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Thursday, Sept. 30, 2004 11:07 am

Bar hopping blues

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You can't tell me 3 o'clock bars are all bad. There's one with a big fluorescent placard out front that offers a blunt lesson in democracy: "SAT NIGHT FREE WITH VOTER REGISTRATION CARD," the sign reads. "VOTE OR GET SCREWED."

Don't know if the sign has anything to do with it, but on this Saturday night, the bar's two parking lots are overflowing. There are cars parked in the street, and cars parked on the grass. At 1 a.m., it's strangely quiet. The calm before the traffic jam.

This is Mac's Lounge, one of the first bars in Springfield to get official permission to serve alcohol until 3 a.m. Before 3 o'clock licenses, people who wanted to drink away the wee hours had to go to private, unregulated "social clubs," where alcohol was served alongside a game of craps or some other illegal activity. Now, there are 18 different bars in Springfield that can stay open until 3 a.m.

I'm touring these bars with Ward 2 Alderman Frank McNeil, who has one hand on the steering wheel and the other on his digital video camera. He's making a tape to show his colleagues on the Liquor License Subcommittee, in case they haven't had a chance to sample Springfield's late-late-nightlife for themselves.

The subcommittee formed in response to an Aug. 1 incident now known as "the melee," that began when the bouncer at 11 West, a downtown bar, ejected a female customer. The woman then allegedly punched a police officer. He called for back-up, and the conflict escalated to include scores of bar patrons, more than a dozen cops, and significant quantities of pepper spray. Three people were arrested, and city council members began hearing enough complaints that they formed this subcommittee.

McNeil believes a ban would be an overreaction. But at the subcommittee's first meeting, Susan Mogerman, chief operating officer of the soon-to-open Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, called the reaction "quite appropriate" and thanked aldermen for "clamping down on bad behavior."

"We can't have people walking around our streets urinating, vomiting, ripping up our downtown. This is just an impossible situation," she said.

One cop who has worked the midnight shift downtown for years told me that fights sometimes erupt as people move from 1 o'clock bars to 3 o'clock bars. Ex-lovers run into each other, unexpectedly, and they're drunk. "It's a lot of baby's mama drama," the cop says.

But on this night, we see none. For two hours, McNeil cruises around downtown, out to Mac's on the East Side, and south to Chantilly Lace. If we didn't have city officials to gossip about, the alderman and I would have been bored silly. We saw no fights, no ripping up of downtown, and no one relieving themselves of bodily fluids.

Ward 1 Alderman Frank Edwards and Ward 7 Alderwoman Judy Yeager went on similar tours a few weeks ago, escorted by cops, and discovered the same underwhelming reality.

What McNeil and I did see was so many officers in one place it looked like the Benevolent's annual picnic. Two off-duty cops stood outside 11 West, and four others were poised with bikes and squad cars across the street on the Old State Capitol Plaza, from which they could monitor seven bars. This increased presence is another reaction to "the melee," and it seems to be working.

At 2:12 a.m., we see a pair of bicycle cops chatting with the driver of Springfield Police Department's prisoner transport van at the corner of Washington and Fourth. But later, I find out the bicycle cops had just happened to see an aggravated battery in progress -- a fight between a man who had been sitting on a trash can and another man who had just been walking past -- neither of whom had been in a bar that night.

At 3 a.m., when the lights come on and the patrons scatter like cockroaches, and we spot two individuals who are skunk as drunks. One is being lovingly supported by her more sober companions. The other, a young man who suddenly finds his shirt unbearable, appears to be accompanied by a abstinent young woman who is going to give him a stern lecture to go with his hangover.

Outside Stella Blue stands a group of guys chatting noisily. "This has got to be stopped," McNeil says. Across the street, a few residents of Lincoln Square Apartments have threatened to move out if another bar gets a 3 o'clock license, but according to manager Suanne Tuttle, Lincoln Square is currently 100 percent occupied.

The Liquor Licensing Subcommittee meets today (Thursday, Sept. 30) at 6 p.m. in city council chambers.

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