Phil Luciano: Tears in my beer for Tartan Inn

Phil Luciano

How do you write an obituary for a tavern? Let's give it a try:

The Tartan Inn, a longtime hideout and second home for businessmen, crackheads and every walk of life in between, died at 8:17 p.m. Sunday after a long bout of insanity, most of it good.

The next question: why bother to write an obit for a tavern? Two reasons. For one, the neighborhood saloons are an endangered species as younger people tend to flock to soulless, yuppified chain bar-eateries.

And for another, The Tartan Inn, for better or worse, has spawned more stories in this paper than any other pub in Peoria history. And I've written most of them, dozens upon dozens.

Some of those stories centered on the Tartan itself, running the range from lunacy to poignancy. My favorite came right after September 11, when a trio of buddies who'd frequented the place decided to join the military. So the bar hosted a goodbye bash - Freedom Night - to honor their decision to serve.

As one beer-toting enlistee said while surveying the appreciative crowd, "You know what's great? It's people like this. The whole community is backing us up."

The Tartan was preceded in death by Little John, a Navy veteran who could barely hear but liked to hang around barroom conversations anyway; Tom Murphy, a very kind man who helped save the world on D-Day; Jeff, who bought one last round before taking his final, fateful motorcycle ride; and Babaloo, who always made people smile.

But many of the Tartan-triggered stories had nothing to do with the business. Rather, the pub became something of a satellite office for this column. By word of mouth, regulars and friends of regulars knew that eventually I'd wander back into the joint, where they could bend my ear about tales of woe, weirdness or wonderment, many of which ended up in this space.

Why didn't they just call me at 1 News Plaza? In this world of cell phones and text messages, a certain breed of people still don't trust you until they can look you in the eye. And, despite widespread media distrust in this country, they figure that any wayward reporter who frequents a place like the Tartan can't be all bad, especially if he's buying.

At the time of death, the Tartan was 11 years old but looked much older - much like its owner, Bill Scott.

The building has been around for eons. It actually became the Tartan Inn one owner ago, in the early '90s. But it adopted its true Tartan Inn character - two parts amusement to one part danger - when it fell into the hands of Scott in 1997.

I'd been popping in for about a year when I'd heard the new owner liked Jimmy Buffett, yet had not bothered to put any on the jukebox. After I'd complained long and hard to the bartenders, one day a smiling fellow stepped up to introduce himself as Scott, a recent Cat early-retiree. He said he appreciated my input about Buffett, so he'd put some on the juke.

Then he called me a filthy name. Still, he did so with a wide grin, so we got along great thereafter.

At the time, the pub was a snappy little joint that appealed to folks from all social strata. Scott had a particular soft spot for the downtrodden, some of whom he'd employ doing odd jobs.

Further, he'd look for some of their needs, sometimes by slipping them a few extra bucks, or coming up with bail money. Or, maybe it meant just keeping the place open when other bars were dark. I recall him telling me why he always made sure the Tartan stayed open on Christmas Eve: "I remember hard times in my life when I had no place to go during the holidays. So, I make sure, for those people who need somewhere to be around others, the Tartan Inn is open."

If you don't understand the nobility of that, then you can count many more blessings than some of us. And you probably wouldn't understand why on Christmas Eve, after putting all the gifts under my tree, I'd call the Tartan to wish Scott and the rest a Merry Christmas.

Besides Scott, the bar is survived by his adult children, Holly and Joe, who tried to keep the place alive even amid spiraling craziness.

Still, eventually, Scott's heart was too big for smart business. He let too many coke dealers, crack whores and other conning finaglers borrow money here and there. And you know how that goes: eventually, upkeep, inventory and reputation suffer.

Months ago in this space, I mentioned how the Tartan needed new tile, as it looked like a dirt-floor bar in the Third World. Soon thereafter, I walked in to find a shiny new floor. With a grin, Scott ushered me to the rear of the saloon, to view a special tile. On it was etched, "Screw you, Luciano."

Hilarious. But not all problems can be so laughed off.

A couple of weeks back, Slabby the bartender counted the amount owned on unpaid tabs, an illegal but common practice at small bars. The sum was staggering.

"What is this?" Slabby sputtered. "Section 8 drinking?"

Money was tight when things suddenly got worse. You might have read the tale here last week about the theft of $1,000 from the bar, likely at the hands of a one-eyed hooker who frequented the place. That loss meant the bar couldn't pay its power bill, and the juice got shut off Saturday.

A bar without electricity is a bar without cold beer. That's a death sentence, and it was the last straw. Owner Scott immediately decided to shut down the place.

Still the Tartan went out not with whimper, but a bang. With Scott's permission Sunday afternoon, the faithful ran a power cord to a nearby regular's house to spark alive the TV set and juke, while the ice machine served as a cooler. The football games and rock tunes blasted amid shouting and whooping, and the defiant cacophony rushed in constant waves from the open front door, a boisterous goodbye that could be heard all over West Peoria.

Other survivors include Beak, who helped the Scott family like a saint; Hobie, who always playfully threatened to kick anyone's butt, even though he has arms like pipe cleaners; Owen, who insisted no one else drink from his stash of Blatz Light, as if anyone would want to; Mike from the post office, who is never not smiling; Mike the bookmaker, who was always willing to relieve foolish wagerers of excess money; Gladdy, who for years probably kept the place solvent by the sheer number of pitchers he bought there for everyone; Pee-Wee, who dutifully kept the joint stocked with football parlay cards (for amusement purposes only, of course); Oliver, who wanted nothing more than a time machine so he could go back and meet Veronica Lake; Carrie, who while bartending could scare even the rowdiest biker into behaving properly; Keith, who always wore a backwards baseball cap, and Michelle, who loved him for it; Rod, who enjoyed Harleys, Jim Beam and occasional bar-top naps; and Val, whose wink and cleavage could make a dead man perky.

As the sun went down Sunday, candles came out so we could find our way around. The bartenders planned to shut down early, and people started to realize that the impending last call truly would be last call for the Tartan.

As the crowd dwindled, a few tears began to trickle. Grown men whom I'd never seen show an inkling of emotion (other than rage at the Cubs) embraced hard and tight, as if at a funeral.

The bartender took the last remaining bottles of booze and mixed together a concoction of shots that somehow matched the mood: slightly sweet, with an underlying flavor of bitterness.

I commandeered the juke for a few last, familiar dirges: "I Love This Bar," "Whisky Girl," "Sittin' at a Bar." At the Tartan, you never needed a karaoke machine to spark a sing-along, and the remaining patrons loudly warbled along. The final tune would be the Tartan theme song, Matchbox Twenty's "Unwell," with the ever-appropriate line, "I'm not crazy, I'm just a little unwell."

Ending on that appropriate note, I pulled out the power cord to kill the party forever. The other survivors blew out candles, and we quietly walked out, as I carried the last lit lantern. After the bartenders locked up the place for the last time, we all stared at the front door for a few moments. I blew out the lantern, then said flatly, "Lights out for the Tartan."

There was nothing more to be said, except: "OK, let's go to the bar next door for a beer." We all shuffled over and wondered why good things have to change.

Condolences may be left with the bartender and pub of your choice.

Phil Luciano can be reached or (309) 686-3155.