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Classic Royko: Dutch Louie, a man of dignity

Interior of the Green Door Tavern, 1999 | Sun-Times archives

Editor’s note: This was one of Mike Royko’s earliest columns, included in his 1967 collection “Up Against It.”

Dutch Louie never gave much thought to whether he and his position in life had any dignity.

If he were alive today, he’d probably think about it because dignity has become part of the social welfare package.

It is not enough today to have a job. The job is expected to have dignity. One of the problems in relief work is how to give someone a relief check and provide a dose of dignity, too.

OPINION

It is a nice idea, although there are some doubts about whether there is such a thing as instant dignity.

Dutch worked in a tavern not far from Logan Square. His job was sweeping, mopping, washing windows, dumping spittoons, feeding the Doberman, running errands, stoking the furnace and acting as backup man to the watchdog in the event of a burglary.

His pay was a clean cot in the basement, a reasonable supply of whisky, three meals a day, a few dollars for special occasions and new clothes when he wanted them, which was every Easter.

He got the job by hanging around until he got it. He kept it by doing his chores and never pilfering any of the stock.

Someone who didn’t know Dutch might have thought he was a bum. But the patrons of the neighborhood tavern didn’t consider him a bum, because he had a job. He had been a bum for a time, but he gave it up for something more regular.

And before he was a bum, he had several regular jobs but he didn’t like that kind of work, either.

He was a big man with a ruddy face and yellow-white hair, and he washed as often as most of the regular customers did.

Drinkers from the neighborhood liked him for many reasons. He could hold his liquor. He didn’t sponge. And once in a while he’d even buy a drink. Dutch was never without a few coins in his pocket, because a Sunday morning sweeping will usually turn up a couple of dollars on the floor of any good tavern. He once found a ten-spot in a spittoon.

During World War II, Dutch proved to be a hero by volunteering for work that was really too strenuous for a man of his years.

A lot of strange whisky labels hit the market during the war and a tavern keeper had to be careful about trying them out on his customers or on himself.

Dutch volunteered to tilt a double shot of every new brand that was pushed by a liquor salesman. The color of his skin and the flow of tears from his eyes was a good gauge of the liquor’s quality.

Because of Dutch’s bravery, not one regular customer was lost.

He was active in local civic affairs for a time as second assistant block captain during air-raid drills. He could shout for people to turn out their lights louder than anybody.

He also served as a youth counselor, if the term can be stretched a bit. When the weather got warm, Dutch felt a yen for the open road. He’d get a horse, a wagon, a kid from the neighborhood, and go junking.

Many a youth saw the sights of the West Side from one of Dutch’s wagons. At least he saw a lot of interesting alleys.

Considering everything, it wasn’t a bad life — at least for someone who wasn’t cursed with too much ambition.

It ended one morning when Dutch didn’t come up from the basement to get the place ready for business.

The owner went downstairs and found Dutch dead. He had gone to sleep, it appeared, and he went after a good meal and a full pint. There is nothing more dignified than going quietly, everyone agreed.

Dutch had sometimes talked about having a couple of sisters. People got the impression that he avoided them because they nagged and tried to dominate him.

A search of his effects, kept in a cigar box, turned up their names and address. They lived in a North Shore suburb in a pretty good house and were well fixed.

When they were told about Dutch, they had him hauled out of the neighborhood funeral home where a dignified funeral had been planned. They snuck him into a funeral home where nobody knew him or them.

The funeral was held in secrecy, and where he was planted nobody in the neighborhood knew.

The two sisters got it over quick and went home. It wasn’t a very dignified thing to do.

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