“Do go around tonight,
Well, it’s bound to take your life.
There is a bad moon on the rise.”
The common misperception, of course, is that alcohol warms the body and the blood. In truth, booze creates a loss of body heat—it prohibits the body’s circulation, which reduces heat loss, putting us at greater risk to harm caused by subzero temperatures.
Tonight, this won’t matter.
The sign at the Midwest Bank across the street from Estelle’s Café and Pub, nestled in the heart of Wicker Park at the Damen, North and Milwaukee intersection, informs that currently, at 9pm, whether we believe it or not, the temperature is one-degree Fahrenheit. It’s safe to assume that, with wind chill, it’s multiple degrees below zero. The frigid cold will only grow worse as the night wears on and the streets forcefully freeze.
To spend an entire Saturday evening at Estelle’s, from 9pm until 5am, is a daunting challenge . The bar’s staff doesn’t even do that. A traditional workday, flipped to the night. Estelle’s, the late-night lounge as famous for its harboring of poets and vandals back in the day as now the place where strangers make liaisons unclouded by judgment, has a different face on the weekend than it does during the work week, as do most of the bars whose signs illuminate the streets of this rapidly shifting neighborhood. The influx of neighborhood invaders—Wrigleyville, Lincoln Park, not to mention suburbanites—on a Saturday night crams the room with varying pieces of the younger, drink-craving social structure. The artists—or, if you like, hipsters—still grace the bar with their presence, though if you ask them about the bar on a Saturday, outside of the establishment’s confines, they will wince and snicker and roll their painfully knowing eyes.
Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” chimes through the speakers as the clock rounds nine o’clock. The bar’s emptiness exudes a sort of anticipation. A small group chats in one of the red booths against the west wall; two older men, maybe work buddies, sit at the bar to the east, eyeing the small television that’s hung in the corner. The Bulls are beating the Pistons somewhere in the third quarter. The black tables, sticky and wet, each lit with its own gentle, sad candle, largely go unused, except the tiny two-seater near the door, where I dump my staggering bundle of layering and make residence for the night. A painting of sorts of Johnny Cash hangs inches from the table, next to the man in black a dark revolver that shoots an American flag. There isn’t even a door guy yet.
Gina, who’s working behind the bar, who’s off at midnight, who’s worked here for six years and who’s comfortingly playing the Orbison from her iPod, says that even though the bar was slower than usual last night, she expects a crowd this evening, especially after-hours, when most of the neighborhood joints close at 3am.
“People who go out will stay out,” she says. If you aren’t bullied by the intense cold, what is one more drink?
I’m voyaging the night sober, which is both necessary and torturous. When I tell Gina, she laughs. The bar staff doesn’t even do that. It’s 9:30pm, I’m settled with diet soda, and the news brief during a commercial break from the basketball game reads, “Dangerous Cold.” Next, to the left of the negative-two-degree warning on screen, “Giraffe Dies.”
More pile in, but sporadically. Tonight’s injection will not be torrential. Jordan, who’s joined Gina behind the bar, whose arms are inked in blues and vague reds and who’s only woken up hours before his shift, expects patrons as well. Kelli, crew-cutted Kelli, the server, agrees. “We hang out here when we’re not working,” she says of the staff’s relationship. “We’re bar people. We stay late, talk about what fights happened…” She trails off when Gina mentions something about “family.”
A trio of young, young girls who look like Tanner sisters from “Full House” strut inside and take a table by the window to the north, clearly here to grab a quick drink before their evening truly begins. Sure enough, they’re out the door after sips. Another threesome, this time sophisticates, older, assuredly post-dinner, enter and ask, “Can we still smoke in here?”
A casual, yet familiar shake of the head.
“Oh, c’mon, it’s her birthday!”
The pony-tailed doorman arrives gripping a daunting container of Mountain Dew and takes his post. A beautiful, unassuming girl with a striped sweater takes the end of the bar with a friend. They talk quietly. The Bulls have won; Jordan changes the channel and suddenly, on A&E, “The Godfather” has begun. Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Bad Moon Rising” rambles from overhead and, unbelievably, a handful a patrons don hats and coats, if only briefly, to venture outdoors to smoke.
“We see a lot of people twiddling their thumbs,” Kelli says of the crowd now that the smoking ban is in full force.
