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Art imitates life

Yesterday's Obit of the Day had a literary angle: Chester Gillette, who was executed on March 30, 1908 after a sensationalistic murder trial, was the basis for Theodore Dreiser's novel An American Tragedy. I must admit, however, that as much as I admire Dreiser, the novel is a doorstop of a book that I've never dared to try to read. I even walked away from a nearly-free copy last year at a library sale.

March 31, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Guitars! Hamsters!

Guitar hamster

While searching for history on a faded ad that I photographed this week, I came across this 1951 issue of Popular Mechanics. I find these classifieds - play guitar! raise hamsters! - simply fascinating. And reassuring in how they make you realize that human dissatisfaction is by no means just a 21st Century condition. We've always been looking for something, or something else, to do with our lives.

March 29, 2015 in Ephemera, History | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fading Ad: Phil's Tavern


Here's a real obscurity: Phil's Tavern, on the northwest corner of Madison Street and Carpenter Street, on the Near West Side. I can find absolutely nothing online about this place - even searches of the approximate street address come up empty. My only discovery is a Google Street View image from last May, which shows a shingled awning that formerly obscured the sign; that awning is now removed, and the sign revealed. (But that also suggests the building is being renovated, which means the sign might disappear soon.) Based on the drab exterior and the tiny size of the building, it's probably safe to say that Phil's used to be a non-descript, hole-in-the-wall dive, perhaps dating back to the era when this stretch of Madison was the city's skid row.

March 25, 2015 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (2)

Cocktails from 1862

image from http://www.boogaj.com/.a/6a00d83451ce9f69e201b7c76a1634970b-pi

So cool: The Bar-Tender's Guide or How to Mix Drinks, the first known cocktail guide in the English language, published in 1862. A seemingly endless array of punches and liqueurs. Check out the "Locomotive":

Put two yolks of eggs into a goblet with an ounce of honey, a little essence of cloves, and a liqueur-glass of Curacoa; add a pint of Burgundy made hot, whisk well together, and serve hot in glasses.
Don't cross the train tracks on your walk home after drinking this one. This site (the EUVS Digital Collection) has a treasure trove of digitized cocktail and distilling books dating back to the early 19th Century.

March 24, 2015 in Food and Drink | Permalink | Comments (0)

Eugene Field, fender-fisherman

The poet Eugene Field was an enthusiastic fisherman (or angler, in the parlance of his day). Er, sort of. From the chapter "The Delights of Fender-Fishing", collected in In The Love Affairs of a Bibliomaniac:
My bookseller once took me angling with him in a Wisconsin lake which was the property of a club of anglers to which my friend belonged. As we were to be absent several days I carried along a box of books, for I esteem appropriate reading to be a most important adjunct to an angling expedition. My bookseller had with him enough machinery to stock a whaling expedition, and I could not help wondering what my old Walton would think, could he drop down into our company with his modest equipment of hooks, flies, and gentles.
The bookseller objects when Field raises an umbrella against the hot sun, yet grudgingly tolerates it; but when Field starts to recite some angling-inspired poetry, the bookseller says enough is enough, and calls it a day. Which undoubtedly satisfied Field; he liked fishing, but not the actual catching of fish. Instead, he describes himself as a "fender-fisherman" who exults over fishing and the natural world from a distance, indoors in conversation before a roaring fire (a fender is a frame or screen in front of an open fire) or through readings of Izaak Walton, Christopher North and others. Interesting guy.

March 23, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

"My Fathers, The Baltic"

I picked up Philip Levine's News of the World at the library a few weeks ago, shortly after his death, and have slowly been paging through it. For as much as I admire his factory-and-diner poetry, it's "My Fathers, The Baltic", with its evocation of a rocky Baltic beach and remembrance of immigrant ancestors long gone, that I like best so far.

Yusel Prisckulnick,
I bless your laughter
thrown in the wind’s face,
your gall, your rages,
your abiding love
for money and all
it never bought...

Simply lovely.

March 22, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Cass Street


Great photo of Cass Street in Joliet from the mid 1950s, looking west across the Chicago Street intersection. All of these buildings are still standing (remarkable, given the city's fondness for parking garages and surface lots), though not as thriving as they once were. The jewelry store on the corner had a beautiful gut rehab a few years ago (here are some photos from early in the renovation), but the first restaurant there closed last year and a second restaurant is now giving it a try. Panning left, the white-front building (a Goldblatt's department store back then) has been vacant for at least ten years. Next is the former Ottawa Street Methodist Church (a very odd church building - it looks more like a bank) which is now the Joliet Area Historical Museum. The last building (with the angled corner) is the former Al Baskin clothing store (forerunner of Mark Shale) which this century had three restaurants come and go in a span of just two or three years and has been vacant for quite some time.

I thought about posting a current photo of this same block, but the sight would be too depressing. Other than a steady stream of cars passing through without stopping, there are few signs of life - no cars parked while their drivers patronize local businesses, and almost no pedestrians. This should be the most bustling corner downtown, but the area continues to struggle.

March 22, 2015 in History, Joliet | Permalink | Comments (0)


"In time I came to feel that real editing means changing as little as possible. Various editors and proofreaders would put their oar in, and sometimes I had to change hats and protect the writer from his own agreeableness, or fear, or whatever it was that made him say yes when he ought to have said no. What you hope is that if the writer reads the story ten years after it is published he will not be aware that anybody has ever touched it. But it takes many years of experience—and love—to be able to do that." - William Maxwell

March 21, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Hibernian Hall, Joliet


In an effort to revive this blog, I intend to post something historical here every weekend. Above is a photo of the old Hibernian Hall on East Cass Street in Joliet. The building was the lodge for the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Irish fraternal society. The building has seen better days - many of the upstairs windows are broken, and the auto repair shop on the ground floor, with the gaudy checkerboard facade, looks like it might be out of business - but it still maintains much of its original dignity. If you look closely, you can read the Hibernians' motto ("Friendship, Unity and Christian Charity") and see the letters "AOH" and several Celtic crosses and shamrocks. An interesting relic on what is rapidly becoming a worn-down part of Joliet.

