#GentlemanlyPursuits in Paul Kahan’s Chicago,
by A-J Aronstein
I woke up on the hardwood floor of Tyler’s apartment, twisted into a crumpled pile of chewed up meat. There was blood everywhere. On my shirt, my pants. The tip of my thumb was sliced somewhat less than totally open and had turned an alarming shade of purple. Something (the alcohol) had sucked all the water out of my body and I felt like a dried out iguana. Bits of malignantly flaking skin hung off my lips. I ran my shriveled tongue against the raw roof of my mouth and felt something scrape off. I swallowed, coughed, and sputtered as the earth listed at hideous angles. It was eighty-five degrees in the apartment and near-summer sunlight gushed through the bay windows, activating a violent headache whose pulsations produced a fuzzy blinking purple dot in the upper right hand corner of my right eye. My stomach was still full of headcheese, pork pie, quail, tacos, oysters, and a poisonous soup of no fewer than seven different types of spirits. I probed the eyelid with my fingernail and the dot grew spindles and darkened ominously. It flashed in rhythm with a buzzing noise in my ear that ebbed and flowed.
I passed out.
During the previous four weeks, I’d told a lot of people I was writing a magazine piece about Chicago foodie culture. The basic premise: find a friend and eat at five of the city’s most popular restaurants and bars in a single night, get dangerously intoxicated, and “see what happens.”
Drafting Tyler as my companion had been easy. He has a squarely serious jaw, and despite a slender frame, bears a properly Midwestern affection for large, meat-centric meals. He wears blazers. He’s of Slovenian extraction, making him an excellent and careful conversationalist. And importantly, he can hold his booze. The five establishments we planned to visit were the brainchildren of Executive Chef (slash Chicago celebrity) Paul Kahan and Managing Partner Donnie Madia (along with a group of associates whose complex roles I can’t really figure out). Suffice it to say that on any given night in Chicago’s West Loop and Wicker Park neighborhoods, The Publican, Avec, Blackbird, Big Star, and Violet Hour cram in hordes of Chicago’s good-looking, loud-talking, plaid-wearing creative class.
There wasn’t much of a purpose behind the project apart from wanting to be part of that class. I was bored and close to broke—finishing graduate school, disinterestedly reading a lot of Dickens, living off of student loans, and converting my savings account into quantities of Schlitz and Ten High whiskey. With the exception of an imminently due thesis project on the “usefulness” of contemporary American short fiction, I wasn’t writing much of anything.
I was, however, spending more time online than at any other point in my adult life. Even now, two years and 2000 tweets later, I remain unconvinced that things like social networks make us lonelier than we are already by nature—as if loneliness hasn’t been the singular constant of human existence since before, like, Homer. But when we already feel alone, we eagerly indulge in the fantasy that we can refashion our real life based on virtual connections. The failure of our efforts to translate online relationships into something tangible in the world can certainly end up making one feel like it’s better to just stay in the house.
That is to say, I had recently started an online dating profile. I went out with a girl who—within fifteen minutes of sitting down at a Thai restaurant underneath the L—related her experience of witnessing a UFO in Guatemala (she never called me back). I’d also ramped up my Twitter account and tweeted observations about Aaron Sorkin as I marched through the first five seasons of The West Wing on DVD. I read articles about how to attract followers, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in my underwear. And I spent swaths of record-warm April afternoons on Facebook, indulging in one of our contemporary moment’s favorite pastimes: trying to access photo albums blocked by exsignificant others.
Social networks promise to salve the constitutive loneliness of ordinary life, but instead leave us feeling worse about ourselves. I definitely fell into their trap, even as marked up drafts of an increasingly phonysounding thesis—in which I argued that fiction could rescue us from the isolation and malaise of post-9/11 America—accumulated on the floor of my Hyde Park apartment. No form of media (print, online, televisual) provided relief from this serious case of the blahs.
