PULLMAN — One man’s junk was Earl Pionke’s treasure.
And the Earl of Old Town, as the late Mr. Pionke was known, piled the junk of a hundred men, maybe more, in the long-closed Landmark Inn.
A few years back, Ol’ Earl gave me a tour of the barroom and parlor, which was packed with piles upon piles of other people’s dusty junk and some of his own.
“Well, looky here,” Ol’ Earl said, dusting off a Steve Goodman record he pulled from a stack of albums piled on an old pool table.
And the sight of the record, of course, inspired him to tell a lengthy story about the night that Goodman, stoned on marijuana, played his signature tune, "City of New Orleans," for the first time in Earl’s office at his namesake tavern, the Earl of Old Town.
For 20 years, Earl and his “fair lady,” Sharon Biggerstaff, lived on the second floor of the Landmark Inn, which dates to the 1880s when railroad mogul George Pullman built his company town.
Earl, who was my neighbor and pal, died in April 2013. We met in my alley and bonded over his love of telling stories and my willingness to listen.
And without fail he always had a story to share — fascinating tales of collecting bribes for corrupt aldermen, punching out patrons, wild drunken adventures with celebrities and his famous folk singer pals.
The common theme in all of his stories remains the indisputable fact that it was impossible to determine if he was telling the absolute truth — as he always promised — or if the old raconteur spun elaborate folk tales of bygone Chicago.
“He told so many great stories that you never could tell with him,” said Earl’s son, Joe Pionke.
I couldn’t help think about Earl’s stories while I walked through the Landmark Inn Saturday as folks picked through his treasures — old sewing machines, bar stools, lamps, the old pool table, a tavern jukebox and cigarette machine, an antique piano and boxes of albums — neatly on display at the estate sale.
That’s where I spotted a particularly interesting artifact — a bronzed baby shoe with two buttons and a tattered front toe.
“That’s Earl’s baby shoe,” Biggerstaff said, paraphrasing one of her longtime love’s many “absolute truths.”
“See the tattered front toe? That’s proof Earl was a hard worker at an early age, even before he had a paper route.”
She sold me the baby shoe — and the story that goes with it — for 10 bucks.
To me, it will always be priceless.
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