Hanging Out in Rockford: Benefits and politics

Sunday comes, the Sunday of Karen Elyea’s benefit for County Board. Troy roasts chicken and prime top sirloin, barbecues pork chops, makes mashed potatoes with homemade chicken gravy and corn roasted with pesto. He also makes green bean salad with red wine vinaigrette with fresh oregano and Caesar salad. We want it to be a traditional Sunday dinner. It is only $10 at the door.

We have a good turnout. The front part of the restaurant is nearly full. The guest list includes Rockford Mayor Larry Morrissey, Winnebago County Board Chairman Scott Christiansen, and Rockford Ald. Doug Mark (R-3) and his beautiful wife, Sally. Jim Thacker is there, too, as is Jeff Polsean. Jimmy Hughes shows up to give his endorsement. Tuffy Quinonez also offers his support. There are too many other guests to note them all. Karen is visibly touched by the turnout. Everyone agrees she will make one hell of a County Board member. People are generous with their money and gifts. We raise more than $1,000, just in time for yard signs and mailings.

All week I have been good. I am considering giving up alcohol for Lent like Summer and her dad are doing. I go for a few days without drinking, and I go regularly to the Y to use the Nautilus machines, and I feel really good. On Friday, Bernie is supposed to reopen Café Greco. After the Y, I call Summer to see if she wants to go there for lunch. I call Bernie on his cell phone to see if he will be open for lunch, but no such luck. I drive down there anyhow, and sit at the bar while the workmen are still assembling the fire safety system in the new stainless hood. Bernie says he is sure he can be open for the evening business, and he is taking reservations. I tell Bernie I will come down later that evening for a drink.

Then, I meet Summer at Lanxang for spring rolls and Lao iced coffee. I have the duck pho (soup), and Summer has a basil chicken stir-fry. Jimmy Hughes stops by to give me my tickets for the Lincoln dinner at Cliffbreakers. After Summer leaves, Jimmy and I watch on the television that is hanging from the ceiling as my cook, Troy, does a guest cooking spot on channel 13. I think Troy does a really good job in spite of the fact they do not actually let him cook. He was going to make the mussels with the tomato and red wine sauce. The tomatoes, fresh basil and mussels sit untouched in a dish as the news reporter interviews him.

Friday, we have another huge business day. I seat tables as rapidly as I can clear them. Karen is working, and I suggest we go down to Bernie’s afterward for a drink. (I am breaking my abstinence.) We sit at the bar and admire Bernie’s new place. I have several glasses of wine. Bernie buys another round. Then, we go back to the Rose and sit at the bar some more.

Saturday comes, and I am totally hung over. I have to go to the Republican event at Cliffbreakers. I do my work, and then hunker down on the recliner. After some serious napping, I am ready to venture out again. I was supposed to go with Kerry Knodle, but Kerry has forgotten our arrangement and made other plans, plans he cannot break. Bob Soltau is sitting at the bar when Kerry ditches me, and he agrees to go in his stead. Bob shows up at 5:30, and we drive through Loves Park to go to Jimmy Vitale’s banquet facility.

The known Republican world is there, with the exception of Oberweis, who is a no-show. I meet Ron Gidwitz. Jim Thacker had brought him to my restaurant previously, but I wasn’t there, and I missed out. Then, Judy Barnard introduces me to Judy Baar Topinka. I tell the candidate for governor that I want to support her because she is open to gay partnerships, and she is pro choice, liberal on social issues and conservative on monetary ones—perfect. I think we need a new party constructed along those lines. Most of the people I know think so, too. I don’t buy this conservative church crap. I offer to do a fund-raiser for her on a Sunday. I tell her I will supply food for 100 guests or more. We really have to get rid of our Democrat governor, and that is coming from a Democrat; he has destroyed the business climate in Illinois.

Then, we are sitting there enjoying our dinner and listening to the speakers when Jim Vitale shows up. Earlier, I had told Jim it is truly amazing what he has accomplished in Rockford. He puts a bottle of Jordan Cabernet on the table, totally unexpectedly. I walk over to the bar for more glasses, and share it with my dinner companions. It has a delightfully earthy taste. I walk around the table, filling people’s glasses, and make a joke about knowing how to do this. Afterward, Bob and I wander out to the martini bar, and sit for a couple more drinks. Bob says what a good time he has had. Then, we drive back downtown to the Rose. I get one more glass of wine, and I am ready for the sack. I slowly climb the stairs, my 60-year-old body worn out by the evening’s celebrations. I am definitely ready for bed.

When I awake the following morning, my glass of wine sits there untouched. I walk into the kitchen, and slowly pour it into the sink. I turn on the water, and rinse the purple color down the drain.

Mike Leifheit’s “Hanging Out In Rockford” reviews locally-owned restaurants, businesses and Rockford life. These columns are available on his Web site, IrishRoseRockford.com. Leifheit is owner of the Irish Rose restaurant in the downtown River District.

From the March 8-14, 2006, issue

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