Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Transitioning stumbling blocks into stepping stones—a salute to the man simply known as Sully

His face was the color of damp cardboard, the type you’d find stranded in an alleyway behind one of his many fine establishments, flattened and vertical, a domestic beer logo branded in its center. He walked with a certain cogitating lank, a thinking man’s gait, as if he were about ready to break out into an Irish jig of enlightenment at any moment. He chained smoked Marlboro lights. He was gregarious. A raconteur. He was kind. He drank cheap beer but served scotch that had been aging in a cask in Scotland for over seventy percent of my calculated existence. He had unkempt stringy hair and an angular nose and a rich oaky smile that made you feel as if you were staring at the hazy Irish sunrise the morning after St. Patrick’s day heavenly hung over on green beer. He drove some sort of dustbowlesque truck that looked like it was flat out of a stage production of “From Mice to Men.” He was always scribbling down shit on a notepad. He hired coifed perfection behind the counter that would pour you a pint of British ale before grilling you the best damn pepperjack burger in town. He was a huge fan of “The Bug Dance Rhythm band” which my dear friend Dave McDonald played a mean folk mandolin in. He was married to a woman I used to work for at Barnes and Noble who wore long swaying lavender dresses and had black hair and ashen skin the color of parchment a renaissance poet might use to compose Petrarchan sonnets on. Together with their dog (who would just never shut the hell up) they lived on the same street I grew up on in the West Bluff, an Irish Flag saluting out from the side of their abode like a wounded javelin. Later in his years you would almost always see the wiry bangs dripping from his scalp cloaked in a beret like a flaccid halo or loose liver, the organ that whistled out on him, fretted on a Gaelic cross on a hillside outside of Dublin.

He loved to loaf. Loved to laugh. Loved to shoot the shit over a plume of smoke followed by a chorus of wit and laughter banked by the clank of goblets and the call for another round for everyone.

The name listed when he took his first communion at St. Patrick’s parish was J.M. Sullivan. But everyone knew him simply by two syllables.

He was simply Sully.

He loved to open bars.

I first met Sully long before I realized he was the Guinness godfather of the Peoria nightlife scene. I was in my early twenties trying to make it as a writer living in an apartment that was part of an historic 1844 mansion on High street (the coolest mansion in Peoria) with an unparalleled view that overlooked the swarming neon nest of downtown. I taught English for district 150 at an alternative high school, walking to work every morning, the sun pouring in from the east in rich tangerine streams like a vodka screwdriver. It was the autumn of 9-11, my hair was a long limp stem tied behind back of my skull in ponytail fashion like a door handle to fire escape of my brain. Every morning I traipsed down from the antiquated crags of High Wine, swerving down the boomerang cement swoop of Main street hill, taking intermittent swigs from my coffee cup, blurry-eyed and just a tad bit hungover, composing dissipating jet stream sonnets of immortality inside my head. Every morning I would see him and he would bob his head in a singular act of acknowledgment holding out his flat palm in a gesture that teemed with the familiarity of seasoned drinking buddies. Of Family. Sometimes he would motor past me in his dustbowlesque vehicle smoking cigarettes. But more often than not our encounter transpired in front of the bar he owned, SULLIVANS, nestled like a sylvan hearth swallowed between a gay and Podunk bar respectively. Every morning he was almost always outside, sometimes sweeping corky butts and glass off the sidewalks or scaled up the rungs of a ladder, tinkering with the window display. With his impish lank and hair that looked like it could pass for a dehydrated yucca plant, he resembled a fairy tale troll, one that would request that you answer his riddle o’ three before allowing you to cross over the inebriated pond of enlightenment alcoholic excess often avails.

I had lived in his bars of course. I had gotten kicked out of ZZ POPS when I was only seventeen for attempting to catch a glimpse of (and hopefully seduce) scarlet haired violinist Rachel Barton, who was gigging there before playing with the symphony orchestra later that night. I had my first gratis (fruity what-the-hell-is-this-concoction) twenty-first birthday shot at the carousel domestic horseshoe sports den that is the original Sullys. I smoked weed in the urine-stained troughs at the old SOPS on the corner of Main and Madison (listening to more than my fair share of Dave Matthew tribute bands than could possibly be salubrious for my sanity in the early part of the millennium). Together with my best friend Dave Thompson (who ran the bacchanalian Vesuvius Lounge inside Dominics at the Metro Center), we would sip 17 dollar scotches before hitting a night on the town or heading to the now defunct Grill or going to Opera Illinois, my long hair dripping into the tulliped chalice of my imported libation, thinking of Jim Morrison slovenly requesting to be taken away to the next Whiskey bar and not asking why surrounded by bottles of scotch that looked like organ pipes bearing names likes Oban and Mccallister and Belvanie. Names that sounded like Tolkein Dwarves.

