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Pizza & Beer
Years ago, 1978 to be precise, on the north side of Chicago there was a small stretch of property on North Sheridan Road, resembling that of the main drag of a small college town. This stretch, bordered on the south by Devon and on the north by Morse Avenues, served as the hub of social activity for the students of Loyola University as well as many other residents living in that part of the city. The area included two movie theaters, a great number of bars and restaurants, a pool hall, and a string of beaches that ran along the Lake Michigan shore one block east of Sheridan. The CTA’s elevated train designated the Loyola station as an A/B stop, which meant that both the A, and B trains would stop there, indicating the volume of traffic the station would be required to handle each day.
Just south of the station, on the east side of Sheridan stood the epicenter of hub. The Granada Theater, one of the last remaining movie palaces, proudly displayed its marquee lights each evening inviting moviegoers to step into its majestic foyer and climb its marble staircases leading to the plush accommodating seats that sat beneath a faux rendition of a starlit night. North of the Granada was an alternating string of restaurants and bars such as Marshall Fluids Pub, Little King sandwich shop, Huey’s bar, which displayed a giant replication of the Baby Huey cartoon duck —complete with diaper wrapped around, and bonnet on its head—, the Pizza Production, and Minstrel’s musical Inn. Competition on the street was fierce, as each respective business tried to find a way to lure theatergoers and passersby to spend there money before they gave their night a rest.
Cap Hadfield drove deliveries for the Pizza Production, and sat in Minstrel’s bar on his night off awaiting the arrival of Koko Taylor’s blues band who were performing there that evening. Koko Taylor was at the time, an up-and-coming singer who had gained a reputation, after her rendition of “Wang Dang Doodle” (a song Willie Dixon had written for Howlin’ Wolf), as the new Queen of the blues. Cap had seen her on the blues stage at Chicago Fest on Navy Pier the year before and had been anxiously anticipating a chance to meet her and the band at this smaller venue. He loved the blues, and when a band was booked at Minstrel’s his association with the bar, had in the past, offered him the chance to meet the likes of Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Junior Wells, and Mighty Joe Young. As he sat there in the bar, his boss Freddy came in from next door with a nervous look upon his face. “Cap, I really need you to fill in tonight, we have the contest and Top-spin called in sick.”
Freddy was a tall wiry man, who had a heart of gold, but was not exactly known along the strip to have a head for business. He was determined to prove his detractors wrong, and tonight was his big night. He had invited representatives of the Universities fraternities and athletic teams to participate in his inaugural “Pizza Production Pizza Eating Contest.” It was a sound idea. The school and the street were all abuzz and anxious to compete for the $200 prize the winner would take home. The restaurant was filling up, its bar was already at capacity, and Freddy needed help as he found himself to be, now, undermanned to handle such a crowd. Cap was reluctant; he wanted to meet Koko, but seeing Freddie’s desperation and remembering how good it was that Freddie treated him, agreed. Freddie promised him that all he had to do was check ID’s, and make sure that no one there got out of line. Cap’s only condition was that he be allowed to have his beer while he was working. Freddie smiled and said, “I could never stop you before, why try now.”
As they walked out of the bar, Cap asked Minstrel’s owner, Ron, what time Koko was supposed to play. Ron, a rotund mustached man who spoke like Wolfman Jack said, “Ten O’clock…I have a feeling you’ll be back in plenty of time.” Freddie looked back at Ron with that remark, and shook his head from side to side while giving him a smile, which read that his intent was meant to prove him wrong.
As they walked into the restaurant, Cap saw the reason Freddie had been nervous. This was the largest crowd that he had ever seen there. All the booths and tables, as well as stools at the bar were filled, and people stood along the walls and picture window that looked out on to the street. Benny worked the bar and smiled when he saw Cap coming in. As Cap went to get a beer, Benny said, “I have a feeling about tonight…things are going too good.” Cap smiled and replied, “Freddie’s Law, huh?” referring to the adage of Murphy’s Law, where anything that can go wrong, will.
In the center of the restaurant was a row of empty tables joined together, surrounded by twelve empty chairs awaiting the arrival of the nights event’s participants. The booths and tables filled with families and friends who came out to cheer on whichever team they had come there to support. The atmosphere was festive and Mario and Juan would poke their heads out from the kitchen door to try to gain an estimate of just how many pizzas’ they will have to make tonight. Joyce, Cindy, Debbie, and Joanne were scurrying back and forth, placing orders and filling drinks as the starting time drew nearer. The maroon and golden colors of Loyola filled the room, and left no question as to the sense of school pride within.
