Back in Chicago’s Andersonville Neighborhood

It’s Christmastime, and I’m back in my old Chicago home. This is a city of neighborhoods, and the old Swedish community of Andersonville was the last neighborhood I lived in when I lived in this city. The year I got divorced, I lived here: working on my master’s degree, writing at the Kopi Cafe, taking the Red Line into downtown to work, either as a tour guide or as a deckhand on the tall ships that set off from Navy Pier. That was over nine years ago.

But I think it says something about my love for the neighborhood that it was the first place I took my traveling companion, who had never been to Chicago before.

Lindsay Davis, expert traveler.

Lindsay Davis is new to traveling, but has taken to it like a duck to whatever ducks do. Earlier this year, having barely stepped outside the borders of the United States, she took off for a four and a half month jaunt around Southeast Asia. By herself. That’s impressive. But seeing as how she comes from temperate climates I wasn’t sure how she would take to a Chicago winter. Fortunately, it snowed on the first day, which led to her jumping up and down in the snow as it collected on the sidewalks while screaming, “It’s so fluffy!”

Andersonville, as I mentioned, is an old Swedish community. It makes up part of a larger district known as Edgewater, which extends to Lake Michigan, where the old Edgewater Beach Hotel, where my grandmother used to go dancing, stands lookout over the waters.

The Swedish parts of Andersonville are still there. There’s a big Swedish flag painted on a water tower. There’s the Swedish-American Museum. Swedish Restaurants and bars like Simon’s and Ann Sather. And my personal favorite spot for breakfast, Cafe Svea.

Potatoes, Swedish sausage and eggs on the left. Swedish pancakes with lingonberries on the right.

I took Lindsay here first, because if you’re going to walk around a city notorious for its winters you better open with a damn good breakfast. Then, you can walk up Clark Street and take in all the businesses sitting in an area that used to be a cherry orchard. Swedish immigrants began to move to Andersonville after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, on what was originally Green Bay Road. More recently, a number of Middle Eastern and North African businesses moved into the area, including Pars Persian Store, Cafe Lebanon, and my longtime favorite comfort food spot in town, Icosium Kafe, an Algerian crepe place that closed suddenly in late 2013. There was no warning the place was closing. The owner simply locked the door and put up a handwritten sign that said, “I’m done with crepes.”

In a strange way, that exit said something about the small-community feel of the neighborhood. The owner simply trusted that his neighbors would understand. He wanted to do something else. That’s it and that’s all.

And while the neighborhood has seen large chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s crowd into the area, the main drag along Clark retains an impressive number of local businesses. One of the cornerstones of the community remains its wonderful bookstore, Women and Children First, a feminist bookstore that was recently bought by two staff members from the original owners.


The store leans heavily, though by no means exclusively, on books by female authors, but they also have an impressive collection of children’s literature (including a reading area) as well as a large collection of fiction and non-fiction by gay and lesbian authors. Like a lot of great bookstores, they are also a great resource for community information and resources for everything from social justice to affordable medical care.

Just up the street from the bookstore is Kopi Cafe, a small coffee shop and restaurant that serves a wide selection of savory and sweet snacks, and doubles as a small clothing boutique and travel bookstore. The guidebooks line the walls, and if you’re like me and always thinking about where you can go next, it’s nice to walk away from your eggs and spiced tea and flip through the pages of a guide to Nepal.

Of course, if you have this in front of you, you will never get up:

Behold: the greatest carrot cake in the world.

Kopi Cafe was my main hangout when I lived in the neighborhood. It’s friendly, comforting, and serves the best carrot cake I’ve ever had in my life. The truth is, there are a lot of reasons I come back to Andersonville, but this is one of the big ones. I don’t think I had a slice of this every single time I came into the cafe, but it was pretty close. I probably wrote a couple hundred pages of drivel while fueled up on this cake, and nine years later, it still tastes just as good.

I’d already told Lindsay about the cake, and how regular a habit it was to for me to come back and sit in this traveler’s cafe while I prepare to spring out in to my next orbit. We were eating and reading, but I kept noticing the conversation at the next table. I wasn’t eavesdropping at first, I just picked up snippets of conversation because I was quiet and the guy at the next table, while not talking loud, was audible enough for me to hear.

