Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Remembering Bobby

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.


Mr. Walker said...

Hi Johnny Yen,

I'm sure he'll be proud of these words. Quite a formidable figure wasn't he?

Hope all is well,

RW (Danny Tagalog).

SkylersDad said...

He sounds bigger than life, this was a wonderful tribute to him.

purplelar said...

I liked Bobby Uncle Yen. I didn't know he was in that famous cop bar. I've told people about how he could easily show someone with beer balls the error in their judgment when acting up with him.

Churlita said...

That was a really great post. I'm sure he would be honored that you wrote it.

Erik Donald France said...

A wonderful homage, really nice. Enjoyed learning about him, and RIP.

Mnmom said...

Great piece. Some pretty amazing people come into our lives, and they sure leave their mark.

Johnny Yen said...

Nice to hear from you!

Yes, he was formidable. And also one of the nicest people I've ever known.

He was on one level, but also someone you could sit and have a heart to heart conversation with.

He did, didn't he?

I think he was the person who coined the term "708er" for suburbanites.


I think you would have loved to sit and have a drink with the guy. He did so many things in his life. There were a bunch of rock stars who insisted on Bobby being their bodyguards when they were in town. He had a million stories.

They sure do. I can't believe he's been gone over ten years.

jleahpiep said...

Bobby Scarpelli is my uncle, my favorite uncle! Its so nice to see what every one thoght about him and all their memories, that is what keeps him alive, soon we will be on the 14 anniversary of his death, still breaks my heart, I miss him every day!!! He used to hide me in his room when I got in trouble as a kid, my mom would find me asleep on his stomach watching basket ball. He was always there when I needed him! Gone but not forgotten! Rip Robert Anthony Scarpelli

Steven Miller said...

I worked with Bobby for several years, first at Tuts then at On Broadway on the North side. I was quite young at the time and he took me under his wing and showed me the ropes....he was like a big brother to me. We eventually lost touch as I moved on and I just googled him a few weeks ago and was shocked to hear that he had passed at such an early age. He was a Chicago original....a real people person. I still have some photos of him around here somewhere. Rest easy Bobby......