The little bar had almost no light, just small hexagon windows letting in what little of the sun they cared for.
A long bar ran the length of one side, culminating in a TV blowing Cubs into the room. It was a real TV, old and hefty, requiring a table to sit on, not a bolt to fasten it to the wall. There was a flatscreen above a fridge behind the bar’s close end, a thin ceiling-hanger tuned to a satellite channel playing pop hits accompanied by factoids about the music. Pharrell entered the industry in 1992, penning a verse for the song “Rump Shaker.” Madonna started a school for girls in Africa. “Mo Money Mo Problems” came out 18 years ago.
The other side of the room had seats and a pool table no one was using.
It was cool and dark with a beatific bald bartender serving $2 pulls of Old Style in frosty mugs to four day drinkers. A thin, bearded young guy playing a game on his phone. A softly chatting middle-aged couple; the man as hefty as cattle, the woman slighter but wearied.
And an old drunk in the corner holding court to no one with a crackled voice that oozed like smoke and phlegm.
The wall behind the bar was clotted with memories. Pictures of old timers back in their youths, a large photo of downtown as it appeared in the ’20s, the Wrigley, London Guarantee and Mather Tower shining through grainy black-and-white. There was an old card announcing a political junket with Richard M. and Ald. Matlak.
Drawings. Drawings on the wall by generations of barflies and their kids. A photorealistic Audrey Hepburn was one. Most of the rest were roses scattered among the memories, a tribute to the name of the places.
The Cubs game ended shortly after I arrived, dripping of sweat from a multi-mile bike jaunt I had decided to take amid a September heat snap. The young guy with the beard took his phone and left. There were a few shared comments of optimism for the season, followed by jokes about how long it’s been since that could be said.
Then silence as we sat with our Old Styles as pop-friendly hip hop played overhead.
“My throat’s sore,” a voice like smoke and phlegm oozed from the corner. “Can I have a shot of Malört?”
Malört is a Chicago tradition as standard and time-tested a part of the city as racial segregation and jokes about city hall. About as welcome too.
A shot of it leaves your mouth feeling like the morning after a two-pack night, even if you don’t smoke.
A food/travel website recently made three Chicago wine sommeliers do a Malört tasting. My favorite response of theirs was, ”It reminds me of the first time my dog got ran over by a car.”
But as this rummy with the cracked oil voice croaked its praises as a cough syrup, in that cool dark midday bar, it suddenly sounded delicious.
The hefty man ordered a Malört too. I decided to make it three.
“Like kerosene and sardines,” the barman said, bringing us our drinks.
We cheersed and slugged them. It was the single greatest Malört shot of my life.
There’s a thin line between history and tourism. The moment a place decides to be something special, it’s not.
That way lies Navy Pier, deep dish pizza, new transplants to town who suddenly find themselves with strong opinions on hot dog toppings. Those are the moments when something once flowing, special and lithe clogs and clots into self-reference, borderline parody.
But when moments naturally happen that couldn’t happen anywhere else in the world, when there’s a completely Thai interaction in Bangkok, completely Irish in Kildare or Greek in Corinth…
Or when there’s a moment of Cubs, Malört, Mather Tower, Richard M. and Old Style in Chicago, Illinois, America…
Then that’s something special. Cheers