MY COFFEEHOUSE LIFE
Pardon me a moment while I take today’s first sip of coffee.
That’s the ticket. The life-giving, eye-opening, brain-igniting legal substance without which I would most likely be a rotting corpse by 11:00am.
Guatemalan Coffee Cherries: The Seeds Inside Keep Me Alive
As faithful readers of this daily account are aware, I spend much of my time at Soma Coffee. I’ve been a coffeehouse habitué for at least the last twenty years, since coffeehouses came back into vogue.
Coffeehouses were the subterranean headquarters of the beatniks back in the late 1950s. There isn’t much at all about the ’50s that appeals to me — which is ironic considering one of this holy land’s most venerated presidents of all time, Saint Ronald Reagan, pretty much positioned that decade as something of a second Eden — but I’d have loved to have hung out in that era’s smoky, moody, finger-snapping, beret-required coffeehouses.
When beatniks went out of style, so did coffeehouses. Then, thanks to retro, Seattle grunge, and a phenomenon known as Starbuck’s, they started popping up here and there, mostly in those urban pioneer precincts that artists and hipsters gravitated toward.
I spent nearly ten years haunting Chicago’s premier, almost mythical, coffeehouse called Urbus Orbis. The place occupied the main floor of a four-story red-brick industrial building near the six-corners intersection of Milwaukee, North, and Damen avenues.
The locale was a tough spot in those days. Gang-bangers ran around grabbing their crotches and flashing signs at each other. Hard-drinkers tumbled out of the Borderline tavern just a half-block away. On any given Friday or Saturday night, stewed-to-the-gills drivers would slam into each other in the middle of that complicated intersection and physical altercations were sure to ensue. A good percentage of the time firearms were introduced into the proceedings.
Urbus Orbis itself was not immune to the horrors of the street. It wasn’t unusual to wait outside the single, locked bathroom, hopping on one leg then the other until finally banging on the door and getting no response. You’d tell the barista about it, she’d lower her shoulder and crash the door in, and the two of you would find some poet curled up in a ball on the piss-stained floor in a junk-induced reverie.
I loved the place.
There were anarchists, painters, actors, old punk-rockers, and countless hangers-on. On any given day I’d share a table with characters like Sidney T. Feldman, a former teen Frisbee champ who’d scraped-together his disc-tossing winnings to buy out his boss’s window washing business. Sidney loved to brag he was the laziest man in the city of Chicago. He worked a mere 45 minutes a week, he claimed, long enough only to schedule appointments with his North Shore clients and assign his crews. The first day I met him, he walked into the Urbus Orbis with a grey African parrot on his shoulder.
One winter night while stuck in traffic on the Kennedy Expressway, Sidney and I got the bright idea that we should become private detectives. We’d tail errant spouses and track down missing heirs. No joke. Sidney said it was a natural: I was used to bird-dogging and researching as a journalist and he knew how to run a business. He even knew a guy who could make a blinking eye neon sign to hang outside our office. But most of all it was perfect because we’d just bought snazzy new fedoras.
I was to go down to the State of Illinois building the very next morning to get all the paperwork in order. Sadly, I learned a couple of chuckleheads need to be trained and sponsored before they can become private eyes. Even if they do have fedoras.
There was Michael Fisher, a twenty-something who wore a dashing brimmed hat like an Italian movie star and a long scarf which he threw over his shoulder with a dramatic flair even when the temperature hovered around 70. Michael’d spent his college years fencing and playing chess. He and Sidney — himself a highly-rated chess player — jockeyed for position to give me pointers on my game. Then they’d loom over me and kibbitz as I played another opponent, slapping their heads in dismay when I’d make a blunder. But if my opponent blundered, they’d shout, “Punish him!” in my ear.
There was Terry Broderick, a hulking, prematurely gray-haired man who relished being the outsider among us outsiders. He listened to a little known (at the time) radio ranter named Rush Limbaugh and would come into Urbus Orbis to tell us what treasonous things he’d learned Bill Clinton had done that morning. Terry wore many hats. He had a tiny red pick-up truck whose bed he packed with dry ice. He loaded it up with frozen meats and lobsters and would drive to northwest Indiana and ring doorbells to sell the stuff.
