Booze Muse

The art and craft of liquid inspiration

Above All, Courage: Winter Nights at the Duke of Perth

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DoP Chicago DoorsBy Stefan Castellanos

A winter bar must have two doors. They can’t be French doors, which swing open to reveal the splendor of summering in the countryside, les enfants Jean-Pierre and Gaston playing petanque in the yard as Papa scans the hills before the partridge hunt. They must instead be one in front of the other—two single doorways several feet apart, forming an enclosed vestibule. This pocket of space deadens the incoming cold. Once inside, the view looking out through the plate-glass doors is bleak by comparison. In the frosty, refracted frame there is a young man playing a futile game of “Can I eat these cheese fries with gloves on?” as he waits a frozen eternity for the Clark bus. And there are no partridges; it’s so damn cold there aren’t even pigeons. No splendor in sight, only tempered struggle.

These doors allow us to keep the elements chained up outside. We’re always aware of their existence, but for the moment we’re unencumbered, even liberate, by it. They allow us to say, “Yes, Winter, I hear/see you knocking, and no, I won’t be out until I damn well please.” And although many places have them, there is no more deliberate set of “Chicago doors” than those protecting the Duke of Perth. Read the rest of this entry »

Monday Night Sprawl: Empty Bottle opens its doors for free

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pabstThe best charity to young Chicago nighthawks during this depressing economic downturn? Free Mondays at the Empty Bottle.

No cover charge, a Monday night, three bands you’ve hardly heard of, and the room is packed wall to wall, winter coats bulging, shaggy beards sprawling. Only a few stools at the back of the bar, where one man says “I’m too old for this, I just want to sit down.”

A Monday night. Anyone will do anything for free stuff, or at least a $1.50 PBR. A hyper-punk trip called Running grunts and yelps. It’s loud, but not that loud. The music writer from The Reader is here; so is one of the redheads from The 1900s. And an artist, from a long past 2nd Fridays night in Pilsen, with whom drunken stumbling led to a throwaway makeout at the bar in Skylark. She seems to be everywhere these days.

Overheard: “Maybe I’ll meet the man of my dreams, right after I take this shit”; “When I know I’m gonna fuck a guy, I just fuck him, I don’t wait. What’s the point?” “You’re a slut.” “I know.”; and then, finally, in the disintegrating bathroom, “This toilet is being dramatic.”

The band Moonrises takes the stage inside with vengeance, but it’s time to leave. At the outside smoker’s lounge on Western Avenue, the frigid wind interrupts all conversations. A Monday night and the street is full. A homeless man bounces around to each huddled group, speaking what can only be French. (Tom Lynch)

Winter’s Ail: Alcohol cures the uncommon cold

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lMost people I know save barhopping for summer, when the temperature agrees with crowds and the night air rumbles with tension, with perspiration, with sex.

I drink in winter. The shedding of winter dress upon entering a dark and musty room feels like abandoning the torture outside. Rooms are empty, tables thin. You get to know your bartender. You’re the only sad bastard within range.

I have a half-dream of someday opening a tavern called Scar Bar—“scar” as in “emotional scar,” not “physical scar,” though bikers will always be welcome—where the soundtrack consists solely of Joy Division, The Smiths, Velvet Underground and Elliott Smith. You get it. When I heard the people behind the old Thursday night dance party at Neo were opening a bar in the Logan Square area, the neighborhood where I live, and they had the audacity to call it Late Bar, I was terrified. Terrified because I can actually imagine the Planet Earth people improving on my inevitably out-of-reach fantasy. Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Parade: The dead walk on the North Side

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All is quiet and peaceful on Clark Street in Andersonville. Some local boys step into Simon’s Tavern for a beer. A brisk wind blows, and a fresh, spring sun shines. In the distance, the ominous scuffle of feet. Groans, boding evil. They round the corner, a menacing wave of 200 lurching figures, faces peeling with rotten flesh. Low, guttural moans for “brains!”

It’s Chicago’s first-ever Zombie Pub Crawl, organized by local improv theater troupe pH Productions. The horde hits three Andersonville bars—Simon’s, Charlie’s Ale House and Hamburger Mary’s. As they go by a local Einstein’s, one zombie groans, “Grar! I want brain bagel!” When they pass the Starbucks packed with coffee hounds and Mac-users, dozens of zombies claw at the windows, their faces plastered to the glass.

