Written while sick & neither drinking, smoking nor cavorting with hipsters. But written while writing, so hope prevails.
- If you ever want someone to talk to, let me know.
- My mother taught me not to talk to strangers.
- Can I still take you up on your offer to chat?
- I have a fare in Albany Park at 10:30, but can meet for a drink now.
- (Now?! A drink right now? Where?) Ok. Where? I mean, I don’t go to many bars. You’re the cab driver; aren’t you supposed to know all the good bars?
- Do you know Ricochet’s?
I know Ricochet’s. The way you know that one seemingly abandoned house in an otherwise family-friendly neighborhood. The one that’s not had a paint job or been mowed in anyone’s memory, but emits a vibe that tells you it is inhabited. You know it because of everything you don’t know about it.
There is a stretch of Lincoln Ave. in Chicago that makes me keep paying too much rent. It is lined with trees, pedestrians and cultural hubs including a regional library, a park complete with art nouveau gazebo, a venerated music school and a movie theatre, with independent bookstores, coffee shops, vintage clothing, record and toy stores, superb restaurants, bars… And the European apothecary, delicatessen and bench-lined plaza helps it maintain an old world feel even as kitchy boutiques and chain operations begin to creep in. It is a lovely street for a lovely stroll, some lovely shopping and a lovely meal. It is all very lovely.
Except Ricochet’s. This shady bar on a shady corner in the middle of it all has that vibe that will keep saying, “We don’t want nobody nobody sent,” long after political reformers make good on promises of transparency. While the door is always open, it’s too dark to see what’s going on in there, and the wafting scent of beer stale at 2pm makes you veer a bit closer to the curb as you walk past. There are always people there. You don’t know what kind of people are drinking there at this hour, but they are not like you. While yuppies with toddlers meander and socialize up and down the sidewalk, people come and go from Ricochet’s alone and with purpose, as if maybe picking up keys. Seems like the kind of place you go only if you know the bartender well enough he’d have your spare keys.
In the back of the small, narrow room, past the bar, the dart boards, the bathrooms and the side door is a little round table with a little lamp with a fringe lampshade. And two tall round barstools. The music is awesome: Stones, Bowie, Doors, Velvet Underground… “Stones or Beatles?” “Oh Stones, no brainer.” Now I don’t care that I am drinking boxed wine. I drink wine. Ricochet’s does not serve wine from bottles. They only serve boxed wine. It is quiet in the back. The company is good. I drink the boxed wine and point laughingly to an aged frat boy in a baseball cap dancing blissfully near the bathrooms. “The thing is, he probably has more education than I do.” “We can laugh at him, but he’s probably happier than we are too.” We are not happy people, we agree, grinning and laughing and having a great time.
I’d have never come here with friends. I’ve lived in this neighborhood for 11 years and have never come here with friends. Even my unhappy dive bar aficionado drinking companion is giggling with shame. “Next time I’ll take you some place a little more classy, ok?”
- Weird night. Wanted to hear a friendly voice. How are you?
- Weird night myself. It’s good to hear from you. I still owe you a drink.
- What does your week look like?
- I am boycotting the 4th of July.
- There is a place by me called the Skylark.
After one hour and one virgin el line excursion, I arrive in part of Chicago I’ve never set eyes on before. A concrete cancer seems to have decimated any living plant or animal for miles. Every building looks like an abandoned warehouse, even the ones that aren’t. I walk across a rusty bridge over the river, or sanitary canal, I don’t know, lined with what could be a proper junk yard if someone put some effort into it. No shade for miles. I am early. I find a bench to sit on around the corner from a gas station, but everything about it screams, “Do not sit here!” There’s no one really walking down the sidewalk. I wonder if this is what F. Scott’s Valley of Ashes looked like. Across the street is a sign, “Skylark.” I look around for another. Maybe this is just the original, the sign is here for historical value, but where I am going is like down the street or something? Well, ok, it is classier than Ricochet’s, but so are many middle school bathrooms. The nondescript building is on the west side, facing west, with no skyscrapers, lake breeze or population density to shield me from the blazing July evening sun. I head toward the bar feeling like I am about to be cast in an indie movie no one would remember why they placed in their Netflix queue. Maybe Steve Buscemi would be there.
