The Bar at the Edge of the World

Four years ago Lee's Liquor Lounge was just another dying neighborhood bar. Then this guy Nate calls the owner, Louie, and the place turns into--well, no one is quite sure what. But there's nowhere else like it.

In the mid-'70s Louie started scouting around for a business opportunity. Louie was codependent long before Melody Beattie ever stumbled into treatment; it was then, and remains today, one of his greatest virtues. "I was the youngest kid in my family," Louie says, "but I always felt responsible for everyone. My father never learned to read or write, and at the time I had several members of my family who were unemployed. I wanted to find something for the whole family to get involved in." Through a commercial real-estate agent, Louie heard about a bar on the rim of the North Side that had just come on the market. Lee and Sally Triemert had run Lee's since 1962, and when Lee passed away Sally started looking for a buyer. "I looked at the place a couple times and I had my second thoughts," Louie recalls. "I didn't know nothing about the liquor business, but Mrs. Triemert gave me a real nice deal and I went ahead and bought the bar."

Louie had no idea what he was getting himself into. "I found out quick that this is a very tough racket that requires a lot of hard work," he says. "For 12 years I stayed on with the city, and worked both jobs. Every night I was in here, doing everything. I was janitor, bartender, bouncer, and bookkeeper. Seven days a week I was working 21 hours just to pay the bills."

In Louie's early days at Lee's, the bar was surrounded by industry--Kemps ice cream, Munsingwear, McGarvey coffee, Shopmaster, the Boyer Ford dealership--and Louie depended on the business of the working men and women who stopped in after work to drink and cash their paychecks. Freeway construction just outside his front door cut him off from downtown and the neighborhoods to the north and disrupted business for years, and Louie endured what he calls the first of his "many isolations."

"Right from the get-go, this area started going through enormous transitions," Louie says. "The neighborhood's pretty much been wiped out a couple different times."

In recent months there had been much speculation concerning the city's plans for the area around Lee's, and there was a very real possibility that the bar would be sacrificed for a new proposed "public works campus" along Glenwood. Toward that end the city has bought up all the property surrounding Lee's, but thanks in part to the efforts of Jim Niland and Louie's 5th Ward representative, Jackie Cherryhomes, it now looks like Lee's will be spared. As always, Louie falls back on one of his favorite sayings: "We'll just have to wait and see what prevails."

"I feel good about it," Niland says. "I think Public Works understands that they are basically going to have to work around Louie and the bar."

The last time I took a vacation," Louie claims, "I got drafted." It's 7 o'clock on a sweltering Wednesday evening and Louie is out on the sidewalk in front of his bar with a brush and a pail, cleaning windows. Inside a dozen patrons are seated around the bar, braids of cigarette smoke drifting up toward the laboring ceiling fans. On the stereo AC/DC gives way to Tom Petty, Petty to Bob Seger, and Seger to George Jones. Nobody bats an eye. A beer sign hanging from the ceiling kicks up an endless blizzard of fake snow. On the wall at the end of the bar there is a silver beer mug mounted on a plaque, engraved with the names of deceased Lee's regulars and the words: "One last toast to the best. Gone but never forgotten." There is another plaque on an adjacent wall, above a table: "In Loving Memory of Billy Stethem, Companion and Friend." There are no glasses on the bar, only bottles of beer. An illuminated plastic Spuds McKenzie is perched as sentry atop the microwave oven.

Louie comes back into the bar and escorts a guest into his office, which doubles as his check-cashing operation. For 21 years Louie has been cashing checks out of his bar for people in the neighborhood. In the old days he'd do a booming business on Thursdays and Fridays, cashing the fat payroll checks from the businesses around his bar. He has always charged a ridiculously minuscule fee for the service. These days many of the checks are from Dolphin temporary services up the street, and often as not Louie waives his cut. "A couple bucks might not seem like much to you or me," he says. "But you'll see these checks for $50 or $60 and I can't take those people's money."

Nate Dungan calls the bar Louie's "private welfare state." Spend much time around Louie and you'll see what he means. Welfare to Louie is not a pejorative, and it seems like somebody is always hitting him up for something. There are 11 apartments above Lee's, and there is seldom a vacancy. "I don't know where else you can find an apartment for $60 a month," Louie says. "And even at that I sometimes have a tough time collecting. Most of these people are elderly, and this is a tough day and age. Sometimes you just have to let things slide."

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