Monday, September 27, 2010

The Penguin, version 1.0

Our friend Diane Suchetka was in town over the weekend, and we had to spend some time at the beginning catching her up on the drama over the Penguin. (The great Helen Schwab has Chapter 37 here.)

Most people in Charlotte, if they know the Penguin, know it as the hip burger joint in Plaza-Midwood, the place with fried pickles and long waits at lunch. But the Penguin had a life long before that as a neighborhood bar -- a true dive, but a place where everybody really did know your name.

Diane is now a prize-winning reporter at the Cleveland Plain Dealer, but she wrote for the Observer for 19 years and I think she's the best who ever worked here. Back in 1995, she wrote about the Penguin. Here's her story about what it used to be.

Camaraderie's on tap at Penguin

By Diane Suchetka
Dec. 23, 1995

Her name was Margaret and every Saturday night she'd wiggle into one of her long evening gowns, clip huge rhinestones to her ears, fix her rouge and lipstick to hide the years and tuck her bleached blond hair up under one of her fancy hats. Then she'd grab the camellias or gardenias she'd picked from her yard and walk to the bar at the end of her street.

Like most of the regulars at The Penguin, she didn't mind that the words had nearly worn off the rusty sign on the roof, that at least one window always seemed to be broken, that the message on the front door was losing its meaning.

"Welcom to The Peng i "

"Good ood"

"Cold Drinks"

"Boiled Peanuts"

She would arrange her flowers in vases on the tables or hand them out to whoever was around the smoky pine-paneled bar.

She did not come so much to be seen as she did to see. She'd find a seat, order a beer from Jim, listen to the jukebox - it worked back then - and watch.

The place'd be packed with locals, guys from the boarding houses across the street, a painter or two who would come after work and stay into the night. Of course, there'd always be some guy in khakis, maybe a tie, and a few women - but none like her.

Then one Saturday - just after Thanksgiving - she didn't show up. It wasn't long before everybody heard what happened, that she just died one day.

Jim passed the hat just like he always did. He sent flowers to the funeral home, with a note, "From Your Friends at The Penguin."

There are people who think the old flat-topped building at Thomas and Commonwealth - with its Dumpster out front and burned-out neon signs - is just another dive.

But they haven't been coming since Jim bought the place back in 1954, they haven't stopped in on an afternoon and met Harry and Pat and Gene and the rest of the gang, they never talked to Margaret and they certainly never happened by on Christmas Day, when Jim gives Charlotte a gift just by opening up.

You could smell burgers and fries, hear "Earth Angel" or "Hound Dog" blasting out of convertibles and pickup trucks, see the teen-agers hanging out before you ever pulled into the parking lot of The Penguin.

That's how it was in the years after the soft-spoken Jim Ballentine bought the old ice cream shop, when kids respected a guy who was 28, who had fought in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge with the 101st Airborne when he was only 18, who had earned a Purple Heart and Soldier's Medal and who spent all day, seven days a week, cooking for them.

"It was just like Happy Days,' " says Betty "Ziggy" Ziegler, who grew up right down the street on Commonwealth Avenue, and graduated from Central High in 1952. She hung out there in the '50s. Now she owns Bride's House of Originals across the street from The Penguin.

Back then, Otto and Wiley curb-hopped - running orders out to cars while the neighborhood gang hung out and cruised around Charlotte, stopped back to hang out again and then cruised some more.

"If you were all dressed up," Ziggy says, "you'd have to stop by and let everybody see you.

"And it was always the last place you stopped on your way to the beach - tell everybody you were going."

It was Ziggy's mom who nicknamed the place - she always mixed up names and was always trying to get Ziggy to come home from that dang Bird. Then Ziggy and her friends started calling it The Bird and pretty soon everybody was.

Everybody started coming by for beer too, back then. Jim started selling it not long after he bought the place and by 1956 or '57 he was selling so much Schlitz - 10,000 cases a year - the company sent some guys over from the head office to figure out how he was doing it.