But for me the only bar that mattered was the original Sullivan's on main street (the bar which now adheres to the somewhat disgusting moniker of Mushrush, ie 'Mudrush,' but whose interior remains intrinsically unscathed in the Irish décor Sully himself so selected and prized). Sullivan's authenticated Irish pub no. 558. Sullivan's with the trademark Gary Coleman sized Guinness harp branded on the front door as you enter giving fair warning to the seraph of sobriety to pass over this public house of drunken bliss. Sullivans with the emerald lampshades and various Irish bric-a-brac and hummeled cheeked leprechauns and vignettes of Michael Collins and one pensive looking-watercolor of JFK stamped on the wall that defies you not to cry. Sullivan's with a coniferous-shaded atlas of Ireland splattered on the wall near when you walk in like a missing Green giant jigsaw piece. The bar with the quote Céad Míle Fáilte (100 thousand greeting) plastered above the leering eyes of the beer fridge.

Sullivans where they always gave you a fifty cent piece for change.

Sullivans where on a Saturday afternoon in autumn blue-collar catholics would loosen the noose of their ties after mass and curse at the television screen as Notre Dame once again came up short on fourth and inches. Sullivans where my dear friend and neighbor Dave McDonald played every weekend, the cidery cone of his amish-like beard dripping into the baritone frets of his guitar as I sat on the corner of the bar near the ersatz stage getting hammered on Caffey's stout or Boddington's pub ale. Sullivan's which was (with the exception of Jimmy’s) the first bar in this area code to have Guinness on tap in the late 90's.

It was the bar where you punctuated the narrative of the evening in exclamatory fashion-- ending up at Sullivans at 3:00 in the morning after a night of clubbing trying to guzzle down as many pints as was humanly possible before moshing your way through the faces of mingling inebriated beautiful mid-twentysomethings reflected in the mirrored rectangular Guinness placards festooned below the menstrual chipped coating of the ceiling, packed, a bouquet of jostling limbs, each crashing into the oak bar like a wave to a pier, getting lost in both the sight and scent of the stranger sitting next you, your eyes momentarily averting into the cyclopic digits of the Tullamore Dew clock stationed above the entrance, waiting for the carol of last call, getting lost in the sight of her forehead, her lips, the sudden snap of her smile.

A few weeks later I would be formerly introduced to the wiry-haired man himself at the establishment I so loved by my roommate the impeccable Dave Thompson, the three of us sitting in hard Euclidean angles at the end of the bar, smoking cigarettes, the seasoned proprietors imparting wisdom salted with wit to the partied out poetic plebeian (I had been 21 for less than two years) telling me stories about bars I have never heard of (what the hell is Barnacle Billy's or The poison Apple?), bitching about things being different from the way they once were. About politics and bar licensing and P-town not being what it used to be.

For the next six months I would stop in after teaching, laptop in tow. If he wasn't there I would adhere to my writers mantra of “ten typed pages a day—No fuckin' around!!” diligently slipping into my back pew, chain smoking, almost always nursing a Boddingtons, wildly pecking into my laptop like a young junior high kid and a drum set after hearing his formative first metallica album. But if Sully was there I would sit next to him and listen to his stories.

There are other barkeeps and restaurant owners in town you salivate like a Pavlovian chihuahua just to be around. You have the jovial Santa Clausian girth of Vince down at Jimmy's. You have Shaman Paul at One World whose good medicine mantra baptizes the metaphysical purring in your soul. You have stories of good ol’ Al Zook olfactory jisming out of control on cocaine and hitting a patron over the head with a pool stick and then looking at you when you order a spirit with the word reserved on the label and treating you like you just graduated from some school with Ivy weave and a cement tower because you know how to pronounce the surname of that certain libation. You had Dave Thompson the armani- clad classy oenophile who always made you feel like a cultural deity as he talked about verticals and vintage years in a way that was not pretentious in the slightest, in a way that somehow made you feel loved.

