Winston Mezo, Carbondale’s legendary bagel man, to retire this weekend

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Winston Mezo, Carbondale’s legendary bagel man, to retire this weekend

Winston Mezo, of Carbondale, hands a bagel to a customer on Oct. 30, 2016, as he stands behind his kart in the parking lot of Pinch Penny Liquors. Mezo has been selling bagels to the late-night crowds since 1983 and has since become a local legend. Mezo spends every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night satisfying late night cravings, weather permitting. “I’ve met some of the best kids I’ve ever met in my life right here at these bagel karts,” he said. Mezo got into the bagel business as a distraction from drinking. He’s been sober for as many years as he’s been serving bagels. This Thursday through Saturday is his last weekend selling bagels before retiring on Sunday. (Anna Spoerre | @annaspoerre)

Winston Mezo, of Carbondale, hands a bagel to a customer on Oct. 30, 2016, as he stands behind his kart in the parking lot of Pinch Penny Liquors. Mezo has been selling bagels to the late-night crowds since 1983 and has since become a local legend. Mezo spends every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night satisfying late night cravings, weather permitting. “I’ve met some of the best kids I’ve ever met in my life right here at these bagel karts,” he said. Mezo got into the bagel business as a distraction from drinking. He’s been sober for as many years as he’s been serving bagels. This Thursday through Saturday is his last weekend selling bagels before retiring on Sunday. (Anna Spoerre | @annaspoerre)

Winston Mezo, of Carbondale, hands a bagel to a customer on Oct. 30, 2016, as he stands behind his kart in the parking lot of Pinch Penny Liquors. Mezo has been selling bagels to the late-night crowds since 1983 and has since become a local legend. Mezo spends every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night satisfying late night cravings, weather permitting. “I’ve met some of the best kids I’ve ever met in my life right here at these bagel karts,” he said. Mezo got into the bagel business as a distraction from drinking. He’s been sober for as many years as he’s been serving bagels. This Thursday through Saturday is his last weekend selling bagels before retiring on Sunday. (Anna Spoerre | @annaspoerre)

Winston Mezo, of Carbondale, hands a bagel to a customer on Oct. 30, 2016, as he stands behind his kart in the parking lot of Pinch Penny Liquors. Mezo has been selling bagels to the late-night crowds since 1983 and has since become a local legend. Mezo spends every Thursday, Friday and Saturday night satisfying late night cravings, weather permitting. “I’ve met some of the best kids I’ve ever met in my life right here at these bagel karts,” he said. Mezo got into the bagel business as a distraction from drinking. He’s been sober for as many years as he’s been serving bagels. This Thursday through Saturday is his last weekend selling bagels before retiring on Sunday. (Anna Spoerre | @annaspoerre)

By Anna Spoerre

After 34 years, Winston Mezo will sell one last bagel this weekend before retiring from the business.

Mezo, a native of Herrin and resident of Carbondale, stood above the charcoal grill situated in his cart April 9, entertaining a growing crowd as the bars closed.

“It only took [my nephew] an hour and a half to watch ’60 Minutes’ the other night,” Mezo said, prompting laughs from the college-age group. “Yes we’re proud, proud and envious.”

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A schtick about a made-up nephew is one of many reasons Mezo, better known as the Bagel Man, has been a local legend since 1983.

The 75-year-old man spends his weekends in the parking lot of Pinch Penny Liquors selling bagels covered in anything from onions, cucumbers and bacon bits to sunflower seeds, raisins, apples and cinnamon to bar-goers until as early as 3 a.m. He then packs up his supplies and heads to Walmart to restock.

But the bagel business hasn’t always been a part of Mezo’s life. Instead, it found him at a time he needed a distraction.

“I came here to sober up,” he said of moving to Carbondale out of the military and discovering a local 12-Step program, which he described as a group that helps members achieve sobriety.

Mezo said another man in the 12-Step program offered to let him help with a bagel cart on the Strip as a distraction from drinking. Eventually, Winston bought the cart for himself.

He has been sober for 35 years and has been making bagels for just as long.

Mezo credits his experience with the 12-Step program to a lot of his success.

“I do 12-Step program so I can do anything else,” he said. “Without that I wouldn’t have anything, I’d still be lying in the alleys.”

