Welcome back to Last Call, where we visit watering holes around the world to collect life advice from their trusty barkeepers, learning everything from how to get over a broken heart to what drink orders will get you laughed out of their bar.
If you don't know the founder of Maria's Packaged Goods in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood by her name, Maria Marszewski, chances are you know her by "Mom." And you wouldn't be alone: The 79-year-old South Korea native may have just two sons that share her name, but there are a couple hundred in the area that she claims to be hers as well. "Somehow she convinces everyone that she's their mother," says her (blood-related) son, Ed. "Her presence seems to extend in a seven-mile radius in every direction of this place."
It wasn't always the case, though. When Marszewski first acquired the bar in the '80s—then called Kaplan's —she didn't receive such a hospitable welcome. "Women from the neighborhood would come in everyday and say, "Get the hell out, Chinese—you're ruining my neighborhood," she recalls.
Marszewski responded in the only way she knew how. "I said, 'thank you,' and I smiled," she says. "You have to kill them with kindness—if you treat people right, no matter how they treat you, one day they'll come around."
And come around they did. Those same women eventually became regular patrons, adding to the increasingly swinging doors to the bar's packaged goods entrance, where Marszewski welcomes her guests—and family—five nights a week, from 7 PM until close. I sat down with the former hairdresser to discuss why it pays to be honest, why the customer isn't always right, and why we should all be cutting our credit cards to shreds, stat.
MUNCHIES: How have you seen this neighborhood change over the last 30 years?
Maria Marszewski:There used to be a shooting every single week. There would be bullet holes in my front door. My sons were scared, so they put in a bulletproof metal sheet across the window so I wouldn't get shot. The neighborhood is really beautiful now, and we have so many young, good-looking people coming into the bar all the time.
Do you drink?
I don't drink, I don't smoke, I don't gamble. The only gambling I do is in real estate. I drink tea and room temperature water. I never saw anyone in my family drink when I was growing up, so when I came here with my husband, I didn't know what kind of drink I would even like. One day the bartender gave me the cherry from a Manhattan. I took one bite, and all of a sudden my throat was burning, and I couldn't move. I was stoned. I thought, "maybe this isn't for me." I don't like pop, either. When I drink 7Up I get drunk, too.
When did you stop working behind the bar?
About five years ago, when my sons Mike and Ed took over. I told them, "I'm too old to bartend and to continue being this nice every day." I liked working behind the bar, but sometimes I felt like I had to bite my tongue when I wanted to say things but couldn't.
One time I had a couple of African American guests sit down at the bar, and a few seats down, a couple of these other guys started to insult them. That was it for me. I never get angry, but I said, "You know what young men? What do I look like to you? Do I look like you? Or do I look like them? I didn't think so. We are all God's children — don't treat people that way. It's not nice. If you don't like my place, you get the hell out." I went up to the other couple and said, "You are my guests, and you are welcome here anytime. You don't have to worry about anyone hurting you because before they even try to hurt you, I'm going to kill them."
How did they respond to that?
They said they had never seen a woman go up to two guys like that and tell them off before. And I said, "I had to because, you know what, we're all the same. We may be different colors, but if you want to see someone, you look at their heart. That's how you see what kind of person they are."
Did those other guys ever dare to come back?
They did. They came back and said they were sorry for causing the trouble. And I said, "Listen — sooner or later we have to change this whole world, and in order to change this world we have to love each other. It doesn't matter who those other people are or what color they are."
What was your favorite thing about having the bar?
A lot of people think, "Oh, wow — you're working hard for money." But it's not about the money. If I can help people with my words, that's all I need to make me happy. If there's anything people are going through in their lives, I offer them advice. I've had people come to me saying they want a divorce, and I say, "you have to think about your children, and you have to figure out the root of the problem with your wife — you can't just go out and do whatever you want."
Have you had multiple conversations like this?
I've helped too many people with the same thing — staying with their wives. All of them want to leave and just come to the bar all the time. But when they have too much to drink, I always say, "That's enough. I don't want to see you drinking here anymore spending your entire paycheck — keep your money and take care of your wife and your kids."
So it's really not about the money, then.
No. I work hard to make money, but I'm not money crazy. Somehow I was a lucky woman with this bar. But when I don't have money, I won't even think about going to the grocery store. A lot of people have credit cards, but I didn't even know what that was before I came to America. When people are spending too much money at the bar, I'll say, "Do you know how much you're spending, sweetheart? Why are you doing that? If you keep doing this until you die, you'll die with empty pockets and empty hands."
Do you think that's why so many people look to you as a maternal figure in the community?
Yes, I think so. I help them to save their money and to stay in their marriages. I tell these men all of the time, "don't think your wife is wrong, because you're wrong too. Life is 50/50. You think about what you've done wrong, and tomorrow you come and tell me. The next day, come and tell me what your wife did wrong. Then I'll tell you exactly what was wrong." That's why they all call me mom.
Even the neighborhood kids, right?
When they come in on their own, they're coming in to buy something. But when they're coming in a group of three or four, they're coming to steal. When that happens, I let it happen because I don't want to embarrass them. But when they come back the next day by themselves, I put my arm around them and say, "can I talk to you?" They'll say, "what'd I do?" And I'll say, "You're all my kids to me. Next time you want something, ask me. If you're hungry, tell me, I'll be happy to buy you lunch or dinner." Sometimes when I'm hugging them and telling them this, they'll cry. They know they did something wrong. But I always say to them, "Don't learn by stealing—learn the right way so that when you're grown up, you can run this country."
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in August, 2016.