But he never allowed trouble.

"If y'all are going to fight, you've got to go over in the field - get off my lot," he'd yell to guys who'd start roughhousing.

It was like your dad was yelling at you, says Pat Mulligan.

"He was the boss. Everybody knew that. If you did wrong, you weren't coming back. You were banned. That's why he's lasted 41 years."

Jim's wife, Jean, will tell you that Pat's come to The Penguin every day of every one of those years. Pat shakes his head no.

"There were those four years I was in the service," he says, " '56 to '60. But even when I was on leave, I'd come back here. And I came right back here in the '60s. The Penguin was still the same."


Trouble in the night

But over the years the neighborhood changed.

Sure, the old gang still came around, but mixed in with it was trouble, some nights.
There were so many break-ins in the late '80s that Jim started calling home before he left. Jean would answer and they'd both set down their receivers so they could listen for strange noises at The Penguin on their phone at home. It was a baby monitor for a bar.

Then one night in 1990, just a week before Christmas, Jim locked up. It was 1:30 in the morning. He was about to drive away when he remembered he'd left the heat on. He went back. He opened the door and a guy came at him. Jim fired the pistol he keeps to protect himself - hit the guy in the shoulder. He still got away.

When the police picked him up later, they charged him with breaking and entering and larceny and told Jim he was the man who'd broken into The Penguin 15 times in 15 weeks. They never charged Jim.

A regular was found dead behind the building, hypodermic needles around him, and some kids stole Jean's purse this May, as she left the grocery store two blocks away.

One of them slammed her into the pavement and broke her hip. Jean still needs a cane to get around. So Jeannie, their oldest daughter, works in her place.

And just a few weeks ago one of the guys from the boarding house got mad, came over and busted out nearly every one of Jim's windows.

But Jim keeps opening, seven days a week, doesn't matter that he's 69 now.

"I ain't got nothing else to do - nowhere else to go," Jim tells you, shrugging and rubbing his hand over his short white hair.

But if you stop in The Penguin, you'll see for yourself what really keeps him coming back.


Characters at the bar

It's Friday night at 7. The gang at the end of the bar is flipping quarters to see who'll win the privilege - as they put it - of buying the rest a beer.

There's Lucky Larry - he never wins - and The Buddhas of the Bar - Eric and Mark - who show off their matching bellies in one synchronized move.

Actually, there are four Marks, they tell you. "Just call us a dog with a harelip," one of them yells. "Mark, Mark, Mark, Mark" and the whole gang laughs even though they've all heard it 100 times.

All night long, they're telling stories and buying beers - even for people they've never seen before. Jeannie's handing out cans and bottles as fast as she can. And Jim's in the back, cooking, never saying a word.

Even when he comes up front to take an order, he just points at a customer, nods, peers over his reading glasses and waits for them to ask for a Bud or a draft or a Miller Lite.

Ask him a question and he smiles and waits and rubs his hand over his head and then answers in a voice so quiet, you can barely hear him over the crowd.

So you've got to count on the regulars - the stockholders, they call themselves - to tell you about Jim.

"He don't put up with no trash," says Gene, who's 91-1/2. "He knows where the door is."

"He runs the place with an iron fist," says Ray. "He always has."

"I just feel safe coming in here," says Larry.

"Everybody's the same here, I don't care who you are," says Harry. He's 79, comes every day between 2:20 and 2:45, has a stool reserved for him at the end of the bar.

They're all afternoon regulars, in flannel or blue work shirts, who'll tell you it's a family place and point to the "No Profanity Please" sign or tell you it's got a heart and show you the collection box packed full of Christmas toys for needy kids.

The stockholders know who comes to The Penguin. They spend their afternoons with all of Jim's customers - painters whose faces are splattered, businessmen in suits, south Charlotte women who've read that Jim makes the best hot dog in town, drug addicts, the homeless, men dressed as women, poor people who buy a pack of cigarettes so Jim will cash their $20 checks from the Plasma Alliance around the corner.

