Friday, March 4, 2011
By Frankie O
Theres a lot going on in the world of sports right now, but one thing was mostly on my mind this week. On Tuesday (3-1-11) we celebrated the life of Harry Caray (and Ron Santo) with the 13th annual world-wide toast in his honor. For me, it was actually number 14. Coming into work on the 18th of February 1998, I already knew that Harry was in the hospital in California and the prospects were not good, still, when you receive the news, its a jolt. Not only that. I was told that I was to stand on top of the bar, and lead everyone in a toast in his honor at 7:30. It was one of those out-of body experiences: Cameras everywhere, and a room thick with emotion. Everyone raised their glasses and then there was nothing but silence until the bagpipers started playing Amazing Grace, after which you could hear the sniffling and see most in the room wiping their eyes. Death is never easy to deal with, ever. The family was great in saying that we should not be sad, Harry wouldnt want that, and that we should celebrate the long, remarkable life that he lived. For thirteen years now, weve been doing that every day.
Having a celebrity name on a restaurant means that youre going to have to answer questions about that person every ten minutes. When Harry was alive, most of the time it was pretty easy. Yes. Hes in the dining room right now! People would light-up like Christmas trees when they found that out. Unlike another downtown eatery that had an iconic name on it, that was pretty cool.
People always ask my favorite story, but I dont really have one in particular. What I like to tell them about is the vibe that he created. As a bartender, Im a natural observer of human behavior. There are two things in particular: How people act, and, how do they treat others? Those things have a huge influence on my job and surroundings. Harry was off-the-charts positive in both. To see the affect he had on others was amazing to watch. It was so easy and effortless you wonder why everyone couldnt do it. But that was his genius. He did not have to try, it was who he was. He had a showmans impeccable timing when he came into the bar, never staying for too little or too long, the whole room beaming when he left.
So now, the questions, and stories, have been in the past tense for quite a while. For me behind the bar, they never get old. In many ways, being a guy from Philly, I didnt quite know what I was getting into when I walked in the doors for a job back in95. It was an exciting and dynamic place to walk into, so who wouldnt want to work there? Especially, if you were a baseball nut like myself and seeing Hall-of-Famers every day.
The Cubs fan pilgrimage thing was in full force then, they all had to come to 33 W. Kinzie. I always teased, calling the restaurant the Cubs fans Graceland. (I always love hearing Harrys story about meeting Elvis and imagining what that night was like. I mean, honestly, those two together? The mind boggles!) Those experiences changed, obviously, after his passing. People coming in would share the most touching stories with me. Mostly theyre of baseball, their family and Harry. For a lot of us, baseball is the soundtrack of the summer, and if it was Harrys voice you were hearing, that soundtrack resulted in more shared smiles and laughs than you can count. Its hard to imagine, just by being himself, someone who created more good will.
As I go to work now, Im reminded of that almost daily. Oh, sure, I once in a while get the Whos Harry? question. Time moves on and those darn drinkers keep getting younger! But I never get tired of sharing his story with a new generation for them to enjoy. The longer Im behind the bar the more I realize how important that is. Its as though those of us that work in his namesake restaurants are in charge of caretaking his legacy. And if it cant be in a ballpark, where better than in an environment where people can eat, drink, laugh and share good times. I dont think he would have it any other way.
So as I think of Harry, he reminds me of others that I have known who have passed. Even though they are gone, its still possible for them to live on in our hearts and thoughts, and still bring a smile to our face every day. Who wouldnt raise a glass to that? Heres to you, Harry!