Copyright is held by the author.
“Blessed are those servants whom the master finds awake when he comes.” — Luke: 12:37
I TEXT my girlfriend: “Maybe the menus are carved in stone.”
A sophisticate in the waiting area talks on his cell and gapes at a meat slab on a rotating spit. A teenage boy with jeans tighter than a court jester’s leggings detaches from his phone and snorts as a meat-bearer — they call these guys “gauchos” — passes him.
Here at the bar, the carvings in the crown molding have all the refinement of a shore of bludgeoned seals. And that wainscoting? With the decorative edges? What century am I in?
I go to MCA’s website to check out the latest exhibit. The hostess whose lips look like she’s rubbed them on a newly slaughtered calf interrupts me. “How do you like your Forzy? I just got the PM4.”
Surprising. I thought she’d be communicating via oatmeal canisters and string, yet here she is with a Forzy one model ahead of mine. I cover my eyes and reach out. “I can’t see. The light. It’s bouncing off your face.”
She laughs. It’s okay: they pay her to flirt.
My girlfriend texts me back: “Growl 3x.”
Surely the designer of this place would call the curving feature wall of faux stone “warm.” I call it “worn.” And the nubs that jut from the walls and ceiling make me think of a medieval torture chamber.
They give these places these sophisticated, foreign-sounding names, and they walk around with impaled meat. It’s kind of like hanging a painting of a Nebraska landscape in a contemporary art museum. You just don’t do that.
I am a vegetarian and, unfortunately, I am here, at a downtown Chicago Brazilian steak house called Chama da Noite — that’s Portuguese for “Night Flame” — to celebrate Timmy’s 40th birthday.
Timmy and I are volunteer docents for the Chicago Architectural Guild. Most of those who go on our tours know of one architect: Frank Lloyd Wright, whose Prairie style continues to imprison the aesthetic judgment of the average Joe.
I spend over eight hours a day writing about design. You’d think I’d be somewhat of an authority on Chicago architecture, but you’d be surprised at how many accountants and housewives are also architectural critics eager to educate me.
Most of those on my tours come from the same type of communities about which I often write: the ones that try to recreate a past that never existed. And these tourists love to brag about their homes’ antiquated styles: French Victorian, Georgian, English Tudor, and above all, Prairie. The word “humble” is often associated with the Prairie style, but in my experience, “humble” is to “Prairie style” as “chic” is to “Nebraska.”
An agonizingly ornate gilded frame shackles the mirror behind the bar, and the wallpaper has an early American primitiveness.
Among the sophisticates at the bar are a woman doused with makeup, a pinstriped fat guy who must have discovered a time warp while bootlegging gin, and a guy with a huge belt and baggy pants — perhaps a stonemason, or a falconer — prepared to gorge themselves with filet mignon, ribs, and bacon-wrapped beef medallions until they can’t walk.
I could be on my treadmill now, watching a film (something minus the explosions and special effects that these people no doubt require) on my 75-inch LED Smart TV.
Timmy’s in the toilet room, and none of the other docents are here yet. Ten of us were invited.
The guy in pinstripes drinks a beer — or maybe it’s an “ale” — whose fonts look like they’ve been lifted from an 18th-century bear baiting poster.
The stonemason/falconer wears Converse All Stars. Hey Susie, let’s head over to the soda shop. He has a Forzy. Red. How cultivated. PM2, I think. My company hasn’t given me a PM5 yet. Probably because I’m a writer in a visual field. A picture is worth a thousand words? People who say that usually suck at writing. The other day, Hank, one of our nearly illiterate PM5 bearers, expounded on the brick and copper detailing of his Arts and Crafts-style train station while devouring a bacon double cheeseburger. At least the station wasn’t Prairie style.
Timmy, with all the poise of a woolly mammoth, approaches from the other side of the bar. His stomach swells from a T-shirt he must have purchased at the gift shop. It says, “We shall have our meat!” He lifts three fingers from his Old Style to point at the crown molding. “Reminds me of Sullivan.” He belches.
I often picture Sullivan staring into the toilet, drawing inspiration for his next ornate pattern. Perhaps Sullivan’s buildings inspire one of my most popular tour questions: “There a bathroom ’round here?”
Timmy lugs around a Falstaffian frame, and has a disposition best described as provincial. Lumbering in somewhere in the middle in a slew of children, he was most likely born in a neighborhood with a name like Old Mill Towne or Country Valley Heights, where residents gather each year for a pig roast and potato sack races. As always, his engineer’s cap flops on his bulbous head. Timmy has all the modernity of a typewriter.
