It must have been about 1948. The shabby streets had the murkiness which went with greasy half-wet black tar and glistening drops of oil, water drooled off the battered canopy of the bar, which sort of protected the entrance to this decaying enterprise and protruded its tired face into the deathly quiet deserted Rush Street of Chicago. A few bulbs among the dead ones hung around the outside fringe of the canopy were still burning in poor imitations of yellow and green and red, but their light was so dim that they had lost their garishness and slipped back into the realm of quiet respectability.
The windows of the old house in which the place was established showed no signs of light emanating from the interior and only a dull red neon flickering in one of the windows indicated that people were within—that and the faraway sound of a piano which might be connected to this place named Tin Pan Alley. It was not a gleaming advertisement for a certain mythical area of New York.
To go in you had to walk under the canopy and then go down a flight of steps to the entrance that was below the sidewalk level. It was one of the Chicago houses which had had to allow the cement to grow up around it and sink it into a half subterranean world.
Chicago had a 4:00 A.M. closing law, and by 5:00 it was reasonable to suppose that most bars would be closed and maybe they were. But not Jimmy’s place. You could always get one more in this bar and maybe even a little jazz and maybe more than that to go with the bad bar whiskey, and Jimmy never seemed to notice.
Within the small confines of the canopy there were no lights and as you walked down into this dive you saw old music scores plastered over the walls, containing the songs of the twenties and early thirties half scraped off—never looked at. The cheap stuff of its day trying to achieve a veneer of sentiment and not quite making it. Was this Jimmy’s Chicago or was it his Sicily or was it both finally joined at the heart?
Inside, the lightbulbs burned with about ten more watts than the half moonlit night outside and it was necessary to stop for a moment to allow the eyes to adjust and grasp the unfocused world of foul smokiness and deep reddish lights that swirled into each other and created the haze of hell holding you there and snarling at you and choking you with the putridness of drying alcohol and dried life burnt out on a scarred bar top.
A young tall black guy stood inside the door instead of outside of it and he half opened the door for you and said Hello ain’t seen you for a long time almost three hours but maybe it was yesterday or tonight or might have been last week when we saw that chick on the south side and gimme a piece of skin man and when we gonna start that little bar of our own—only need about five hundred bucks. His name was Buck, just a poor tired guy looking for a buck bogged down into this pit for his pittance and okay Buck I’ll see you in a minute and the 26 girl was still sitting next to the door on a stool rolling the little cup of dice onto a tray before her and counting how they came up. (If you had never seen her in the daylight, and probably you had not, she looked almost pretty. Long black hair fell down onto her shoulders framing the low-cut dress that showed some breast as she bent over with a stub of pencil in hand to write the numbers on the almost concealed score sheet. And she or the dress or the light and maybe the bad whiskey kept the quarters rolling in and sometimes her counting was not too accurate and 26 changed to 25 and who cared because the hair and the breasts were still there so close and not very close really.
The walls had been painted to make you think you were in Paris at a street café or watching an Apache dance or walking down a dark street or looking into a garish mirror with pink light. But you could never really quite decide and maybe that poor slob of a painter had had his joke by not letting you know if you were sleeping through a nightmare of Paris or sinking into the cheapness of Chicago. But at least the bar was of secure solid stolid oak and it was a refuge for the arms and the ice in the glass was a spot of coolness that promised something more than this slime it was set on and gazing into it, you could see in its dissolving crystals more things than are known to us by intellectual observation alone.
Those self-isolating souls at the bar were the people you always saw. There was the young gay guy at the rear trying self-consciously to conceal his sweet girlishness and yet letting it ooze and drip out of him through his hands and his hair and his words of molten honey for the almost blind huge black woman Laura Rucker who was playing the piano in an almost perfunctory fashion yet still nurturing a little love for it as if it had once been her lover and part of her before she had lost him and grown blind and fat and now played only with her dreams grown stale. At her side was an elderly drummer, Baby Dodds, who was listlessly yet catlike pounding softly on the skin and his eyes were maybe closed and you did not know if there was conscious effort on his part.