I realized that I probably needed to get out into the world. I craved an extreme bodily experience. I wanted to disappear into the flesh of happy hour crowds at Kahan and Co’s restaurants: to envelop myself in the damp embrace of a soft upper-middle class enjoying its soft uppermiddling privileges. And because I was questioning my faith in the notion that fiction can communicate deep truths/ideas/emotions to other human beings, the Kahan idea became a kind of lifeboat for writerly ambition. I could instrumentalize writing and make it part of achieving a simple, tangible goal. And, I figured, if I wrote a really good review and managed to publish it somewhere glitzy, I’d get a few years of goodwill—maybe even some free meals.
It turns out that food and wealth and loneliness and social networks and desire (the last of these split off into categories of political, sexual, financial, virtual, whatever) relate to each other in complex ways that obviate a thorough investigation of any one of them—let alone all of them at once. Moreover, although it’s easy to convince someone that you are an important writer (helpful tip: credentials-checking isn’t a primary skill of restaurant public relations professionals), maintaining this charade becomes more complicated in direct proportion to both (a) the amount of alcohol consumed and (b) the length of time the exercise lasts.
This proves especially true when the managing partner of five of Chicago’s most popular restaurants finds out that a young writer is doing a gonzo-style journalistic piece about his establishments, and takes particular interest in ensuring that the writer and his skinny Slovenian friend have a very good time.
The whole thing had started off earnestly enough. I met with Paul Kahan at The Publican in early May, having made it clear that I had no professional affiliation with any magazine and bore no guarantee of publication. For whatever reason (it’s entirely possible that he was just humoring me out of some knee-jerk service industry bonhomie) my favorite Chicago chef decided he’d talk with me anyway.
When Kahan sat down (I was drenched in a gallon of nervous sweat), he dropped a stack of file folders and a four-page staff meeting agenda printed on the back of menus. He had thick black rings around his eyes and his sandy colored hair was uncombed. It looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. A Blackberry sat on top of the pile of papers and periodically vibrated and blinked. Nevertheless, we had a nice conversation about his childhood in Chicago, about the restaurants he’d opened, and about his father’s own forays into the business of purveying high-quality meats in the same neighborhood.
When I walked out of the restaurant, feeling like a bona fide journalist, I got a bonus treat. As many Chicagoans know, when the wind blows the right way down West Fulton Market, the aroma of chocolate from the Blommer Chocolate Factory breaks in waves over much of the surrounding neighborhood. On humid days, the air hangs so thick with chocolate that you can almost feel it sloshing around on your tongue. I remember thinking about Kahan’s father, who had made his living here, and of the gentrification that has changed the area in the last fifteen years. The neighborhood used to be populated by Jews, then by an influx of AfricanAmerican immigrants. All the while, the entire neighborhood smelled like chocolate: Blommer opened in 1939. On my way back to the L, I breathed in the early-spring breeze and felt purified by the conversation and the chocolate smell—the idea that the neighborhood was alive with sense-memories.
That Saturday, the wind wasn’t blowing and there was no hint of chocolate in the air. When I arrived at The Publican for the first leg of the evening, Tyler was standing outside reading Spalding Gray’s Swimming to Cambodia, wearing a blazer, and doing his best to play it cool. We went inside and I started taking notes about the atmosphere, the smell of smoke, the pictures of hogs on the walls. We watched patrons take iPhone pictures of their charcuterie plates. “I’m here,” Jeannie and Greg and Robert and whoever else tweeted and texted, almost manically, about their headcheese, their pork loin, their country ales delivered in goblets on the first truly hot day of the year. It’s this kind of impulse that has always fascinated me—the desire to immediately upload a real moment into the virtual space, which at once is for an audience and is always a mirror for oneself. We seem to be saying: “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here sucking the headcheese out of life and you, reader, are somewhere else.” And in that instant—the instant we preserve and reproduce for all ten of our followers—what do we feel? Together with someone else through the mediated space of their 140-odd characters? More certain of our own presence in the world? Distanced from the people that surround us?
Or just as lonely as usual?
