Friends habitually call this smoky place the All-Purpose, but not only because it’s like high school or everyone who’s remotely likeable is as cute and opaque as Molly Ringwald’s Claire Standish in “The Breakfast Club.” Strangers say this club’s standoffish, but it’s not really a club, it’s regional and seasonal and elective affinities, it’s repetition and proximity, habit and hope, a cushion nearby on hardwood times. (It is a Local, redoubt of misplaced destinies.)
Each square inch is ashed with molecular history, subatomic particulars, this home-away-from-homeliness. Themes, variations: How many Beckys have sat in Booth One? A Tom flirting like mad with no expectation beyond being heard? And legs furled, calves bared in chilly night, what is this especial Amy specifically onto? (Did she really date Hans?) Are any of the words in the air at this moment approaching language or is everything the gentle of gesture, the dance of reflection? This is like long-form serial TV, only with potential for touching.
As Woody Allen said Balzac said, “There goes another novel,” and perhaps another short story by way of tall tale, or judicious indiscretion, there goes another MySpace pre-stalk aimed toward Your Place, or a complication requiring tetracycline. There are only two poles in this binary joint: you are old enough to be here or you are too old to be here.
So many ways to circumnavigate around “the furniture of home,” in Auden’s lovely poem, “September 1, 1939.” “Faces along the bar cling to their average day: the lights must never go out, the music must always play… [T]his fort assume[s] the furniture of home; lest we should see where we are… Children afraid of the night who have never been happy or good.”
Over the years I may well have spent too much goddamn time here, and it’s not like my living room at home is a dump or a wreck or this place has more than a veneer of purity, no paragon of spotlessness. Not wholly a dive, a dive of the mind, where you imagine imagining something honest and instinctual and modestly raw. It is ritual. It is church. When you are small, who dreams a church of booze? (This is not Soviet Russia.)
There is truth amid clatter and clutter and blear of eye and purse of mouth and sudden wink, sultry glance. It’s all true, but none of it is real. A place made for watching, knowing not what watching is thinking. The shadow of life. Do you cast it or get enveloped in its warming swallow of murk? Very pretty and errantly stylish boys and girls and women and men who have not grown into the custom of their compounded years, a procession of the cute-iful and the damaged. Face of pug, haunch of Diana; dipsies and doodles, heartbreaks and canoodles, partaking of drink or tippling deeply into alcoholism, familiars who grow more so with repetition and proximity, repetition and proximity, in one more Chicago corner bar, when it’s only the end of a long night’s day.
The night’s bite’s just below freezing; I circle a familiar pathway like old dog in sooth of hearth and home: one more unstructured to-and-for, come-and-go, at the All-Purpose. J. texts an ETA. This pint of PBR is cold. A song ends. Talk is muted; silence, almost. The bartender’s hearing is going. The song starts loud, stays there, moody, broody, a glacial smirk: “Why do you come here? And why do you hang around? Why do you come here when you know it makes things hard for me?” Ah, the Smiths. “Oh, so many illustrations; Oh, but I’m so very sickened, Oh, I am so sickened now.” I look around. There’s smiles and sing-along. I’ll sleep, content. It was a good, good day.