The Zombie Pub Crawl is the (ahem) brainchild of pH members Alaina Hoffman and Jason Geis, who swiped the idea from a similar crawl that took place in Minnesota. Geis explains, “People have been cooped up for the winter. We’ve been zombies for so long, let’s break out our inner zombie and do this. We found out what days weren’t Cubs weekends and went gung-ho!”

Ben Wilson, a tourist from Detroit, is caught off guard by the zombie horde while he waits outside Simon’s. “You would not see this in a million years where I’m from,” he laughs. “I got here yesterday. I wanted a little taste of everything Chicago had to offer: Millennium Park, the Sears Tower… and, apparently, zombies!” (Laura Hawbaker)

Looking at Mr. Goodbar: Tom Lynch spends the other 9-to-5 with the lonely hearts at Estelle’s

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“Do go around tonight,
Well, it’s bound to take your life.
There is a bad moon on the rise.”

-CCR

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.

Somewhere Over the Rainbo: Summertime and the looking is easy

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A reformed Rainbo Club regular visiting from out of town always calls this Ukrainian Village mainstay a “self-selecting slum-ocracy,” but on his current visit he’s fixed on but one thing: “The ugly bus pulled up outside, and it’s got big wheels.”
Yes: strangers. He’d expected the neighborhood to be like it was when he left five years ago: the same mix of laidback smile-to-smirk guys and stylish, slightly eccentric women with freshly minted art-school degrees. This night’s seventy-degrees outside. The bartender’s got arcane shred metal amped. Friend’s wide-eyed, though, at the completely half-dressed crew; his last image of Chicago taverns was in winter. Long johns give way to short cons in the dead of summer. His eyes flick. Flesh: men in shower slides displaying feet escaped from distant northwest Chinese work camps. Women in flip-flops, skin flushed and polished iridescent only hours since pedicure. This skimp-dressed banditry, the simple action of subtraction, outdoes what he sees in his SoCal haunts: you learn to dress down year-round there, but this is the dialectic between frost and Freon.
In winter? Timberland and mounds of down and wicked woolens awaiting strip. Summertime? And the looking is easy. The grief of dimples and calf, of sandal and ass in miniscule jersey dresses (sans VPL). Sneakers and calves and the backs of knees. Smiles and lemon-dropped laughter. One particular tremendous, tiny skirt. Men in sleeveless muscle Ts above khaki shorts held up with woven leather belts. A few time-honored New Traumatic fashion misstatements ornament the room. The crowd roils in abrupt shifts, packs of departure and arrival. The chatty, sometimes barking, unfamiliar stampede fills the room’s panopticon box: all convicts watch others’ cons unimpeded, an advance in the most sophisticated of mid-nineteenth century jailery. But if you look and do not listen, there is but the sweet contagion of freckle, dense afterglow of day’s vitamin D absorption, heart-race from common steed, bolt-tethered at curb alongside the herd of carbonized aluminum horses. Blood races and palls with two-dollar lager, G+Ts and the scent of other things served elsewhere under the dark of night.
Antic, frantic, distant and close. Do you hear them? The children of the summer night? There’s nowhere to sit or lean or not fidget in this savannah of the fumbling that insures the survival of the species, the jagged conversations just like the ones forgotten while mid-begetting, mere molecules of moisture in the close, dank, prurient fug. One angry voice rises above all, the all-purpose cry against this dive, warm weather or cold: “What do you mean, no Bud? Man!” (Ray Pride)

Rainbo Club, 1150 North Damen, (773)489-5999

Clay Achin’: Hyde Park Art Center gets a little messy

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The large ceramics studio at the Hyde Park Art Center is filled with just under two dozen people. They are gathered around two large tables, kneading and rolling large chunks of brown clay while periodically picking up a clay-caked beer bottle or cranberry vodka. Welcome to “Cocktails and Clay,” a gathering the art center offers every second Friday of the month as an alternative to the Friday night bar scene—but without axing out the drinking, of course. Beginners and pros alike are invited to come to the art center to drink and build a clay sculpture around a chosen theme of the night. The event began about a year ago when the art center moved to its new facility.

