Editor’s Note: Although this story was written last spring, Po’ Boy’s is still ready to serve you a helping of their famous Bar-B-Que. You can make a few new friends, too.
Sit down at Po’ Boy’s Bar-B-Que and just watch. Watch hot sauce mix with mild and watch youth mix with their elders. Watch blacks mix with whites. Listen as 80-year-old Arnie Yarber reaches back into his mind for a memory and lets his eyes glaze over as his voice travels backwards. Hear his strong timbre soften as he remembers an old friend and laughs, his big eyes and bigger smile gleaming. As Arnie looks off into the past, watch how the reminiscence practically appears right on his face.
Arnie no longer actually works at Po’ Boy’s-the rib, beef, pork and polish sausage joint he opened in 1952 on the corner of Market Street and Columbia Avenue in Champaign. His son, Herkie, and godson, John Hendrix, have manned the counter for the last couple decades, although the owner does still season the meat and make potato salad from time to time. Yet Arnie’s memories are as sharp as ever, recalling the people who have come into his little place as more than just customers.
“I just love people,” he says. “There’s so much you can learn from them.”
There was the time he kept the restaurant open until
3 a.m.-regular hours are 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays-answering questions that white kids had about blacks but never before felt comfortable enough to ask.
And the time a woman, whose boyfriend refused to go north of University Avenue for fear of the mostly black neighborhood, threatened to break up with him if he wouldn’t try the restaurant. The boyfriend gave in, and, now married, the couple’s kids call Arnie “Uncle Arnold.”
And the time two of his favorite customers and former Illini football players, J.C. Caroline and Ray Nitschke, then playing for the rival Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers, good-naturedly argued about what they were going to do to each other in an upcoming game. The punchline, which elicits a raucous laugh from Arnie every time he tells the story, is that since Caroline, who is black, and Nitschke, who is white, both played defense, they never would have had any reason to clash in the first place.
With the restaurant open only two days a week-Arnie says sales are best on the weekends and Herkie and John work full-time jobs-Po’ Boy’s is “more like a hobby than a business,” Herkie says.
Go inside anytime during business hours, and you can expect to see Arnie sitting on one of the 13 stools, shooting the bull and reminiscing with the regulars of all ages, races and backgrounds. Actually, Po’ Boy’s doesn’t really have regulars. It has friends of Arnie, Herkie and John, the people of Champaign and Urbana and countless other towns who make the restaurant a part of their weekends.
From the outside, Po’ Boy’s doesn’t look like much. A small, brown building that wouldn’t be misidentified as a shack, it only has one window and the parking lot is nothing more than curbs and rocks. On the sign that reads “Arnie’s Po’ Boy’s Bar-B-Que” is the restaurant’s slogan, “Where Friends Meet.”
“People’s the same all over,” Arnie says. “You got the good, the bad and the indifferent. People gotta give one another a chance.”
Po’ Boy’s doesn’t have a no-smoking section. It doesn’t have
a kids’ menu. Heck, the place barely has a menu, with only eight items offered. The three tables and counter at which people eat are Illini-orange, contrasted by the small restaurant’s three walls that are lined with stainless steel panels common to 1950s diners. The place is adorned with Fighting Illini items, including a framed photograph of the football team emerging from the players’ tunnel for a game, a picture of the Chief and a neon light that used to be a beer advertisement but Arnie paid to have changed to, “Illini.”
On one wall hang pictures of happy customers and friends, sometimes eating the food, sometimes standing with their arms around each other, food nowhere to be seen.
Fifteen minutes before the restaurant opens, the thin, spicy, peppery homemade sauce-offered in hot, mild and mixed variations-can be smelled nearly a block away. Brent Bays of Mattoon sits outside Po’ Boy’s in a 1998 Buick LeSabre with his grandmother, Anna Phelps, eagerly waiting to purchase their food. The two-hour round-trip doesn’t deter Bays from coming to Po’ Boy’s every weekend during football season and every other weekend during basketball season. If Arnie sees him sitting outside before the place opens, he’ll let him in early.
