I had just returned from Spain, externally tanned, internally burned, as any good trip ought to do to a writer, when Captain Sexy Voice came over the intercom to tell us we were landing.
CSV: Welcome to Chicago.
I saw the lights of the city shining under the plane, and I knew everything below me was part of me, and no mater where I went in the world, that would always be me: a neon parade against a dark night.
I had approximately 48 hours to spend in Chicago, and while all 48 of those were spent jet-lagged, I tried to make the best of it by squeezing in time to see every one that I could. Here are those 48 hours & The Great Gatsby:
My friend A and I went to dinner the first night at 90 Miles Cuban Café .
One look around, and I could tell the place would be Hemingway approved. Over ropa vieja, black beans, rice, plantains, and passion fruit ice tea, A let me go on and on about politics, my theories of time, and past lives.
Maybe it was the TV playing I Love Lucy re-runs or maybe it was the live band, but I didn’t want the night to end. We skipped dessert, thinking that we’d grab an after dinner cocktail instead.
A knew of “just the place” to take me, and after trouble finding a gas station, a U-Turn fiasco (It’s the Fuzz, abort mission! Abort mission!), and the usual hardship of finding city parking, we finally ended up at The Barrelhouse Flat on North Lincoln.
Just as stepping into 90 Miles felt like we were stepping into a café in Cuba, stepping into The Barrelhouse was a bit like stepping into a time warp. It was a dark, classy, joint, themed in the 1920s. In my mind, at least, maybe they’re going for the 30s? I kept thinking, Lewis Sullivan would drink here . . .
There were rumors that there was an upstairs portion of the bar that was even classier and more refined. A told me that we simply were not dressed appropriately to be up there.
So we hung out downstairs where there was a welcoming undercurrent even for me in my jeans and T-shirt. The drink menu had $4 beers on tap as well as $11 cocktails. The piano player, S, wore a denim jacket and played every other Tuesday, “just to keep his fingers flexible.”
Read: West Egg downstairs and East Egg upstairs.
I ordered a CK Dexter Haven and A ordered a Cat’s Cradle. After trying each other’s drinks we switched. I’m not going to go into detail about how good the drink was, just look at the picture.
At some point A went to the restroom and I struck up a conversation with J the bartender.
ME: Tell me about the drink menu.
J: Each month we [the bartenders] come up with new drinks to feature on the menu. It’s stressful.
ME: Which drink is yours?
J: Mine isn’t on there, I was in Belize at the time.
ME: How was Belize?
J: Good except for the hurricane.
ME: I write this blog. . .
At this point, I ordered a $4 tap—the Jolly Pumpkin Weizen Bam, or what I thought was a pumpkin beer. (Wait for it.)
I made a trip to the bathroom and wrote this in my journal:
“Barrelhouse Flat/Dyson hand dryer/ give it another star.”
I wasn’t driving that night.
The next day I woke up thinking, I have to write about this bar, but what book do I own and haven’t yet read would go perfectly with this place?
Enter The Great Gatsby.
All through graduate school, I pretended that I had read, The Great Gatsby. There was a certain necessity in this, as Hamline University is stationed in Saint Paul, MN. They are so closely tied to Fitzgerald, that one alumni group was cheekily titled, “West Egg Literati.”
When I started graduate school, I discovered that there were SO many things that I hadn’t read. Writers can be absolute snobs, and the fact that I had spent years dealing with pharmaceutical sciences, organic chemistry, and psychology classes didn’t matter.
I hadn’t read Richard Yates, Ruth Stone, Lorrie Moore, Hemingway . . . I had read Robert Frost from time to time, but that only got me eye rolls—he was SO out of fashion. I liked Stephen King, and horror in general, and because of this I was <<GASP>> deemed a GENRE writer. I felt I was dismissed.
ART SCHOOLS BREED CONFORMITY*. Sorry about that, I’m sometimes prone to outbursts.
I never had the time to sit down with The Great Gatsby the way I wanted. Instead of rushing through it, I went online and read a few reviews and critical essays about Gatsby, one summary of Fitzgerald’s life, and called it good. I stood toe to toe with any snob during my Hamline years.
After reading the book this week, I see the irony in my actions. Trust me, I see the irony.
But I firmly believe that one finds stories when they are meant to find them, and it meant something to me that Nick Carraway, the narrator, turned 30** on the day that the climax of the novel takes place.
A bit more about The Barrelhouse:
I enjoyed the bar so much that I dragged both E and M back the next night raving about pumpkin beer and a mysterious upstairs.
The bartender that night, W, created a custom drink for me based on this description:
ME: I was here yesterday and had the Cat’s Cradle. I loved it, but I want to try something different. I like champagne and sweet drinks.
Judge me all you want, but W made me the best drink ever. It didn’t have a name and wasn’t on the menu.
ME: You ought to name this The Jackrabbit.
W: I like that. Why do you say that?
ME: I can’t tell you. It will be in my blog.
Well, W, the reason that drink ought to be called The Jackrabbit was because half way through it (Yes I realize my mother-in-law reads this blog. Hi, L!), us girls started talking about lingerie, and what lingerie often leads to. We also discovered the real reason E liked Gimlets when she was 23. I don’t know what was in that drink, but it didn’t taste that strong . . .
Then we tried the pumpkin beer.
W: It’s not made from pumpkin, you know.
M: Obviously, I mean, a pumpkin beer would be dark.
ME: (Glaring look in M’s direction.)
I was wearing jeans and Book It T-shirt. Sure I dressed it up with a scarf, but despite this (or maybe because of it) I met Kit, the upstairs attendant. She showed me the pool table where a man named Frank was dominating the game.
I didn’t play Frank, but I did explain Book It to a construction worker from the suburbs:
CW: So they basically promoted obesity in America’s youth?
ME: It was the ‘80s; they didn’t know any better.
I sauntered back downstairs and met The Old Timer. E was convinced I knew this man, so she let him take M’s seat.
OT informed me that he was a famous dancer and a very special person. If I knew just how special and famous he was, I’d laugh. He took out a Hello Kitty notebook to prove it to me. He and his wife used to have 14 cats. He went on to explain that he had snuck out of the old person’s home across the street. He even let me try on his glasses because they were made of solid wood.
M: (sad look on her face) He’s senile. I feel sorry for him.
ME: You’re just pouting because he stole your seat! If I get to be old and in a home, I hope to God I escape at 12AM on a Wednesday night and have drinks with pretty girls!
As we were leaving, he called to me—
OT: Come here and give me a hug! I’m from Saint Paul, Minnesota and we are huggers there.
And there it was, the heart of The Great Gatsby.
I hadn’t needed Nick Carraway to explain about this decade of loneliness, the fact that St. Olaf could only hold Gatsby for two weeks because of their ferocious indifference to the drums of his destiny, or that The Great Gatsby was always a story of the Middle West.
The drunken man with the enormous owl-eyed spectacles saw it all clearly, and for a moment I did, too.
* Even if they don’t mean to. Hamline University had an extraordinary cross genre program that promoted multiple voices, but there was always a hierarchy between students.
**I turn 30 in 11 days. Not that I’m counting.
**If you stop by The Barrelhouse Flat and think the doorman smells really good, it’s a mix of Jean Paul cologne and strawberry bubble gum.