Tyler and I drank another round and ate oysters, and were about to leave for a big dinner at Blackbird when Donnie Madia materialized at our table. He wore a blue suit and a mint green tie, and had the eager posture of a man who understands how to entertain distinguished guests. Tyler and I were not guests. We were graduate students. There was a hole in the crotch of my pants—the only clean pair remaining in my closet. But I’d been writing very conspicuously in a notebook, playing the part of a journalist, and was feeling supremely confident about my observations.
Caught up in the haze of those first strong Belgian beers and the salty food, I may have over-exuberantly (it was an accident if it even happened, I swear) let it slip to one of our waiters that “my associate Tyler and I” were working on a piece for a snooty magazine (NB: I can’t remember if I did, actually, say The Atlantic. But the nausea I feel when I try to remember rather suggests that I did).
If this article ever ended up as a series of restaurant reviews—if it ended up being the piece that Madia thought I was there to write as he stood there shaking our hands and smiling—I’d spend more time talking about his hospitality. About the ride he gave us to Blackbird in his Range Rover. (I did tweet about it—confidently: “Donnie Madia gave me and @TylerJ a ride from #publican to #blackbird in his range. This is going to be a great article”) About the flourish of his wrists as he whipped the tablecloth onto our table and how he brought us our decadent desserts after a dinner of endive salads and steak and quail and martinis, and hailed us a cab to Wicker Park, where he had reserved a table for us at the Big Star (a paradise of tacos and good whiskey for a class of mostly underemployed folks with mustaches or pixie cuts who will tell you they work in “design” and who carry complex-looking messenger bags), as well as seats at Violet Hour (where mixologist Michael Rubel made us old fashioneds from a private stock of bourbon hidden under the bar).
But I guess I want to argue that it can’t be that article, at least not anymore. I can’t separate out the way that I’ve told the story a hundred times from the things that I want it to mean. I have no recollection about what headcheese tastes like (I assume, chicken).
There are things I do remember. On arriving at Big Star and finding a line of fifty people, I remember shouting at the bouncer, “Go inside and ask if Donnie Madia called ahead about a table for A-J Aronstein” and then being rushed, apologetically, to the head of the line. I remember doing shots of whiskey with Paul Kahan—who happened to be at the bar—and talking with him about meeting his wife at a rock show (I can’t remember the name of the band, but the ordinariness of it astounded me). I remember slipping behind the heavy curtains that protect the entrance of Violet Hour, and the flickering of my brain as it began to slow. Dry heaving on Damen Avenue after tequila shots; Tyler shouting “you people are communists” at a table of seven mustachioed designers; holding my arm above my head to slow the flow of blood from my thumb, which had at some point been gashed.
I don’t remember how.
But what point do these fragmented memories have without the shape of a story? I’m trying to make up for memory’s insufficiencies. This is an overdue attempt to reassemble personal history and fragmented events into something like a useful story. To try to assign meaning to what would otherwise make its way into the Library of Congress (they’re capturing all public tweets, FYI) as a series of a few pictures on the internet that depict a superfluous evening of what one might call #gentlemanlypursuits.
Is it therefore a fiction?
About an hour after I woke up at Tyler’s apartment, too hungover to see, I sat in the cab on the Dan Ryan Expressway, flipping through my notebook. My last fully legible entry is a quote from Tyler at 11 PM. “Spalding Gray is way better than Dickens.” Gray exemplifies a style of nonfiction storytelling that presumes audience comfort with a certain degree of truth bending. In light of the way that Gray approaches nonfiction, one might argue that Dickens, master of the sprawling chronicle of life in London, tells similar kinds of truths. But in his case, the artifice is to disguise those truths as fiction.