March 15, 2015 in Joliet, Photography | Permalink | Comments (0)

Irish March

Oops. I guess I'm not doing Irish March this year. It's already the 13th and I only just now remembered my annual reading exercise. Well, I did read William Trevor's The Old Boys last month, so at least that's something. If you're somehow feeling cheated, I guess you could read my recaps from 2014, 2013 (actually, a preview), 2012 or 2011.

March 13, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


"The secret of the afterlife is nothing at all - or, rather, it is only one secret, compared to the infinite number of secrets having to do with this life that the dead take with them when they go." - William Maxwell

March 12, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

Everybody's a critic...

...and James Joyce wasn't even safe at home.
Nora was not fond of her husband's style of writing, and not usually content with a yawn. When she discovered that he was "on another book again," just a year after the misery of Ulysses, she asked her husband if, instead of "that chop suey you're writing," he might not try "sensible books that people can understand."
Joyce started Finnegans Wake on this day in 1923, obviously without the support of his wife. But I think I would have liked Nora. "Chop suey" is one of the most memorable bits of criticism I've ever encountered - just a notch below Poe calling someone's poem "an illimitable gilded swill trough."

March 11, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

A Cash Fortress for Brink's


This photograph shows the Bernadin archives building of the Chicago Archdiocese, at 711 W. Monroe St. If the diocese was looking for a fortress of a building to secure its archives, they couldn't have found a more appropriate structure. Here is an artist rendering from 1937, just prior to the building's construction.


It was originally built as the new headquarters of the Brink's armored car company. According to this Tribune article, the building (built from reinforced concrete, and fireproof) housed the corporate offices as well as the armored car and money transfer operations, and included an indoor rifle range, centrally-operated doors, concealed machine gun nest and a "modern gas apparatus so that the entire structure can be gassed from a concealed location by one operator." I take this to mean that if burglars tried to pull off a heist inside the building, they could be gassed into unconsciousness and then arrested.

Business must have been even better than expected for Brink's, because while the rendering depicts two stories, the building was ultimately built with a third. Also interesting to note that the building contractor was the Avery Brundage Company; besides being a successful businessman, Brundage was the longtime president of the International Olympic Committee and a former Olympic athlete.

March 8, 2015 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)


"If you can’t annoy somebody with what you write, I think there’s little point in writing." - Kingsley Amis

March 7, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)

Not your grandfather's cocktail

At Inlander, Samuel Ligon writes about booze and the commodification of cool. On the one hand, it's intriguing to sip a cocktail while browsing a boutique so overpriced that you'll never buy anything there. But then, alas, it's not really a cocktail, but an artisanal creation.

On the booze table is a recipe on distressed paper for a cocktail called a Grandfather's Boil, written by Dexter Fontaine, Seattle's preeminent artisanal craft cocktail mixologist. But the list of ingredients has you wondering if Dexter Fontaine cares about booze at all.

First there's .3 ounces of green chartreuse. You figure maybe you can skip that ingredient, but next it's two spritzes of velvet falernum, which sounds kind of sexy, kind of filthy, and then nine drops of rosewater and a jigger of Lillet. A dude in a Civil War beard sighs behind you, waiting to mix his Grandfather's Boil. You scan the recipe for something you can just pour into a glass. The three stalks of pre-measured powdered Palouse wheat can't possibly be real. Same for the freshly raked leaf garnish. Looks like everything's going to have to be left out of this cocktail. But then you find it. Actual booze! Only it's cinnamon and apple-infused. Don't ask why.

You can just keep your artisanal craft cocktail mixologists, Seattle (and Chicago, and other big cities); I'll be more than happy being served by a bartender named George at the corner tavern (or serving myself, at home). I don't drink Manhattans because they're trendy, but because they're simple and my common-sense dad drank them, and with every sip I feel almost a communion with him.

March 1, 2015 in Current Affairs, Food and Drink | Permalink | Comments (0)

"...the old life we no longer needed..."

In Andre Dubus III’s House of Sand and Fog, the former Iranian air force colonel Behrani reflects on the new life he had dreamed of for himself, a dream which is steadily slipping away. He imagines his family and that of his old friend General Pourat...

...all seated at a grand sofreh upon a floor of the finest Isfahani carpets; we would drink French champagne and eat the finest chelo kebab; we would laugh at Pourat’s jokes and riddles, his gentle teasing of the children. Nadi and Pourat’s wife would embrace each other in joy while Pourat and I would retire to the balcony overlooking the city to smoke Cuban cigars and speak of the old life we no longer needed.

Inside the air-conditioned mall, I sit at a white plastic table in front of the many food concessions and eat a Japanese lunch of fried beef and noodles, and I know in my heart that this is no holy vision of Pourat and me on a balcony in America; it is a lie, a dooroogh born of heat and hunger and thirst and a need for my old life that is sometimes so strong I feel I would do nearly anything to retrieve it. But I cannot, no more than Pourat can rise from the dead to extract the revolutionaries’ bullets from his wife and children and then himself.

Good book, and getting even better now that I’m past the parts I remember from the movie adaptation.

March 1, 2015 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)