By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
Tuesday: At noon, twenty people sit around tables with blue-and-white gingham tablecloths. There are more tucked-in shirts and fewer cargo shorts. Lawyers and judges from the Madison County Courthouse take lunch around a circular table, while four local schoolteachers sit onstage and catch up for the first time since spring break. Sometimes people just need a good burger. The beef here is ground fresh each morning from Edwardsville Frozen Foods.
Wednesday: Tami Webb scoots up to the bar around 10 p.m. I'm in her seat. We switch, and Tim Earley, the bartender, places her usual in front of her: a Budweiser and water. From her seat, she can see the rest of the room. She likes watching young people meet and exchange numbers. "It's my therapy and my soap opera," she says.
Laura Gleeson and brothers Sean and Ruairi McInerney are the toast of the bar tonight. They're from Letterkenny, Ireland, and driving Route 66 west to Kingman, Arizona, then on to Las Vegas.
They stopped in for dinner on their way from Chicago on the recommendation of Route 66: EZ66 Guide for Travelers. Earley talked them into staying the night, helped find them a room at the Comfort Inn and a cab for later. "I'm the head of the tourism board," he jokes.
Earley is 55 years old, wears glasses and a Bell's Oberon baseball cap and has a burly red beard. He's been coming to the Stagger for 35 years and working here for 20 — the longest of anyone still there. If Webb is the bar mom, Earley is the bar dad and the heart of this place. On nights when he closes, he cleans and restocks till about 5 a.m. then walks to Fiona's Family Restaurant down the street. He's seen the town grow and change: new restaurants, new bars, franchises and chains. "This town is so trendy. It's fucked up," he says. "I always thought this town had more character."
Thursday: Every summer a group of archaeologists lines up at the Stagger to buy beers in front of a golden mirror-etching of "Old Heidelberg" that was buried under coats of white paint — a product of old anti-German sentiment — for decades until being discovered 1974.
Most of the archaeologists are SIU students earning credits in a corn and soybean field 30 minutes south of here in Lebanon, Illinois. Their work has led them to evidence of buildings, flint napping, burnt clay and pottery, but not much shade.
Tim Pauketat is a professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and specializes in Mississippian culture sites like Cahokia Mounds. He worked with Wells, the owner, on excavations in the early '80s. She's an archaeologist, too. He's been leading the annual summer digs and Thursday-night dinners at the Stagger Inn Again since 1998.
There's comfort in returning to a familiar place with history and character. It's a good place to end a week, or to start one.