Tuesday, December 11, 2018

"Rogers Park without the Heartland seems absurd"

Nicholas Tremulis
     Honestly: we rarely go to the Heartland Cafe as a destination in itself. The groats-and-granola menu put it in a distant orbit in our culinary universe, as did its rough, we-slapped-this-together-the-weekend-before-we-opened decor. 
     But I do have a habit of being called there, either to meet people we're joining for an evening at the nearby, excellent Lifeline Theater or, in the 2009 column below, hunting an elusive Facebook friend.
     So while not exactly a fan, I thought I would acknowledge the sadness felt by aficionados of the place, which Block Club reports is closing at the end of the month, by reposting this encounter with local musician Nicholas Tremulis. The good news is that he is still rocking: he'll do a Christmas show at the Blue Nocturne (the lower level of the Chopin Theater) 1543 W. Division, on Dec. 16. 
     I thought I'd catch up with him, and ask for his thoughts on Heartland closing. He replied:
     Some places, you just equate with the neighborhood they reside in. Rogers Park without the Heartland seems absurd; like your parents getting a divorce. This was a place where radical, pinko-commie hippy/punks could meet to plan a little subversive action back in the day. Those who walked the talk. Another landmark of the left disappears. Seems fitting to me that the only other time I played there was to backup John Sinclair reading poetry. Goodbye to the oldest beatnik in Chicago.

     'I'm looking for a boisterous Norwegian woman," I explained to the maitre d' at the Heartland Cafe.
     "Well, there are a lot of women here," she said, gesturing to the dark, crowded bar, where the clientele did indeed skew female. "Whether they're Norwegian or not . . . "
     Earlier, my wife and I had been downtown, at Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse, where Dutchie Caray, Harry's sposa cara, was given a surprise 80th birthday party Saturday night ("Do you think it's a good idea to surprise an 80-year-old?" I wondered beforehand. "I mean, could it be dangerous?") Dutchie took the shock in stride -- sharp as a tack, she of course knew something was up, but expected a family gathering, not the hundreds of friends who turned out.
     After 90 minutes of coconut crab risotto and conversation, my wife and I couldn't resist the temptation to head north. My earthy Norwegian Facebook pal, Gry Haukland, whom you might recall reading about last spring, is visiting Chicago, a development that initially alarmed my wife, until I explained that she's staying with Lee Klawans, a fellow she met on my Facebook page. The happy couple let me know they'd be listening to music at the Heartland in East Rogers Park, and that seemed reason aplenty to swing by.
     We scanned the bar and saw no one radiating Gry's striking Nordic beauty. We did, however, find Nicholas Tremulis, on the small stage in the back room at the Heartland, playing without a band. His name sparked a flash of recognition, the pale gleam of a WXRT-stoked local celebrity from 25 years ago. "Let's stay," I told my wife. "We're already here. The cover charge is only seven bucks. "
     Tremulis cut a curious figure—his pants a shade of light orange associated with children's aspirin, a brown leather jacket over a well-filled maroon shirt, thin mustache, goatee, dangly ball earrings in both ears and a giant newsboy cap. The get-up would look fey on a trim 20-year-old, but on a guy my age, or maybe a few years older, well, let's say that it put the oft-humbling trade of professional journalism into a more attractive light. There are hells below mine. Tremulis was playing the most beat-up, cheapest-looking nylon-stringed guitar I've ever seen in the hands of a working musician.
     But the songs were good—"I Can't Stand the Rain" by Tina Turner, whom he once opened for, "Sweet Dreams," by Patsy Cline—and we stayed until he ended his set.
     "This is a tune I usually play for really drunk people," he said, scanning the crowd of tea drinkers at the Heartland. "But I don't see any."
     I think it was his battered toy guitar that affected me, coupled with the knowledge that we've both been kicking around Chicago for the past quarter century, playing our modest songs with less success than our fevered dreams of glory might have hoped for. A person could feel bad about that, or a person could feel good, and Saturday night, listening to Nicholas Tremulis, I chose to feel good. Hey, it's a living.


     Nicholas Tremulis reminded me of these stanzas from Emily Dickinson—not quite a joke, but perhaps humorous enough to pass as a chuckle:

     I'm nobody! Who are you? Are you nobody too? Then there's a pair of us— don't tell! They'd banish us, you know.     How dreary to be somebody! How public, like a frog To tell your name the livelong day To an admiring bog!

—Originally published in the Sun-Times, Aug. 4, 2009


  1. I certainly got a chuckle out of the Dickinson piece: "admiring bog" indeed!


  2. I've lived in Rogers Park for 68 years & have never even thought of going there & certainly won't miss it!

  3. I moved to Rogers Park in 1983, ate/drank there a couple times, walked by it hundreds of times. Food was rather "interesting". Certainly was a staple of the neighborhood. Not that many things around there that remained the same, but that stood a long time. Sorry to see it go.

  4. My grandmother moved up to East Rogers Park, from the West Side, in the mid-Fifties, so my connection with the neighborhood goes back a very long way. She lived near Touhy and Sheridan. Loyola and Morse were our family's beaches, and I got my haircuts on Glenwood, on the same block where the No Exit coffeehouse later relocated from Evanston. One of my cousins had his upholstery business a few doors north.

    In the late Sixties, long after my grandma had moved away, I'd often visit a "head shop" on Glenwood called the Retinal Circus. In the middle and late Seventies I would bike from South Evanston to Farwell Pier, and hang out at the beach. Are the murals on the concrete still there, and looking better than ever?

    On ride home, I'd sometimes stop at the Heartland for a cold drink or to look for a radical newspaper, and after I met the neighbor who later became my first wife, we occasionally had dinner on their patio. She, too, was of Norwegian descent, but neither earthy nor boisterous.

    East Rogers Park no longer has much physical evidence of that kinder, gentler, radical-hippie-pinko era, so it saddens me to have to read about what is probably the end of the "original" Heartland. Still, 42 years is a pretty good run, and a lot longer than most. Hail and farewell!

    1. There's no such place as "East Rogers Park"! It's just Rogers Park, as the name on the Morse, Rogers Park L Station & the Rogers Park Metra station names show.
      Just because there's a "West Rogers Park", doesn't mean there's an "East".
      And everything north of Devon & east of Kedzie is "Rogers Park Township".
      Until 1890, there were the towns of Rogers Park, which was everything east of Ridge & the town of West Ridge, which was everything west of Ridge, plus an additional section south of Devon.

  5. There is an official "Chicago Neighborhood Map, adopted by the City Council in 1993. The names and boundaries of the neighborhoods on this map were based upon a field survey conducted by the Department of Planning, in 1978. The survey asked "What is the name of this neighborhood?" and "What are the boundaries?"

    Within each of Chicago's neighborhoods, approximately ten residents were selected at random for interviewing. Their answers are the unofficial neighborhood names and boundaries. According to the map, Rogers Park is subdivided into both East and West Rogers Park, with Ridge Avenue as the common border. The two neighborhoods were commonly called by those names as far back as I can remember, and I'm an old geezer now.

    For one brief moment shining moment, around 1968, a hippie newspaper called "The Roger Spark" existed in the eastern zone...I've always liked that, so I still call the area by that name. Drives my wife nuts, I'm sure, but what does she know? She grew up in Cleveland.


Please feel free to comment on my Facebook page.