“They make you feel comfortable in here,” Brent says. “You know it’s gonna be here. It’s dependable.”
Brent has known Arnie since ’62 and has eaten at Po’ Boy’s for just as long, and like many of his fellow customers, he only knows Arnie’s son as Herkie-a nickname his father gave him when he was a baby-not Daryl, his real name, which is hardly ever uttered inside Po’ Boy’s’ walls.
Tonight, the doors open at 5:30 p.m. on the dot, a rarity for a place that often opens from 15 minutes early to 15 minutes late, and Brent enters the restaurant. Herkie and John stand behind the counter, blue aprons worn over Herkie’s short-sleeved polo shirt and John’s long-sleeved green sweater, the Illini hat that sits atop Herkie’s head every night properly in place. An episode of Charmed flickers on the TV perched in the corner of the restaurant, it being too early for the usual sports to be on. Brent orders 11 sandwiches, some of which will be given to his brother in Charleston and some of which will be saved for lunch tomorrow. The meat slicer swish-swishes as the beef and pork for the sandwiches is made thin and lean, and Brent asks for the sandwiches with hot BBQ sauce to be clearly marked. His grandmother is the only one in his family who can handle the hot sauce, and Brent, with his more sensitive tongue, wouldn’t want to eat a hot sandwich by mistake. The cash register ch-chings as his order is rung up, $38.35.
“Is that all?” Brent asks.
“We can overcharge you if you want,” Herkie tells him with a laugh. “After all, we have to support the president’s new budget.”
Herkie, 54, has worked with his dad at Po’ Boy’s since he was in junior high. When he was only a few months old, he would grab onto his father so tightly from his crib that he’d be lifted out of it, so Arnie called him a little Hercules, which was quickly shortened to Herkie and immediately stuck.
Herkie can talk politics and sports with equal passion, which is fortunate because sports, most notably those of the University of Illinois, are often the chosen topic of conversation at Po’ Boy’s.
During the week, Herkie works to improve energy efficiency in local homes for the Urban League and is the vice-president of the local chapter of the National Council of African-American Men. He attended the University of Illinois in the late ’60s when there were few blacks on campus, remembering white couples standing behind bushes near the Six Pack, pointing at the black students, saying, in Herkie’s words, “Look, Herman, there goes another one.” He eventually dropped out of the U of I business program because, he says, the classes weren’t teaching him any practical knowledge he couldn’t learn at Po’ Boy’s.
“It’s a great factory for learning how to judge people,” he says.
At 5:45 p.m., University of Illinois juniors Danny Zalay and Mike Karmin sit at the counter waiting for their food.
“I feel like you walk in here and you just feel good,” Mike says.
Within seconds, John serves beef sandwiches to Danny, “Are those both mild?” Danny asks.
John answers without doubt in his voice, “Yeah, those are both mild.”
After chowing down two sandwiches each, Danny and Mike head for the bright orange door. John calls out to them, as he does to all of Po’ Boy’s’ customers of high school and
college-age, “You guys go straight home. I know you will.”
John has four children, three of them from his former
marriage and one of his ex-wife’s from another marriage. During the week, he drives a cement truck, and in the construction
off-season, he teaches part time at local elementary schools.
Having grown up in Easley, S.C., John knows what it feels like to be called “Nigger” and “Boy.” He is proud that his son can now walk down the street and be called Justin. In Po’ Boy’s, John is John, or Big John to some of his friends.
One time, John stood in the checkout line at the grocery store and saw a couple black kids laughing at a tabloid headline about Ray Charles being sick. He asked them if they knew who Charles was. They didn’t. A white boy standing nearby identified him by his well-known rendition of America the Beautiful so John paid for the boy’s purchase. When the black kids wondered why he didn’t pay for their items as well, John said, “Well, obviously he knows black history and you don’t.”