He was heartbroken. He was out of a relationship and devastated by it and was talking in a  calm manner to a friend, trying to wrap his head around the strange turn his life had taken, and the odd sensation of finding yourself in pieces and not knowing which ones to pick up first. It was jarring to me. Nine years earlier, I sat at this same table against this same window and had those same conversations with any friend who would sit still long enough to listen. Everything I thought was certain was suddenly gone, and I talked and talked to try and figure my way through the maze.

I listened to the guy talk, and the conversation was so familiar. The fear of certain dates  and the memories they would bring up. The loss of appetite. The confusion over how to talk to mutual friends. The inability to listen to favorite old records, or even hear familiar phrases that you said to your ex, or that they said to you. I just sat there thinking, “I know. I know.” And I wanted to tell him he’d be okay. That he’s doing all the right things. I wanted to tell him to talk to people. Exercise. Take care of yourself and eat well. Make yourself vulnerable and admit you have no idea what your life is supposed to look like, that everything you were sure about is gone, because just saying that puts the ground back under your feet.

I didn’t say anything to him, but I did pay for his food. I told the waitress to put it on my bill, and I asked her to tell him that I heard what he was talking about, that I’ve been exactly where he is now, and that I’m hoping for the best for him.

I could have been talking to myself, nine years ago. It gets better, is what I wanted to tell that guy.

Because it’s true. It really does.

*     *     *

Svea Cafe is located at 5236 N. Clark Street. Don’t forget to look at the murals.

Women and Children First is right across the street at 5233 N. Clark Street. They have a website here.

Kopi Cafe is one block north at 5317 N. Clark Street. The carrot cake will change your life.

A Tour of the Historic Chicago Theater with Drew Perfilio

I’m thinking, Sinatra stood here.

I’m also thinking, I can’t believe I used to work here.

Drew Perfilio walks me across the stage. Eleven years ago, we both worked out in the lobby, tending bar. It was a pickup gig for me at times, a full-time gig at others. At one point in this city, it was one of four jobs I was working while I tried to make ends meet. I left the theater after a while, and eventually Chicago. Drew stuck with both. Now, he’s in charge of every bartender, barback, and cocktail server in the joint, and responsible for every drop of liquor that they pour.

Which is why he can take me on the stage when the theater is dark.

“I love my job.” he tells me. And that’s important, because the hours in a gig like his are brutal. When the season is hopping, fourteen and fifteen hour days are normal. He’s letting me stay in his apartment, and I watch him drag himself home at two in the morning more than once during my visit. His wife and son are already in bed when he gets back, so we sit up and do what we’ve always done in the fifteen years we’ve known each other. We talk. We talk music. We talk philosophy. We talk poetry. We’re like Plato and Aristotle, only dumber.

Drew Perfilio, who is so punk rock he prefers his own earlier work.

A love of the music and the shows is one of the things that keeps Drew committed. But he also loves the theater itself, which has been a cornerstone of Chicago’s busy State Street since 1921, when it was constructed as a high end movie palace for the Balaban and Katz Theater Company. It quickly became one of the most popular venues in Chicago, not just for the novelty of motion pictures, but because it was one of the few buildings in the city where the public could experience air conditioning during the hot summer months.

The theater also featured live music and stage shows, and became well known for the opulence of its interior, which included murals across the ceilings, its gorgeous staircase, Tiffany glass, and two fountains near the edges of the stage which would actively pour water until theater owners noticed that everyone who sat near them had to constantly dart out to use the restrooms, at which point they were turned off.

This staircase was modeled on a staircase on the Titanic.

In the 70’s, the theater fell into disrepair. Attempts to keep it running as a movie house failed. Before it was shuttered for repairs in 1985, it was reduced to showing second-run films to an audience that included drunks sleeping in the aisles and prostitutes taking care of business with customers in the shadows.

It could have gone by the wayside, but a massive development project by a preservation group saved the old dame and converted it back to its 1930’s grandeur. On September 8, 1986, Mayor Harold Washington flipped the switch to turn the lights back on. Two days later, the theater officially re-opened with a performance by Frank Sinatra.

Today, the theater focuses on stage shows by performers ranging from Jerry Seinfeld to Arcade Fire, as well as older musicals like A Chorus Line, Cabaret and, of course, Chicago.

The view from the stage. The suspended balcony provides a good view from any seat.

