Time to Settle Accounts
June 22, 2011: No Coke. Pepsi.
It was noon when I walked into the Billy Goat Tavern, the lunch crowd filing in. In front of me was a large group, a family from out of town. They approached the counter. “Slide down! Slide down! Slide down! Slide down! Slide down!” said Spiro, the old gentleman taking orders. Spiro, or “The Cheezborger guy” as he calls himself, never says anything once. Or twice. Always four or five times, rapid-fire. “Move the line! Move the line! Move the line! Move the line! Move the line!”
“Double?” he asks the mom of the group.
“What?” she asks.
“Double?” he says again.
“How big are they?” she says with a thrilled concern.
He nods his head in reassurance. “Double.”
She laughs. “Okay then. Double.”
The other people in the group search the area for a menu. “Don’t look at menu!” Spiro says. “I am menu today!”
Spiro looks down the line at the rest of the group, and points to each one, saying, “Double?” and one by one they respond “Double,” in the affirmative. “Single,” says one teenager in the group.
“Double?” Spiro says.
The young man laughs. “Double.”
“Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! Cheezborger! All doubles!” Spiro says to the grill man.
“Six double cheezborger!” the grill man yells back, and he begins slapping patties on the grill.
“Do you have fries?” the young man asks in naïvety.
“No fries! Cheeps!” Spiro says. “You know that. Don’t make me call 9-1-1.”
I order my burger – “Double?” “Double.” – and slide down. Two large men who look like football players walk in.
“Double,” one says to Spiro.
“You want a triple,” Spiro suggests gently.
The men laugh. “Triple.”
A man in his late 20s with a neat beard and serious eyes walks in. “Single,” he says.
Spiro looks closer at him. “Double?”
“Okay,” Spiro says, “Single.”
The family takes their burgers, gets their condiments, and finds a large table on the west side of the tavern. I take my double and grab some ketchup.
“Excuse me,” a teenaged boy says to me. He is taking a picture of the menu. “I gotta Facebook this.” He lines up his phone and takes his picture. Nearby, his father sits at their table, one leg over the other and his hands on his knee, admiring the Goat, its newspaper clippings, its energy, its history.
“Where are you from?” I ask the boy.
“Gonna make everyone in Florida jealous?”
“I hope so!” he says with a laugh.
“First time in Chicago?”
He motions to his dad. “We were here in October,” he says. He takes one more picture, uploads the photo, and then puts his phone in his pocket. His father is now standing, reading a Royko column about the time Sam Sianis went to Greece to get married and caused a panic at the Goat when no one knew if he was returning. “We love it here,” the boy says.
He looks at his father, who is staring at the wall and grinning as he reads. Behind us, Spiro’s voice booms: “Move the line! Move the line! Move the line! Move the line! Move the line!” The man chuckles at Spiro’s words, and then at Royko’s. “Classic place,” he says.
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