“It’s weird,” Gina adds. “We’ll see a lot of drinks at the bar, but no one sitting by them, because they’re all out smoking.”
“People will light up in here on accident,” Jordan says, “and you can smell it right away.”
A group of girls, five of them, all blonde, stroll in, show IDs, walk towards the back of the modestly sized bar towards the jukebox and long-stride their way back and out the door, all in less than sixty seconds.
A schoolteacher with a giant red sweater and a white scarf, looking somewhat like a kind of Creamsicle, joins friends near the windows and asks for a Miller Lite. Another bartender, a woman with a white shirt with black polka dots and arm tattoos that, from here in the dark, look like cobwebs, begins her shift. A punk rocker with the purple hair and the chain wallet drinks cheap and his friend, smaller, female, gazes enamored. A giant in a gray winter coat larger than Lakeview crams in behind me, dwarfing not only me but his petite, unenthused lady friend. Angelina, the green-sweatered server, works the crowd. A Ryan Gosling writes poetry into a notebook and downs a Heineken. He’s that guy.
In the men’s room, you either piss in the bowl or on top of the “Jackass” promotional guard placed inside the urinal. The wall pimps “Cloverfield.” It’s after midnight now, and drinks pour. Leave the gun, take the cannoli.
Tommy, who’s the general manager, who’s dressed in black, whose head’s shaved and who oddly arrives at my table as “Here Comes the Sun” clicks on the juke, tells me to let him know if there’s anything I need. The giant’s restless-leg syndrome shakes the table—he needs those meds, those whose side effects include advanced sexual urges and a strong desire to gamble. On second thought, he probably doesn’t need them.
A biker girl sidles up to the bar, her leather pants weighted down well enough to see the crack of her ass. Others notice too. In the corner of the room a Cubs-hatted twerp blows into his empty beer bottle to gain that melodic hum—his friends go unimpressed. A dude in a fedora swallows a whiskey on ice. A black-haired girl in a Metro hoodie heads out to North Avenue to smoke. So does Kelli.
Somehow, over the oppressively loud Hendrix, a woman at a nearby table announces that she “smells skunk.” In a moment, behind me, another patron, “I smell skunk. It smells like fucking skunk.”
It does smell like skunk, but only for a time, until Jimi finishes his solo. James Caan’s been shot, the Corleones are in mourning.
Estelle’s dates back all the way to the 1930s, when it was known as the Tower Lounge—it got a transformation around 1988, when Wicker Park was still quite shady but an affordable hotbed for writers, musicians and artists, who gave the bar its cred. There were always rumors of questionable doings from the day. “Shithole” was used liberally. But at least it had personality, or singularity, if you prefer.
Tonight is different. There is personality, of course, friendliness, intelligence, but there is also an accountant at the bar showing his friends his iPhone. The staff is impossibly kind. At least they are to me.
A young girl who looks no older than sixteen attempts to enter, but her fake, or whatever, is denied. She doesn’t return.
“I have reservations at the Rainforest Café,” some idiot tells her uninterested friend.
He responds, eloquently, “I hate the fucking Rainforest Café.”
A tag team of wool-wearing rugby guys stumble in scanning the room for some unattainable object. “Now, look for Carl,” one says.
The other, “Who the fuck is Carl?”
At the table behind me, the giant now long gone, a girl begs her male companion to punch her in the face. “Do it! Do it!” she antagonizes, then, to the rest of the group, “He likes punching me in the face.”
A wife of a Dallas football star, a daughter of “Dynasty,” in a blinding white mink coat and a low-cut top, bleach blonde, takes to the bar with already drunk friends. He hangs her coat on the back of her stool. Her lips are balloons.
The bearded hipster has grabbed Angelina’s ass, and Tommy is in his face. “You need to to go,” he tells him. “Time to go.” After a brief hesitation, the beard is out the door.
“That’s one,” Tommy tells me. It’s after 2am and the door’s opening more frequently now as Estelle’s, as is usual for this time of night, fills up, not yet quite to its ninety-seven capacity, the cold air sneaking in and stinging every exposed ankle at the bar.