It’s now 6:10 p.m. The TV is still set on TNT, playing an episode of Law and Order. Most of the stools, as well as the three tables that sit four people each, house customers of
varying dress and race. One of them is Herb McClellan, 30, who has lived in Champaign all his life but just started
coming to Po’ Boy’s a few years ago. He does odd jobs for Andy’s Towing, an African-American owned business across the street from Po’ Boy’s. Another is Larry Schultz, the Toyota Inventory Manager at University Auto Park. He has been coming to Po’ Boy’s for upwards of 30 years. When he walks in, John automatically serves him a beef sandwich with mixed sauce and a diet cola. When he enters the restaurant, he says, “It’s like going home.”
At 6:30 p.m., the place clears out a bit. When a little girl leaves with her family, John calls to her, “Tell Grandma I said ‘Hi.'”
Bob Baites of Colorado Springs, Colo., and his 21-year-old son, Matt, sit down on stools at the counter. “I’ve been waiting 35 years for a hot pork sandwich,” the elder Baites declares to Herkie and John. Bob graduated in 1970 from the University of Illinois and ate at Po’ Boy’s every Friday as a student. He has been back to Champaign a half-dozen times since then, but this is the first time the restaurant has been open when he was in town. Matt laments that his father has been talking about Po’ Boy’s for a month as Bob bites into his sandwich.
“Oh, yeah,” he exclaims mid-bite. “Just like I remembered.” He continues to mutter to himself, mostly in disbelief that this place, and its food, hasn’t changed a bit.
After Bob and Matt have finished their hot pork sandwiches, Bob slaps his son on the back and asks, “Was I right?”
“Oh, yeah!” Matt says enthusiastically. “Damn that was good. Hell, yeah.”
“It’s exactly how I remember it,” Bob repeats, the realization still not quite sinking in. “I can’t believe it.”
Herkie’s response is simple, “Progress doesn’t hit
Stories just attach themselves to Po’ Boy’s. It’s the place where Jim Curry and his wife ate the night of their wedding before leaving for their honeymoon in Nashville, Ind., Arnie paid for their food. It’s where Dean Miller picked up a gallon of sauce on his motorcycle for a BBQ with friends and arrived home with the sauce all over him. Where Willie Rogers can run into an old friend he went to school with 25 years ago. It’s where U of I football players began coming regularly after Arnie, working in the mid-’50s as the first black trainer for the University, offered them free sandwiches if they played well, knowing they’d bring in paying friends with them. It’s where customers call out “Go Illini” on their way out the door and where people simply order “the usual,” and employees understand. It’s also where Jerry Wrather ate back in the ’60s, although his white friends were afraid to come with him, saying, “That place is full of niggers.” It’s where Jerry eventually convinced his friends to eat, to be told afterwards, “By God, we’re gonna have to come back here.”
At one of the tables sits Mike McDaniel and his wife, Sue, who come at least once a weekend and sometimes twice. Not the previous weekend, though, because Mike and Sue were at a wedding in Florida. During the rehearsal dinner, Mike turned to his wife and said, “We could be at Po’ Boy’s right now.” Sue says that Arnie, Herkie and John treat everyone like family once they’ve been in twice. The only catch, “You’ve got to be an Illini fan to come in here, too. And if you’re not, you better not tell them.”
It’s also one of the few color-blind places Sue has been, and she wishes there could be more, “It’d be a nice way for all the world to be.”
When they leave, Herkie calls out, “Have a good one, Mike.”
At 7:15 p.m., Arnie emerges from the back room of the restaurant, a small area through the swinging door where the meat is cooked and the sauce and potato salad are made. Tonight, Arnie wears a navy sweater over a white-collared shirt with jeans and black shoes, and he is offering everyone in the place jelly beans and peanuts from a red tin. Arnie bought more than he could eat himself so he’s giving them away. He talks for awhile with his friend, Dave Chestnut, who jokes that Arnie has made Po’ Boy’s a lot different from when it opened, “A lot has changed. He re-upholstered the seats in ’78.” When Dave gets set to leave, Arnie waives the cost of his pork sandwich and pop.
