By Maude Standish
From the outside, Southport Lanes might look like any other yuppie bar on a street dotted with striped-wood designs in an effort to age new buildings quickly and give this young burgeoning community a sense of history. But Southport Lanes isn’t just another new-old Irish bar attempting through green shellac to make claims of a connection to the Fatherland. It is the last handset bowling alley in Chicago, if not the Midwest.
Southport Lanes, originally named the Nook, was built by the Schlitz Brewing Company around 1900 and has been a community cornerstone of booze ever since. Bowling was added in the twenties in an all-American attempt to conceal the illegal activities flourishing in the Nook. “When the lanes opened in 1922, Prohibition was in full effect and what happened was, believe it or not, this became a bowling alley and a brothel,” says owner Steve Soble. All that remains as evidence of past sensual decadence is a stylized mural of partially nude women frolicking around a pasture behind the bar. The red-and-blue bowling-alley shoes are now stacked in the place of the dumbwaiter that used to lift spirits up to the ladies and their clientele.
“When we got in here there were no windows,” Soble says. Now most of the walls are windows, giving the bar a sense of transparency not usually present at watering holes. Though proud of the bar’s vibrant past, Soble has done his best to rid the Southport Lanes of any illegitimacy that it might have once housed. A hidden room—where legend has it Mayor Cermak used to host secret card games before he was hit by a bullet meant for Roosevelt—has been torn down, creating a spacious entranceway. A once-concealed phone booth, now missing a phone, also sits in the entranceway. “When did they take our phone away?” Soble questions the bartender on duty.
A web of wires and phone lines were ripped out of the walls. And where an operator once sat taking bets from all over the country on horses with names like Black Lightning is now a broom closet. Steve leads me to the back room with more big windows, a pressed-tin ceiling that he had installed, new decorative wood walls and pool tables. “Back here was a beer hall when we got here. It was also the polling place for the neighborhood. Which is very illegal! You can’t have a polling place where they serve alcohol, but that didn’t seem to bother anybody.”
Soble was born in Richmond, Virginia and came to Chicago to work for Quaker Oats after he graduated from college. “I like to say that I made strategic decisions for Captain Crunch.” With unseasonably tan skin, a youthful demeanor and a big toothy smile, Soble has the look of a well-adjusted contractor. “When we bought this here down the street was pretty bad. In fact our pin-boys were being held up nightly by gang-bangers.”
Soble points out the large front window to the concrete façade of a condo across the street. “That across the street—it was an old corner store. And I’ll never forget—it was the winter of ’92—I was walking to work and I heard this woman screaming. It was in the middle of winter. She had nothing on. And there was a guy standing over her with garden shears. He was trying to kill her. Apparently, as I found out later, it was an attempted rape and murder. Those were the days before cell phones so I ran over to the bar and said, ‘Call 911.’ And I ran back outside. It was funny, because I don’t want to be a hero and I don’t want to attack this guy. But at the same time I need to scare him enough to get him away from her. So I screamed ‘Hey the cops are coming!’ So he left and she was fine.”
Despite the neighborhood’s and the bar’s dramatic changes, one thing has stayed the same and always will if Soble has any say in the matter—the bowling alley. It sports four wooden lanes, pink, green, blue-speckled bowling balls and tin pits—where two pin-boys sit ready to collect and restack the fallen pins. “They stand and then they hop from area to area. Balls can hit them quite badly,” Soble says. “You know there is an old thing in bowling where you don’t bowl when the guy next to you is bowling. It is out of courtesy, but it’s also because back in the day you couldn’t bowl on two lanes next to each other because the pin-boy had nowhere to go. They had to move from one side to the other. Very few have had any injuries back here but you can get hurt pretty badly. Rolling at the same time as the guy next to you is grounds to be ejected from the bar. We take it very seriously.”
Pin-boys are no longer quite the appropriate name as they now tend to be grown men, immigrants—legal ones as Soble is careful to point out. Such as Alfredo Garcia, who began working at Southport Lanes as a pin-setter when he arrived in Chicago from Mexico City eight years ago. Garcia speaks little to no English and has the strong, squat build needed for the claustrophobic space behind the pins. “The space is good because there are two lanes, so if I am in the fourth lane they can bowl on the third lane. Then I can go over to the third lane and they can bowl on the fourth. You are constantly moving,” Garcia says in quick Spanish.
Being a pin-boy doesn’t only mean being fast on your feet. You have to have good eyes and be able to read people from a distance. “It is very important that you watch the customers,” he says. “Many times the customers are only looking at the pins. And when they see that the pins are up they will bowl. Suddenly there is this ball coming down the lane at you and you have to move very fast to avoid it. Why do they do it? Because sometimes the customers don’t think about it or they are very drunk.”
The pits where Garcia works are tight quarters comprised of metal, fluorescent lights, machinery and plywood. Empty Red Bulls are scattered across the floors and a white plastic bag of signals hangs from a hook in the wall. “People put money in the finger holes and they roll it down,” Soble says. Garcia adds, “Some people tip very well. Others barely tip. Those that do tip understand that this is our work.”