Hopleaf History—Chapter 2—
The man who bought the bar at 5148 N Clark in 1990 was a very unlikely saloon keeper. He was an observant Muslim from Pakistan named Khaled Sahi, known as “Sid”. He had worked as a Mercedes salesman in the North Shore suburbs. He was married to a beautiful and bright woman also from Pakistan who was finishing medical school at the time and he was completely clueless about running a bar/liquor store. Since the regular denizens of this bar tended to be rather racist, most of his customers despised him. The bar was losing money. What little money that came in could not make up for all of the free drinks going out. The only salvation were the illegal poker machines to which many of the regulars were profoundly addicted even though they invariably lost a big portion of their paychecks week after weeks in them.
I met with Sid a few times between October and December 1991 and ironed out a price and terms. The employees and customers were not privy to the fact that the bar would soon be sold. We signed a contract contingent on me being approved by the State Liquor Control Commission and the City of Chicago to hold a liquor license. It was also contingent on the lease being transferred.
Every state has unique liquor laws. It is little understood 95 years later that besides the 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution that brought on Prohibition on a Federal level, two thirds of the states passed some form of state legislation banning alcohol as well. Not all states repealed Prohibition in 1933 either. Prohibition did not end in Mississippi until 1966. Since there were still some unconvinced that any good could come from ending Prohibition, state politicians softened the blow by keeping some aspects of Prohibition intact. Some states forbade Sunday sales, some allowed for individual counties to vote themselves “dry”. Ohio restricted beer to no more than 3.2 % strength.
Many states feared that the same organized crime elements who provided beer, wine and booze during Prohibition would take control of the newly legal trade. States also wanted to end the practice of brewery owned taverns which led to some breweries carving out turf like today’s drug gangs. Some breweries even hired gangs of thugs to enforce one brewery’s control of a specific district with threats of violence. To prevent this sort of thing, prospective new liquor license holders had to be vetted. And vetted I was.
I had to be fingerprinted and have my profile cleared by the FBI to insure that I had no ties to organized crime. I needed to prove that i had not been convicted of a felony myself. Anyone who I had shared a bank account with in the previous 7 years also was subject to scrutiny. This was to ensure that I was not a “straw buyer” for a criminal. Years prior to this, in preparation for a trip to Europe in the pre ATM era, I opened a joint account with my parents so that they could wire my money to me in Europe. This meant that my law abiding parents had to go to a police station to be fingerprinted, something neither had ever done. Louise and I sat in a dingy room in the Criminal Courts building at 26th and California with some very seedy people to be fingerprinted.
The authorities “followed the money”, went through their files and found that we were upstanding citizens worthy of taking over a dumpy failing bar/liquor store in Chicago. During this process, the city posts a sign outside the bar alerting the neighborhood to the change incase there is any objection. This was the first clue that employees got that another change was coming. However, the previous change of owners had not changed a thing so most were not worried.
On January 26th 1992, the papers were signed, Khalid Sahi resigned as President of Clark Foster Liquors Inc. and I, Michael Roper took the title. I would be taking the business over on Saturday, February 15. As it happened, I contracted a terrible cold a few days prior to the 15th and had almost no voice. I also had not slept in days. Regardless, I had the keys in hand at 6:30 AM and arrived at the bar before the arrival of the opening bartender Johnna, an older Danish woman who I noted on my secret reconnaissance visits rarely charged the mostly male customers for their drinks. At about 6:45 Am, she arrived for her shift. In my almost non existent voice, I introduced myself, handed her her shift pay for the day and fired her. She wept. The bar did not open at 7. I met with the rest of the staff who included a mixed bag of characters. I felt that none would be with me for the long run but I needed someone to run the bar for the time being as it was if for no other reason, I needed to sell through the dubious array of products on hand.
Who were the other employees? There was Judy. She was born in the aftermath of the Korean War to a Korean mother and an Puerto Rican American soldier. Growing up in Korea as such, she had a rough going of it. She was tough but honest and dependable. For now, a keeper. There was Huey Gillespie. He was a ruddy faced Scot who got along perhaps a bit too well with the regular gamblers at the bar. Also trustworthy, dependable and highly personable with an almost impenetrable accent. Peter Gonzalez lived upstairs in the rear apartment with his two brothers, Johnny and Jose. Peter was paid in cash because he collected disability for a heart ailment. He had held a former old school patronage job with the City. He was married but did not live with his wife. He visited her once or twice a week. I never did meet her. His brother Johnny was a big problem for the bar for quite some time to come. However Peter was the perfect new opening bartender. He was funny, friendly and charged customers for their drinks. They liked him. The mainstay was Shirley Jean Porm. I could fill a few pages with her story.
Shirley Jean grew up in an Appalachian coal mining town. She married at 15 and her first husband Billy Ray, fresh out of the Air Force took her up to Chicago where he got a job in a metal products factory. She had several kids, he left her for a woman known in the neighborhood as the ‘cat lady”. He was a regular at the bar even when she worked. She remarries an older man who shot himself in a failed suicide attempt when she refused to marry him. When he recovered, she relented. He was in the jukebox/poker machine rackets. Her bartending job was her lifeline. Her mental state was very fragile. While she had none of the qualities that the future Hopleaf would demand, I did not have the heart to let her go. She was also honest and loyal to the place. Her country upbringing came in handy one night when a possum came in the bar through an open gangway door. She chased it out with a broom. She was also working the night we were robbed. Right after I took over a gang of thieves announced a robbery, not of the cash register or of the customers, but of the three poker machines which they jimmied open knowing that the crime would not be reported since they were nit legal. She stayed cool and no one was hurt.
I had planned to remove the machines soon anyway even though they represented the sole profit that the bar was making. After the robbery, I had them removed much to the amazement and dismay of the customers.
Lastly, there was the “cleaning guy” Kerry. He was an adult with the IQ of a 10 year old. He drank a lot and odd jobbed in the neighborhood. He was a fixture. Much of his conversation made no sense. He was the worst possible janitor. In a place as dark and dirty as this, no one noticed that the mop bucket water had not been changed in months. That was the crew that I inherited, minus Johnna. The customers were even more colorful.