“They wanted me to do something, and I was like, ‘Well, OK…but I’m going to need to drink,’” says Theaster Gates Jr., the instructor for the evening. Gates has chosen the theme of “urban circus” for tonight’s session, after observing some police and car-driving citizen interaction on the way over. In the middle of the room on a table under the harsh florescent lights are the words “the urban circus” made with clay.

A group of eight or nine women are yelling and laughing loudly at each other as they create their urban-themed sculptures at a table in the back. They have come tonight from the south suburbs to celebrate a birthday.

“That is NOT urban, that’s prehistoric,” screams one of the women at her friend, who is constructing a lizard-like animal. Another one of the women is shaping a box with a money sign on the top, and across from her, her friend is molding an especially phallic-looking sculpture.

“Well… that is very urban,” laughs Gates.

“We just wanted to play with some clay and have some cocktails,” says Ella Huston. She is a first timer at “Cocktails and Clay” and heard about it through a mailing list. Others who are here tonight are seasoned regulars of the Hyde Park Art Center. Eleni Vryza is an artist who lives in Hyde Park and dabbles mainly in ceramics, painting and sculpture, “I came to the opening [of the new location] a year ago and now I come whenever I can,” she says.

There is a rush to finish the clay figures and drinks before the end of the session. A few more taunts and heavy critic remarks erupt from the table of the birthday partying women.
“Hey! How is your brontosaurus coming?” (Stephanie Ratanas)

Empire of the Senseless: Working Class Rules the Night

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By Mike Moreci

Behind the bar, between the cash register and the backlit bottles of booze, rocking along to the great nightly shuffle of bartenders and customers to the tempo of the ambient music, is a bobblehead of the Empire Carpet Man in his tan-rimmed, carpenter glasses and his all-jean apparel. There is something about the admission of a carpet salesman to the status of pop-culture icon that is so quintessentially Chicago. And while I don’t know the Empire Carpet Man or what he actually stands for, I do like to imagine him as having strict working-class values, a real dedication to the laboring masses. Because after all, every single day, late nights and early evenings, whenever I order an Old Style from my regular bartender, Turbo, there’s The Empire Carpet Man, bobbling along to the cacophony of Wicker Park’s Green Eye Lou.

I’ve been going to the Green Eye for a few years now, and have always been distinctly interested in the Empire Carpet Man. On a few occasions I’ve offered Turbo money in exchange for the bobblehead doll, but have been repeatedly rebuffed. The Green Eye has no intention of departing with the sedentary Empire Carpet Man and besides, my modest bids are far below others he regularly receives. Something about this–the fact that other patrons at the Green Eye are also trying to purchase this trivial tchotchke–makes me feel good about the Green Eye, about Chicago.

The patrons at the Green Eye are an artistically sentient group. It includes a myriad of aspiring writers and artists, photographers and filmmakers. If I think hard enough and wade through my beer- and whiskey-soaked memories, I can recall some captivating discussions I’ve had with a writer about his novel manuscript, a photographer and her show at the Darkroom. On one occasion, I overheard a conversation on Jonathan Franzen’s dissolving literary credibility. On another, I spotted a customer reading Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” while sitting at the bar, drinking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.

It’s this juxtaposition, between Pynchon and the Empire Carpet Man, that makes Chicago’s community so unique. Sure, other major cities have their dive bars, their hipsters and slackers, academics and artists. But Chicago lays claim to the working class like none other. From the stockyards to the train yards, the steel mills and the Pullman District, Chicago’s history, embedded in labor, is undeniably part and parcel to the city’s fruition. And the egalitarian values commonly associated with the Midwest are not exclusive to those working in the unions and trades. It extends into the principles of the artist class as well. Because at the Green Eye, down beneath the rumble of the aerial Blue Line tracks, despite the literary and artistic ambitions, there’s no pretense towards intellectual bigfooting; space is equally shared between the humanity of the workers and the artists, between Thomas Pynchon and the Empire Carpet Man.

