Yesterday, Memorial Day, I took a moment to remember and thank every vet who has contributed to the freedom we have here in the United States, and another to remember my late friend Bobby Scarpelli, who passed away 11 years ago this month. He was a combat veteran who served two tours of duty in Vietnam as a Marine in the late sixties. He worked as a Chicago cop afterward, but was best known for working as a bouncer, after leaving the Chicago Police department due to an injury. He worked at the legendary Tut's punk club and ended up working the door at the Gingerman, on Clark Street, down the street from Wrigley Field, where he and I became friends.
Right after Bobby passed away in May, 1998, Chicago Sun-Times writer Dave Hoekstra wrote a really nice article about Bobby, which I still have. I knew most of the information in the article, but there were some things I discovered about Bobby I hadn't known, even after ten years of friendship. I had known that when John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd were here in Chicago filming the Blues Brothers, they'd opened up a "blind pig"-- an unlicensed bar. What I hadn't known, unitl I read the article, was that Bobby had been the doorman there. A lot of guys would have bragged about it. It wasn't Bobby's way.
Have you ever seen the 1985 movie "Code of Silence?" It was a pretty unremarkable cop movie, set in Chicago. There's a scene in it that was based on a real incident, where two criminals unwittingly enter a "cop" bar with the intent to rob it, and are shocked to discover that the place they intended to rob was filled with dozens of armed cops. I knew this was based on a real incident, in a cop bar on Cortland Avenue. I'd heard the story over the years thirdhand from cops who had heard about it from cops who were there that night. One night, I was talking to Bobby about it and discovered that he'd been there that night. He described it in detail-- how they'd known instantly that the guys were robbers-- they walked into a bar on a hot summer night wearing full coats to conceal their weapons. As they walked around the bar, Bobby and the other cops were making bets on which of them would draw first. When the guys drew and were disarmed by dozens of cops-- apparently these two idiots were the only two people who did not know that this bar was a well-known cop hangout-- they had trouble getting a patrol to come pick the guys up; they thought the guys in the bar were pulling a prank. Nobody, they thought, could be dumb enough to try to rob that particular bar.
I got to know Bobby back in my illustrious youth when the Gingerman was my hangout. My favorite seat in the place was a barstool near the front. This meant that on a slower night, I frequently ended up talking to Bobby. He was a true Chicago character. There were a million things I remember about him-- one was that he insisted that he wasn't Italian-- he was Sicilian. As Hoekstra pointed out in his article, Bobby always gave people the benefit of the doubt-- he was fair, but firm when he needed to be. One of my favorite Bobby Scarpelli stories was about an incident I missed, but heard about the next night. A guy came into the bar and proceeded to move about the place pinching girls in the ass. Bobby walked up to the guy and politely told him that he needed to stop doing that. A few minutes later, a woman came to Bobby to tell him that the guy had continued doing it. Bobby walked over to the guy, put his hand on the guys shoulder and calmly told him that he had to leave.
The guy reeled around and swung at Bobby. Bobby, who saw the punch coming from a mile away, stepped back. He hadn't realized, however, that there was a barstool behind him. He stumbled over it, falling backward and the offender jumped on him.
I laughed out loud when other patrons described Bobby picking himself and the guy up, pounding the guy, then bringing him to the door and literally throwing him out the door. You can see why he had the nickname "Bobzilla."
Yet, in the end, he was one of the nicest, gentlest people I've ever known. When my son was born, we talked about him becoming my son's godfather. I was amused by the idea that my son would have a Sicilian godfather.
One of Bobby's trademarks was that he always wore a button, frequently one a customer had given him. Around the time of the 1988 election, I gave him a button I'd see him wear frequently over the years: "Lick Bush." Not only was Bobby politically liberal, but he loved a good double entendre.
Years later Bobby returned the favor. In the middle of the fight over custody with my ex-girlfriend over my son, he saw how upset and disheartened I was getting. I was trying to finish my teaching certification while spending money hand over fist on a lawyer-- and in the middle of it, my first wife asked for a divorce. I felt overwhelmed. One night he told me that he had something for me. It was a button that said "I'll Do Whatever It Takes." I was nearly in tears. He told me that one thing he knew about me was that I always kept my eye on what was important, and that as long as I kept doing that, things would turn out okay. And he said something that my mother had also said: "This too shall pass."
And it did pass. A year later, I was done with school and had signed a joint custody agreement with my ex-girlfriend. I started looking for a teaching job.
In early 1998, Bobby was stricken with liver disease. He was in a coma for some time. He came out of the coma, but was greatly weakened. The Gingerman held a fundraiser for Bobby, who had huge medical bills. I attended the fundraiser, where I had a chance to talk to Bobby. I was shocked at the sight of a guy who I knew as a strong, boisterous, lively guy greatly weakened.
A few weeks later, Bobby passed away.
Over the years, my life has moved on. Life has thrown a few more challenges my way, but not a day goes on when I don't think of my friend and his advice, "This too shall pass." I still miss him. I wish I could tell him that things were going well-- I'm happily remarried, am now raising two kids, and about to embark on another career. I'm still doing whatever it takes, Bobby.