Why am I here?
Timmy roars at me. “So, Sprouts, what do you feed your dog? Green beans?”
I imagine Timmy wearing a fur pelt and clutching a double-edged axe. “He’d like this place.”
Timmy, with his Chicago Southland accent, the one that all those blue collar guys whose last names end in “ski” or “icz” have. “One time me and Hunter were walking and there was this rabbit, and boy, that son of a bitch Hunter? Boam. He took off like lightning. Nearly pulled my arm right out of the fuckin’ socket.” Timmy clacks two bottle caps to get the attention of the woman with enough makeup to cheer on the Nebraska Cornhuskers. “By the by, so what do you think about guys that are vegetarians?”
An I’ll-be-the-little-woman-you-want-me-to-be blue fills her glass, which curves with a Beaux Arts naivety. “They’re fine.”
“Sprouts here’s a vegetarian. He likes sprouts and napa lettuce and vegetables. He prays to the fruit and veggie goddess.”
Ms. Nebraska giggles. I drink until my martini glass is as empty as her head. “It’s napa cabbage.”
Timmy circles his index finger as if dialing a rotary phone. “I’m not buying it, this whole vegetarian thing. Monkeys can’t eat meat. They can’t digest it, but we can. Our bodies can digest meat. Doesn’t that tell you something, Sprouts?”
I dangle his beer. “I have the ability to drop this.” I point at Ms. Nebraska. “I have the ability to poop in my hand and throw it at her.”
She makes a face. It looks shiny enough to skate on.
I text my girlfriend: “Savages. The whole lot of ’em. Savages.”
The text that went to all the docents said the gathering would be at Hypnobox. I figured I could put up with some of my companions’ zeal for historic design if I could enjoy Hypnobox’s exquisite lentil cubes and leeks. Then the plan devolved, to this torture chamber-cum-steak house. And where are they?
My girlfriend responds: “Chuga chuga clue clue.”
Timmy has a full-time job at Sunny Peaks Railroad Museum. All day, he pilots a miniature steam train and drives kids around a track. You got trains in Shanghai going two hundred-and-fifty miles per hour, and Timmy likes steam engines.
Timmy wears his engineer’s cap during his architecture tours. Sometimes, on the boat tour, as I point out the slender elegance of Legacy at Millennium Park, or the unassuming sophistication of 300 North LaSalle, Timmy’s boat will float by and, to the delight of his group, he’ll toot his train whistle.
First, he’s on a boat. Second, this is Chicago, 2021.
As a prelude to his main course, Timmy tears at buffalo wings covered in glop. They’re supplemented with celery, which is mere décor to Timmy.
Text time: “If I ever get stuck in the arctic, I hope T with me.”
Timmy throws down a wing. “By the by, how’s Nu?”
“You should take him to the dog park. Lots of people.”
“He’s not really a people kind of dog.”
“Aw Sprouts, come on Sprouts. All dogs are people dogs. Man’s best friend?”
If nobody shows in 10 minutes, I’ll come up with an excuse to go.
“It’s good to see that, Sprouts. People with their dogs like that?”
“Dog park people are a bit too Mary Poppins for me.”
“Huh? But it’s a good place. You can . . . it’s a good place.”
There’s a painting behind the bar: fox hunters on a chocolate box countryside, if each morsel in that chocolate box is filled with cruelty and death.
I return to MCA’s website. There’s a Tate Bedford feature exhibit.
Still no sign of my cohorts. Howling and clapping at the other end of the bar. Football.
My girlfriend responds: “Protein. And FAT.”
They’re starting to gather in the waiting area. I’d use the word “herd,” but I don’t want to insult animals. Their attire matches that of the protagonists in the latest one-dimensional action films, while their palates lean toward those of cavemen. Soon they will discuss their political views while tearing into lamb shanks, or ponder the economy while gnawing on rib bones.
It was at a wedding in the urbane state of Nebraska that I decided to become a vegetarian. The reception was at a facility best described as “sparse,” but not sparse in the way that contemporary architecture is praised—it stood in the middle of a fairground. Think Footloose. The facility had cracked concrete floors and block walls. I dined on fried chicken and a salad of iceberg lettuce infused with carrot strips. The selection of dressing included Italian and ranch, in packets that many guests ripped open with their teeth.
