Liquid Ink

The official website of Gint Aras, Finalist 2016 CWA Book Award

Demise of Chicago’s insomniac culture

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I got interviewed for this article about a Chicago Starfucks that changed its hours recently. It’s the only Starfucks worth going to, primarily because it has a serious late-night culture of bohemians. I had no idea the hours were going to be changed until the reporter told me about it, and my reaction to the news is featured in the article.

Among the many things that New York has over Chicago is a bonafide insomniac culture, one that exists throughout virtually the entire city. For a writer like me, a guy who really likes to work at night, and who gets bothered when he’s on a roll and ends up interrupted by some librarian who says, “I’m sorry. We’re closing in ten minutes,” all-night cafes and diners are essential. It does not have to be a clean well-lighted place. It just has to stay open and serve tea or coffee.

You know the refrain: “It didn’t used to be this way.” Chicago was an insomniac’s paradise in the 90’s, back when places like Red Caff, Green Street Cafe and Zorba’s never closed (there’s a nostalgic list, eh?), and when The 3rd Coast, still my favorite Chicago cafe, allowed all night smoking and bottomless coffee for less than $2. All of those places were a short el or bus ride from the Loop, which meant they were full of UIC, Columbia, IIT and Art Institute students, wired and looned and sharing cigarettes. There are still places that don’t close, including the White Palace and Mitchell’s (or whatever it’s called now), as well as various Frumpin Frunkin locations. There are also the all-night cabbie restaurants that sell greasy Indian food. For some reason, I just can’t write in those places. Writing in a Frumpin Frunkin is especially humliating, and reminds me of being trapped in hellholes like Akron, Dayton or Katowice, Poland where, back in the mid-90’s at least, the only place to hang out at any time of day was a Burger Ass. 

It’s easy to blame rising rents, or the fact that Chicago’s latest hours are hoodlum infested. I think the problem is more complicated, and that it has to do with what Robert Putnam argues in Bowling Alone. We just don’t care about community anymore. I doubt that the owners of Green Street made any serious amount of money between 3-5:00 am. It wasn’t worth it, not from a financial standpoint. But dammit, that multi-ethnic community of West Side smokers, readers and potheads, students and artists, bohemians down to their last dime…it was cool. And the owners knew it was cool. They were one of us, and we were one of them, even if we went there just to put our feet up and nap for a few hours, buying only a banana.

If it’s any consolation, The Hungarian Pastry Shop in New York recently also adjusted its hours, closing now before midnight, and Cafe Esperanto in Greenwich Village is long since defunct.  I spent many a late night in both places while at Columbia. So insomnia just ain’t what it used to be, not even in New York. Chicago, however, is killing faster than a major city should.

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