For his first decade as the Bagel Man, Mezo, who joined the Army out of high school, also worked for a paramilitary outfit based in Florida. This left him absent from his night job for anywhere from a couple days to a couple months.

Eventually he left the paramilitary job and bought a second cart. Now, decades later, he just operates his cart off Grand Avenue, but aside from that, not much about his business has changed.

But, he said, the city has.

Mezo said the biggest difference he’s noticed in the past decades is fewer students coming to Carbondale every year, recalling his experience at SIU as a student in the late 1960s, a time he described as SIU having a campus full of “hippies and guys fresh out of the military.”

Winston Mezo, of Carbondale, hands a bagel to a customer on Nov. 4, 2016, as he stands behind his kart in the parking lot of Pinch Penny Liquors. He transports his supplies in a white van, which he parks next to the liquor store while selling bagels from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday. When sales are slow or weather is bad, he hangs out in his vehicle. “My van is better than home at times because I’ve got everything I need: coffee and snacks and satellite radios and dvd players and Kindle,” he said. Mezo, who has been satisfying late-night cravings since 1983, will be retiring on Sunday. (Anna Spoerre | @annaspoerre)

“It was a different world, let me put it that way,” said Mezo, who graduated in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in social work. “There were kids all over this place man, thousands of them.”

Since Winston started selling bagels in 1973, according to university data, enrollment has dropped from 20,353 students to fewer than 16,000.

But when alumni come back to visit, they are often surprised to find the Bagel Man right where they left him.

“There’s people that come back, they’ve been gone for years, and they come back to see if I’m still living, still kicking … they said, ‘we heard you were on social media,’” he said.

Mathew Phillips, of Carbondale, has been one of Mezo’s closest friends after meeting him at the 12-Step group. He said the Bagel Man isn’t a household name just in Carbondale.

“I’ve been downtown Chicago with him … and someone across the square yelled, ‘Hey Winston!’” Phillips said.

Despite the popularity, Mezo said the toughest part of the job these days is staying out so late. But that hasn’t stopped him.

“As old as I am, I don’t think I’ve ever felt better and been able to get around any better than I can now,” he said. “If you told me I’d be this busy this time in my life I’d say man ain’t no way, I’m going to kick back … but I wouldn’t like that, it ain’t me.”

And that shows in his dedication to his community, particularly 12-Step.

Mezo has run a substance abuse hotline for the past 13 years and sponsors two others in the group.

“They said one day, if you stay in [12-Step], you’ll be able to contribute more than anyone else,” Mezo said. “There’s a lot of hope in there.”

Meanwhile, Mezo has also given hope to a lot of people.

Norris Muckelroy, a long-time friend of Mezo’s from the program, said when Mezo retires, the community will not only be losing a great bagel, but also a great friend.

“Do the best that you can in life and go with your dreams,” Muckelroy said of the message Mezo has taught him and exemplifies to others. “I don’t think there’s a more loving person in the whole wide world.”

As for retirement, Mezo plans on slowing down a little, but not much.

“I’ll be retired, unless of course Hollywood spies me and I have to go make a major motion picture,” he joked.

Mezo, a regular at SIU’s Recreation Center and an avid pool player, said he looks forward to having more time for both, as well as more time to travel with the 12-Step program.

Until then, this weekend will be the last time Mezo unloads his cart from his white van.

“I’ll miss it. I’ll miss it terribly,” he said. “I’ll miss interacting with those kids on Friday and Saturday nights but then I won’t miss that 4 o’clock in the morning rain, snow, sleet and hail, trying to get that cart loaded and then having to go to Walmart and then pounding coffee and having to feel all dirty from that grill and sticky with cream cheese and stuff all over me.”

But, this likely won’t be the last Carbondale sees of the Bagel Man, who said he may be around from time to time to help whoever buys the cart if they need it. As of Tuesday, however, he is still working on securing a buyer. 

“You’re not going to believe this when I tell you, but interacting with those kids is a big part of my life,” said Mezo, who never had kids of his own. “They’re hard-working, industrious. They tell me about school, what their majors are. … Not in my living experience have I known kids like that.”

Weather permitting, the Bagel Man will fire up his grill one last time from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. Thursday through Saturday in front of the Pinch Penny liquors.

Editor-in-Chief Anna Spoerre can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @annaspoerre.

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