The three at my table (folding, of course) were straight out of an ’80s John Cougar Mellencamp video: a guy who wore a button-down jean shirt and who held his fork (plastic) like a sword, his obedient wife who didn’t look much older than the first of their bevy of children, and a bearded relic whose mouth displayed an ever-shifting abstraction of the evening’s fare. When I was in the toilet room, this latter gentleman clomped up to the urinal next to mine, depressed one nostril, and then shot out a string of snot. He must have been an academic. A professor of agriculture, perhaps.
Their answers to my questions were eloquent. “How did you like the wedding?”
“Do you all live around here?”
“’Bout 20 miles westa North Platte.”
“I’m from Chicago. Have any of you ever been to Chicago?”
On the way home, I was suffering the eternity of Route 20, when a Nebraska cop pulled me over. He was in a car, as opposed to a tractor. I received a $125 ticket for going ten over. Surely the Illinois plates and the “Meat Bad, Veggies Good” bumper sticker had nothing to do
The barbarians down there watch a high-def flat screen, probably a few inches larger than mine. There’s a commercial. A clichéd Old West street. Two cowboys walking away from each other. They turn, ready to fire. A gleaming pickup, the High Noon, stops them. Cut to the pickup bouncing along, reconciled cowboys thrusting out their hats. That TV with that commercial: it’s like using a superior serving bowl as a bed pan.
An older guy heaves a massive book onto the bar, then sits next to me. A white powder covers his hands. Like he just rubbed chalk all over them. Another professor, maybe. History.
Ms. Nebraska asks me why I’m a vegetarian. I pull up one of my slaughtered pig pictures on my PM3.
“Oh that’s gross.”
“Gross enough for you to stop eating meat?”
I could be at the MCA now. Bedford’s display is called “A Portal to the Present.”
Chalky Hands’ book says something about the Renaissance. How many trees, I wonder, had to get axed to forge that monster?
I text: “Help I’m growing suspenders!!”
The pin on Timmy’s hat says, “Sunny Peaks Express – Official Engineer.” He submerges the bottom of his beer bottle in his stomach. His mouth, smeared with wing sauce, hangs open as he stares at the idiots on the screen.
Last fall, I covered for Timmy on the day of the Chicago marathon. One of my co-docents told me that when Timmy was eight, his father collapsed while jogging in a forest preserve. Hours later, they found him, dead, his dog standing beside him.
I asked my colleague whether Timmy’s father ever heard of a cell phone.
It seems that Timmy has retained some of his father’s lack of foresight: he never brings a phone anywhere. I don’t even know if he has one. So when people ask questions, he can’t come up with answers. He asks if he can get back to them.
My girlfriend responds: “Corn and iceberg boy.”
Timmy returns, stinking of smoke. “There’s a 1985 Pontiac Firebird out there, Sprouts. Mint condition. Firebird. Now that’s a car.” Really? I thought it was a chariot. “I like the headlights.” He dials his imaginary rotary phone. “All thin like that? The thing’s in mint condition.”
My brother lives by a McDonald’s. Every Friday night in summer, people park their classic cars in the lot. Then they lift their hoods and, while fifties rock ’n’ roll plays, they stand there with their hands in their pockets as tattooed and mustachioed aficionados examine the cars while digesting their milkshakes and burgers. Meat, milkshakes, and old cars. Aren’t those the symbols on the Nebraska state flag?
“So yous never been to the dog park, huh?”
A gaucho speeds by. He’s clutching a hunk of meat large enough to feed a shipload of war-weary Vikings. Chalky Hands licks his chalky finger, then turns a page of his tome.
The morning after that Nebraska wedding, I took a jog. I saw a farmer kill a cat. With a hoe.
Where are they?
Here’s an e-mail from Hank. A masonry magazine is interested in an article on his Starner Prairie train station. Great. Another article in which I talk about how historic design — guess what style this station is — builds pride in residents, links a community to the glory of the rail age, and shit like that.
The Forzy PM5 is rectilinear, lightweight, unadorned. And Hank, the person who the powers-that-be have appointed to bear this piece of technological perfection, has thrived on creating structures that are curvy, bulky, and ornamental. It’s like appointing a farmer who eats sausage and gravy-smothered biscuits every morning as a personal fitness trainer.
A guy in an intentionally faded T-shirt and a camouflage jacket talks to Ms. Nebraska. Perhaps he can regale her with his tales of adventure and courage in which he climbs trees, hides, and then blows away those vicious deer.
