“How’s the family?”
Phyllis always asked. About Edie. About the boys. Any why not? She had met them all. My parents too. She’d been to our house.
Still, she surprised me by asking now; it was I who called, spurred by bad news.
I gave a brief update then cut to the chase.
But you, Phyllis, how are you?
“Ehh,” she said. “I’ve had better days.”
Yes, she had.
Phyllis Smith was a bartender, for more than 20 years at the Billy Goat Tavern and then at Harry Caray’s in Lombard. She was “a tough lady,” in the words of Goat owner Sam Sianis, with a blunt manner and a big, braying laugh she unleashed often.
“A Chicago character: the real old-school bartender,” said Grant DePorter, owner of Harry Caray’s. “That would be her.”
And if that’s all Phyllis was, I wouldn’t be writing about her now. There was a fine Chicago journalistic tradition of chronicling bars and their denizens, what they say and did, as if it mattered, from Mr. Dooley to Mike Royko. But that tradition, like newspapering itself, has gone into steep decline.
Nor is booze so charming a topic. As a recovering alcoholic, there is something queasy about rhapsodizing your bartender, even one as good at topping off a drink or listening to a woe as Phyllis.
Were Phyllis simply a bartender, I wouldn’t bother.
But she was also my friend. We kept up for a dozen years after she served me my last drink. Nor was it just me.
“She took great pride in her work and in her customers and their lives,” said her daughter, Laurie Manzardo.
“She cared about the guests,” said DePorter. “It was genuine.”
She seemed genuine to me. Phyllis excelled at something many fail at: she stayed in touch. She called. We’d have lunch. I’d stop by the Goat for a cup of coffee and she would impart her wisdom on the subject of alcoholism.
“Does it ever go away?” I once asked, early on, when I was still hoping the affliction might just vanish. “You ever see anybody get better?”
“It doesn’t get better,” she said, shaking her head. “It gets worse.”
Phyllis knew. She had been watching drunks all her life. She told me of a colleague for whom it got so bad, she would pour a brimming shot and slide it over, where he would lean down to lap it up. His hands shook too much to lift that first drink of the day. The sort of detail helps keep a fellow on the straight path.
When I went to visit her in December, I couldn’t bring myself to ask about dying. “What is this process like?” was how I awkwardly phrased it.
“It sucks,” she replied. “It absolutely sucks. Keep yourself healthy.”
When I tried to say goodbye, she would have none of it.
“You’ll come back again?” she said, and I promised that I would, and meant to, but didn’t.
I trust Phyllis forgave me. She was good that way, in many ways. At the Goat, she ran their successful Taste of Chicago operation.
“She was always there, every year, managing the tent, keeping order,” said Bill Sianis. “Through the years, she was always very helpful.”
She had a tough upbringing on the South Side. Her mother, bedridden with cancer since Phyllis was 10, died when she was 18. By then, she had a child, out-of-wedlock and been slashed with a razor by other girls in an alley attack that almost left her dead.
Despite, or perhaps because of, hardships, Phyllis embraced life. She was proud to winter in Naples, Florida. Her house in Orland Park was large and immaculate, with an award-winning garden.
When in 2006, she won third place in Orland Park’s “Most Beautiful Garden” Contest, I asked her about the connection between bartending and gardening. She guffawed and replied, “I water the flowers in the morning and water the drunks at night.”
Phyllis Margaret Smith died on Dec. 21 at age 70 from lung cancer. In addition to Manzardo, survivors include her husband Mike, another daughter, Terry Neily, son Brian Lezak, and nine grandchildren.
“Sometimes things like this happen,” she said last October. “You can’t have everything.”
Oh that’s terrible, I said.
“You win some,” Phyllis said. “You lose some.”
Phyllis won at life. She was dealt a bad hand, but savvy play can defeat hard luck. I felt honored to know her.