In 2013, the theater hosted a tribute to one of my favorite writers: the film critic Roger Ebert. For two and a half hours, friends came to offer tributes to the great storyteller who had lost his battle with cancer that April. Ebert and his one-time nemesis turned longtime friend Gene Siskel used to watch films slated for their famous show right here in the balcony. Today, a plaque dedicated to Ebert resides in front of the main entrance, while directly across the street sits the Gene Siskel Film Center, dedicated to the equally brilliant critic who passed away in 1998.

The history of the performers is written on the walls. Drew walks me down below the stage, past the various green rooms and communal dining areas for the performers. Murals of the shows are painted in blocks the walls, then criss-crossed with the signatures of the cast. At the top of one staircase, there is a door painted purple and dedicated to Prince, adorned with the symbol he used for a name during his “The Artist Formerly Known As…” phase.


 The Prince Door. Carol Burnett’s animated likeness and signature are just to the right.

None of these are views I could have had eleven years ago. Until Drew gave me the tour, I’d never seen the lower levels of the theater, never even came close to the stage. I think I’d been inside the main auditorium just once.

Now, I could take in the suspended balcony, which so panicked the public that the theater owners placed thousands of pounds of sandbags in the seats and had newsmen photograph it so audiences would be assured they wouldn’t plunge to their deaths. Likewise, I could take in the murals on the high ceilings, the gold leaf and the ornate designs carved into the stone. I could stand on the stage where Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra had their reunion. I could sit in the box seats where the rich and powerful of Chicago have sat for 95 years.

Drew gets to see this every day, but the beauty of it isn’t lost on him. He talks through every arc of the building’s history, right down to what kind of wiring was installed when he poured his first drink on his first shift as an entry-level bartender. He can tell you the ways the different shows will be staged and which shows are going to do what kind of business. It’s his job to know this stuff, of course. But you can sense the thrill he gets from being part of it.

It’s been a decade since we worked here together, at the same level. I never would have considered moving upward, but that’s the difference between us. Drew is a Chicagoan, and there are few buildings more synonymous with the city than the theater that bears its name. For him to have a substantial role in making it run is a point of pride, and it should be. His story speaks to the work ethic embodied within the city’s DNA. By simply doing his job well, he’s become a part of this theater’s history—and by extension, of the city itself.

The Chicago Theater is located at 175 N. State Street in downtown Chicago. Their website can be found here, and has a list of upcoming shows.

The Stories on Medium


I’m pleased to announce that I am part of a new series on Medium called The Stories. The series is curated by my friend Sara Benincasa and features two to three true stories every week.

They’ve featured my own story, “The Cancer Playlist,” as this week’s feature. I’m proud to be part of this project and hope you’ll go give it a read.

Check it out right here: The Cancer Playlist

More stories soon…

The Road Ahead


Taking in the sunset with my brother in our hometown. (photo: Justin Johnson)

When I moved to New Orleans a little over nine years ago, I started almost from scratch. No job. No car. Nowhere to live. Hardly knew anyone. Over nearly a decade, I built a solid community, became part of the city, and for the last five years held the best (and best paying) job I’ve ever had, working as a tour guide. I lived in a great place by the Mississippi River in a truly extraordinary neighborhood.

And now, I’m on the road. Everything I own is on my back or in a storage unit. I’m traveling, and I have no endpoint in sight for my travels. I’m going to keep going until I’m done and I’m going to write about it as I go. And hopefully, I’ll figure out how to make a living doing just that.

That’s an abrupt shift to make when you’re almost 40, but here I go.

A lot of the travel blogs I’ve seen (the ones that seem to get written up anyway), center around authors who have launched out of another life that they viewed as a dead end. There’s a lot of this going around, a theme of, I walked away from my dead-end, soul-sucking corporate job to live my dreams and travel the world.

Well, power to ‘em.

But that’s not what this is. I had a great life in New Orleans. Great job and great friends. My reasons for going on the road aren’t about escape (not anymore, anyway). It’s difficult to articulate, but I think it comes down to this idea: This is what I believe I’m supposed to be doing right now.

That’s a little embarrassing to admit, and more than a little frightening, too. The conventional wisdom is that you aren’t supposed to start your life over when you’re almost 40—not unless you’re deeply unhappy. Which, as noted, I wasn’t.

At this point, being happy with where I lived and with my work, I was supposed to start thinking about settling down. Thinking about the future. And I did. Really. I spent the last two and a half years paying off all my debt, from student loans to old taxes. I got my teeth fixed and visited doctors and changed my exercising habits. I put away some savings. And most importantly, I started going to therapy to process grief I’d been storing in the hidden corners of myself for as long as I knew how to do that.

