January 28, 2023

Building a City on a Still or a Hill

Abraham Lincoln's grog shop

Abraham Lincoln's "grog shop" in Illinois

One political slogan I’m almost certain won’t be heard this election cycle is that “It’s Grog Time in America.” Neither President Obama or Mitt Romney have much resemblance to Andrew Jackson’s White House partying that forced the festivities being moved outdoors to protect the furniture. Abraham Lincoln’s grog shop in Illinois, however, looks like some liquor stores around the Detroit area that was known as the City on the Still during the Prohibition era.

My road travels on these wonderful cement carpets have taken me to many interesting places that do have some resemblance to the grocery store where young Abraham Lincoln tried to make a living. At an inner city grog shop, or party store as they’re called around here, the owner lifted the huge metal door to let me inside. Black bars were on the window and signs were plastered all over the brick walls for beer and food stamps. Liquor, food stamps, lottery tickets, and illicit material hidden from sight behind the counter with the owner’s gun. The carpet had been ripped out and the cold floor added to the decor of defeat. A stricken look of fear flashed across the face of the owner when I came inside. In this area, clean cut people usually mean trouble. They’re usually from the government and rarely if ever come inside to help. No one comes to help here. The posse isn’t coming. That’s very obvious from the signs on the wall offering deals for liquid courage.

One morning I met the owner of an inner city grog shop and he said his clerk had been shot the previous night. I asked him why he refused to move, get out, go somewhere safe like nearly everyone else who could do so. He had money. The new SUV was parked around the corner. He looked at me with heaviness and said, “Liquor’s my blood.”

The stories are in my blood. Like writer and historian Studs Terkel, I like listening to people tell their stories. A background in history and human resources will do it to you. I could have stood there and listened to this man owning a bullet ridden liquor store like he was Abraham Lincoln standing outside his little grocery store. At another decrepit liquor store, the son of the Lebanese owner apologizes for his father’s business, which he shouldn’t have done. The son had been accepted to the University of Michigan and planned to become a doctor. Lincoln would have approved.

The famous preacher and ballplayer Billy Sunday put up his cleats in 1890 to go hand to hand combat with the Devil. Sunday believed liquor was ‘God’s worst enemy” and at a University of Michigan Prohibition rally, proclaimed, “I will fight them till hell freezes over. Then I’ll buy a pair of skate and fight ’em on the ice.” Daniel Okrent’s Last Call is about the Prohibition era. Detroit was the epicenter for the Prohibition era as bootleggers from Canada came across at Windsor and went on to markets like Chicago.

Jay Gatsby in F. Scott Fitgerald’s The Great Gatsby made his bootlegger money from the “drug stores.” Red means stop, green means go, from the illicit red light streets to the green light at the end of Gatsby’s dock. Sinclair Lewis uses the first sentence of his great novel to deliver the blow- “Elmer Gantry was drunk.” Ernest Hemingway declared, “A man does not exist until he is drunk.”

Prohibition collapsed because it was unenforceable. Coca-Cola was one of the beneficiaries of Prohibition with the slogan “The Drink that Cheers But Does Not Inebriate.”

I confess to having two ringtones- one from the movie Rocky, and the other from the sitcom Cheers. Prohibition still exists in the form of emotional black bars in a lot of these areas. Some cheers that don’t inebriate could help.


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