A Bar on North Avenue
O’Rourke’s was our stage, and we displayed our personas there nightly. It was a shabby street-corner tavern on a dicey stretch of North Avenue, a block after Chicago’s Old Town stopped being a tourist haven. In its early days it was heated by a wood-burning pot-bellied stove, and ice formed on the insides of the windows. One night a kid from the street barged in, whacked a customer in the front booth with a baseball bat, and ran out again. When a roomer who lived upstairs died, his body was not discovered until maggots started to drop through the ceiling and on to the bar. A man nobody knew was shot dead one night behind the building. From the day it opened on December 30, 1966 until the day I stopped drinking in 1979, I drank there more or less every night when I was in town. So did a lot of people.
Neil Steinberg, a young columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, invited me out to lunch one day to complain that he had missed out on all the fun. He had heard that the Front Page era in Chicago had a rebirth in the 1970s, centring around O’Rourke’s Pub and the two other nightly stops in the ‘Bermuda Triangle’, Riccardo’s and the Old Town Ale House. The triangle got its name, it was said, because newspaper reporters crashed there and were never seen again. Riccardo’s, equidistant from the four daily newspapers, was for after work. The Ale House had a late-night license and was for after O’Rourke’s. Few lasted through the whole ten hours. People would ride a while and jump off.
The regulars mostly knew one another. There were maybe a hundred members of the ‘O’Rourke’s Crowd’, perhaps fifty or sixty of them lasting the whole duration at that address and many following the bar when it moved to Halsted Street, across from the Steppenwolf Theater. It was driven west by rising real estate prices, the victim of the urbanization it represented. Jay Kovar, the manager from day one, the co-owner in later years, received a loan from the actor Brian Dennehy to finance the move. Actors had always been part of the mix, many of them from the nearby Second City. And folk singers, from the Earl of Old Town. John Belushi, John Prine, Steve Goodman.
Steinberg said he’d heard that on a good night you might see Mike Royko, Studs Terkel and Nelson Algren there all at the same time. Yes, you might, but it was not always a good night. Nelson had an unrequited crush on Jeanette Sullivan, the Japanese-American co-owner, and was pleasant enough but didn’t come primarily to hang out with the crowd. During a disagreement with Tom Fitzpatrick, the Pulitzer- winning columnist, he and Fitz pelted each other with shot glasses.
Royko appeared one night after midnight, being supported by two volunteers, his trench coat a shambles. He was scheduled to appear the following morning on the Phil Donahue Show. I made it a point to watch. To my amazement, he was lucid and didn’t seem hung over.
Few of the regulars often seemed hung over, although many must have been many mornings. Michaela Tuohy, ‘Mike’, accounted for that by the practice of ‘recovery drinking’, which you did until your act was together enough to be taken onstage at O’Rourke’s. As a general rule, most of the people in the bar were having a good time. There was a lot of laughter. Groups formed and shifted. O’Rourke’s stars like Jay Robert Nash, the prolific crime writer, commanded an audience. He said he had interviewed John Dillinger at his Arizona retirement home in the early 1970s, and told us about it. ‘He’s an old man now, with a shuffling step, and when you see him through the screen-door, you can tell from the bulge in his bathrobe that he’s got a gat in the pocket.’ Someone would always ask him, ‘What did he say?’ Nash would reply: ‘He snarled, Who are you? What do you want? I said, You know who I am, Mister Dillinger. He staggered back and shouted: Jay Robert Nash?’ We didn’t believe Nash was serious, but he never, ever admitted he was not. You heard a lot of stories in O’Rourke’s.
Nash was small and compact, a Cagney type. The bar’s Sydney Greenstreet was Alcibiades Oikonomides (Al the Greek), a mountainous man standing well over six feet and weighing perhaps 300 pounds, with a forehead so high it was said it required its own zip code. With this forehead he would head-butt friends as a gesture of solidarity, chanting, ‘To the ten thousand years we will drink together.’ Years prior to his present position as a professor of antiquities at Loyola University, he said, he had been an aide-de-camp for Haile Selassie in the Ethiopian–Somalian border wars, and had a much-creased photograph of himself in uniform, standing next to a horse, to prove it. He was a member of an ancient Greco-Venetian trading family that still owned a palazzo on the Grand Canal, he told us, and also was partner in a book shop on Shaftesbury Avenue. About Selassie I was not sure, but I met the cousin in the palazzo and stood under a Tiepolo ceiling, and when he took me to the book shop his name was on the door.
What brought Al the Greek night after night to this obscure corner of Chicago? O’Rourke’s was not boring, and embraced eccentricity. Ordinary yuppies, those who frequented the bars on Rush Street and Old Town, did not blend in. For one thing, they were unimpressed by the booths and tables, knocked together from plywood, shellacked, caked by years of smoke and sweat; for years the bar had no more air conditioning than central heating. O’Rourke’s was the ultimate singles bar, it was said: You went there with a date, and came home alone.
Cabaret could break out at any moment. Bag-pipers drank free. Everybody knew the words to all of the songs on the juke box, some of which had been on the machine since it was new. When Jerry Lewis would sing ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, it was not unknown for a customer to climb up on the bar and sing along. The songs of the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem played again and again, and customers would sing with them: And always remember the longer you live, the sooner you bloody well die. Press agents would bring visiting movie stars to view the local colour, and they were good sports, Charlton Heston one night autographing Natalie Nudlemann’s bra while she was wearing it.