And there was Sully and there were his stories and for a young writer entering the bar and sitting next to this chieftain and sopping up every narrative sentence that spilled out of his mouth it was nothing short of an honor indeed.


No one told a story like Sully, the beerkeg bard. The story of the wayward baby alligator he bought during the Khaki Jack era scuttling out of his apartment like the emblem off a lacrosse jersey is timeless. The story about the time he yelled at an employee for wearing her cocktail apron while smoking a cigarette at the bar after her shift ended (admonishing her that she needed to be more professional and not wear her uniform while in medias sozzeled) not realizing that she worked at the bar across the street, telling me later that after being informed of the error that he apologized to her and then hired her on the spot to work for him instead.

My favorite “sullyism” concerns the origin of the whiskey bar F. Scotts. When I asked Sully if he was thinking about Fitzgerald when he named the bar he tapped an ash off his cigarette commenting, “Now that’s an interesting story, Dave,” holding his beer in his palm like a gavel one second and a feather the next telling me about the time how, when he was in junior high at a catholic school he said the word, “fuck” aloud in class and the Nun who was teaching the class made his stay after school for a week, telling him, “I’ll give you a word that starts with the letter F you’ll never forget,” coercing Sully to scribe out the initialized first middle and last name of the author who scribed THIS SIDE OF PARADISE 500 times on what was then called the blackboard after school for an entire week.

“I guess you could say the name somehow stuck.” Sully added with that smile.

His stories coupled with that of my own memories of his bars.

Taking my best friend Dainish out (we share the same birthday July 6th, his 21st, my 26th) and after slaloming down from Gorman’s to Rhodells, sloshing through Water street (myself knocking over a table at Martinis) raving inside, god, what was then the androgynous ecstasy that was the Underground, having heavily-masacred trollops pinching their cleavage together as if in prayer as we devoutly tithed one dollar bills from our lips inside Big Al’s, throwing up outside of the old SOP's we ended up at Sullivans. John, lost in the bacchanalian din and swirl of blurred voices and limbs the dyslexic first and second primed integers alcoholically avails to the itchy soul. Dainish, telling me he needs to excuse himself and hit the head. After twenty minutes later of combing though the restroom and looking outside and asking the Keep if they've seen this heavily soused dark skinned Lithuanian lad celebrating his twenty-first, I notice that the side door leading top the crypt of the basement is wedged open and on a whim decide to plunge into the darkness yelling out his name eventually to find my best friend and brother John (ie Dainish) seated a la Rodin's Thinker style on a beer crate in the back of the basement, alighting his bottle like an alcoholic scepter in the hand of a bemused patriarch who had just bartered his kingdom for a zip-lock bag of magic beans.

The silly stories: The time folk singer Dave McDonald started playing almost Raffiesque renditions of Kids songs on Sunday afternoon inside Sullivans and (I shit you not) the whole place started doing the hookey-pookey with the exception of one overtly disgruntled author who kept yelling out the name of Woody Gutherie at the top of his libation-filled lungs as if he were at a Freedom March.

The activist stories—my crazy methed-out rockstar cousin spontaneously arriving on my doorstep with his guitar from Chicago in April '07, wanting to FIGHT THE INCUMBENT SMOKING BAN set to take place at the beginning of the next year. The two of us passing out placards all over downtown Peoria reading THIS IS NOT AFGHANISTAN-SAY NO TO THE SMOKING BAN!!!! Out of all the bars we stepped in, only one owner treated us with civility and agreed to pass out the flyers dictated for our cause. That owner was Sully, telling me that this smoking ban shit was enough to make him even want to sell his bars. And one of them he did.

