Steve Badauskas is an artist, musician, and the owner of Bernice’s Tavern in Bridgeport. He’s perhaps best-known for the lively games of Stingo (Steve’s Bingo) he hosts every Wednesday. A lifelong Bridgeport resident, he inherited the bar from his parents, John and Bernice, reimagining it for a changing neighborhood.
This used to be a funeral home prior to 1910. [Then it was another bar] called Adam’s Place. His picture’s on the wall. That was our landlord. And then when he passed on my dad was able to buy it. Been here for a long time, there’s a lot of history.
[When I was growing up, Bridgeport] was way different than it is now. Halsted Street was all lights, restaurants, shoe stores, clothes stores, candy stores, everything. 43rd and Halsted used to be the International Amphitheater. I watched wrestling, roller derby, concerts. I saw Alice Cooper there. I saw Tom Waits there. Evel Knievel jumped cars. I watched shows at the Ramova Theater. I think they closed in ’85. Like it is now, everybody knew everybody.
There was a Neisner’s and a Woolworth’s. Everything was popping. You didn’t really have to leave the neighborhood to buy anything. Now it’s a ghost town, and they’re trying to do what it was.
This area was so strongly Lithuanian. There was a Lithuanian bakery across the street, a Lithuanian sausage-maker on Morgan, Lithuanian barbers on Morgan. My mom and dad’s clientele was predominately Lithuanian. There were a lot of Lithuanian restaurants. There was one called Healthy Food next door. Now it’s empty.
When I was young, a long time ago, kids used to be able to go to the bar. They wouldn’t sit at the bar, they’d sit along the wall. I know prior to me, there were dance halls, like where the big empty parking lot across from the police station is. And I do remember when I was young, doing the polka.
I pretty much grew up here, but I had other jobs. Next door there was a TV repair shop. I worked there when I was nine years [old]. It started off like any job does: “Hey, you want to help me sweep?” And then before you knew it, help do something with the TV. The name of the place was Frank’s Television, but the owner’s name was Joe, this older Lithuanian guy. I asked him, “This is your business, right, Joe?” “Yes.” I said, “Who’s Frank?” “The name came with the building.”
I remember a guy coming in carrying a TV. There’s a cart that’s almost as high as I am, and I’m like “Put it right here.” He did not want me to touch his TV. He was like, “What are you doing?” “I’m taking off the back of your TV. You want it fixed, right?”
He goes, “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Where’s your dad?” I go, “My dad’s next door. He’s at the bar.” And he goes, “Go get your dad.” I’m like, “Why am I going to get my dad? My dad doesn’t know anything about TVs.”
The guy goes, “Go get Frank.” And I go, “There is no Frank. It came with the building.” And he goes, “Well, who’s your boss?” I go, “Joe.” “Go get Joe.” “Joe doesn’t want to be bothered. He said for me to take care of this.” He said, “Get Joe.”
I go in the back and I’m like, “This guy out here wants to see you.” “Why, what’s the problem?” And I say, “I don’t know, his TV doesn’t work.” “Did you help him?” “He doesn’t want me to help.” “Why not?” “I don’t know. He wants you. Actually, he wanted my dad first.”
“Why would he want your dad? Your dad doesn’t know anything about TVs.” “I know!”
“And then he wanted Frank.” “There’s no Frank.” “I know!”
“Do I know this guy?” “I don’t think so.”
He didn’t even come out, he just stuck his head out. “What do you want?” He had a strong, deep Lithuanian accent. “I need my TV fixed.” “Stevie no help you?” “Yeah, he was taking off the back of it.” “He has to get inside, to fix.” And then he goes, “I wanted you to look at it.” “I’m busy.”
There was also the printing company that was just sold recently. I worked there when I was fifteen. And I worked at Bernice’s since I was like, seven. Cutting up boxes. You didn’t used to have the Dumpsters. You used to have steel garbage cans. They were heavy empty. We used to take the bottles and crush them. We would stand on a piece of cardboard. It was a long, bony knife to cut up the boxes, and then set that on top, and climb on top and jump up and down and smash it down as much as you could. I remember having bloody fingers from it. I remember the hammer glistened from so much broken glass over the years. Child labor laws were being broken. Did it build character? I don’t know.
It was an experience. I wasn’t going trick-or-treating, I was sitting over there, handing out candy by the door. That’s why I make the joke at Stingo: if you ever want to call Stingo, the first thing you gotta do is give up your childhood.
Other kids—I was working—were playing baseball and football. It was always a tight community that way. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody knew each other’s kids. It’s similar to that now. I can walk down the street and I will recognize you. I walk down the street and I notice, I haven’t seen that person before and now I’ve seen them three times this week. But in the last year, there’s been solidly, easily, more than a hundred new faces. Not regulars, but new faces who said they just moved into this neighborhood. All young people, all cool people. That’s good. That’s really good. It’s good to see that new life being generated.
My dad died twenty years ago. He outlived most of his clientele. Twenty years ago, it was like ground zero for customers. Nobody. Just nobody. And I took it over like an idiot. For about two years, it was me and a couple of guys. And I’d quit the best-paying job I’d ever had. I was the manager of a factory and I also had my own machine shop. It was a lot of money but tons of hours. To this, which was, at the time, tons of hours but no money.
