Saturday, October 16, 2021

Ravenswood Notes: Chills


   Credit to Caren Jeskey, she gets around. If I pulled on a random door, I don't believe I would find ... well, better let her tell it:

     Pre-pandemic you would have walked right past The Violet Hour, perhaps admiring the facade— an oft-changing mural the length of several storefronts. You would not have noticed the door hidden away within the strokes of the art. This posh cocktail and small-plates bar boasts “pre-prohibition style libations” and rules including “No Jager-Bombs. No bombs of any kind.”
      The Violet Hour sits on Damen, just south of North Avenue. My Grandpa Carl is rolling around in his grave at Rosehill knowing he missed out on all of this swanky fun, and remembering his days at the Busy Bee diner a few doors down where he sat at the counter sipping five cent coffee, black.
     COVID robbed The Violet Hour of their secretive allure when they realized they needed to set up outdoor seating on their limited parcel of concrete real estate. I called to fact-check and spoke with bartender-turned-manager Abe, who shared that the patio (along with a cocktail delivery program) helped them stay afloat. He stressed that the patio “is on a busy street in Chicago” to reduce expectations. He told me that he uses the mantra “make it work,”— words that have rung in his ears ever since he heard them spoken by Tim Gunn of Project Runway— to keep moving forward in solution mode at all times. This, he found, was particularly important during this past long year and a half for those in the now precarious business of service.
     I’ve not been to The Violet Hour for years, and was reminded of it recently when I found myself accidentally entering another mysterious joint. While on an Andersonville walkabout, I happened upon a black metal door, framed by an exposed brick wall that was peppered with Houdini, Thurston, and Alexander posters. I pictured a young boy with shorts and saddle shoes slapping them up there with a bucket of glue and a long-handled brush.
     I’m not 100% sure why, but I pulled the handle of the door marked with the address 5050, and was very surprised that it flew open. I was greeted by a suit-wearing chap with salt and pepper hair warmly saying “Welcome! Do you have your vaccination card?” (This snapped me out living in the land of timeless make-believe, but I still went with it). “Yes, I do.” I popped on my ubiquitous bracelet, aka mask, and followed him.
     The foyer was filled with laundry machines with big round glass doors, packed with clothes in various stages of wash cycles. He pulled at one of the machines, which opened up into yet another door. This time we were standing in an elegant, dimly lit, high ceilinged bar with black walls and vinyl booths. Salt and pepper turned out to be The Amazing Bibik. He showed me around the place and I was tickled to be led into a full sized theatre and stage hidden behind yet another door. I stuck around for some witty banter and card tricks, made a mental note to get back there for a show soon, and headed back out to meander some more.
     The other night a friend and I were on a walk and I thought to show him the magic place. He loved it. The show was already sold out, and we were looking for something to do. I checked the Music Box schedule and saw that The Rescue was starting. (As a member there I know that they require vaccination cards and masks, and if not too crowded the theatre is big enough that one can usually find a seat tucked far enough away from others).
      We high-tailed it to the theatre (on foot) as I bought the tickets online, and made it just in time for the film to start. It was a documentary about the 12 boys and their soccer coach who were rescued from the cave in northern Thailand in 2018, and it was made by E. Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chin of Free Solo fame. Steve James, the creator of Hoop Dreams, introduced the film, and invited us to stay for a talk back afterwards. The movie was as enthralling as you’d think it would be, with unlikely heroes of shy, brilliant, socially awkward cave divers who feel more comfortable squeezing through muddy little passages than they might feel while sitting at a dinner party.
     After the movie Mr. James introduced the guests. First was John Volanthen, the British cave diver who first found the boys alive and was a crucial part of their rescue. We all stood, clapping. I am getting the chills again just thinking of that feel-good moment that we all need so badly. The other guest was Captain Mitch Torrel of the US Air Force, who had a big hand in helping plan and facilitate the successful mission. After the talk back we went up to the small circle that had gathered around these men, and though I wanted to hug Mr. Volanthen with all of my heart, it didn’t seem appropriate so we shared a hearty handshake instead.


  1. Thanks, Caren. Especially for the link to the 1990 Reader profile of the Busy Bee, which was always a buzzing place...a veritable beehive of activity (sorry, couldn't resist). I was saddened to learn that it's gone, like so many other Chicago eateries. There was a restaurant in that location for most, if not all, of the last century.

    Have to admit, a bit shamefully, that I ate there but a handful of times. I was pretty much a lakefront guy--Evanston to Hyde Park--during my adult Chicago years (1975-1992) Somehow, I completely missed the neighborhood's rebirth, and the gentrification years. I do remember going to a street fair, most likely in the late Seventies. Wicker Park was still quite sketchy then. Gang graffiti, trash, abandoned buildings, broken windows, and the like. Made me somewhat edgy.

    But that was when I learned that Paderewski, the virtuoso Polish pianist, had actually lived on Pierce. A Paderewski look-alike, dressed in formalwear, performed some of his best-known compositions. The piano was even on the same porch where Paderewski himself had given a concert, decades earlier, in front of an enormous and wildly enthusiastic crowd.

    On this day, Pierce was again packed. The audience was again shoulder to shoulder, and they also loved what they were hearing. One of my few still-vivid memories of Wicker Park. Happened over forty years ago, but this classical piano fan has never forgotten it.

  2. We’ll be going to see the movie today at the Music Box.
    NPR’s Fresh Air had an episode with the documentarians and main diver/spelunker. Excellent.
    Looking forward!


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