Outside, across the street, in the parking lot of the recently closed Sir Whoopee’s restaurant, vans began unloading and carrying equipment for Koko Taylor’s band in through Minstrel’s door. Ron came by to pay a visit and wish Freddie good luck, and could not hide the fact he was impressed with the crowd that Freddie’s contest had amassed.
As it neared nine O’clock, Freddie spoke with all the representatives from all the teams involved and had them take their places at the table in the center of the room. As the participants of each team were individually announced, cheers from friends, and boos from fans of other teams began to fill the air. Pitchers of beer and water were placed upon the table as the crowd sized up each contestant one-by-one. Consensus at the bar had either the entry from the football team, a 300 some-odd pound lineman, or an opponent from the Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity, who was just as large, to be running neck and neck, but by the end, one or the other should be the hands down winner.
Freddie took his place in front of the table and went over the rules, the contestant who remains eating while all others have quit and left the table shall be named the winner. It was uncomplicated. There were no addendums, no stipulations, just plain and simple, “Last man standing wins.”
Traffic outside the restaurant took on its usual pace for Friday night. The Granada’s showing of the John Belushi movie “Animal House” had just let out, and the smiles on the faces of the passers by served as an assessment that the film might have potential. Groups of revelers in non-conforming costumes, mostly black, with multi colored hairstyles and unusual displays of body piercing filed into Huey’s where the punk rock band “Skafish” was to play that night. The El trains shuffled by in both directions, collecting those whose plans demanded they be downtown on this late September eve, and discarding those whose weekly labor had come happily to its end. The pool players down the road at the Campus Room played three-rail bank or nine ball, and the old timers sat in Bruno’s Pub, split between the two TV’s whose programs were the first run showings of The Rockford Files on one screen, and The Incredible Hulk shown on the other. The contest, while a main event for Freddie and a select few along the avenue, was seemingly, of no vast significance to others, whom, content within the spirit of their lives, had no present need for outside stimulation. In the meantime, the competition down the street was ready to begin. The contestants had been seated. The greatest eaters from the school’s football, baseball, track and basketball teams, as well as members of the Alpha
Delta Gamma, and afore mentioned TKE fraternities were chomping at the bit as the first twelve pizzas were brought out.
The pizza that the restaurant was known for was a type that had gained popularity in the city in recent years. It was stuffed pizza, originating from Nancy’s Pizzeria and Giordano’s restaurants around 1974, and with growing popularity had spread to other pizza houses such as Carmen’s and Edwardo’s, the later of which from, it had been rumored, Freddie stole his recipe. The stuffed pizza is similar to the deep dish pizza, as it is made in a high sided baking pan with the dough spread out along the bottom and up around the sides. The cheese and sauce are added, along with any other ingredient one may desire until it reaches to about three quarters the way to the top of the two and a half inch deep pan. At this time, another layer of dough is added, topped by another layer of cheese and sauce. These were the pizzas the contestants had been meant to eat. Each pizza twelve inches in diameter, filled with sausage, onion, and spinach. The spinach was a curious addition; one might suppose it had been placed there to make it seem a bit more healthy meal.
As the contest had begun, Joanne took the opportunity to sneak off in the kitchen to make a phone call, as all the tables were accounted for, and the focus of most in attendance was solely on the contest in the center of the room. Cap found himself behind the bar, as he and Benny had discovered that watching people eat brings out a thirst in those who do the watching. Freddie stood beside the bar, smiling smugly as he scanned a swarming scene such as the restaurant had never seen before. Mario and Juan were jovially screaming “Gordo, gordo,” as they rooted for the frat boy representing TKE. Cindy, Joyce, and Debbie all looked on while checking on their tables, making sure no customer might be in need of something more to drink. The track team’s representative, the thinnest of the group, who had finished three quarters of his pizza, to everyone’s surprise, was off to a commanding lead. It seemed, at first, there was an upset in the making.
The quest for competition is bred within the human spirit. It is in the athlete on their field, the business folk in their profession, and each, and every individual who seeks to get ahead in life. From ancient times to modern day that spirit has brought out the best and worst in man. An eating competition, however outlandish it might seem, is still a contest, and the penchant to come out on top drives those competing to go that extra mile. When the second pizza had been brought out and placed before the group’s unlikely leader, the adrenaline kicked in amongst those members who were behind. Knives and forks were now abandoned as desperate hands, in hopes to close the gap between the leader and themselves, clutched abundant hunks of pie. The act of mastication, it now seemed, had become a costly futile option as the competition hit a level of primitive proportion. The frat boy and the football player, now, were catching up. The crowd was in fevered frenzy chanting out the names of those for whom they’d come there to support, until a woeful groan brought an uncanny silence to the room.
