Chicago: Biscuits and Whiskey

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I should know better. I always should know better. Michael puts that shot of Jeppsen’s Malort in front of me and I know, in the back of my squirming dinosaur brain, that it’s going to taste like licking a shag carpet that’s been treated with cough syrup. The first shot always tastes like that. Malort is the only liquor I’ve ever tasted that requires doing reps to come around on. If you don’t like it on the first shot (and almost nobody does), you need a second and a third. Eventually, you can grow to like the taste and, so I’m told, even love it.

Whether you like it or not, it is a pure Chicago rite of passage. And that, I suspect, is it’s true appeal. I’ve learned to tolerate Malort, and to enjoy it as part of a ritual (doing a shot of it is pretty much the first thing Michael and I do when we see each other). But I have never learned to love the actual taste of it. Still, I never get tired of seeing some East Coast bar connoisseur cringe and gag when they get their first taste of that Chicago poison. The stuff just assaults your palate, and I’ve seen people practically yank their own tongues out to get rid of the taste.

But I choke back that first shot anyway, as Michael slaps me on the side of the face and says, “Welcome home.”

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Me with Michael Polino: bartender, bar owner, and perennial bad influence.

I’m home again. I’m always home when I’m in Chicago. It’s a city that still takes good care of me, all these years after I left, and that I can still wrap myself up in when I get back. I often tell people that the only reason I don’t live in Chicago is because New Orleans exists.

Michael was practically my personal bartender at the Green Mill for years, which has been one of the greatest bars in Chicago since Al Capone used it as his personal speakeasy. I’m not a heavy drinker, but I find that my nighttime social life in Chicago revolves around bars. Like New Orleans, Chicago bars function as meeting houses. News is exchanged, stories are told. Some of these bars have regulars who don’t even drink. They just show up the same way they’d read the newspaper.

Last year, Michael opened up his own bar. It’s called the High-Hat Club, and it recently won the coveted title of “Best Malort Bar in Chicago.” It’s got a mix of deeply felt Chicago confidence with a touch of New Orleans style thrown in, including a weekly brass band concert and a menu that leans toward Louisiana. The best part, for me, was being in the bar on the night of a Goodfellas trivia contest, during which I won a fax machine, because apparently I needed one of those.

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This will come in handy when I attempt to pick up ladies in 1989.

That’s not true, though. About the best part. The best part was being in the bar at one in the morning when my brother-in-law called me to tell me that I was about to become an uncle again, and that I better get the hell over there to watch my niece so he and my sister could run to the hospital.

But that’s another story.

This story is about the family I’ve chosen, a large chunk of which resides in Chicago. And no one in Chicago feels more like family than Drew and Belen.

I met Drew first, a good fifteen years ago. Both of us attempting to be writers. He was an authority on all things pertaining to anarchy, punk rock, and philosophy. He had a poster from the Italian Communist Party in his living room because someone in Italy had simply decided that, since he accidentally wandered into the party headquarters, that he must be a member. And when Drew explained that he wasn’t a communist, he was an American, the man exclaimed, “Americano Communista! Che bella!” And gave him two posters: one for him, and one for The Revolution.

He met Belen a decade or so ago. They’re one of the best couples I know, perhaps because they are two of the best fighters I’ve ever met. I mean this sincerely. There’s nothing hidden with these two. Everything gets out in the open in loud, frequently spectacular arguments that are frequently hilarious when viewed from the outside. They are both debaters. Drew relies on his logic and Belen relies on her volume (and I have seen grown men cower in corners when Belen works herself up into a fully-formed, towering rage). And when the fight is done, they kiss and go to bed and get up in the morning and go on loving the hell out of each other.

And for reasons only they know, they continue to love the hell out of me. They’ve offered me shelter in some of the darkest moments of my life, and they are always there to put me up when I roll through town. I read a poem at their wedding. Two years ago, when they had their son Marco, they asked me to be his godfather.

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Drew and Marco.

I’m not quite certain what role a godfather has, but being in Chicago on this swing was the first chance I’d had to really spend time with the kid. Belen asked me to babysit the little squirt, which pretty much involved me chasing him around and trying to keep him from picking up anything sharp. I think the people who offer the most advice on parenting are people who don’t have kids yet. I wouldn’t think to tell anyone how to deal with a crying baby when I can barely get one to stay away from the Cuisinart.

I spent time with three critters on this trip. My godson, my niece, and my brand new niece (who I will be writing about shortly). I’m on the verge of turning 37, and I’m not a father. But the opportunity to be a part of the lives of the kids in my family is starting to feel like a priority for me. During my visit to Chicago, I found myself telling people that I would be spending a month or two every year in Chicago from now on.

I’d like that. I had aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins who were always present in my life growing up. It seemed a natural thing to have various members of the family pick me up from school. I want to be a part of their lives the same way, and I expect I’ll be turning my life toward a more seasonal existence in the coming years, following the sun, possibly even following the work. Most importantly, landing in the middle of another branch of the family as those branches continue to grow.

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Zeeshan the Biscuit Man.

 Another member of my extended Chicago family is Zeeshan Shah. A lot of friends of mine are in transitional phases right now, and the beauty is that most are moving from doing something they like to doing something they love. Zeeshan spent years working for a restaurant group that promised him his own kitchen as soon as the stars aligned. Next year, they said. And when next year came, they said next year again. After five years, Zeeshan dropped out and started his own pop-up, a biscuit centered kitchen serving breakfast in the Long Room, a longtime favorite bar of mine on Irving Park that has decided to move into the breakfast world. They serve coffee, good coffee, at the bar, and Zeeshan whips up things like a biscuit and gravy with a folded egg on top, duck egg chilaquiles, and a pork belly BLT on a biscuit. Which I suppose would make it a BBLT.

Zeeshan tells me this is a welcome change, but it’s always kind of hard to tell. You could shoot a gallon of coffee into his bloodstream and he’d still sound like he just woke up. I’ve never met a man whose excitement was harder to gauge.

“You happy?” I ask him.

He says, “Yeah,” and it sounds like he’s yawning.

 Zeeshan’s cooking up a storm, doing what he should be doing and hoping he finds a way to make this work into something bigger. He doesn’t let on, but I’m sure like the rest of us, there are concerns about the finances. Making this leap meant more control, which also meant more responsibility and a big paycut and no net if the bottom drops out. I sat there with him and my friend Alan Neff, a writer and lawyer whose counsel has been invaluable to me over the years. None of us anticipated the place we would be in five years ago. All of us are trying to do what we love. In a sense, wherever we sit in age, we often find ourselves on similar trajectories. Trying to shape something beautiful and connect with people.

This is my Chicago. I come back, every time, and I’m surrounded by people doing their work. Really doing it. Not just talking about it like I do so often. They get up, they go to their station, they hold it down. Day after day, they start and finish their watch. The days accumulate, and they find they’ve made something worth sharing. It’s a strange little life we’ve all carved out as artists, and the hardest part is convincing yourself it can’t wait. You have to put it at the front and not bow to the millions of reasons you need to be doing something else.

At a bar on the edge of town, shortly after I arrived, my friends Rachel Webster and Tim Cook gave a reading to small crowd of poets. There are a million times when it feels like the work we are doing is only something we do for each other. It often is. The trick is learning to appreciate that, and to know that the fact that your friends want you to keep going is reason enough to do it.

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The High-Hat Lounge is located at 1920 W. Irving Park Road. They have a website here.

The Biscuit Man is located inside the Long Room at 1612 W. Irving Park Road. They have a Facebook Page.

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