Terry also sold insurance door to door and ran his own moving company. He’d rent a truck, hire his Urbus acquaintances and the odd wino off the street, and move families from the Gold Coast to the North Shore. His business card claimed he was licensed and insured but we knew better. We knew he was running a pirate business because whenever he saw anybody he suspected was an inspector from the Illinois Commerce Commission snooping around, he’d flip the ramp back into the truck in a rush and peel away, leaving us and the family we were moving to stand there looking dumbfounded.
One day I confronted Terry. “Come on, man,” I said, “You and I both know you’re running a scam. Let me see your bonding papers. Where’s your business license?”
He looked over both shoulders and confessed, “I don’t have ’em.”
“So,” I said triumphantly, “you’re lying on your business card.”
“No I’m not!” he said, hurt. “I’m licensed! I’m insured! I’ve got a drivers license and I have auto insurance.” He was serious as a heart attack. Then he said, “Can you work tomorrow? I’ve got three jobs.” I said I could.
There was the Dark Prince. His given name was Bill. Years earlier, he’d been a silent fixture at the punk rock nightclubs La Mere Vipere, O’Banion’s, and Exit. He only ever wore black. Black pointy Beatle boots. Black stovepipe jeans. Black turtleneck sweater. Black eye liner. His spiky, pouffed-up hair was also shockingly black, which we all took to be a dye job considering he was about 40 years old. His mood was generally black and the cloud that hung over his head was, if not black, darkest gray.
The highlight of the Dark Prince’s resume was that he’d spent time on tour with Peter Murphy some years back. We though this odd since the Prince couldn’t play any musical instruments and he was vehemently opposed to the concept of labor, so we knew he couldn’t have been a roadie.
In any case, the Prince liked to sit alone, chain smoking and looking for all the world as if he was plotting to become the next Unabomber. One day the Prince walked into Urbus Orbis actually smiling — well, okay, the corner of his mouth was sort of upturned. He carried with him a dozen red roses. We all gaped at him.
He explained: A junkie street hooker he’d befriended was so touched that anyone would treat her like a human being that she’d decided to fall in love with him. She started out by leaving mash notes on his windshield. That day, she’d left the flowers.
“Whaddya gonna do with ’em?” we asked. The Dark Prince shrugged. “I dunno. Probably give ’em to my mother.” We though that sweet of him. He did, after all, live in his mother’s basement in the conservative suburb of Mount Prospect.
At least one Urbus regular went on to become a big hit in the bigger world. Adam Levin, a dreadlocked teenager, would sit with Sidney and me and tell us about his dream of becoming a writer. He carried a notebook with him everywhere he went. He wouldn’t stay too terribly long on any given day because, he said, he needed to write and he couldn’t do it with all the rest of us distracting him. His hard work paid off: Adam Levin’s novel “The Instructions” was published by the ultra-hip McSweeney’s people in 2010. Some critics likened his work to that of David Foster Wallace.
Urbus Orbis stood on the border between the Wicker Park and Bucktown neighborhoods. By the late 90’s the yuppies had discovered the area. First the gangbangers, the drunks and the junkies were pushed out. Then the Puerto Ricans. We knew we were next.
Urbus Orbis closed down on New Year’s Eve 1997.
Not long after that, the owner of the building decided to rent it out to the production company that put on MTV’s “The Real World.” They moved in some precious, faux-edgy, aspiring actors and videotaped their every living moment.
One Friday night a crowd of several hundred freaks, revolutionaries, and painters massed in front of the building, shouting for the MTV people to go home. A rock or two may have been thrown. The cops came, clunked a few heads, and everybody dispersed, lamenting to each other as they ran what a sick corporate police state we’d become.
Wicker Park and Bucktown now boast some of the priciest townhomes in the city.
I’ve set my laptop down in any number of coffeehouses since the Urbus days. There were Kafein and the Unicorn near the Evanston campus of Northwestern University. Katerina’s on Chicago’s North Side and Bic’s Hardware Cafe on the South Side. Heine Brothers, and Matthew Lannan’s joint in Louisville. And now, Soma.
Soma’s a good place. I’ve met tons of fine folks here. Nobody on the order of the Dark Prince, though. Soma’s more serious. Loads of students reading textbooks and instructors grading papers. Adam Levin would have liked it here.