I wasn’t even certain why I was doing all of this while I was doing it. I simply felt I had to clear the decks, get my past cleaned up before I could think about my future. There was even the thought that I might buy a house at the end of this. I held onto that fantasy for nearly a year.

And then, over the last year, a shift came. I began to look at the two constants of my adult life—writing and motion—and wondered if I could put them together. I never wanted to be a full-time writer before. Mostly, because I didn’t want my passion to become my job, something I had to slog through. That’s what I told everyone.


The real reason I didn’t want to try working full-time as a writer is because I didn’t believe I could do it. Not because I didn’t think my writing was good enough, but because I didn’t think I had what it would take to follow through. To keep submitting articles after a hundred rejections. To keep knocking on doors that have been shut in my face. To keep doing the business end of being an artist—the humiliating grind that no one talks about. I have friends who do it. I’ve always admired their persistence. I always believed I was missing something that they had. Part of me still believes it.

If I am most susceptible to one of the seven deadly sins, it is sloth. I have always been a procrastinator. I have frequently done just enough to get by. That’s not going to do now. This is a walk to the deep end of the water and a leap of faith that I can swim when I have no other choice.

I will be traveling for the foreseeable future and I will document it. I will hope to earn enough money while doing it to stay on the road. I have enough to get started, my overhead is low, and it is entirely possible that this is the best chance I will ever have to do this.

There will be a lot of changes coming. A new website, for starters. Those of you reading this will also see updates about my work appearing elsewhere, starting on Monday. In January, I will head to South America, where I hope to travel for the bulk of 2017. What comes next is still to be determined.

I’m on the road, looking forward, telling myself I can do this. That this is what I do. That it’s what I’ve always done.


Bootlegger’s Paradise: A Tour of the Hiram Walker Distillery—Windsor, Ontario


Today, it seems like madness. But it is worth noting that there were actually good reasons why alcohol use needed to be curbed in the United States in 1919. With poor oversight allowing for the production of tainted beverages that blinded and killed people, and with an epidemic of alcoholism plaguing the country, the Temperance Movement’s claims that banning beer, wine and spirits would help roll back the downward trend of lawful society seemed, on the surface, to be a good idea: An admittedly extreme reaction to what many saw as an extreme evil. But human nature won out in Prohibition. Even people who didn’t drink didn’t like being told they couldn’t. The result was the booze filled economic explosion we know as the Roaring Twenties, which pushed organized crime into the mainstream, and largely paved the way for many smuggling operations run in the United States since.

Perhaps no alcoholic beverage enjoyed a bigger boom during Prohibition than Canadian Whiskey, which didn’t even really have its own designation until the 1880’s when American whiskey manufacturers insisted that the country of origin be listed on the labels of spirits. An enterprising magnate from Detroit named Hiram Walker decided to use this to his advantage. Walker had been selling whiskey for over two decades out of a distillery that was so successful that Walker would eventually create a company town for its upkeep, which was called Walkerville. His most successful brand was called “Club” whiskey. When the law insisting on the country of origin being on the label went through, Walker decided to make his whiskey a symbol of national identity. The “Club” brand became known as “Canadian Club,” and Walker’s sales jumped over 25 percent.


At the Hiram Walker Distillery’s tasting room.

Canada experienced its own flirtation with Prohibition, but unlike in the United States, implementation was largely left up to the provinces. And while Prince Edward Island held onto their dry status until after World War II, every other province repealed it before the United States did.

More importantly, the Canadian government left the export market open. As long as the booze was going somewhere else, distilleries and breweries could manufacture as much as they pleased. And since there was a massive, thirsty market just to the south, business began to boom. Especially for the Hiram Walker Distillery, which sits on a riverbank in Windsor, Ontario.

Today, you can take a tour of the distillery, complete with samples of the local product. At one point, the tour will take you down to the water, where the bootleggers plied their trade, hauling freshly minted cargoes of booze across the river. Their destination was the city of Detroit, less than a mile away.

There were a million routes for smugglers to take during Prohibition. Along the seaboards of the United States, one ship after another, loaded with booze, sat at anchor at the three-mile limit that left them in international waters. Small boats would simply make their way out, load up with a hefty cargo of alcohol, and sail it in covertly. The supply ships became known as Rum Row, and spawned a special species of smugglers (or “Rumrunners”)who counted among their numbers Gertrude Lythgoe (“The Queen of the Bahamas”) and Bill “The Real” McCoy.


