs, or perhaps a creation of categories like those of Andrew Sarris' 1967 "The American Cinema." While the introduction does attempt to contextualize the oppositional character of the cinemas and directors in the book, such as Iranians Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Hungary's Bela Tarr, Elaine May and Asian masters like the Taiwanese Edward Yang and Hou Hsiao-hsien, the volume is essentially another compendium of reviews and articles for Film Comment and other publications. The virtue is having the best of his immersive recent work in one place; the disadvantage is in recalling how descriptive writing sometimes needs a prescriptive balance, particularly in Rosenbaum's persistent bugbears: the studio system, publicists, and the profit-driven movie distribution system. What makes trawling through his later collections, especially his previous jeremiad, "Movie Wars," wearisome are the same refrains, about "the reductive canons of studio publicists" and "the mass media's implied insult to the audience largely by kowtowing to Miramax and refusing to acknowledge any alternatives..." It's thrilling to read his take on Rear Window as "a moral investigation," or a roundhouse dismissal of "Natural Born Killers," Forrest Gump and Pulp Fiction as "comforting lies," but soon he's railing at the "cultural commissars" again. Rosenbaum never seems cynical, but dispirited in his quest for audiences for movies he feels speak to "the contemporary world." There's also a near-Masonic grid of almost-gossip and cryptic surmise throughout, but all is forgiven when he finds beauty in a movie like Taxi Driver, "an oddly ravishing treatment of mental imbalance... Munch meets... Gershwin."

Essential Cinema: On the Necessity of Film Canons
By Jonathan Rosenbaum
Johns Hopkins University Press, 456 pages, $35

[Originally published in Newcity, 27 April 2004]