Michael James : Bill at Chester’s Hamburger King

Bill at Chester’s Hamburger King, Chicago, Fall 1977. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
Bill at Chester’s Hamburger King

A classic Chicago cross-over place, you would find cops, workers, healers and dealers, martial artists, radicals, hot rod mechanics, Cubs coaches and Cub fans, gangbangers and community organizers.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | May 22, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

CHICAGO — When I tell people about my second favorite restaurant, Hamburger King or Chester’s Hamburger King, I affectionately refer to it as a “Japanese greasy spoon.” It should be a Chicago landmark.

I started going there in the early 70’s, figuring my next moves after Rising Up Angry, the radical organization and newspaper I helped found, came to a close in 1975. The Hamburger King was a major inspiration for me in deciding to open my favorite restaurant, the Heartland Cafe.

Everyone was welcome at Chester’s and made to feel good. It was a place to drink coffee, read the paper, eat inexpensive and tasty grub, and run into people. A classic Chicago cross-over place, you would find cops, workers, healers and dealers, martial artists, radicals, hot rod mechanics, Cubs coaches and Cub fans, gangbangers and community organizers — white people, Latinos, Blacks, Japanese, and Native Americans.

There was Betty the server who always smiled and seemed on top of the needs of a lot of folks at the very same time. And there were Chester, Roland, and Bill, all Japanese guys who had been in the internment camps in California.

Bill was one of the first people I remember telling me about the camps that put another scar on America’s face during World War II. He would set me up at a back table where I would eat, read the Chicago papers, write notes, drink coffee, think, and hold court. Bill ‘s daughter was out west working on PhD’s. In November of 1977 he joined the crew for Thanksgiving dinner at the Heartland Cafe.

Hamburger King is located on Sheffield at Clark and Newport, next door to the Nisei Tap. Plates of food —  egg foo yung, yat ka mein, chili mac, and burgers — would find their way through a back door by the kitchen into the Tap for the drinkers and pool shooters. You had to go through the small kitchen to get to the bathroom. Going back there gave me a good look at the workings of a restaurant kitchen.

The same building also housed the Chicago Women’s Health Center and was home to all kinds of body workers — naprapaths, chiropractors, and massage therapists. There was another bar downstairs, a drugstore, and a resale shop on Newport where a woman sold me four folding chairs from the bleachers at Wrigley Field.

I met many people at Chester’s, including the Moors family. One of the brothers had a band that played at the Rising Up Angry “Peoples’ Dances.” His brother Trooper, now passed, got sent to Sandstone Federal Prison in Minnesota on a drug beef. I took a trip to the North Country through snow and pine trees to visit him.

The big thing for me coming out of Hamburger King was when I told Jack Bornoff that I wanted to open a restaurant, a hangout and community center kind of place. A building we had looked at on Belmont was too expensive. Jack said: “I know a place: Lackey’s Steak House in Rogers Park.”

Gene Lackey bought steaks and lobster at the old Jewell on Morse Avenue and sold them out of a little kitchen while bluegrass emanated from a small stage in what is now the Heartland’s west dining room. Katy Hogan, Stormy Brown, and I went to check it out. Katy — being a Mundel-­bundle as the girls of Mundelein College were called, knew Lackey’s.

The sun came out. A rainbow appeared, as if a message from the Gods. And we were standing on a big cement slab, perfect for an outdoor café, of which there were virtually none in Chicago at the time.

And the Red Line trains — both A and B — all stopped at the Morse-­Lunt El stop. The three of us agreed to do it! Lackeys became the home of the Heartland Café. On May 1, 1976, we skipped attending any May Day events, opting instead to work on our new joint.

And wouldn’t you know it. Our new neighbor next door in what is now the Heartland Building was Roy Kawaguchi who owned and ran Roy’s Bar. Roy had also been in the internment camps, as had his brother who owned Gabby’s, a bar two blocks south on Glenwood next to the old electrical station that is now Life Line Theater.

I’ve tracked Roy’s bar back to the 1930’s when it was the Rogers Park Yacht Club, then the 7006 Club, Hamm’s Tap, Roy’s, and now the Heartland’s Red Line Tap. The music booker for the RLT is Brettly Kawaguchi, son of Roy, just a little squirt when we showed up.

Over the past 36 years I’ve returned to Hamburger King a few times a year. Last fall I took a Russian journalist, who did a Chicago travel piece for MIR Magazine on “my Chicago.” While driving around and telling stories I took her and the photographer to places I go — in Rogers Park, the Paradise bathhouse, and shooting locations of movies I’ve been in (e.g. Stony Island, Code of Silence, The Package, The Fugitive, etc). And we went to Chester’s, run for years now by a Korean woman named Sue.

More recently, when on a dropping-off-a-guitar-for-repair errand with my son Cadien, we headed over to Sheffield, Newport and Clark. I about had a heart attack. The place was closed, the windows covered. I acted out: “No, no, oh no.” But on closer inspection I was revived, finding a sign that said: “Closed for Remodeling.”

A couple of weeks later we went to pick up the guitar and swung by again. This time Hamburger King was open. But it was different: crisper with fresh paint and other “improvements”. There was a Mexican grill man I recognized, but no Sue and the waitress was new. In mid-­afternoon the place was pretty empty. The waitress introduced me to the new owner, a Korean fellow.

The egg foo young with rice and gravy was still cheap, humongous, and very good. I talked with the new owner and told him of the inspirational role the place played for me in starting the Heartland.

I asked him where he lived. He said “Northbrook.” I said “Northbrook?” and suggested he move to the neighborhood, be close to his place, feel the beat of the city 24-7. I don’t think he got that. But I wished him well and thanked him for being open.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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