Another friend of Arnie’s, whom he’s known since 1955, walks in and asks, “How come you keep getting younger and I keep getting older?”
Arnie’s response is as quick as it is genial, “I’m just pretty.” They share a laugh.
Arnie is pretty much everybody’s friend, but he still
doesn’t mince words. “I’ll stand up and fight like hell if I catch you lyin’ on me,” he says. He was trained to be both a chiropractor and a Chicago police officer, but he founded the restaurant so he could have something of his own.
When Po’ Boy’s first opened, the clientele was mostly white, Arnie says. Blacks in the community took a long time to start coming around, thinking Arnie was
only interested in white customers. Arnie never under-stood what gave them that idea: “When you count that money at night, you don’t know who the hell gave it to you.”
Arnie says he has been held back several times in his life because he is black. He says he was unable to get his chiropractor’s license because of his race, and he had to join the Coast Guard because the Marines didn’t accept blacks until 1945. He says that when he worked as a trainer at U of I, people that he trained were promoted above him. But Arnie doesn’t dwell on that part of the past, and he gets “pissed off at some of the Negroes for not even trying.”
Arnie loves people, and he loves talking to them. “They feel they can ask us any damn thing, and we’ll answer it, too.” In his deep but inviting voice, he loves saying “Come here, you rascal” to friends who walk in the door. He uses catch-phrases such as “Rich
as cream” and “Serious as
a heart attack.” Getting a person to laugh and smile, he says, is a great way to get close to them. He likes an old jazz tune called, Ain’t What You Do, It’s the Way That You Do It.
He has traveled to India, New Zealand and Scotland to name just a few places, but he never consid-ered living anywhere other than Illinois. “No, no, no, no-where out there,” he says.”I was a
cat from Champaign and Chicago. I was an American all the way.”
Arnie has been married to his wife, Ada-or “Red” as he calls her because of her red hair-for more than 50 years, and they live in a house right next door to Po’ Boy’s. It’s the house he grew up in with his grandmother, who sold tamales on the corner of Market and Columbia and taught Arnie about BBQ. Herkie lives next door to his parents, and John lives just a few blocks away.
Dan Hamelberg, Arnie’s close friend since Dan was a U of I student and frequent Po’ Boy’s customer in the ’60s, walks in a little after 8p.m. and stands next to his pal. Arnie offers him jelly beans and peanuts and Dan declines, joking that he’s trying to cut down. The back room of Po’ Boy’s, where Dan and Arnie and many of their friends have spent nights hanging out, talking and laughing, is the best leveler in the world, Dan says.
“When you’re back there it doesn’t matter who or what you are,” he says. “There’s no chips to cash in here. Everybody starts out equal and stays that way.”
Even in the ’60s, when racial tension consumed the university campus, it was never reflected in Po’ Boy’s’ diverse customers, Dan says.
“I don’t know why people don’t just try to get along,” Arnie says. “It’s easy.”
By half-past eight, the action has settled down again. The TV has switched over to the Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets game on ESPN. John sits down to eat a sandwich, so when more customers walk in a few minutes later, Herkie takes care of them. At 9:30 p.m., a new wave arrives, and Herkie and John work together again. The Cavs-Nuggets game ends and ESPN switches to a Sacramento Kings-Dallas Mavericks game, both teams playing in shiny, modernized uniforms.
“I don’t know if its Sacramento in that new blue or Dallas in that new green, that just don’t look right,” John says to no one in particular.
The last customer arrives at 10:55 p.m. and orders two polish sausages with mixed sauce and a black cherry cola to go. At 11 p.m. Herkie locks the door, changes the “Open, come on in” sign to read “Closed,” and the guys start scrubbing down the counter and tables and washing out all the metallic bins that hold the meat. When Arnie, Herkie and John leave at about 11:30 p.m., they don’t have far to go, but they all walk together, side by side, a family.