Inside it is roomy, dark and empty; so dark you can see dust particles in the air in the sliver of light that appears when the door opens from time to time. I settle into a booth and decide to get some peirogi. Outside, Americans are in backyards and alleys eating hotdogs and producing amateur pyrotechnics displays in celebration of our glorious nation. Inside, we’re getting tipsy and celebrating our own independence. “I just want to be able to go to bars and have drinks with pretty girls.” “I just wanted to be Dorothy Parker when I grew up.”
Late at night we sped home through the west side streets, hundreds of small fireworks displays in every direction, me half expecting Myrtle Wilson to run out in front of the cab, he warning me not to get involved with him.
- Why don’t I show you the Rainbo before we go to the play?
I’d never heard of the Rainbo. Why should I have? I wasn’t playing coy when I said I don’t really go to bars. I drink at friends’ houses, wine, from bottles. Maybe if there is a cookout, I’ll bring supplies for Cape Cods. I don’t cook. I also live, work and play near the lake. I came from rural Illinois and have a phobia about straying too far back into its bowels. Slippery slope. One day I’m in West Town, the next I could be in Peoria. And why would I ever need to go to Ukrainian Village? If I wanted to see Ukrainian villagers, I could go to, you know, Ukraine. Right?
I’d never heard of this Rainbo madness until I was handed a postcard advertising an upcoming art show there. After that I began to hear a lot about the Rainbo. Some people talk about their children. Some people talk about their bar. Of course I had to go. Based on the track record of my partner in dive bar crime, I had pretty low expectations of it being “a little more classy” than an outhouse. In fact, I secretly hoped it was in a condemned building, where serial killers and postal workers hung out, accessible only by the alley. With no bathrooms. And everything was served in Dixie cups. And everyone had to stand.
Rainbo is actually kinda lovely. If you get there early, you don’t have to stand. There are nice red leather circular booths and a newly reupholstered red leather couch. You can get in through the front door, drinks are served in glassware, wine comes from a bottle (a bottle: only one choice of red), and while too dark to inspire confidence in the hygiene of others (not ruling this out as responsible for my current illness either), there are bathrooms.
I’m told hipsters congregate here. On one occasion, a group of hipster younglings from LA in the booth next to us offered to buy a round. What nice young hipsters. Such good manners. But mostly I am there too early to witness true hipster atrocities firsthand. Early in the evening, there is the man managing the bar and a few bartenders, maybe the owner and the owner’s dog, a guy who runs a breakfast joint and Tim Kinsella slipping in and out of the back door. The other night there were some youthful fellows in the newspaper business discussing the recent floods. All very above board, IMO. No serial killers, postal workers, annoying hipsters. The only crime I’ve seen committed, be it against the law or our refined sensibilities, was when the cab driver stole the breakfast man’s cigarettes.
The bar is dank yet classy, lined with art high upon the walls and in display cases, and featuring a small but elegant stage with black velvet curtains and an ornate ivory border. There is a mounted deer head. I grew up with a mounted deer head in the home; I’m neither disturbed nor impressed by some ironic deer head. A vodka & soda and a glass of wine will set you back $8. Together. It’s a good place to be poor, beautiful and drinking. “I used to think, and maybe still do, that the relationship between Sartre and de Beauvoir was the ideal arrangement. Living apart and all that jazz.” “And her affair with Nelson Algren.” They say he used to take her here.
It is a good thing I’ll drink that boxed wine. It is my only defense against accusations of pretension now that I’ve off and compared myself to Simone de Beauvoir.
So that’s why hipsters go to dive bars.
Poor hipsters and their bad rap. I can think of far worse pastimes than adoring brilliant writers while drinking cheap booze in dive bars in Chicago.