After the 11 PM entry, my script morphs into alien scrawls, from which I can pick out only occasional words, punctuation marks, possibly a salsa stain. It looks like Cy Twombly or a three year old or a senile man trying desperately to control his hand had gotten to my pen. There are spirals and something that looks like a deranged smiley face. To cap it off, according to my phone, I called my parents at 3 AM. A distant echo of my father’s voice still pads off my memory. Some gauzy, nasal declaration uttered in the mucusy tones of interrupted sleep. In what must have taken an enormous amount of effort, I had written a few more sentences in half-legible print before conking out: “Are we the generation that calls home? ‘Hey mom and dad its me. I call to say I love you—and then, go back to sleeping.’ The generational difference is. So. Different.” When it comes to operating by lizard brain, my instinct is to skew historical, generational, philosophical. Rather than tweet, I call home, reach out for the solidity of family history.
But history is a sleight of hand, just the same as fiction—both partway fact and invention. Both necessary to mend broken bodies and battered emotions. When we feel confronted by either of them, we are being tricked into having faith in narrative as a means of connection. This is what we do when we write. When we write either nonfiction or fiction, we color history with a deep desire for connectedness. We salve our absolute loneliness, not with the fragments of tweets and Facebook posts shouted into the cacophony of the online masses, but with the attention and engagement with sustained narrative.
A few months after my night in Paul Kahan’s version of Chicago, I went to a concert in the Near West Side underneath a Kennedy Expressway overpass. It was a “secret” Deerhunter show sponsored by a jeans company and promoted via Twitter to followers of the band. The chocolate smell brought me right back to the immediacy of that warm May night. And I became captivated by the story of the Blommer factory. Can the history of the Near West Side be told around a narrative of Blommer? From the company’s founder Henry Blommer in May of 1939, to Paul Kahan’s father in the Sixties, to Donnie Madia driving me and Tyler in his Range in May 2010? Sure. We might even reduce it to a single day and argue that the entirety of the neighborhood’s history revolves around it. Specifically: the day when Henry started up the machinery and set workers to their work at the family Chocolate Factory, producing sweets and candies for Marshall Field’s Department Store.
But what if we imagined a singular moment on West Washington Street—impossible to reproduce historically, to gather facts about, or research—but certainly a moment that took place in May 1939. Let’s say eight-year-old Avram Jakobsen (Abe to his Chicago-born friends), is on his way to school near Jane Addams House, stops and sniffs the mysteriously warm air, which on a spring morning is—as usual—overhung with the soot and grime from machine tooling factories. Can we imagine, for a second, the strange alchemy of confusion and innocent arousal that builds within his tiny frame when, amid the crush of poverty and bodies clamoring for Chicago spring, with the whistles of steam locomotives around him and the almost-stagnant river emptying inland from Lake Michigan, and everything slowly coming back to life, he turns his nose upward to catch the SW breeze?
The noise and the din of the city, and the exigencies of history that Avram hasn’t even begun to consider yet all fall away in that instant. There’s nothing but the body and its senses. Everything collapses into complete conscious feeling of the world: the upturned nose and a smile that builds on Avram’s face as he puts down his small bag, his fingers unclenching, and—could it be imagination? He considers the possibility that his own body is fooling him, because in that moment something magnificent and otherworldly, and altogether unexpected happens. Things like this defy the logic of context and history and narratives, because, as it turns out, sometimes things are literally just in the air for a moment. And there’s nothing for Avram to do but trust that what he suddenly feels must be something like what his parents talk about when they talk about love or hope or God, because some part of him thinks that if he ever loses what this so-sudden sensation feels like, he would die of the resulting loneliness. Think about how much or little it matters that the fire forced his grandparents to the Near West Side; that his father has been losing sleep over an unexpected and persistent pain in his abdomen; that his mother yelled at him for spending three cents that he found in the street at the movies (Dodge City). Right in this instant, the miraculous—think in terms of childhood expectations for miracles here—happens. True or false, historical or fictional, Avram becomes the first person ever on the Near West Side of hundreds of thousands to follow him to feel a particular sensation course through his body, connecting him to every one of them: a single moment of almost impossible joy in the rich air that anyone who comes to the neighborhood knows.
It’s in that moment that Avram smells chocolate.