Three Ukrainians–a butcher, a wedding singer, and a grave digger–are sitting around a table, giving each other good-natured hell, when a Puerto Rican punk rocker walks in.

It’s not a joke–it’s exactly the scene Christine Kordiuk had in mind when she opened Cafe Ballou in Ukrainian Village in January. The three Ukrainians–John Steciw, Adam Bihun, and Roman Zahorodnyj–grew up together and still meet for lunch or a drink once a week. They know the punk rocker, Willie Sanchez, from a bar down the street. Well-dressed twenty- and thirtysomethings in designer shades sit nearby, peering at their laptops.

Kordiuk, who’s 42, likes to tell people she’s lived in the same zip code her entire life. She grew up near Campbell and Augusta, and remembers a community in which “everything was centered around the church.” But there were other gathering places–like the cobbler’s shop at the corner of Campbell and Iowa where, Kordiuk recalls, her father and other local men whiled away afternoons. (The cafe’s name is a tribute to her parents, Ivan and Jadwiga Kordiuk, who immigrated to the U.S. in 1950 aboard the USS General CC Ballou.) For years she’d wanted to open such a spot, a place “where people who were visiting the neighborhood could come in and hear the different languages,” says Kordiuk, who’s fluent in Ukrainian and Polish as well as English. She also believed the neighborhood was sorely lacking a coffee shop. “Having lived here all my life and having really deep roots,” she says, “it would have made me really sad had somebody else–not to mention a Starbucks–just looked at it as a kind of investment thing.”

Several years ago Kordiuk began eyeing a storefront for rent at 939 N. Western. But the space was very raw, and “the fear of taking on a business was huge,” she says. “I had never even waitressed, so I had no clue how the food-service business works.”

While she hesitated, a used-appliance store opened there. Then in September 2002, Kordiuk’s mother was crossing the street in front of her house on Cortez when she was struck and killed by a driver reversing down the street to take an alley shortcut. For months afterward Kordiuk grieved, all the while growing more and more weary of her job at a local nonprofit. Finally, in June of last year, she quit. “People were saying, ‘Are you crazy? The economy is horrible,’ and I’m like, I can’t get out of bed to go–it doesn’t matter,” she says. Two months later she noticed that the space on Western, now slightly remodeled, was for rent again. “I stood there,” Kordiuk says, “and I went, Now’s the time.” She signed a lease that started September 1.

Cafe Ballou’s pressed-tin ceiling is painted ivory, and the tables are set with crocheted doilies and teacups filled with flowers. Sheer lace curtains hang in the the front windows, and there’s a a floral rug on the floor. The cafe might bring to mind a great-aunt’s parlor but for the stacks of glossy magazines, the blackboard-chalked menus, and the laptops–customers connect to the Internet gratis, and Kordiuk scoffs at joints that charge for the privilege. She serves Intelligentsia coffee and offers daily drink and lunch specials, such as half a turkey sandwich, a cup of soup, and a salad for $5.50. The food’s made to order, simple and fresh, and there’s a daily selection of pastries made by a local caterer. There are also a few flavors of ice cream, advertised on a sidewalk sign in English, Ukrainian, and Polish.

Black-and-white family photos hang on the cafe’s southern wall, including one of Kordiuk’s father taken in the refugee camp in Austria where he lived for three years after the close of the war. Kordiuk’s parents met, married, and had their first two daughters in the camp. A son, Jerry, was born nine months after their arrival in the States, and Christine came along 12 years later–“a big whoops,” she says.

Jerry often helps out at Cafe Ballou. It turns out he went to grammar school with John Steciw, the butcher. But “actually, my sister Irene is the one who can hold court here all day long,” says Jerry, refilling the coffee cups on Steciw’s table. Sure enough, a short time later Irene drops by and immediately greets the three men in Ukrainian, joking to Christine, “You let all the riffraff in!”

Kordiuk gets a little choked up when asked what her mom, who cleaned office buildings in the Loop, would think of Cafe Ballou. “Oh, wow . . . to be able to tell people to go to her daughter’s coffee shop. . . . She’d be amazed,” she says. “And she’d probably be in here mopping the floors ten times a day.”

Cafe Ballou is at 939 N. Western, 773-342-2909.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/A. Jackson.