USA ’12: The Billy Goat Tavern

WELCOME to Chicago, where Barack Obama is due to be on Tuesday night when he finds out whether he has done enough to earn another a US presidential term. He’ll be behind the secure walls of a conference centre by Lake Michigan, a little more covered than the new puppy in the White House speech he gave in the park four years ago, promising then that the US would ‘bend the arc of history’ one more time.

From O’Hare airport last night, we headed straight to the Billy Goat Tavern in central Chicago last night. This is the journalists’ bar, where hacks from the Sun Times and the Tribune would traditionally go for after hours beers (…maybe some in-hours beers too). It is also a bit of a tourist spot since John Belushi spoofed the ordering counter on Saturday Night Live, when Saturday Night Live was good and the cast included Bill Murray, Chevy Chase and Dan Aykroyd. Belushi would play the part of bullying hamburger flipper who didn’t want to cook anything but double cheeseburgers. ‘Doubla is the best,’ he runs down the line. ‘No Coke, only Pepsi.’ Everybody is bullied into ordering the same thing in the skit, and still everybody orders the double cheeseburger today as if they are still frozen in the sketch from the 1980s. There are boos if anybody orders something else.

On the wall of the bar are by-lines from the great Chicago writers blown up and posted on the wall. It’s kind of like a hall of fame. They share space with pictures of the Blues Brothers – Belushi again, this is where Jake and Elwood sped around – police captains and pictures of its original owner with his Billy Goat.

That’s William Sianis, whose nephew Sam still owns he bar. The Chicago legend has it that when Billy tried to take his goat to a Chicago Cubs baseball game in 1945. The goat was judged too smelly and barred from entry, so Sammy put a curse on the Cubs…. and lo and behold they haven’t won a world series since. When everything goes wrong, it’s all attributed to the Billy Goat curse

But this disaster seems to be celebrated in the Tavern. There is a certain revelling in the Cubs failure. Maybe because the curse of the Billy Goat was a winner for both the bar’s owners and the journalists who drank there. One got never-ending publicity (spin off Billy Goat bars can be found elsewhere in Chicago) and the hacks got a long, long fable to repeat again and again. The legend is known throughout sports fans in the US… They love it and the US journalists know how to start, manufacture and spin out a story that readers are happy and moreover want to buy into it. Even if it’s as silly as a goat putting a curse on a baseball team.

The bar knows how to pull a publicity stunt. It once posted a sign saying: ‘No Republicans’. Cue, a queue of Republicans at the door demanding to be served. More press coverage, more publicity.

Doubla is the best.

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