It’s common for dolphins to protect us swimmers from shark attacks. If they’re in the area while the swimmer is under duress—a polite way of saying fucking panicking because Jaws is about to bite—they’ll form a circle around the victim and guide them to shore. Just recently this happened off the beach in Monterey, California. A surfer, alone, intoxicated by the vastness and mystery of the ocean, was saved by dolphins.
Mrs. Quarterback, the blonde with the mink, is swarmed with carnivores. They with their black leather move in and out to get a word—she’s the most popular girl in the room. She attempts to thwart the attacks, but then concedes as one takes the seat next to her. They flirt. She gives him the finger, he grabs it from the air. Her friends triumphantly return, maybe from the bathroom, and his sorry ass is quickly alone again, in the middle of the room, looking for food. A fart cuts across the floor—much more potent now that there’s no smoke to blend it with. The Barenaked Ladies have replaced the Corleones on the television.
Andrea N., quite articulately at yelp.com, summarizes Estelle’s as “Where you go when you’re drunk, want to get laid and don’t care who the person is or what the person looks like. If you are a female and like to get ogled by a bunch of drunks when you walk in the door, go here.”
Let’s ask Sarah R. “You were at Estelle’s after 2am? Who did you sleep with?”
You get the picture. The Arcade Fire comes from the speakers, vocals howling, “And then we think of our parents/But what ever happened to them?” These prowlers are still out, seeking warmth from the cold, but warmth from whom?
Bright Lights, Big City is drunk in a pea coat staring at a portrait of “Gandhizilla,” half green monster, half Ghandi head. A girl with pink hair squints at the ceiling. Eyes wander. The polka-dotted bartender’s arm tattoo is not a cobweb, after all, but some sort of bird.
Near the bathrooms in the back, a gathering at a booth shoots Jager and cries “Happy Birthday” to the aged one.
The next booth over I hear, “You punched her in the face!?!?” Then, somberly, “I had to. She asked me to do it.”
The crowd is as full as it will be, here, now at 3:30am, with no line waiting to enter and few who dare step outside for a cigarette. It’s just too darn cold.
Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” soundtracks a couple’s kiss at the end of the bar. A nice moment amongst all of this.
When the clock reaches 4am, no one in this room is innocent, except for me, exhausted and stone sober. It’s much easier to stay up this late when you’re not. A girl, sweetly drunk, prides to a companion, “I’m…really…proud of, you know, moving my entire apartment by myself.”
Just a few feet away, guys talk pool. “It was like something out of ‘The Hustler,’ dude,” one tells the other. “Sick. They play like $2,000 a rack. Do you know the world record for the fastest break? Most guys are like twenty-three-to-twenty-six miles-per-hour. This guy, forty-three miles-per-hour. A world record. Bam!”
“Won’t the stick break?” his friend asks.
“That’s the thing, dude. The stick’s bad-ass. It was sick as fuck.”
At the door, a dead ringer for a Soprano sits alone and scans the crowd. Two drastically impaired patrons stumble near to go outside to smoke, and they leave their drinks near Soprano’s edge. Then, one of them, inexplicably, gets the notion our Soprano wants to spit in his drink while he’s gone.
“He’s not gonna spit in my shit,” he slurs. He motions that he wants to, as they say, “go.”
“Cool your jets,” the smarter, older man says, and it’s over.
Mrs. Quarterback’s white mink is on the sloppy ground and Tommy picks it up and hangs it back on her stool. AC/DC is giving me a migraine. The pretty girl with the striped sweater at the end of the bar, who’s been here since around 10pm, still stakes her claim. What is she still doing here?
The lights are on and everyone wants to fight. They bump and prod and sway—nothing is sacred and no one has immunity. This meat market’s shutting down for the night, and those left empty-handed are left to take it out on each other. The floor is a mix of spilled sludge and beast drool. Every face has contorted into sleepy madness, thousand-yard stares and wet, bubbling mouths. The smell of old beer, mostly.
As I exit, the cold is violent. I walk to my car and chuckle at the thought of leaving a bar at five o’clock in the morning and being able to safely drive home. The bank says it’s a perfect zero degrees on this early Sunday morning, eight hours after the Orbison and my first Diet Coke.
Somehow, while I was blanketed by the unabashed humanity, the warmth of the grand and united social sphere, the outside world grew colder.