Two or three of the lost ones stood near the little upright piano asking Laura for this and that and she tried to give it out but sometimes it was I’m sorry honey I just don’t know it and please ask for something else. To Baby it did not matter much what it was. He followed in and pounded it out a little and it did not matter much to those who listened either. Some things had the ring of familiarity—nice to hear again nice to hear the songs which you once thought meant something and in this little cheap place you could still get the chance to feel important—name your song and hear it sung by a recording artist and a great jazz drummer who were playing some lost melody for you, corrupted out of themselves but still it was only for you and maybe you had not even heard the songs before yours. You just wanted to hear the one played for you and as soon as they methodically began grinding it out you could forget it and turn back to the sad drink on the bar and watch the bartender try to cheat a little on the bonded stuff and maybe throw in a little of the bar whiskey to the drunk down at the end. And in this miniscule place the smoke deepened phantasmagorical-like and people sitting at the tables seemed isolated and a million lives away crouched under the protective canopy of the Café de la Paix only it was the painted canopy on the ceiling in the basement of the Tin Pan Alley, situated on Rush Street, Chicago. But the people must be real even if the canopy was not and their lives were in the smoke making it hard to see their faces and it was a little more important to because some day she would be there. A girl would drift out of the smoke and peering into it might materialize her. You never could tell.
It had never happened but it might and when the whiskey and waters mounted up the odds lessened and staying and waiting was made easier. The world contained itself in the off-red light and the Chicago Tribune ugliness stayed out and cold hard-boiled eggs sitting on the bar in their shells became the nourishment of the fetus waiting and stewing and growing in alcohol even if it was against the rules to nurture living things on poison. Up in front the door opened spasmodically with people moving in and out. Maybe the bar down the street would be better but it never was and they always came back—out of the black maw of the night—through the door held by Buck ready to give a piece of skin without the asking. A guy strolled in with a big bulldog on a leash who ponderously, dignifiedly headed through the mist for a booth at the rear where he could crawl under the seat and wait for the other end of the leash to saturate and satisfy the cravings of the alones. The single girls who did come in were not too appealing. That night there were two of them but they were fond of each other and they made you know that their interests were in the drink and each other and the deal was don’t bother us please. But once in a while somebody different did wander in bringing suspicion as a partner. A girl alone here and you always wondered and the wonderings were usually correct. The body had a price printed on it and the heart had atrophied beyond recognition. Yet there was always the lift of expectation when you pushed and maneuvered to the stool next to a female who might be attractive and who might be alone and who might not be too much of a whore. And her brown wool sweater and long blonde hair and horn-rimmed glasses were new life and finding the way to attract her to yourself was baffling because this did not happen here. A guy with astigmatism and bad hearing could still tell that she was no stranger to this place even if she had never been here before and there was that worn-in groove affinity with bartenders, but you had known others who had had it too and there had been no better people and this was no place to question too deeply before you even savored the possibilities. And then you were talking and she had gone to Stanford and had later lived in San Francisco and you pretended you had too and this became something you had created for them to share and Telegraph Hill was your meeting place and more drinks passed that place on back to Chicago and now and her being close was real whether in Paris or California or Chicago and the time for a move seemed nearing as you saw the bulldog retrace his way out of the gloom and you noticed that when Buck swung the door open the dawn stared back at you and then the dream snapped shut and you asked her if she would like a lift home and she said yes. The drink money was slid across the counter and Buck gave the last piece of skin and the door to the dawn was open and the words were—I’ll need twenty for this—and you mumbled something about that being a lot but that was not what the disappointment was and the dawn was cold and harsh and Baby Dodds and Laura Rucker had long ago disappeared into the wall and you wanted to die, But the night had been too long and you got into the car and you closed the door and drove away without looking at her sitting there beside you.