Why Slats Grobnik Left Chicago to Meet Up With Greg
After Mike Royko died, Slats about drank himself to death
By Greg Szymanski, JD
Dec. 12, 2009
Until that fateful day in 2006 when he came knocking on my door, Slats Grobnik remained quiet as a Chicago church mouse.
More than likely he was spending all his time day and night at Sam’s Tavern or Billy Goat’s on the north side.
Life had become not worth living, according to some of his bar napkin notes found by Sam the bartender who told me when I called the bar:
“After Daley and then Royko passed, I thought he’d drink himself to death until he blurted out the name ‘SZYMANSKI’ for the whole bar to hear. Before he ran out like a crazed lunatic, he told me ‘he’s a Polock, too, he used to drink like Mike, he thinks like Mike, he was in newspapers like Mike and now this Polock is taking on the big enchiladas.’
“Like I said, Greg, we haven’t seen him since and that was, I think, in 2006.”
“I know where he’s at. He’s holed up in a bunker in a Kansas cornfield building a replica of the Roman Coliseum.”
“What the hell!”
“It’s a long story, Sam. I’ll tell you the next time I’m in town for a Cubs game.”
I hung the phone up, Sam saying he’d have a drink on Slats, save one for me and tell his buddies to track him down in Podunk wherever.
I had always tried to figure out why Slats contacted me of all people. I was not much interested in Chicago or Mayor Daley anymore, leaving for the fancy life in Rome, Italy, where I learned the finer things of wine, women and song.
It was a long way away from “Shotandabeerland” but looking back I miss it.
Old men always miss their youth unless they spent it in prison and I miss the old ways, the simplistic insanity of sticking with the Cubs belly to belly with other insane Cub fans and, of course, getting my licks in and swearing at the Daley machine every day.
What the hell I worked for the Daley machine when I was a kid in school, driving Harry Semrow, the Board of Tax Appeals Commish around and making his breakfast in the morning was one of my first Daley machine jobs.
I remember Harry would have me take the back alleys to run from the press when he was involved in something hot. Harry was like my grandfather and so were some of the Chicago state reps in the machine who got me a summer job as a Page in the Capitol in Springfield.
But I was young, stupid and left for Naples, Florida, to become a bad word to the machine: a journalist. I knew I should have taken Harry’s advice and be groomed as Alderman, Chicago’s word for city council member.
Looking back, I just left for what could have become a very prosperous and corrupt political career like my family’s friend, Dan Rostenkowski, leaving to become some pie in the sky journalist with high hopes, incredible dreams but very little common sense and ability to do anything remotely practical. Oh, I could break a horse, wheel a big ocean vessel but that was basically it.
So. I basically became a journalist because I kept reading that damn Mike Royko and now here comes Slats.
In fact, when I left Chicago, my family, my extended Italian families and my Daley machine friends called me plain nuts, saying “Don’t you worry, he’ll be back with his tail under his ass after he gets a taste of life away from home, away from the Cubs and away from Chicago’s famous hot dogs with onions, tomatoes, a touch of parsley and, of course, no ketchup.”
It’s a mortal sin to put ketchup on a Chicago dog and I was told that by one of the priest’s at Notre Dame High School. I think it’s the same priest who is now single and involved in a homosexual affair, but what the hell things change and at least he knew his business about how to eat a Chicago hot dog.
Getting back to Daley and the boys, I never did come back home like everybody predicted and really never thought about it much, save the Chicago dogs once in awhile, till I talked with Slats yesterday.
Now I am thinking about everything I miss, thinking about Royko, Daley, Semrow and the whole lot of them.
More importantly, thinking how I miss 16-inch softball playing without a mitt, thinking how I miss talking with the boys at night and, hell, letting the women straighten out the house by themselves for a change. Thinking how I didn’t mind coming home at 10, 11 or midnight, saying “Honey, don’t worry I was just with the boys shooting the shit!”
Yep, no women’s lib back then. Nope. Just like God intended: men were men and women were women. No fags in the bar either, not that we cared. But they never came in after Joey from Oriole Street threatened to separate one’s head from one’s body if they sat next to him.
I don’t think Joey would have done it, but segregation has always been the way in Chicago. The Whites on the north side, Blacks on the South. Fags keeping to themselves one one side of the bar and mostly congregating in theatre groups in Old Town around Second City.
I remember once I had a wild hair up my ass and told my Dad I was going to be an actor. Why an actor I don’t know but you know what hit the fan. Dad swore at me in Polish first, English second and an unknown language third, telling me “you ain’t over my dead body turning out like one of them down towner you know whats.”
