Phyl­lis Smith was a good bar­tender, great friend

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - NEIL STEIN­BERG nstein­[email protected] | @NeilStein­berg

‘How’s the fam­ily?”

Phyl­lis al­ways asked. About Edie. About the boys. And 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 case.

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.

“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, outof-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.


Phyl­lis Smith shakes hands with then-Gov. Jim Edgar at Taste of Chicago, while the gover­nor chats with Billy Goat owner Sam Sia­nis (cen­ter) in an un­dated pho­to­graph.


Neil Stein­berg and Phyl­lis Smith at a book sign­ing at Pet­terino’s in 2012.

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