Legendary smugglers Bill McCoy (R) and Gertrude Lythgoe (L) relaxing aboard McCoy’s boat (photo: Hiram Walker Distillery).

Canada was the other smuggler’s paradise. High quality booze was being manufactured legally, and the national border was an impossible to patrol 4,000 miles long. One customer in particular saw the advantage of buying his liquor from the large distillery in nearby Windsor, Ontario, rather than hauling it across the country from New Jersey or New Orleans. His name was Al Capone.

The one mile trip across the Detroit River was a fairly simple one for the fast boats that plied the waters. Except in winter, when the river would freeze over. At that point, Model-T Fords, made in Detroit, would be loaded up with alcohol and skate their way, perilously, to the other shore, where they would be picked up and trafficked out of the city by runners for Capone’s crime syndicate. But the city limits were also the limits of the Chicago gangster’s direct control. The booze business within Detroit was controlled by a group known as the Purple Gang, a notoriously vicious outfit who controlled all vice in the city. They would ferry the Canadian Whiskey to the edge of town, hand it over to Capone’s men, and thus retain control of Detroit without any involvement from Chicago.


View of Detroit from the Hiram Walker Distillery. An easy run for smugglers as long as they didn’t run afoul of the Purple Gang.

The perils of the bootlegging business also changed the design of the bottles. The distinct longneck style of bottle used by Canadian Club today (and before Prohibition, as well) was too delicate, with the long neck likely to break on a bumpy trip over the roads or the waters. This design was replaced by a flat, more compact bottle that could be easily wrapped in paper and stacked, allowing for greater volume to be smuggled. More importantly, the flat bottle had less air in it, which meant it would sink if thrown overboard during a pursuit by law enforcement, rather than float around long enough to be picked up as evidence.

Some of the most efficient vehicles for smuggling booze during the era were fishing boats, which would wrap the cargo in their nets. If they were being pursued by the police, they could simply push the nets overboard, with the booze sinking to the bottom, along with a marker buoy wrapped in sugar or salt. When the sugar (or salt) dissolved, the buoy would float to the surface, and the bootleggers would go back and haul up the nets to retrieve their cargo.


Designed for smuggling, the new, easier to transport bottle (left) replaced the more classic Canadian Club bottle design during Prohibition.

Trafficking smuggled goods also depends on information. And the smugglers developed a code for tracking shipments. Telegraphs written in jargon and code letters, would name the time and place for shipments to be dropped off. In one of the more ingenious uses of public architecture for private enterprise, Al Capone paid for the restoration of a church in Windsor, including a large cross powered with electric light. The cross was used as a signal for the smuggling boats, notifying them if there was any law enforcement patrolling the waters at night.


Coded telegraph with details for a drop.

There’s a certain fiendish pride the folks at the Canadian Club Brand Center take in their role during Prohibition. Surely, the folks at the distillery who watched the small, fast boats load themselves down with their product knew exactly where they were going, and knew they were fueling the economics of organized crime across the water. But the utter ridiculousness of Prohibition, our distance from the era, and the ingeniousness of the smugglers lends a certain charm to the distillery’s role. Particularly during the Depression, when their entirely legal sales to entirely illegal enterprises kept the city of Windsor afloat, and plenty of workers from having to fall into bread lines.

But it’s the smuggling of today that takes some of the shine off of the apple. As you’re told on the tour, the Windsor-Detroit corridor remains a major artery for smuggling today. Only now, the cargo seems less charming: Drugs, weapons, human beings. Maybe that’s the charm of looking back on Prohibition today. The crime it spawned seems less venal in the light of the vices they were feeding, vices that seem so tame compared to the mad world we live in today.

Then again, for those who lived through Prohibition, it must have seemed the world had gone just as mad. A nation of law-breaking drunkards, lurching forward in an opulent stupor, just trying to find the next illegal drink.

(Photo: Hiram Walker Distillery)

The Hiram Walker Distillery’s Canadian Club Brand Center is located at 2072 Riverside East in Windsor, Ontario. Tours are available Wednesday through Sunday from April to December, and on Friday through Sunday from January through March. The tour costs 12 Canadian Dollars. The full schedule can be found here.