Not long after he won the Academy Award, Cliff Robertson flew his private plane down from Milwaukee for an unannounced visit, and found himself in the back of a red Sun-Times delivery truck on his way to the after-hours hangout Oxford’s Pub, in company including Al the Greek, a bag piper, and Jake the Dominatrix, who was flogging a new friend with a belt.
Most evenings, of course, it was not like that. When Chicago still had four dailies (the Sun-Times, the Tribune, the Daily News, and Chicago’s American, later renamed Chicago Today) it was as competitive as any newspaper town in America, and many of the reporters and photographers knew one another. Trucks would deliver bundles of the early editions for us to pore over. The day’s Royko column might be read aloud. Editors were libelled and publishers despised.
Jay Robert Nash told us that gangsters learned how to speak by listening to the dialogue in Ben Hecht’s crime movies. Some of us borrowed our personas from Hecht and MacArthurs’ The Front Page. In a way, I did. I arrived at the Sun-Times from downstate Urbana, a green kid, intimidated by legendary reporters. On the first Friday night I was taken to Riccardo’s, I had a couple of beers and was delighted by the wise-guy patter that surrounded me. I tried to talk that way, even though I was a doctoral candidate in English at the University of Chicago before dropping out to go full-time with the Sun- Times. Many of us at O’Rourke’s became fake Irishmen, swayed by the Clancy Brothers and the big blown-up photographs of Behan, O’Casey, Shaw and Joyce. I was one-quarter Irish, but submerged the other three-quarters and assured people, ‘your blood’s worth bottling’. Fundraisers allegedly from the IRA would visit and we would naively give five bucks to the cause, probably not funding any terrorism because they were con artists preying on boozing Irish wannabes.
Above all we drank. It is not advisable, perhaps not possible, to spend very many evenings in a place like O’Rourke’s while drinking Cokes and club soda. Sometimes I attempted to cut back, by adopting drinks whose taste I hated (fernet branca) or those with low alcohol content (white wine and soda). Night after night I found these substitutes relaxed me enough to switch to scotch and soda. For a time I experimented with vodka and tonic. I asked Jay Kovar what he know about vodka ‘as a drink’. He said: ‘Sooner or later, all the heavy hitters get to vodka.’
I studied Jay as he worked behind the bar, trying to figure out how he did it. A handsome, compact man, fit, looking a little like Jason Patric, he steadily drank half-shots of whiskey and smoked Pall Malls. I never saw him clearly appear to be drunk. Indeed I saw relatively few of the regulars when they were drunk, although that could happen after hours at the Ale House. Some people, like Al the Greek, could drink terrifying mixtures of drinks to little apparent effect. Others were simply reasonable drinkers, but steady.
Hank Oettinger, the most-published letter-to-the-editor writer in Chicago, would turn up night after night with his pockets stuffed with letters that either had just been published or were about to be published. These he would read to us. Hank was a retired linotype operator, then in his seventies, a fervent leftist, a regular at every protest march, a confidant of Dick Gregory’s. His black hair slicked back over his big German-American head, he always wore a jacket and tie and ordered a beer. One beer. He had been making his rounds, sometimes composing his letters on a bar, since mid-day stops in the Loop. But only sipping beer. Making his way nightly through the mean streets.
A few of the regulars, I suspect, had little identity other than the one conferred by O’Rourke’s. John the Garbage Man was a regular, displaying his sculptures made from objects discovered in the garbage. He would take discarded silverware and melt it down into jewellery that looked like blobs of melted silverware. These were sold to be worn around the neck. I bought a chess set from him, but it was not a success because the pieces looked interchangeable. These I tried to use only once, while playing in an O’Rourke’s chess tournament that sprang up during the Bobby Fischer fever in Iceland. The winner, who played chess for money at the North Avenue beach chess pavilion, was Andre, a stringy hippie, tie-dyed and pony-tailed, who explained he had been the armourer of the Luxembourg Army before fleeing to America as a political refugee.
We regulars knew each other. We dated each other. We slept with each other. We met on Saturday mornings at Oxford’s for ‘recovery drunch,’ spelled with a d. Tom Butkovich would pull up behind O’Rourke’s in his old Volvo station wagon and unload the equipment to barbeque a lamb. His mother, from the far Southwest Side, would bring in covered dishes of macaroni and cheese and potato salad, while his stepdad, a steel worker, would dance with his T-shirt pulled above his belly, singing It must be jelly, ’cause jam don’t shake like that. We went to each other’s marriages and funerals, and observed holidays together. We took a collection for bail money, or helped the Jim and Mike Tuohy family to move, which they did frequently, Mike once complaining that volunteers had failed to move her kitchen garbage.
The 1968 Day of Rage marches passed nearby, and Jimmy Breslin and Norman Mailer came in. We watched the moon landing and the protests after Martin Luther King was killed. We sang, laughed and cried. We rehearsed the same stories over and over. I said we knew each other.
We knew who we said we were, and who O’Rourke’s thought we were, and that was knowing each other well enough. Now Studs Terkel, Mike Royko and Nelson Algren are dead, and so are John Belushi, Steve Goodman, Tom Fitzpatrick, Mike Tuohy, Hank Oettinger, Al the Greek and John the Garbageman. Jay Kovar walks his dogs. I’m telling you, Steinberg, you had to be there.