The late-late night Kinky stories. Cruising through the chorus of last call and being way too drunk to drive and stopping off at Swingers world to sober up after a night of hardcore hedonism watching videos in a half-opened state regulated shower stall that I can't even imagine what it must look like under the glower of a blue light. Or the time I was standing in front of the porcelain chin of the urinal at 3:30 in the morning inside the mens room at Sullivans when a beautiful glitter faced girl enters the mens bathroom in tight jeans and linoleum clattering heels and reels both her jeans and panties down to the caps of her knees in one unbuckled yank like she is lowering a flag to half-mast as she squats down on the urinal next to where I am earnestly trying to drain my own baton of masculine flesh, and because I’m sort of an innate flirt and just a lil' bit tipsy I immediately tell her “nice ass-baby” and smack the tanless side of her anatomy that is currently squatting on the jawline of the urinal, not realizing that we are peeing together, not realizing that she is giggling and starting to blush as I touch and begin to bite into her ass with the claw of my finger tips. Herself, finishing before I do, standing up, any garments that zip and or snap into place still wreathed slightly above her shins. Her vagina winking in my face like a portal to another world, her lips giggling, knowing that she wants me, knowing that there is a vacant stall less than three feet away as my mind freight trains out of control imagining our bodies locked and bent over, forming what Sesame street might classify during their curtain call as being brought to you by the lower case letter h lost in the lecherous abeyance of thrusts and pauses, unbidden scratches pinned with quick muffled screams of feral and unalloyed lust.

And somehow in the moment I went to kiss her, my hand still on her ass, certain vectors of my own physiology jutting blood stiff and out of control, I somehow saw Sully's sandpaper visage in the side mirror(even though the bar is now called Mudrush's and they no longer give out fifty cent pieces for change) perhaps telling me even though she wants you, don't take advantage of this cute lil' thing who is throwing herself at you because she has been twenty-one for all of five months and is drunk. Not in this bar you damn near don't and instead of kissing her, I placed my pointer finger between the hyphen thin opening of her lips like pressing an elevator button to nowhere helping her to wriggle back into the lower-hemisphere of her attire like a mermaid to a denim fin.

The fleeting passionate stories:

Or the last time I found myself after fifteen hours of brachiating from barstool to barstool, finding myself like old times, ending the night inside the bar that once housed the proprietors last name. The woman I knew somehow from another lifetime ago and inexplicably recognized the moment she echoed the confetti syllables of her first name. The girl who would smile and laugh as she would almost surgically peel the label off her beer in a Catcher-in-the-Rye Jane Gallgher keeping-her-checkers-all-in-the-back-row kind of way. The woman whose petite lips tasted like a poptart as she waded the gradeschool valentine of her tongue inside my lips like a child pushing a toy boat into a Sunday pond immortalized on an impressionistic vignette of light, grabbing my hand, yanking me away from the sylvan plank of the bar, making out in the seedy alleyway behind what was once Sullivans, her fingers tumbling inside the grip of my palm like some sort of vital pulsating organ that has just been transplanted to a willing donor as she wore my jacket and I escorted her to her apartment in the frosty breath of late February, the sun rising from the east as if on stilts, a chalkboard smudged horizontal pillar of heavy pink light indented into the pastural aerie of tufted clouds and the potential promise of a new found spring.

But there's one sullyism I can't stop thinking about. One story that for me coronates every bar stool anecdote, every late night drunken fete. Its a story about how one man jousted a grim medical diagnoses head on.

Shortly after he was diagnosed a local columnist from the Journal Star interviewed the ageless wonder that is Sully about the recent news of his ailment. The video was stamped on the Star’s website in early January. The interview gives a solid barstool post-shot tingling snippet of the joyful proprietor’s persona. In the interview he says something profound. Something I’ve thought about nearly every day since first I heard it a few months back. When presented with the query of how he expects to deal with this diagnoses Sully tapped the ash off his cigarette and responded with the following:

“Yer gonna have to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones sometime in your life and this is the first day, you know, you do it. And you better have fun doing it. Why make yourself miserable.”

I think about this all the time. I think about how pretty much every one whose sight peruses the paragraphs of this homage to P-towns premier barkeep will, come five whipped decades from now, be reduced to nothing more than a vacant hillsboro coffee can of ash, the collected narrative of their corporeal sojourn licensing a loam of earth as if locked into a bad mortgage. I think about how pretty much every one I know shields themselves in a veneer of naiveté (myself including) to avoid dealing with shit that is often blatantly uncomfortable and painful to fucking stomach. Shit that is scary. I think about Sully. Turning stumbling blocks into stepping stones into metaphysical rungs to scale and to climb and to grow. To approach the cocked nozzle of the unknown with a beer and a smoke and smile and with laughter. And maybe tell the impending shadowy drape of death a story.