One Snowy Morning: Wasting Away the Holidays

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By David Mojowkn

Chicago’s shiny center of condos and clubs. But it wasn’t long ago that the world of old-time ethnic daytime drunks collided with tattoo-covered, graphic-novel-reading artists and students, turning West Ukrainian Village into a cheap drinkers’ paradise. Such was the case in early January 2002. The obligatory Christmas events were over, and the snow was falling at an inch per hour. Why not stop for a beer until it slowed down? Tuman’s Alcohol Abuse Center, at 2159 West Chicago, was our spot. But it did not open until 2pm. It was 10:30 in the morning.

A half block east we saw the hand-painted sign that read “Pop’s Tavern.” Water-damaged walls and falling plaster did not hide the red, white and black electrical wires dangling from naked fixtures like candy canes. Instead of old couches in the back, there was an assortment of lawn chairs and outdoor tables.

The bartender/owner greeted us in a thick Southern accent. He rubbed his eyes as he served us.

“How’s it goin’?” we asked.

“Not good,” he answered. “Friend of mine died last night.” He stroked his ZZ Top beard.

“His name was Eddie Shaver. The son of a country singer, but you wouldn’t know him. Flying down South for the funeral tomorrow.”

“My god,” I exclaimed. “That’s Billy Joe Shaver’s son.”

Shaver’s songs have been recorded by Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Elvis, to name a few. His son Eddie died on December 31, 2001. “You know Billy Joe Shaver?”

The bartender came alive. “Known him since we were kids.”

He produced a bottle of Maker’s Mark Whiskey and put it on the bar. “Boys, let’s drink to Eddie Shaver.”

The whiskey flowed for over two hours while the snow covered the city like a blanket of white crushed ice. Sometimes we paid, sometimes we didn’t. He didn’t seem to care. “Place was condemned by the city. Closing any day now.”

Peering out the window, we saw a black limousine pull up in front. The men dressed in topcoats and women in gowns stepped out into the street. A chauffer, dressed in a grey uniform, opened the door. In his best “Pardon me, do you have any Grey Poupon?” voice he inquired, “Is this Pop’s for Champagne?” referring to the bistro formerly at 2934 North Sheffield (now at 601 North State) which serves champagne at prices as high as $450 a bottle.

The bartender laughed. “This is Pop’s. It sure as hell ain’t Pop’s for Champagne!”

Stumbling down the street we headed into another West Village bar. We were greeted at the door by a man of about 55 with long, Buffalo Bill-style hair wearing an old CTA bus-driver’s hat with a dime-store badge in the middle. He had another silver plastic badge on his shirt and wore a thick belt with a nightstick hanging from a holster.

“You boys have ID?” he asked.

After we produced our licenses he waved us in.

“That’s the sheriff,” a West Village regular replied. “He comes around all the bars here. Don’t know how he got that way but he’s harmless.”

The snow and the beer continued. The “sheriff” sat at a table by the door drinking soda pop, checking all the male customers. When a female walked in, he simply tipped the bill of his CTA cowboy hat and drawled out “ma’am.”

I put Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Woman #9,” on the CD box. Suddenly, the sheriff got up and started dancing and yelling out–”Everybody must get stoned.”

The regulars at the bar were amazed he was acting this way. Then the sheriff suddenly yelled out. “I haven’t heard this song in thirty years. The last time I heard it, I was taking hits of acid!”

The day ended at Tuman’s. Walking in, we were greeted by a collie. Tuman’s was always filled with dogs. Sometimes I wondered if people simply left them there before they went to work, knowing that they would be petted and fed Slim Jims all day. Tuman’s was known for their Guinness Specials. We had a few to chase down the Maker’s Mark, Old Milwaukee and whatever else we had consumed during nearly eight hours of drinking. It had finally stopped snowing, but by then it didn’t really matter.

The Chicago Archives of Alcohol: A self-guided tour

Tales of Drunken Woe No Comments »

By David Witter

The best way to understand the history of Chicago is to go to a saloon. Much of Chicago’s history, and especially its politics, revolved on a barstool. The city’s first civil uprising, the Lager Beer Riot of 1855, began the intersection between booze and politics. This union was firmly established by the 1890s, when “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin created and ran the city’s first political machine from Kenna’s saloon.

It then continued with the early brewing empire of civic leader Charles Wacker, through stockyard workers at corner taverns, prohibition-era bootleggers to today’s diversified drinkers. Yet while a true museum will never be commissioned, several establishments still serve as de facto galleries showcasing the social, economic and political link between alcohol and Chicago’s storied past.