Well, I’m happy to report I never turned out like that but I never turned out like a bigot either.
But either way I can understand why Chicago is Chicago.
The guys I grew up with came from families who had it a lot rougher in the old country. They weren’t used to the political correctness of the New World changing before their eyes.
They were used to monarchies, tough rulers and iron fists coming down on them at every turn. They were used to getting their land ripped away from them, used to slugging around for a living. They didn’t have time to be politically correct or time to worry about this and that. “Shit or get off the pot” they used to say and they brought the same attitudes with them to Chicago.
That’s why it’s easy to understand why they loved and hated the corrupt Daley machine.
Although Royko was his strongest critic, here are a few words he wrote after Daley died that also explains what Chicago was like back then. Well, what the hell, let’s read the whole column even though this story is gonna last forever. It’s just too good to pass up and it’s Friday night anyway.
By Mike Royko
If ever a man reflected a city, it was Richard J. Daley and Chicago.
In some ways, he was this town at its best — strong, hard-driving, working feverishly, pushing, building, driven by ambitions so big they seemed Texas-boastful.
In other ways, he was this city at its worst — arrogant, crude, conniving, ruthless, suspicious, intolerant.
He wasn’t graceful, suave, witty or smooth. But, then, this is not Paris or San Francisco.
He was raucous, sentimental, hot-tempered, practical, simple, devious, big and powerful. This is, after all, Chicago.
Sometimes, the very same Daley performance could be seen as both outrageous and heroic. It depended on whom you asked for an opinion.
For example, when he stood on the Democratic National Convention floor in 1968 and mouthed furious crudities at smooth Abe Ribicoff, tens of millions of TV viewers were shocked.
But it didn’t offend most Chicagoans. That’s part of the Chicago style — belly to belly, scowl to scowl, and may the toughest or loudest man win.
Daley was not an articulate man, most English teachers would agree. People from other parts of the country sometimes marveled that a politician who fractured the language so thoroughly could be taken so seriously.
Well, Chicago is not an articulate town, Saul Bellow notwithstanding. Maybe it’s because so many of us aren’t that far removed from parents and grandparents who knew only bits and pieces of the language.
So when Daley slid sideways into a sentence, or didn’t exit from the same paragraph he entered, it amused us. But it didn’t sound that different than the way most of us talk.
Besides, he got his point across, one way or another, and usually in Chicago style. When he thought critics should mind their own business about the way he handed out insurance business to his sons, he tried to think of a way to say they should kiss his bottom. He found a way. He said it. We understood it. What more can one ask of the language?
Daley was a product of the neighborhoods and he reflected it in many good ways — loyalty to the family, neighbors, old buddies, the corner grocer. You do something for someone, they do something for you. If somebody is sick, you offer the family help. If someone dies, you go to the wake and try to lend comfort. The young don’t lip off to the old, everybody cuts his grass, takes care of his property. And don’t play your TV too loud.
That’s the way he liked to live, and that’s what he thought most people wanted, and he was right.
But there are other sides to Chicago neighborhoods — suspicion of outsiders, intolerance toward the unconventional, bigotry and bullying.
That was Daley, too. As he proved over and over again, he didn’t trust outsiders, whether they were long-hairs against war, black preachers against segregation, reformers against his Machine, or community groups against his policies. This was his neighborhood-ward-city-county, and nobody could come in and make noise. He’d call the cops. Which he did.
There are those who believed Daley could have risen beyond politics to statesmanship had he embraced the idealistic causes of the 1960s rather than obstructing them. Had he used his unique power to lead us toward brotherhood and understanding, they say, he would have achieved greatness.
Sure he would have. But to have expected that response from Daley was as realistic as asking Cragin, Bridgeport, Marquette Park or any other Chicago neighborhood to celebrate Brotherhood Week by having Jeff Fort to dinner. If Daley was reactionary and stubborn, he was in perfect harmony with his town.
Daley was a pious man — faithful to his church, a believer in the 4th of July, apple pie, motherhood, baseball, the Boy Scouts, the flag, sitting down to dinner with the family, and deeply offended by public displays of immorality.
And, for all the swinging new lifestyles, that is still basically Chicago. Maybe New York will let porn and massage houses spread like fast food franchises, and maybe San Francisco will welcome gay cops. But Chicago is still a square town. So City Hall made sure our carnal vices were kept to a public minimum. If old laws didn’t work, they got new laws that did.
On the other hand, there were financial vices. And if somebody in City Hall saw a chance to make a fast bundle or two, Daley wasn’t given to preaching. His advice amounted to: Don’t get caught.