This is courage in its most pure and unadulterated form.

You face up to shit that is difficult and unpleasant and lonely and emotionally taxing and arduous and hard and you do it. And you better have fun while you do it. After all, you are here, on the scalp of this planet for a finite time, why make yourself and everyone around you miserable.

Spoken like a true proprietor of a man who honored this fleeting happy hour called life indeed.


The night I heard of Sully’s passing I found myself cradled in the saltine limbs of my ex-girlfriend, a local poet. We both work burn out jobs with burn out hours to be able to support the “sexually frustrated demands” the time and nature our respective crafts entails. We stopped dating around thanksgiving, but earlier this year we started spending one night a week, holding each other fully clothed, squeezing the fuck out of each other. When we were dating we never even held each other after sex. Now we don’t even kiss and our elbows and thighs are locked together like legos in a gable of clothed flesh with gentle nocturnal breezes emanating from our lips on each other’s neck, blithe aerial ribbons hailed from a summer wind. Sometimes Zorro the cat sleeps on the mattress with us. In the morning we make coffee and she slides her glasses on her visage the way the ophthalmologists assistant instructed her when she was in third grade, grabbing both stems with both hands and saluting them onto the geometry of her face in one swiping motion of grace.

I have vivid dreams when her pulse drips into mine and the dream I had less than 24 hours after Sully's demise is as follows:

In the dream I am attending Sully’s wake (which for some inexplicable was in a building where Geier Florist is located on Heading avenue down the street from where I live in West Peoria). In the center of the room Sully’s casket is placed in the huge vignette that for some reason is rather rococo and last-suppery-like with a pink sunset hue and looks like something a Davinci scholar might scrutinize with a magnifying glass before authoring a pamphlet on conspiracy related issues. In the dream Sully’s eyes are welded into his gas station cigar-colored face and all these monks, in taupe robes are flanked around his body with their fists tucked into their robes acting very hush-hush. In the room there are mourners and there are tufts of plastic funeral flowers and the monks keep on oscillating around the barkeep. When it is my turn to pay reverence to the man known simply as Sully I walk up to his casket and look at his listless body when the next thing I know, one of his eyes delicately hushed close as if in prayer blossoms open and winks at me. Startled I turn to the monks and point and they assure me that he is dead. As I look at Sully's sandpaper countenance again his supine anatomy starts to titter and shake and his head slowly begins to transition into this blue-windex color. The monks are flanked around his coffin so that only myself and the reticent posture of the monks are witnessing this anatomical transmogrification of the flesh. The flashes of blue splotches out of his pigmentation and his face returns to its healthy color. Sully then audibly “snaps” his neck, opens his eyes, looks at me, winks again, makes a plosive “shhhhhh!!!” sound and then falls limp as if he is only feigning death.

And in the dream I go apeshit. I start telling mourners that he is still alive. That there has been some sort of grave medicinal error. That he is still alive. I begin to titter and to shake, Sylvia Plathing out of control in the dream funeral home of Geier Florists (that has this visible field of rye and wheat gargling like a stainglass sunset outside the window). The mourners are assuring me that there has been no mistake, that he is dead. I point at the monks, I begin to verbalize to the crowd that you can ask them. That they saw the whole thing. The padres remain stoic , standing like untrammeled bowling pins that has just missed the marble globe of the ball to the gutter, silently commenting aloud that they saw nothing.

I get irate. I scream out the word fuck!! I begin to kick the wall. I thrash a bevy of nearby peace lilys. I tell the fellow mourners that they are making a huge mistake. That Sully is still alive. I then call up my brother-in-law (who is a doctor at St. Francais in real life) and tell him that he needs to send an ambulance up to Heading avenue because a significant medical mistake has been made. I go outside and wait for the paramedics to arrive. When the medical staff arrive I lead them inside. I mourners are quiet and looking at each other in shock. Where Sully's body was is now vacant. The casket where he was lying and where he cracked his neck back into consciousness in overturned, wilted flower petals are scattered in the fashion of a damp nest.