Had representatives of the schools biology, or even physics departments been included, what was to follow might, at least, have been foreseen. Had the participants considered the effect of the caloric intake, or had a greater understanding of the process of digestion, they might have reconsidered their purpose and their place. The likelihood that a simple competition might result in dreadful disarray had not crossed Freddie’s mind, as his once smug smile was replaced by frantic calls for Mario and Juan to bring out buckets. At the table gag reflex failed one by one, as each contender now took part in an overflowing demonstration of the domino effect. Joanne had come out from the kitchen, after cutting short her conversation on the phone, to find out the cause of the commotion. She too, was overcome from the sight, and then the overbearing odor whose infusion in the air had now reached the pinnacle of putrid composition. As Mario came from the kitchen with another bucket, she snatched it from his hand and her face disappeared inside it.
The crowd of customers and onlookers, once jovial and unperturbed, was now an incensed mob. Mothers grabbed their children, shielding their eyes as they dragged them out the door. The chain reaction made its way up to the bar, as the contents of the buckets view only served to heighten the afflictions of those for whom they had been brought out to appease. The doorway was now wedged with people scurrying to get out. A surge rushed towards the door in efforts to gain a share of the uncontaminated air. The lineman from the football team, who was the first of the contestants to expel signs of discomfort, was on his knees crawling towards the bathroom door, to only be beaten out by the member of the track team who had sprinted up before him. Danny from the Little King, who had noticed the confusion outside his neighbor’s door, ran inside his shop to call for help, as he thought there was a fire. The frat boys, true to form, helped carry out their brothers, stopping only when it seemed the need to readdress the bucket had appeared. The restaurant had finally emptied, except for those who worked there, as the last stained patron walked out the door vowing never to return.
By the time the fire department had arrived, the smell of Lysol had replaced the foulness in the air, and after Freddie gave his explanation, and assurance that all was well in hand, they left amidst their own unbridled laughter. Mops and squeegees herded pools of liquid foulness from the dining area floor back towards the kitchen drain, as the wait staff cleared the tables, some with untouched food and drink; Joanne appeared conspicuously distraught to find that she had not been left a tip. Freddie found a seat along the bar and stared out at the street. As traffic rolled down Sheridan, his eyes followed passing sets of headlights with the look of longing, as if wishing he were anywhere but here.
The sidewalks along Sheridan Road were filled with people curious as to the reason for the fire departments presence. Word of the fiasco spread, and laughter heard along the street was now replaced as heckling chants of, “Puke Fest,” and “The Puke Production,” filled the air. The restaurant was finally clean, and at 10:05, Freddy dimmed the lights and sent his workers home early for the evening.
Cap and Benny went next door to Minstrel’s; Koko Taylor had just begun her set. Ron set them up free beers and joked about the contest saying, in his Wolfman Jack like voice, “They’re all winners’ guys, they’re all winners.”Koko belted out the song, “I Ain’t Superstitious,” with the bass line driving through the bar replacing any troubled signs the two might have carried in. As the beer flowed freely and the music soothed their breasts, Ben and Cap looked back on the night’s event.While feeling bad for Freddie, and wondering what might be in store when the restaurant reopens the next night, there was no denying, in retrospect, it was all pretty funny. Cap took a swig from his glass of beer, and with a look of seriousness across his face, asked Benny, “So, you working next years contest? I think he wanted to make this a yearly thing.”
The night drew on. The result of the fiasco would be talked about for years to come. Nevertheless, that night, they wanted only to forget. The El cars shuffled overhead and the traffic rolled down Sheridan. The Granada turned off its marquee lights, as its last feature had begun. The remaining restaurants were closing for the night, and the pool hall had called last game. “The Late Late Show” movie was on both TV’s at Bruno’s, and the old timers ordered backups before they headed out. The autumn air was cooling, as a breeze from off the lake picked up, and through the open door of Minstrel’s, Koko Taylor could be heard wailing out the words to “Wang Dang Doodle.”As the night came to an end each storefront dimmed its lights as by-and-by the darkened windows uniformly all blend into one. The only movements on the street were blowing leaves along the sidewalk’s edge, and a solitary windswept paper flyer announcing that there was to be a contest Friday night.