But that’s Chicago, too. The question has never been how you made it, but if you made it. This town was built by great men who demanded that drunkards and harlots be arrested, while charging them rent until the cops arrived.
If Daley sometimes abused his power, it didn’t offend most Chicagoans. The people who came here in Daley’s lifetime were accustomed to someone wielding power like a club, be it a czar, emperor, king or rural sheriff. The niceties of the democratic process weren’t part of the immigrant experience. So if the Machine muscle offended some, it seemed like old times to many more.
Eventually, Daley made the remarkable transition from political boss to father figure.
Maybe he couldn’t have been a father figure in Berkeley, Calif., Princeton, N.J., or even Skokie, Ill. But in Chicago there was nothing unusual about a father who worked long hours, meant shut up when he said shut up, and backed it up with a jolt to the head. Daley was as believable a father figure as anybody’s old man.
Now he’s gone and people are writing that the era of Richard J. Daley is over. Just like that.
But it’s not. Daley has left a legacy that is pure Chicago.
I’m not talking about his obvious legacy of expressways, high-rises and other public works projects that size-conscious Chicagoans enjoy.
Daley, like this town, relished a political brawl. When arms were waving and tempers boiling and voices cracking, he’d sit in the middle of it all and look as happy as a kid at a birthday party.
Well, he’s left behind the ingredients for the best political donnybrook we’ve had in 50 years.
They’ll be kicking and gouging, grabbing and tripping, elbowing and kneeing to grab all, or a thin sliver of the power he left behind.
It will be a classic Chicago debate.
He knew it would turn out that way, and the thought probably delighted him.
I hope that wherever he is, he’ll have a good seat for the entire show. And when they are tangled in political half nelsons, toeholds, and headlocks, I wouldn’t be surprised if we hear a faint but familiar giggle drifting down from somewhere.
I always said Chicago in my day never liked cutesy stuff. It was too rough and tumble for that, too crude with a neighborhood mentality that meant you hung out with your own and were suspicious of strangers.
Like Daley showed us it was political clout not correctness that counts and it didn’t matter if it was demonstrated in not so proper english.
But that’s all changed now and it’s nothing more then Yuppy heaven just like the East Coast and the West, no different now outside Wrigley Field then outside Dodger Stadium.
Well, perhaps there are two exceptions, Billy Goat’s and Sam’s Tavern.
That takes us back to Slats. He goes out of sight after Royko dies in 1997 and surfaces with me in 2006.
Why? I’m not like Mike. On one hand, Mike was a syndicated columnist in 600 newspapers and I don’t syndicate to didley squat.
On the other hand, Mike was a Polock from the old Polish neighborhood and so am I.
But Royko had status in Chicago, a reputation of butting heads with the Daley machine face to face on the streets, fighting the good fight for the little guy. And I sit like a smuck in front of an internet screen taking on the ghosts of the people behind the bigshots without ever looking them square in the eye.
So who knows why Grobnik came to me?
Maybe because I drank Old Style beer like Mike, was a Pole like Mike and wrote a few words down not quite as well as Mike.
So now he is settling for second best and come to think of it what did Slats have left anyway?
Daley died, Royko passed on and Chicago ain’t Chicago anymore. So, Slats gets bored with local politics, gets out of Dodge, finds the vestiges of this Polish Chicago journalist and decides to take on the global bigshots.
Makes sense to me.
Slats moves up, sets his sights high and leaves the Daley machine behind to tackle the biggest machine of them all – the Vatican led New World Order.
The rest of the story since he left Royko in 1997 is history as they say and has been sporadically documented on this web site for the last three years, the last correspondence with Slats being in yesterday’s post.
Go back and read it because it scares me to even think about what Slat’s said.
In the meantime, we know Mike is in a better place but I think he’d even be a little surprised to see where Slats ended up 12 years later.
But maybe if Mike had lived to see it, he’d have come with Slats since things have really gone south quickly and I know He was a little out of place moving finally moving to the suburbs.
As for me, I am going to talk some sense into Slats once and for all and on behalf of Mike. I’m gonna talk some sense into both of us, telling him this thing is too big, just two big for two Polocks from Chicago.
In fact, I am going to buy two box seat season tickets at Wrigley for next year and convince Slats to hightale it with me back to Chicago and to take Sam the bartender up on the drinks waiting for us.
Imagine, Slats how easy it would be to now poke fun at the Daley machine after tackling the big hot shots in Rome and Washington.
A piece of cake, Slats. A piece of cake.