In no place is this more evident than the House of Glunz. Located at 1206 North Wells, the liquor sales/distributorship was in business almost a decade before the soon-to-be-closing Berghoff bar and restaurant, making it the oldest liquor establishment in the city.

“My great grandfather started the business in 1888,” Chris Donovan says. “Before that he worked at a downtown-area brewery owned by Charles Wacker. His friend and neighbor, Oscar Mayer, had already established his meatpacking business, so with the urging and help of Wacker and Mayer, he began selling beer in what was then the far North Side.”

Like the undisturbed attic of an old mansion, the House of Glunz is cluttered with remnants of its past. Oaken beer barrels and a ten-cent luncheon menu rest undisturbed next to shelves filled with bottles and yellowed labels with names like Old Decanter Bourbon, Glunz Sloe Gin, and Osborne Brandy. Many of the ancient bottles, however, are more than mere relics. Today, the House of Glunz retails some of the rarest spirits in the world. Many of them command prices that could be used to pay down a home.

“Some of our more rare products that we sell include Joseph Etournaud Brandy from 1895, a Spey Royal single malt Scotch whiskey with a tax stamp from 1934, a pre-Castro rum, and Empress Josephine Brandy from 1811 that sells for $8,000 a bottle,” Donovan says. “Most of these have been in our inventory the whole time, and collectors come from all over the world to study and taste, as well as buy these products.”

Glunz also offers customers the option of buying more moderately priced, hard-to-find spirits like Old Overholt Rye and a large selection of fine wines.

“We believe that everybody should be able to afford a good wine, so we offer a selection of fine, but carefully selected wines from around the world for as low as ten dollars,” Donovan says.

While the stock at the House of Glunz has evolved with the economic changes in the Near North/Old Town neighborhood, Schaller’s Pump still retains its links with Bridgeport’s working-class past. Run by Jack Schaller and his daughter Kim, they represent the third and fourth generations of Schaller’s serving fine food and alcohol on the same premises.

“The building has been a bar/restaurant since the late 1880s, and you can see from the peek-hole on the back door that it was speakeasy during the 1920s and early thirties,” Kim Schaller says.

The Schaller family bought the building just after Prohibition. At that time Martin Kennelly was the first in a line of many Chicago mayors to hail from Bridgeport. The Ambrosia Brewery, one of dozens of neighborhood beer makers of the era, was located in what is now the parking lot next door. Beer was supposedly pumped in straight from the brewer’s giant casks, giving the room its moniker, “Schaller’s Pump.”

“This has always been an ethnic bar,” says Jack Schaller, now 82 years old. “I’ve seen the neighborhood change. First we had Jews along Halsted, and a lot of Lithuanians who came to work in the stockyards, which were only about two blocks south. Then the Irish and a few Italians came. Now the neighborhood is predominantly Irish, but there are a lot of Mexicans moving in as well.”

During this time behind the bar, Schaller has also witnessed the changes in social customs, especially those involving alcohol consumption and drinking etiquette.

“As a kid growing up here, I used to notice that the women mostly drank highballs, almost never beer. But now they drink beer,” says Schaller, whose father was also a law partner of Mayor Richard J. Daley. “As for the men, the best sellers used to be strong whiskeys like 100 proof Old Grand Dad or Old Fitzgerald. They drank beers like Schlitz, Hamm’s, and local breweries like Ambrosia, Nectar and Canadian Ace. It was also rare to see a woman smoking, but now they smoke more than the men.” 

The House of Glunz and Schaller’s Pump represent two of the eldest statesmen on the Chicago bar and alcohol circuit. But look around Chicago’s neighborhoods and you will find many more examples of Chicago’s alcohol-drenched history.

 

Shinnick’s Pub, 3758 South Union Avenue

 Located almost kitty-corner from Schaller’s Pump, Shinnick’s has also been a bar since the late 1890s. Owned by the Shinnick family since 1938, Celine Shinnick is the third generation to work behind the bar.

“I suppose it is too late to get in trouble for this, but during Prohibition it was a speakeasy, ” Shinnick says. “People used to come in through the front entrance for the apartment upstairs, then go through the hallway and have somebody ring them in. My father took over in 1938 and it has been in the family since then.”