I started open mic in here, that was about, the turn of the century, 2000. One of my good friends is a musician, and we got the mic started. That was a slow process, we had to build up. And then Stingo. I had a guy from the Pabst Brewing Company in here, and he was like, “What can we do in here? Horseshoes?” I’m like, no. “Mud wrestling?” No. “Ping pong?” I was like, who are you? What are you doing in my building? And he had this folder and in the corner was a Bingo card. I go, “How about Bingo?” He’d never tried Bingo. I go, let’s try it here.
A lot of businesses, if the mom or dad were done or they passed away, the kids didn’t take over the business. It was like hardware stores, shoe stores, things like this. And I took this over. We’ve been here. Why wouldn’t we? My dad worked real hard to do this. It seemed that if you were in Bridgeport, your goal was to get out of Bridgeport and move to the suburbs, and a great deal of people did. And now they want to come back, because it’s happening and more expensive and stuff. And I didn’t care too much for that. This has been my home base, because I’ve always worked part-time here at least.
A common flaw with people when they have a business is they think they’re going to get rich really quick, and then instead, there’s the old adage, “Give it two years.” Then you might start making money in two years. If you think you’re going to get rich quick you’re out of your mind. You’ve got tons of hours. You’ve got to make yourself known.
Here, people know Stingo. One couple got engaged at Stingo. You’ve got eleven Stingo tattoos now. Either Stingo or Bernice’s Tavern. Two more people just got some. Two young ladies just came in separately—they don’t know each other—and they’re going to get the same tattoo. It was really weird. It’s what’s on my coaster. It’s a drawing of mine. That’s kind of cool, because the cult following feeling is fun. I want this to be a place of fun. I’m definitely not in it for the money, because I’m kind of an idiot businessman. I want people to have fun, bring their fun friends. Have a bad time? I want to know why. I don’t make much money. I’m often doing this for nothing. And then the people who work here, they make money, they make tips and stuff.
Now, there’s a lot more liberal-minded people here, open-minded people. That’s what I really encourage. I don’t want close-minded people, I don’t want bigots. I’m not doing a sweeping generalization on the neighborhood, but in the old days, people were more like that, more cliquey. If you’re from out of the neighborhood, they’re all looking at you weird. Some places around here are still like that. I don’t like that. This is my house. I’m greedy. I want good people, I want only good people. As one of my friends who comes in here puts it, “This place is a house of friendship.”
It’s a surreal job. It’s not the real world here. Hours are different. And the people. A lot of people here who shouldn’t be drinking at all, sometimes drinking massive quantities. People dealing with strangers, some of whom don’t know how to deal with strangers. You got younger people who have no idea how to act in a bar. Then you got old-old guys, every now and again, and people think, “Oh, nice old man.” It’s like, no, he was a creep when he was younger and he’s a creepy old guy now. You never know what to expect. Not much surprises me. Many years ago, there was a shooting in this room. Nobody’s died in this room, not in my time anyway.
I make art, so that’s my relief [from] this place. I have stuff hanging on the walls. I’ve had four art shows in the past two years. I want to do a puppet show. I’ve written some lyrics, I’ve written some poems. I want to do one of everything while I’m still alive. I had collected these marionettes one by one over the years at secondhand stores and such. For no reason. I like collecting things in quantities. I was thinking, there’s an art project in there somewhere.
[The puppets] have nothing to do with the drawing. The drawing, it’s something that gives me peace of mind when I do that, and I just escape from everything. Someone said, “How do you stop on a drawing, and how do you keep going on a drawing, like with the more abstract stuff?” I said, “Well, I don’t know where you start.” They said, “Well, what are you thinking when you’re doing it?” And I said, “Well, if it goes the way it should go, I’m not thinking anything. Sound asleep. I was literally in a trance, unaware of what I’m doing.”
Usually I’m sitting at the bar, four in the morning, five in the morning, six in the morning, seven in the morning, and I’m drawing in the darkness of this room, with everything off except this one gooseneck light. Right now this is my art studio. I’m not a trained artist, so what I draw is just kind of channelled through me. I don’t know what I’m going to draw until I draw it. It just draws itself, sort of.
In sixteen years, I’ve called about 9,800 games of Stingo. It’s been a few times where I’m in the back and I’m like, I’m not doing this. I’m lucky to have Anna that works here now, prior to her, Diane. Wonderful people, wonderful employees. So if I were like, I’m not doing this, they’d come in the back and be like, “You know the room is full. Tables are all set up.” It turns into, you have no choice. One day, there were these two brothers who came in, and they were like, “You doing Stingo tonight? What’s going on?” The tables were partially set up. I go, “Eh, I don’t know, I’m just not feeling it.” They’re like, “We’ll set it up for you.”
I need the crowd to feed it some too. Sometimes I look around and everyone’s expressionless. “Oh man, this is just not going over good.” And then later on, Anna’ll be like, “Everybody’s having a good time!” And I say, “You really can’t tell by the faces. They’re laughing inside or some shit. ‘Cause I’m looking around the room and it’s like deers in the headlights. I’m like, what’s going on, why aren’t you people happy? You’re drinking, I’m funny.”
I ran out of jokes about six years ago. I tell new people, “If you’re new here, thanks for coming, these are all new jokes. If you’ve been here before, sorry about the old jokes.”
Stingo is every Wednesday night at Bernice’s Tavern, 3238 S. Halsted St., from around 9:30pm to around midnight. (312) 961-5516
Rebecca Stoner is a contributor to the Weekly. A two-time Stingo winner, she lives in Bridgeport. This is her first article for the Weekly.