Bellowing and clapping from the other side of the bar. On the TV, a grown man in tight clothes and a helmet dances while hoisting a ball made of dead cow. The bartender puts a stuffed dragon on a shelf. I’m surprised it’s not real. It holds a chalkboard that says, “Franklin’s Spring Ale/Bottles/$1.50.”
They cheer and several order. Chalky Hands even gets one. The light clutches a couple strands of hair that wick up from the middle of his head.
Text: “Should have brought my bifocals and wig.”
Timmy leaves to make room for more ale.
“Say . . .” Chalky Hands holds his pen like a cop holding a flashlight. “Now that thingy, I imagine that’s pretty nifty, huh?”
Yeah, Henry. It could hold ten thousand times the content of that monster you’re lugging around. “Sure.”
The bartender asks me if I’m interested in the “touchdown special.”
Good sir, I thank ye kindly. Alas, I fear that imbibing that libation would leave me with a paunch much like those of the knaves that surround your bar. I hold up my hand and shake my head no.
The lights dim. Though I’m sure that the intent is to project intimacy, the reality is that it projects butchery.
Chalky Hands sticks his nose in his book, takes a big whiff. “Ahhh. The smell of books. You like the smell of books?”
It’s actually how I choose my books. I walk into bookstores blindfolded, then get the books that smell best. “Eh.”
He’s the type of guy who sees a consummate work of contemporary architecture and says, “It’s just a big box,” or “It looks too expensive,” and then rips into a hot dog.
“Look here.” He rotates the monster. “No batteries.”
I gesture around the bar. “Dark.” I turn on my phone. “Bright.”
“I’ll be . . . I saw that one. Right near here.” He recognizes the image of the new Hyde Park bank on my phone. Stainless steel. Concrete. Glass. Precise. “I see that Sullivan’s influence in there. Sullivan. You know Sullivan?”
Will these Sullivan references ever stop? “Guy’s been dead for like 80 years.”
“Sure. But it’s . . .” The chalky hands flatten, face each other, as if he’s showing me the length of something. Then they shift to a height measurement. “Ah, what do you call that?”
“Right, right. Composition. Some of Sullivan’s stuff was like that, right? Funny how you see bits of history. How they just pop out sometimes?”
“We learn from them, they learned from the folks before them. Everything’s all kind of stacked.” He takes out a phone, then places it on his book. The phone is a PM5.
The bartender sets a Franklin’s Spring Ale before me. “Try it. On the house.” But I need to grow a mustache and chop me some wood before I drink that.
The bottle’s label shows a figure on a path that winds to a rising sun. Maybe it’s the snot rocket guy from Nebraska. I’ll probably take it into the bathroom then dump it.
Chalky Hands takes a swig of his. “Say, that’s familiar. You taste this? It tastes familiar.”
The path on the bottle is silver and it reflects light. Maybe that’s Timmy’s father on the path. His final run. The path leads right up to that orange sun. A faded orange, like a robin. Those things used to wake me when I was a kid. You don’t hear them in the city so much.
Perhaps there are robins at the dog park.
My girlfriend texts: “Warp back home soon?”
A gaucho passes with a meat-heaped spear. Chalky Hands reads by cell phone flashlight. I’m surprised it’s not candlelight. Ms. Nebraska shows camouflage guy something on her phone.
This is Chicago, where one day all the steel and the concrete stomp on you and all the edges slash at you, and the next day, a man jumps into the river to save an old woman’s dog.
Timmy returns, then dials his invisible rotary phone. “Hey Sprouts, I never seen Nu. You got a snapshot or something?”
I think about telling him the photos are still developing in the darkroom. Instead I show him Nu on my Forzy.
“Boy, he looks like a fun wild guy.”
But Nu isn’t wild. He’s probably more discerning than Timmy.
Timmy, humming, pulls out his wallet, then shows me a picture of a mutt. “He’s not this dark. He’s a lot lighter.” He scans the bar, points to the path on the bottle of Franklin’s Spring Ale. “Here. A lot like this here.”
Timmy takes off his hat. The hair above his ears makes his head look like an old-fashioned alarm clock. “Boy, last week? Hunter? I’ll tell ya, last week . . .” His eyes redden and his voice quavers. “I had to have him put down. That’s . . . I’ll tell ya, you have him every day for 14 years . . .”
He sips his ale, and I try mine, and somewhere, a robin’s chirp curves around a box of glass and steel.
I used to eat meat. And when Timmy’s father went down, cell phones didn’t exist.
I text my girlfriend: “I’ll be here awhile.”