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of this longtime Bridgeport hangout is the antique back bar. Made out of oak, it features Roman-style pillars, ornate wooden-knurled designs, a turn-of-the-century wooden, saloon-style cash register, and rich wooden cabinets and shelves that stock dozens of fine bourbons, Scotches, beer and liquors. Like Schaller’s with its brewery relationship, it was the first distribution spot for the now-closed Canadian Ace Brewery located at 3900 South Union. Famous politicos like Richard J. Daley and Morgan Finley also hung their hats at Shinnick’s. But unlike their neighbors, Shinnick’s also saw some important out-of-state visitors.

“During the 1950s my brother-in-law was an official with the Teamsters, and he used to come in here with Jimmy Hoffa and hold unofficial union meetings in the back room,” Shinnick says. 

 

John Barleycorn, 658 West Belden

The building dates back to the 1890s and still contains the original tin ceiling, wooden columns and two-foot-thick firewalls. During Prohibition, the area that is now the rear dining room was a Chinese laundry. This served as a front for bootleggers who rolled carts of booze through the laundry into the basement. Legend has it that John Dillinger frequented the saloon and often bought the house a round. The Biograph Theater, where he was shot by Melvin Purvis, is just two blocks north on Lincoln Avenue. 

During the 1960s, Barleycorn became something of an artists’ hangout, noted for its slide projections of paintings and handmade replicas of ships, some dating back to the 1800s. It was also one of the first Chicago bars to become noted for giant inexpensive hamburgers, which no doubt attracted its then-core crowd of hippies and young artists. Today, the Barleycorn name has outlived many of the older Lincoln Avenue bars including the Oxford Pub.

Touché, 6412 North Clark 

With the recent closing of Charmers, which had been a gay bar since the end of Prohibition, Touché now stands as the city’s oldest continuously operating gay/leather bar. Originally opened in 1977 in a blue-collar neighborhood at 2825 North Lincoln, longtime owner Chuck Rodocker has seen times change from the disco era, through the onslaught of AIDS, and into an era of “healthy moderation. Today people come in to drink Perrier water, which is something that you couldn’t have imagined twenty years ago,” Rodocker says. Now located in the Rogers Park area, Touché is known as a co-sponsor of the Chicago Leather Contest.

Webster Wine Bar 1480 West Webster 

The city’s oldest wine bar is another testimonial to the continuing changes in Chicago’s socio-economic and drinking history. Opened in 1994, former litigation consultants Tom MacDonald and Janan Asfour were part of the wave that changed the West Lincoln Park/Sheffield area from one of factories and warehouses to condominiums and restaurants. Dark and intimate, this candlelit room offers more than thirty wines by the glass as well as a series of two-ounce flights for tasting. Their selection also includes 400 different bottles wines, beer, single malt Scotches, cognacs and light food specialties. Ironically, it is located less than a block from the 100-year-old Gutmann Leather Tanneries, one of the city’s last links to its stockyard past. A representative from the business said that the tanners do occasionally stroll in for a chablis or cabernet after work, “but not too often.”  

 The Berghoff Restaurant 17 West Adams

The outcry of nostalgia centering around the upcoming closing of The Berghoff has rivaled that of Marshall Field’s, and highlights the relationship between bars and Chicago’s history. Opened in 1898, the bar served free sandwiches to lure men to drink five-cent steins of Berghoff’s own beer, which was made in nearby Indiana. Like Glunz, the company also expanded, making their own lines of bourbons and spirits. During prohibition, the Berghoffs went into the pop business, and continued to expand their full line of German-style food, which included schnitzels, sausages and strudels. After Prohibition the restaurant received the city’s first liquor license, which is still displayed proudly in the restaurant’s entrance. The bar also made history when, as the last all-male bastion in 1969, a group from the National Organization of Women demanded to be served. Part of the building will remain open as a catering business run by Herman Berghoff’s daughter, but the experience of drinking a dark, rich beer in the thickly paneled room will never occur again.

“We share the sadness that many feel about the closing of our restaurant,” Herman Berghoff said. “It has been an honor to be part of the fabric of Chicago.”