Funeral for a Friend

Michael Nagrant / 03.03.06

It was a funeral for a friend. Sepia rays pierced the windows and golden tones from gilded chandeliers shone on postcards of the past. Wooden chairs and tables were piled near the old bar like freshly cleared storm debris. Chicago’s 107 year old Berghoff restaurant is now closed.

Two days after the closing, collectors of memorabilia gathered once more under the oaken wainscoting and plaster murals of the 1893 World’s Fair. This time, the gathering was not to dine on schnitzel and hoist steins of lager, but to view the available lots for tomorrow’s auction of restaurant fixtures and photos.

Sullen collectors filed past tables of memorabilia, as if paying last respects at an oaken casket. Some stopped and fingered photos or clutched at old beer bottles as if they were patting their departed loved one on the hand, or pulling at a clutch of rosary beads for one last time.

All that was missing…a suitable dirge.

We do not mourn for anything as simple as a crumbling building, or even something as abstract as the passing of Chicago history.

Rather, we mourn for the loss of craftsmanship. No one can afford to paint plaster murals, weld and gild tripod style chandeliers, or wainscot thousands of square feet, and not many are left who have the carpentry, welding, or painting skills to pull it off.

We mourn for the sweat of others. We can imagine the back pain, the knee strain, caused by overflowing steins and full plates. Muscling heavy trays with one arm left many of the Berghoff waiters with an imbalanced physique, one bicep and forearm bulging over the other. The last of the career waiters served us, some for over fifty years.

We mourn the Berghoff family, their investment of love in delivering community for all these years. How hard it must be to shutter the lifeblood of a family? We think of Herman Joseph Berghoff securing Chicago liquor license #1 at the end of prohibition.

We mourn for own family moments. We remember grandparents, parents, brothers, and sisters who have shared a plate with us during the Christmas shopping season, many who may already have departed. We miss hoisting steins with our friends, watching the Hawks, Bulls, or the Bears on some of the last tube style TV’s in any bar in Chicago. Plasma is what you donate, not what you watch TV on at the Berghoff.

We miss lunchtime at the bar, a pile of lean corn beef and creamy melted swiss on fennel scented rye bread, with a schmear of dijon mustard and a dollop of palate stinging horseradish. We mourn the steaming meatloaf shrouded in beefy gravy. We imagine Mike Royko or Irv Kupcinet throwing back a few brews with the newsies, contemplating yet another column to fill our hearts. We miss filching our own swigs of the dark beer before heading back to office drudgery.

We mourn our own mortality. If a revered citadel of brick, wood, and glass can fall, we again know the frailty of our own soft bodies, our own weak knees, and backs.

In the words of Kurt Vonnegut: and so it goes.

Tomorrow, there is one last chance to say goodbye, but it will not be a funeral. It will be more like a wake, with the carnival bark of excited auctioneers, and hopeful Chicagoans bidding on one last piece of history. If you do not get the chance to go, do not mourn. Hold your own personal wake for the Berghoff. Call the living family you shared meals with, the friends you hoisted glasses with, cook yourself some saurkraut and thick juicy sausages, break open a six pack of Berghoff beer or root beer, and once again, raise your glasses, and toast the Berghoff, its craftsmen, waiters, proprietors, and soul.

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