I am standing next to the paramedics when a parishioner turns next to me.
“Its Sully,” He says, “The monks stole him.”

I wake up from the dream in agitated sways, inadvertently kicking Zorro the cat off the bed. My ex-girlfriend fishes along the side of her bookshelf looking for her glasses as I relay to her my dream. We make coffee, chain smoke a.m. cigarettes and find ourselves in downtown Peoria an hour later. I stop into the Liqour store across the street from the Pere Marquette, purchasing a six pack and a newspaper. When we get back in her vehicle we drive to Bradley Park. I begin to quote Waylon Jennings about the beer I had for breakfast not being bad so I'll have one more for dessert as I pop one open as the two of us begin to comb through the paper, looking for details on Sully's death.

“Shit.” I say aloud, verbally responding to my ex-girlfriends query of what by telling her that of all the places in town, Sully is being buried at St. Josephs cemetery, the cemetery located on the street where I live, the cemetery that sits directly across the street from Geier florists, where my dream last night took place.

My ex-girlfriend looks back at me with her lips slightly ovaled. She then smiles and gives my non-beer swigging hand a little squeeze.


I was in Chicago the afternoon of Sully’s wake and the day of his funeral. When I arrived back in town I went down to Mudrushes. It was my first time spending significant amount of daylight hours inside Sully’s former establishment since I used to sit next to the man himself all those autumnal afternoons ago, pissed off that the Tullamore Dew clock had been moved to the opposite end of the pub(the bar has a much more placid feel at 3pm than at 3am). I drank five pints of Moose Drool (thanking the alcoholic forces that be that this blissful big sky libation has finally managed to migrate its way east) and slammed down four Guinesses, ordering the last round two beers at a time so that I had three separate chalices in front of me. I sat in the same oak patch on the landing strip bar where I tripped into the smile of the beautiful spritely-lipped girl only two months earlier taking down notes, chatting up several of the crisp-haired lads behind the counter telling them I was a writer and asking them what there favorite “sullyism” was (note: the naïve short haired fucks response was 'Sully hasn't owned this place in about two years'). As we were conversing the phone rang and the bartender came up to me.

“Yer not gonna believe this bro."

“What?" I ask the Naïve Fuck.

“You've been asking all these questions about Sully. Phone just rang and it was some guy actually asking if Mike Sullivan was in.”

“Did you tell him he died last week.” I inquire.

“No,” The naïve short-haired fuck bartended replies, “I simply told him that Mike Sullivan was no longer here.”

“No longer here.” I thought to myself, settling my tab, tipping the ill-trimmed sideburns of the Naïve Fuck behind the counter, and, when his back was turned, after I garnered my sans fifty cent piece o' change, I then nonchalantly slipped the superfluous Guinness chalice into the side pocket of my jacket, entering a dizzying splash of spring air as I walked past the fire-hydrant sized Guiness harp petrified on the door exiting the bar, thinking about just how wrong this Naïve Fuck is with his "no longer here" assertion as I look down into the variegated neon signs sprouting out of the sides of dead tooth brick buildings on Main street, thinking about how Sully's legacy is here, how it never left, and how, like my dream, his influence won't die, not any time soon. In fact I saw Sully everywhere downtown that spring afternoon shortly after his untimely demise.

I could see his lanky frame refelcted in the tint outside the windows of the former Sullivans, but I could also see him in the beer patio of Sully's, in a gasoline puddle near the cement star outside of the Madison theatre, near the original SOPs, in the alleyway where F. Scotts used to be. I could see his influence dotted up and down Waterstreet epsecially with bars like Martini's and Kellehers, perhaps emblematic of the "Monks" in my dream who stole his body.

As I drove up Main street that day I stopped at a nearby liquor store and purchased a six pack of Guinness. I then motored into St. Joseph's cemetary, across the street from the flower shop in my dreams on the street where I both live and work, on Heading Avenue , the street where another lifetime ago you fell in love and now have a desk in the Nuclear woods. I parked my car outside the pitching mound of dirt that is the man known simply as Sully's final establishment. I unearthed the filched Guinness chalice from the side pocket of my jacket, propped open a Guinness, filled the goblet and set it near the bottom of his grave. I then bowed my head in reverence and told him thank you.

I then told him cheers. Cheers to you brother.....