I spend a lot of my life—maybe even most of my life these days—in hotels. And it can be a grim and dispiriting feeling, waking up, at first unsure of where you are, what language they’re speaking outside. The room looks much the same as other rooms. TV. Coffee maker on the desk. Complimentary fruit basket rotting on the table. The familiar suitcase.
All too often, particularly in America, I’ll walk to the window and draw back the curtains, looking to remind myself where I might be, and it doesn’t help at all. The featureless, anonymous skyline that greets me is much the same as it was in the previous city—and the city before that.
This is not a problem in Chicago.
You wake up in Chicago, pull back the curtain, and you KNOW where you are. You are in a big, brash, muscular, broad-shouldered motherf***in’ city. A metropolis, completely non-neurotic, ever moving. A big-hearted but cold-blooded machine with millions of moving parts. A beast that will, if disrespected or not taken seriously, roll over you without remorse.
It is also one of America’s last great NO BULLSHIT zones. Pomposity, pretentiousness, putting on airs of any kind, douchery, and lack of a sense of humor will not get you far in Chicago.
Those looking for a “Chicago show” on this week’s Parts Unknown will likely be disappointed. There are no Italian beef scenes, no hot dogs, no Chicago blues, and there sure as shit ain’t no deep-dish pizza. We’ve done all those things on those other shows. And we might well do them again someday. This one’s not a “fair” show, it’s not comprehensive, it’s not the “best of the city” or what you need to know or any of those things. If you’re gonna cry that I missed an iconic feature of Chicago life or that there are better Italian restaurants than Topo Gigio, then you missed the point and can move over to the Travel Channel, where somebody is pretending to like deep-dish pizza right now.
This is a show that grew out of my interest and affection for the Ale House in Chicago’s Old Town, and its proprietor, Bruce Cameron Elliott.
I once read on the Twitter feed of the late, great Roger Ebert that he read Bruce’s blog, Geriatric Genius, every day, and I have followed it faithfully ever since. In fact, I went back years, tracking previous entries. It is, in total, a breathtaking work, encompassing the daily lives (and deaths) and misadventures of Ale House patrons—many of whom, I think it is fair to say, are heavy drinkers. Though cranky, occasionally pugilistic, opinionated, politically incorrect, sexually crude, and an awful speller, Bruce has without judgment chronicled the trajectories of a spellbinding array of characters. Whole lives pass, his characters rise and fall—and literally fall apart. One character, Ruben 9 Toes, went on to become Ruben 8 Toes and then 4 Toes before dying last year. Bruce’s closest associate, Street Jimmy, is a crackhead who’s lived on the streets of Chicago for over a decade. And on the blog, a Greek chorus of bar regulars offers a perspective on Chicago that deserves highlighting.
We visit with hip-hop artist Lupe Fiasco and his extraordinary family, with chef Stephanie Izard, legendary producer Steve Albini, and others—but the beating heart of this show is the Ale House and its resident artist, Bruce. The man is also world famous for his paintings—of customers, living and dead, as well as politicians of both parties, often depicted being penetrated inappropriately.
I urge you to visit his blog. And start a few years back.
There is something about the Ale House—its willingness to accept all who stagger in its doors though there is, famously, a NO SHOT list; its morbid sense of humor; its never-ending flow of opinions, well-formed and not; its willingness to scrap—that serves for me as a happy metaphor for a city I love.