And they all know the joke - the first place guys come when they get out of jail is The Bird.

They also know what happens at The Penguin when the holidays hit.

Pat Mulligan will finish dinner at his mom's, then drive down to see if Denny McKinnon or L.D. Weeks or Jerry Gerard or any of the rest of the old gang is home for the holidays. If they are, they'll stop by The Bird. Everybody does at Christmas.

Ziggy'll be there. She comes almost every year.

There'll be the guys who don't have family or a place to live, who know there isn't much open on Christmas and certainly no place where you can get a burger for 85 cents, a draft for 90 cents, a spaghetti dinner for $3 - including tax.

They're the reasons Jim gets up every Christmas after breakfast and says "I've got to go."

"There are people depending on me to be there," he tells Jean and their five daughters and five grandchildren.

Sometimes they're depending even more than Jim realizes, like the guy who came in a couple of years ago from out West.


Honoring a family member

Jean was working up front then. It was a Saturday night. The booths were full.

She had never seen the guy who took Harry's stool on the end and ordered a beer.

He was quiet, didn't talk to anyone but her.

"Seems like everyone here knows everybody else - like a bunch of friends getting together," he said.

"That's about what it is."

"Well, give everyone what they're drinking. Set the house up."

Jean thought it was weird, a stranger buying a round especially when so many people were there, but she handed out cans and bottles and drew drafts and didn't think anything more of it - until he did it again.

After Jean made sure everybody had the second free drink, she went back to talk to the stranger.

"Do you know anybody here?"

He shook his head no. "I just wanted to do this for my mom. She used to come here. She loved this place.

"Maybe you remember her," he said. "Her name was Margaret."


Anonymous said...

I moved here in 2001 and found the Penguin shortly thereafter. I had heard about the type of place the Penguin used to be, as well as the neoghborhood, but I could never really picture it. Now, I can. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," (1905)
Everything happens for a reason...keep watching... the truth will come out....

Anonymous said...

Tommy, wow. What a great story to dig up, gives such a clear visual. Everyone knows there are three sides to a story. X vs. Y and then there is the truth.

Diane, I felt like I was there back in 1995 thanks to your well written story. Way to make things a bit clearer for those of us who were not present or had never even heard of the Penguin till just recently.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing Tommy!! Go Penguin!!!

Anonymous said...

That's the Penguin that I knew. I lived on Thomas Ave. for about 10 years during the time this story was written. The Man's bathroom had a big round hole in the roof where the fan used to be. When it rained, it rained in the bathroom. The place had the absolute lowest health food rating of any place that I had ever eaten food out of. It was about as low as it could be without being shut down. Coldest beer in town and the cheapest burger.

Anonymous said...

Yea so what the hell ever happened to the highly popular hotspot The Purple Pengiun niteclub next door in the shopping center parking lot?
Oh yea it burned down in 1970. James Brown was supposed to play that nite but the Flames got there first.
Every club ever owned by Plumedies burned down but nobody ever suspected arson.

Anonymous said...

Before white flight Charlotte was a great place to live and work. Midwood, Elizabeth, Eastland, Central Ave, Sharon Amity, The Plaza, old Independence Blvd, Eastway Dr Monroe Road, Tryon St, South Blvd, downtown, were all 100% SAFE CLEAN LIVABLE !!!

This whole joint is totally shot to hell in a handbasket now. Its hilarious to hear others want to save a few small hole in the wall eateries as history when in all reality 40-50 yrs ago they were considered ratholes back then too.

You just have to know your way around now and tiptoe thru the bad areas to avoid getting murdered or robbed to get to the half decent areas. What a joke.

Everything went to hell when the great Fred Kirby moved from Park Rd to Indian Trail way back and the Crackerjacks busted up...