Behind the bar, between the cash register and the backlit bottles of booze, rocking along to the great nightly shuffle of bartenders and customers to the tempo of the ambient music, is a bobblehead of the Empire Carpet Man in his tan-rimmed, carpenter glasses and his all-jean apparel. There is something about the admission of a carpet salesman to the status of pop-culture icon that is so quintessentially Chicago. And while I don’t know the Empire Carpet Man or what he actually stands for, I do like to imagine him as having strict working-class values, a real dedication to the laboring masses. Because after all, every single day, late nights and early evenings, whenever I order an Old Style from my regular bartender, Turbo, there’s The Empire Carpet Man, bobbling along to the cacophony of Wicker Park’s Green Eye Lounge.
I’ve been going to the Green Eye for a few years now, and have always been distinctly interested in the Empire Carpet Man. On a few occasions I’ve offered Turbo money in exchange for the bobblehead doll, but have been repeatedly rebuffed. The Green Eye has no intention of departing with the sedentary Empire Carpet Man and besides, my modest bids are far below others he regularly receives. Something about this—the fact that other patrons at the Green Eye are also trying to purchase this trivial tchotchke—makes me feel good about the Green Eye, about Chicago.
The patrons at the Green Eye are an artistically sentient group. It includes a myriad of aspiring writers and artists, photographers and filmmakers. If I think hard enough and wade through my beer- and whiskey-soaked memories, I can recall some captivating discussions I’ve had with a writer about his novel manuscript, a photographer and her show at the Darkroom. On one occasion, I overheard a conversation on Jonathan Franzen’s dissolving literary credibility. On another, I spotted a customer reading Pynchon’s “Gravity’s Rainbow” while sitting at the bar, drinking a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon.
It’s this juxtaposition, between Pynchon and the Empire Carpet Man, that makes Chicago’s community so unique. Sure, other major cities have their dive bars, their hipsters and slackers, academics and artists. But Chicago lays claim to the working class like none other. From the stockyards to the train yards, the steel mills and the Pullman District, Chicago’s history, embedded in labor, is undeniably part and parcel to the city’s fruition. And the egalitarian values commonly associated with the Midwest are not exclusive to those working in the unions and trades. It extends into the principles of the artist class as well. Because at the Green Eye, down beneath the rumble of the aerial Blue Line tracks, despite the literary and artistic ambitions, there’s no pretense towards intellectual bigfooting; space is equally shared between the humanity of the workers and the artists, between Thomas Pynchon and the Empire Carpet Man.