January 25th, 2010

Books!

"The Goat"

The other evening, in my never-ending search for "networking" events that might eventually lead to my finding a job, I attended a TweetUp hosted by @ColonelTribune in honor of the lauching of the new "TribNation" venture under the aegis of @JamesJanega. While the scope of the the "TribNation" concept is still a bit hazy to me (it seems to involve one-on-one contact with readers via assorted Social Media vehicles), the Trib certainly had an eye on history and continuity in opting to have the bash at Chicago's fabled Billy Goat Tavern, a long-time watering hole and refuge for the "ink stained wretches" of the Tribune (and other papers, most now gone).

The party, which ended up being quite a smash, involved having us wearing jaunty newspaper hats (as has been recently modeled by the Colonel himself in his Twitter icon), and circulating between groups of folks, some from the paper, some from Twitter, and some from the extended blogosphere (I ran into folks that I'd known from assorted other networking events, other Chicago Now bloggers who just popped into The Goat for a cheezborger, and got to meet various editors, managers, and columnists, such as the noted writer of the Ask Amy feature). To top off the festivities, "door prizes" of Rick Kogan's A Chicago Tavern: A Goat, a Curse, and the American Dream were awarded, my getting one (I take it) for having been the first to arrive.

A Chicago Tavern is one of those books that feels almost accidental, as though the writer (who I discovered is a product of the same Chicago high school that I graduated from) had started to do a feature story about The Billy Goat and found the subject getting away from him, as its length (115 pages with about 25 of those being extremely charming photographs) does not suggest a "I'm going to write a book about The Goat!" genesis. As one would expect from this, it is a quick, but quite entertaining, read. The book weaves various histories together, the stories of the Sianis family, immigrating in waves from Greece, first William (Billy), then his nephew Sam (who still presides at the saloon, and was around for the party), and their various relatives; the story of the newspaper business in Chicago, and how The Goat was a favorite of not only the writers, but the pressmen and other laborers from the half-dozen or so newspapers that used to publish within blocks of the bar; and the story of the mass-media attention, of the old Saturday Night Live crew, and how the homage to the Billy Goat was no cynical ploy, but rooted in John Belushi's Albanian immigrant relatives who also operated "Greek diners" when he was growing up.

However, as the sub-title indicates, this is ultimately a story of the much-tarnished American Dream, centered on the Sianis family, and what Billy and Sam were able to build over the better part of a century after coming here with nothing (Billy arrived with $5.00 which was scammed off of him even before he got out of Ellis Island, only to be recouped many years later, as detailed in a remarkable reminiscence). All sorts of fascinating bits and pieces come out here. Sam Sianis was interested in "getting the real story out" and worked extensively with Kogan to get the information right. For instance, the whole "goat" angle came about by happenstance, but Bill Sianis saw the possibilities and re-shaped his own image to the "billy goat" iconography, and how the whole "Cubs Curse" was invented to help sell papers long after the initial snub of Billy and his goat (although it would appear that the Wrigleys were extremely opposed to allowing a goat into the stands, whether or not it had a ticket). Also touching is the tale of how newspaperman Mike Royko and saloonkeeper Sam Sianis came to be extremely close friends, "better than a brother", and much of the decor in the bar is memorabilia of the late Chicago scribe.

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed A Chicago Tavern and would highly recommend it to all and sundry, and especially those with an interest in Chicago history, newspaper lore, immigrant stories, and cultural memories. As a "small book" its cover price is fairly low, and Amazon has it as a discount, but those of you who are either in Chicago or are planning on coming here can also get a copy (along with some awesome cheezborgers) at the Billy Goat!


Visit the BTRIPP home page!