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.

Issue link: https://loumag.epubxp.com/i/1007711

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Page 71 of 144

LOUISVILLE MAGAZINE 8.18 69 Pepsi for herself in a white plastic cup and surveys the cramped bar as if it were an estate, her eyes darting around to see who's here. "Hey, Joe, you OK, sweetheart? You need anything?" she says, leaning on the bar toward a patron. Syl's son Anthony helps run the bar in addition to juggling two young children and a day job at UPS. A handful of mostly family staff includes Syl's niece Mackie, who listens quietly to patrons as she polishes glasses and pours drinks. Two larger regulars volunteer as bouncers if needed. "At 82, she's up there every night, welcoming guests, watching the club, making sure the bills are paid, the liquor is ordered and stocked. at club is her life," Johnny Jr. says, marveling at his mother's stamina. Each Sunday after church, Syl makes Anthony bring the books to her home, and they go over the numbers at the dining table. Syl worked much longer hours in the aftermath of Johnny's death, with family pitching in and often staying from 2 p.m. until 2 a.m. to keep the bar afloat and prove the doubters wrong. Meanwhile, just outside her door, the neighborhood continued to change. e Philip Morris cigarette factory closed in 2000 after nearly 50 years at 18th and Broadway, leaving a big economic hole in the neighborhood. Over the years, Syl says more and more homes around the bar seem to be left abandoned, and that drug use and crime have intensified. Other classic West End clubs like Joe's Palm Room closed. To some patrons, Syl's feels like a bulwark against the changes. But in the time that Syl has gone from sobbing over the first black president ("We cried. We just cried our eyes out. We couldn't believe what we were seeing. It was something you hoped for but you never thought you'd see in your life") to shaking her head over Donald Trump ("Between Trump and Bevin? Whoa"), she has nevertheless seen new signs of hope — with a big dose of skepticism — about the future of the Russell neighborhood. at's partly because of new revitalization initiatives such as the redevelopment of the Beecher Terrace public housing, a new nearby YMCA and efforts to help people build businesses and buy homes. She isn't sure if the changes will pull the area out of its economic or racial isolation, or if the Russell neighborhood will ever return to the kind of place it was when she was a teenager. "e stuff they're doing in the West End is all good, but they're still not bringing what the kids need down here," Syl says. "We need manufacturing, an assembly plant, somewhere people without cars can get jobs." One night, Syl comes into the bar wearing a sad and weary look. She pours a rum and Pepsi. She spent the day planning the funeral of her 90-year-old sister, who had been the last of her living siblings, a French teacher and the only sibling to attend college. Now they were all gone. Inside the bar, Syl accepts condolences like a battle-weary soldier. "I'm so sorry, Miss Syl," says one longtime friend, offering her a hug and a knowing look. "I know, thank you," she replies. She shakes her head and remains ever stoic, not the type to make an emotional scene. But sitting down at a table, tears well briefly in her eyes. Bittersweet '60s soul music plays in the background. "Too many funerals," Syl says, noting the deaths of both men she spent time with after Johnny died — a man she'd gone with to high school prom, who died in 2005, and another who died in 2014 after she moved to Florida to be with him while Anthony ran the bar. "at's when I said, 'No more,'" says Syl, who has been single since. "I done put three of them under." Her sister's death seems to hit her hard, stirring ruminations about the uncertainties of this late chapter of life. At 82, Syl is roughly the same age as Juanita Mills, the woman from whom she and Johnny bought the bar. Juanita worked briefly for Syl and Johnny, but patrons wanted her out because of her age, Syl says. She recalls that Juanita didn't live long after she stopped working. Perhaps the bar kept her going, kept her connected to life, music, laughter. "She really declined fast. at was all she had," Syl says. "She loved it the same way I do. ey would have carried her out of here if that had been possible." Syl says she knows she doesn't have unlimited time anymore, though it doesn't seem to scare her. She's not sure how long she'll continue to operate Syl's. While she looks at least 10 years younger than her age, she gets tired. "I'm really beginning to slow down. It's scary," she says, although she's mostly healthy after a hip replacement years ago. She has thought about giving up the bar, but everybody begs her not to. e stakes feel high, for them and for her. "I don't have anything going during the day. I get up, watch the soap operas," she says. "I look forward to coming up here in the evenings, seeing what happens: who's talking about who, who has died, who is getting married, who is sick?" She says she isn't convinced her sons will keep running it ("ey might sell it if I croak," she says), though Anthony says he wants to keep it going. Johnny Jr., busy with his own job at a local hotel, says he's not ready to ask her to step down, and doubts she will anytime soon. "I have to let her make that decision when it's her time. What would she do if she didn't have that club? I think she'll stay until she can't go no more," he says. e patrons are aging, too. Some of the old-timers like Mr. John have slowed down, leaving earlier and drinking less. ere's no more live jazz — most of the musicians died off or got too expensive. e bar doesn't lose money, Syl says, but it doesn't make much, either. Last year, Syl's received a small loan from the city to buy new black barstools, patterned red-and-gold carpet and a new red awning, but she's never considered any kind of modern makeover. Like her mother always said: Tried and true. While crowds tend to be thinner during the week, weekends can still find the small bar packed, lively and loud with loyal customers. What happens when the center no longer holds is anyone's guess. "She is Syl's at this point," Sen. Neal says. But on this night, Syl doesn't have much time to ponder. "Miss Syl!" a woman calls out from the entrance. She strides toward Syl along the length of the bar, dying to share news about her family. Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" plays from the jukebox. Syl smiles at the woman, leans in to listen.

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