by Lee Gutowski
Recently, a friend walked into the Uptowner after getting bad news about a job. Turns out, the friend had been fired, and stopped into the bar to blow off a little steam.
The friend started relating his job woes to Bob Ellquist, the bartender working that afternoon. Bob and my friend had known each other for a long time, but more in an around-the-neighborhood kind of way. They reminisced about the first time they met, many years earlier – my friend had lost his wallet and Bob had found it near a dumpster. (Bob has some good dumpster stories.) Bob contacted the friend to arrange to return the wallet to him.
Back then, my friend without the wallet didn’t know what to make of Bob, this “crust punk”-looking fellow with a LOT of tattoos. Like, way more tattoos than Popeye ever had. (Although Popeye may have been an influence on Bob early on, from the looks of the picture accompanying this article, of a 3-year-old “Bobby” dressed as Popeye.)
But that recent afternoon, when Bob was administering shots of Tullamore Dew to my friend and listening to my friend’s kind of sad story of the ex-job, the two got to know each other better. Bob did a wonderful job of helping my friend feel better through the fine art of bartending like the pro he is. My friend had all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings about Bob that afternoon and realized what a big softie and “lovely person” he is.
Indeed, Bob is a lovely person, as well as a raconteur extraordinaire. He has a razor-sharp memory for classic Riverwest lore and his own fateful forays of old. It’s just hard to compile them into an article – like catching lightning in a bottle. Then too, a lot of stories just don’t translate to print. In a family paper like this, that is.
Bob arrived in Riverwest in 1998, when “there were all these basement punk shows and cool stuff all over the neighborhood … Like, Food Not Bombs was happening and there was an awesome punk rock community where everyone was welcome to all the shows.”
In 2000, Ellquist got a job at Onopa Brewery (now the site of Company Brewing at Center and Fratney Streets), working with Paul Onopa and Marc “Luther” Paul. “Luther is the super-rad brewmaster at Lakefront Brewery now,” Bob says. He was excited to see the November 2002 Neighbor Spotlight (which was re-run in the April 2021 issue of the Currents) on Clinton Clay, who was the janitor at Onopa and a staple on Center Street way back then. Bob told a story about seeing Clinton emerging from Onopa one morning at 5:30am, headed to a residence across the street, carrying two pitchers of beer. “We used to have long philosophical discussions in the basement at Onopa, Clinton and I,” he recalls, amused.
Bob was eventually in a band called Wooden Robot with Luther from Onopa. You may remember them, and you may remember some of the other bands (with unforgettable names) that Bob’s been in, like ‘Dead Bodies and Beer’ and ‘Doomsday Cauldron’ (who apparently are/were “huge in Croatia”).
At some point (my notes are a mess – Bob was firing on all pistons and I fell behind), Bob started working at Outpost Natural Foods, “because I was capable of being there by 5:30am, basically. Some Midwestern work ethic thing. That, and because I liked metal (music).” Apparently, his friend Cory VonBohlen (who many know from his band Leval Blessings and his record label, Halo of Flies) was working at Outpost at that time. Cory and Bob bonded about their love of metal. Bob was looking for a job. “Can you be there by 5:30am?” Cory asked. Bob said “that hell yeah I could” … and ended up working there for 7 years.
(Bob’s storytelling is really something that you must experience – it’s hard to capture during far-ranging, sidebar-filled, interview-style conversations. The guy’s got a magnificent way with words but isn’t thrilled with being recorded – you gotta just let him blurt, and I happily did while scribbling notes for this article.)
Following a break-up with his girlfriend, Bob found himself hanging out at the Uptowner, “every day because they had $2.50 Blatz pitchers. And I’d sit and listen to the old guys, regulars, shooting the shit,” and realized that he wasn’t the only one who had sad stories. “It put things in perspective.”
He started working hip-hop nights at the Uptowner. “Some people were like, ‘how come you have this job and I don’t?’ type of thing because they thought I wasn’t hip-hop enough or something,” he laughs. “I mean I think I could pretty much out-crust a lot of people,” but hip-hop wasn’t the first thing you’d think of. Eventually he and his good friend Aaron started doing punk-rock nights there on Thursdays.
At some point, Bob broke his ankle in a drunken escapade that had something to do with fence-hopping at the closed-down Gallun Tannery. He had to get a desk job due to his injuries. He ended up getting a job at CapTel (the telephone captioning service for the deaf and hard-of-hearing), as a captioning assistant. (A lot of locals know about CapTel and even worked there, including – full disclosure – me, the writer of this thing.)
Being a ‘captioning assistant’ entails sitting for hours on end in a cubicle among rows and rows and rows of cubicles at CapTel’s downtown offices, staring at a computer screen, typing and ‘re-voicing’ live phone calls of clients. “You just had these garbage conversations going on, people being terrible to each other, and you’d have to repeat and type out all this stuff … it was constantly in your head, you couldn’t get away from it.”
As his ankle healed, Ellquist was able to go back to working part-time at the Uptowner, which he did while still working at CapTel. “I had a bartending license, and (an employee) had just left … Steve Johnson (the owner) really gave me a chance and went and hired me.”
Once he was able to fly the CapTel coop, he did. “I worked all the holidays there because I didn’t have family around here.” He was scheduled to work, as usual, on Easter Sunday, but had a last-minute opportunity to work a full day’s shift at the Uptowner.
With his ankle healed and no absolutely no desire to work the desk job anymore, Bob opted against his Easter Sunday shift that year (2010). “I decided I’d rather get wasted with friends for 8 hours than tell strangers’ grandmas happy Easter while sober.” Chuckle.
Happily for many of us, Bob’s been working at the Uptowner ever since. And cheers to that. As Bob’s been known to proclaim, “Charm School forever”!