On a cold, rainy, October night, my brother and I were looking for a potential client’s home in the town of Riverside, Illinois. We were bidding on a remodeling job and were meeting with the clients to hopefully obtain a signature on a contract. Riverside was laid out in a circular pattern and had been designed by Frederich Law Olmstead, the same man who had laid out Central Park in New York.
Due to the rain and some poor directions, we were lost in the town of Berwyn, the next town over from Riverside. While my brother was asking for directions, I was looking around and noticed a neon sign that said James Joyce Bar, with a neon caricature profile of James Joyce wearing his signature hat. The bar caught my attention and I knew that I would have to go there. I would be able to find it because it was next to the railroad tracks, the same tracks that went through the town of Westmont, where I currently was renting an apartment. Follow the tracks, find the bar.
Sure enough, a week and a half later I took off on my journey to find the bar and also visit Oak Park, the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway. Oak Park was just a few miles from the James Joyce, so the two locations would make an easy Saturday afternoon excursion.
It was about 2:00 p.m. when I entered the James Joyce. Lots of old wood paneling, dark wood beams, and European looking wallpaper greeted me. I thought the half dozen men at the end of the bar were speaking a foreign language. Concentrating on their speech patterns, I realized they were speaking in a very heavy Irish brogue.
After a few moments, the bartender came over and greeted me. “Can I get you a drink? A beer or something?”
I replied, “It’s early, but I guess a cold beer would taste good. What do you recommend?”
“We just started carrying Stella Artois. It’s a somewhat heavy beer in the European tradition. The fellas seem to like it.”
“Good, I’ll have one.”
After he served my beer and found out I was moving from Texas to the Chicago area, he invited me to meet the patrons at the other end of the bar. The men were mostly brawny, tough looking sorts, the kind you wouldn’t want to fight. They seemed quite adept at laughing, bragging and arguing as they struggled to outdo each other and dominate the conversation. I knew I was in an authentic Irish bar.
They were cordial enough, but I soon returned to my corner of the bar so I could take in the sights and observe these Irish lads. I determined that I would have to return at night and bring some friends to further enjoy this Irish ambiance.
I left the James Joyce pleased with my experience and headed North on Harlem towards Oak Park. Entering Oak Park, the world changed. The houses were older and bigger. Retail and office buildings were no newer than those built in the Art Deco period. The people I saw were a collection of diversity. They came in all colors, sizes, and costumes. The whole town practically had an historical architectural designation on its forehead. New was not a pretty word in Oak Park.
As I drove around, I passed a small Art Deco hotel called the Write Inn. A sign said it was devoted to all things Hemingway. Across the street from the hotel was the Hemingway Museum. I decided to go down the street, park, and walk back. I parked across the street from the Hemingway childhood home. Unfortunately, there were no tours on Saturday after 2:00pm, so a home tour would have to wait for another day.
The Frank Lloyd Wright home and studio was a couple of blocks away, so I walked over and studied the outside of the complex. It was very interesting, but I decided Mr. Wright would be another day. I was following my literary nose that afternoon.
I started back towards the Write Inn. It was a cool afternoon, overcast. Some light rain, temperature in the 40s, and a breeze with occasional gusts. There were surprisingly few cars and even less human activity. Nature was free to play and play she did. Leaves were tossed everywhere. From blowing down the street to piling up against large, old front porches, to obscuring fences from view, nature and the fall season were having their way. Had I been younger or maybe had a couple of Jack Daniels, I might have jumped on a pile of leaves and joined the fun.
I arrived at the Write Inn and entered. The lobby was small and was of the European style. Several people were milling around. I gathered hotel information so I could bring my wife back to stay sometime. I noticed the hotel bar and decided to enter. Why not?
I would call the bar formal and stylish. There were floor-to-ceiling long lace curtains on the windows looking out to the street. Tablecloths and cloth napkins were on the tables. There was a large mirror behind the marble-top bar that set off the whole room..
I sat at the end of the bar and perused the drink menu. I settled on a Hemingway Martini with Bombay Gin. I watched as the attractive bartender mixed my drink, a chilled martini glass, cold gin from the freezer, and Vermouth just passed over the top of the glass. Two olives stuffed with blue cheese made for a perfect cocktail.
I brought the drink to my mouth and sipped this nectar from the gods. A slight chill passed through my body and I knew that this feeling was about as good as it gets.
Four quite attractive ladies, dressed to the hilt, stood not ten feet from me. They wore dressy cocktail dresses with lots of jewelry. They all sported new “dos” and just the right amount of makeup. As someone who is allergic to the smell of cologne, I found the aroma emanating from the ladies quite pleasant …and expensive.
Smiling at the ladies, two of them noticed me and returned my smile, but also gave me a look that said, “Don’t intrude.” Not offended, I was content to merely observe the beauty and ambiance of the ladies, the room, and the afternoon.
After two drinks and appetizers consisting of four blue cheese stuffed olives, I was ready for “What’s next.” I left the bar and headed out into the street.
The sun had set and night was coming on. I found my car and headed to the Carlton Oak Park Hotel on Marion Street. The front desk clerk at the Write Inn had suggested this place for live jazz music. Before arriving at the hotel, I stopped at the train station and bought a nondescript sandwich from a street vendor. Food was not my mission that day. I was looking for authors, ambiance, and feeling. I was getting a full dose of each.
The bar at the Carlton was dark and old, but well kept. The room had a feeling of the action of the 20s but also the smooth of Bogart, Bacall, Tracey and Hepburn. The octagonal bar sat in the middle of the room with the band off to one side. Opulent bar stools surrounded the bar, and walnut tables and chairs completed the room. At the far end there were leather sofas and chairs situated so that there was not much light, just dimly lit lanterns—perfect for a gentleman and his lady. The crowd looked “Chicago cool.” A big part of that look was that both men and women wore mostly black, moved freely, looked confident, smiled as needed and all the while looked for attention.
The jazz band, a five piece combo known as “Night Magic”, consisted of piano, base. guitar, sax, and drums. They featured a long, blond haired female singer by the name of Sydney Bernard. Sydney had a deep torchy voice made that way by, I am sure, smoke filled bars and a habit of smoking a fair amount of unfiltered Pall Malls. Sydney did a great job on some Ella Fitzgerald, Etta James and blew the club away with a rendition of Nina Simone’s version of “Mr. Bojangles.”
When the band took a break, I decided to head for home. I knew I would come back many times. I was destined to immerse myself again in all things Oak Park.