Louisville Magazine

AUG 2018

Louisville Magazine is Louisville's city magazine, covering Louisville people, lifestyles, politics, sports, restaurants, entertainment and homes. Includes a monthly calendar of events.

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68 LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 8.18 place even drew visitors such as former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry and the comedian Sinbad. e couple thrived on late nights, pouring cognacs and uncapping cold bottles of beer for new friends gathering to unwind from work, network or make romantic connections. Were there wild times? "Oh, my goodness, yes, yes, yes. But like they say: What goes on in Syl's, stays in Syl's. We don't talk about it," Syl says, smiling. "is used to be a secret meeting place because it is so dark, the low lighting. People that were probably married but meeting with other people. It was a rendezvous" — which a few times led to awkward confrontations between, Syl says, "girlfriend, boyfriend and other girlfriend." Johnny kept any barroom trouble at bay — the love triangles, unruly jazz musicians, drunks, the growing number of homeless people in the area who would make off with the free sandwiches the bar once set out for patrons. "He would sit up front and watch everybody come in. And if they weren't suitable, he'd tell them they had to go," Syl says. "His friends would sit at the bar and make bets on how many people Johnny was going to put out of here." Syl's no-nonsense demeanor, burnished through decades of being a Marine wife, combined with her easy ear and infectious laugh. Johnny taught his youngest son, Anthony — who had bounced around from college, automotive school and jobs at places like White Castle — how to tend bar, order supplies and keep the books. But five years into the venture, the couple's new chapter slammed shut. On a cold night in January 1995, Syl was in the kitchen of their home near Shawnee Park when she heard a strange noise coming from the bedroom. Johnny hadn't been feeling well. She knew he had a heart problem, but he'd kept its seriousness from her. "You OK?" she asked. No response. "He was laying there with a glazed look," she says. After a long ambulance ride, the doctors delivered the news: Johnny was dead from heart failure. Gone was Syl's partner of 42 years. "at was a blow," she says. "Daddy passed away," Anthony says, his eyes filling with tears as he repeats the line his brother said to him over the phone more than two decades ago. After the funeral at St. Stephen Church, attended by hundreds of mourners and marked by a 21-gun salute, people began to wonder about the fate of the bar. Syl had depended on Johnny to run it. Demetria "Mackie" Wakefield, Syl's niece who lived with the Arnetts as a teen, says some believed Syl wouldn't want to keep the bar without him. "A lot people told her she wouldn't make it in the business because she's a woman," Wakefield says. "(Johnny) said, 'Sell it if anything happens to me,'" Syl says. "But I was in love with it." Syl lives alone in the same Loretto Avenue house near Shawnee Park, where she spends most days with her pit bull, Sasha, who recently came home shot in the foot. (e neighborhood can turn rough at night, she says.) When she does venture out (to Bingo City with her niece, for example), folks often recognize her. e vanity plates on her black Infinity read "MS SYL." "I had a headlight out and I was stopped" by a police officer, she says, laughing. "And the guy was giving me a bunch of crap about it. And then he walked around to look at the license plate and said, 'Aw, Miss Syl. Well, go on. But get that light fixed.'" On a recent night, Syl parks on 24th Street, cars zipping past on Broadway and pumping hip-hop music. She strolls under the red awning tucked between the defunct Hameem's Q.G. Fashions and a long-abandoned appliance store. A lighted sign features a scripted "Syl's" and a martini glass that wouldn't be out of place in a 1950s Rat Pack movie. Syl pushes through the door, the one with the piece of paper declaring "Syl's House Rules": no short-shorts, no tank tops, no hoodies, "Age 35 & up only." Once you reach 35, she says, you usually know how to act. It also keeps out the hotheads with guns. Nobody checks IDs, but Syl isn't shy about approaching groups of young people that occasionally come in. "You probably didn't see the sign on the door," she'll tell them. No, ma'am, we didn't see it. "Well, you're in here now, but it's over 35." She'll let them stay but few come back. She also doesn't put up with nonsense from older folks, including two middle-aged women arguing almost to the point of blows: "You gotta knock off all this noise, cussing, calling each other names. I don't care who said what. You either got to stop and sit down or get out." Syl's voice often undulates with a soothing charm, easy laughter flecking her speech, but her words become low staccato bursts when she gets tough with customers. On this night, the first to greet Syl is JoAnn Williams, a 70-year-old retired GE worker whose spot is at the table next to the front door. Vivacious, outgoing, fast- talking and full of superlatives, she is an unwavering promoter of all things Syl, including the bar ("I don't go nowhere since I came here. is is it, baby! e hottest club in town!"), Syl herself ("She's the queen, baby!") and the benefits of aging amid a four-day-a-week dose of friendship and music on the nights Syl's is open ("Look at me! Seventy years old! And still kicking it, baby!"). Some years back, in another neighborhood, Williams' daughter was shot and wounded as a bystander. "Everyone knows: If you have a problem, talk to Syl," Williams says. "She gave me a hug, talked to me, went at the hospital, came to rehab." Syl serves many roles: friend, mother, hearer of confessions, grief chaplain. She says that recently, when a bar regular's brother died — a Vietnam veteran who had suffered from exposure to Agent Orange — her home phone rang early in the morning. "I'll be right over," she said, bringing doughnuts to the house and offering a shoulder to cry on. Along the bar, two older men turn on their stools and reach out for hugs. Syl obliges. Mid-hug, one of the men says to his friend, "Smitty, eat your heart out." Syl walks behind the bar, pours a Bacardi and "Johnny would sit up front and watch everybody come in. And if they weren't suitable, he'd tell them they had to go," Syl says. "His friends would sit at the bar and make bets on how many people Johnny was going to put out of here."

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