1931, The Ritz Club
Bill Bottoms’ popular black-and-tan, where the atmosphere is torrid during the wee small hours. Plenty of action from the colored saxophone player and the drummer, and the entertainment goes on at a merry clip. Floor shows, dancing between, exotic atmosphere, food, and the beaming personality of Bill himself. Chicken and chops are a specialty on the menu.
It’s a weed-choked field in Washington Park.
Though the place has grown from a tiny one-room storefront (where you often had to double up at the table with another couple) to two rooms complete with bar, not much of the original flavor has been lost. There’s still a large black and white aerial photo of Bratislava, white billowing curtains, colorful print tablecloths, and John, the headwaiter who never forgets a face. He’ll probably cajole you into ordering an extra dish or two, and you won’t regret it.
It’s a Starbucks in Lincoln Park.
1886, The Chicago Express
The Express has the largest circulation of any weekly paper in the United States, devoted to Political Reform and the industrial classes. 63 years old. It circulates in every State and Territory in the Union. Has an average circulation throughout the year of 40,000. The lowest advertising rate per capita of any weekly paper in this country. Send for sample copy and terms to Express Printing Company, 192 Madison Street, Chicago, Illinois.
It’s a downtown self park that uses the works of great American poets to help you remember which level your car’s on.
2015, an apartment in the snow
I collect old reference books. Restaurant guides, children’s textbooks, newspaper ad sales annuals, technical manuals for fields I never mean to enter.
And on a blizzard night too cold for the usual eavesdropping, stranger danger chatting or pre-arranged interviews that are slowly filling these thousand and one stories, I’m snowed in with my odd old books, treasures to no one but me.
I buy them because I like them. I like knowing that my 1939 “Production and Direction of Radio Programs” advised crunching the heavy end of a small bundle of uncut broom corn for fire sound effects and listed “Adolf” as a foreign name cropping up more and more in the news.
I like picturing the schoolchildren puzzling over the word problems involving carriages, hogsheads of molasses and something called a “gold pencil” in the 1889 edition of “Stoddard’s New Intellectual Arithmatic.”
A hawk caught 2/5 of Euphemia’s chickens, a cat killed 1/3 of them, 1/7 of them died, and she had 13 remaining; how many had she at first, and how many were destroyed by the hawk and cat respectively?
The city pops up too, the weird Midwestern town I’ve devoted the next few years of my life to.
My 1930 “The New Merrill Speller” has a sample letter to Marshall Field & Co. requesting “eight yards of brown cotton cloth like the inclosed sample” (with a note at the end that “It is correct to write either inclose or enclose”).
One of the publishers listed in my 1937 “First Editions of To-Day and How to Tell Them” is Pascal Covici, whose first book was Ben Hecht’s “1001 Afternoons in Chicago.”
I’ll never use “First Editions…” to spot a first edition, any more than I’ll use “New Merrill…” to learn to spell inclosed. I’m not going to dine at Bratislava in the ‘70s, dance at the Ritz Club in the ‘30s or buy ad space in the Express in the 1880s.
But, through these odd little books, I know people did.
These are the books used in life, full of tips and secret nods that indicate more about how the past was lived than novels or history can tell. They’re the books the people of the past used to dine, dance, learn and do business.
On this cold, isolated night, the simple act of opening one of these odd little manuals makes me feel connected to a world I never knew.
And Euphemia had 105 chickens.