Reverse-Gentrification of the Literary World

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Excerpt of “Marty’s Drink or Die Club” by Neal Pollack, from Chicago Noir

(Clark & Foster)

The guy at the end of the bar was dead. Carlos had seen dead guys before, so he knew. They usually didn’t get many customers in Ginny’s, especially not before 5:30, which was when Carlos had started his shift, slapping the mop around the pool table: A couple of bikers had gotten into it the night before, leaving the usual dried residue of blood, saliva, and Leinenkugel. Tonight, the guy slobbered in and took the stool by the window. He sat hunched, not out of some deformity, but just overall weakness, his hair long and gray and greasy under the Cubs hat, his eyes brown and wide and blank, staring at himself in the mirror, or maybe through the mirror, at something beyond.

“Get you something?” Carlos said.

No answer. Carlos set the mop by the pool table and walked through the hutch. The guy had flakes of dry snot on his mustache, which was as peppered and unkempt as his hair. He gave Carlos a little nod, though even that looked like a struggle, and raised his right hand familiarly. Carlos thought this was strange, since he’d never met the guy before. The hand shimmered turbulently.

“You want a drink, man?” Carlos said.

“Whuhhhhhh,” the guy said. “Wiiiiiiiiiii.”

Carlos spoke wino. He reached under the bar, pulled out a little tumbler, flipped a few ice cubes into it, and added a double shot of well whiskey. When a guy was this far in the bag, brands didn’t matter.

“Run a tab?”

“Ahhhhhhh,” said the guy.

“All right,” Carlos said. “That’s two seventy-five.”

The guy folded his arms on the bar and put his head down into them, without taking a sip of his whiskey. His jacket slid halfway off his shoulders. Screw it, Carlos thought, I’m not gonna shake this dude down. He can pay me when he wakes up.

A half hour later, the guy’s arms slid off the bar. He hovered there on the stool for a second, arms flopping, before momentum pitched him forward. He bonked the bar; he tipped sideways and then he fell, his head hitting the bottom rail before he stopped, facedown, fully sprawled, on the floor. There wasn’t any blood, but Carlos still didn’t want to touch him. Carlos called the apartment upstairs.

“Ginny,” he said. “You’d better get down here now.”

Then he noticed the business card. It had fluttered across the room, settling under the jukebox. Though he knew enough to stay away from the body, this he decided to touch. He walked across the room and picked up the card. It said,
marty’s drink or die club
Philosophers, Statesmen, Men of Chicago
Johnny Quinn, Treasurer

Below that was an address, and Johnny Quinn’s signature, in a shaky hand, and then underneath that, in red lettering, all caps:
membership expired

The red letters smelled strong, like they’d recently been applied with a Sharpie. Carlos was no better detective than he was a bartender, but he guessed that this dead guy was Johnny Quinn. And he definitely knew Marty’s.

In those days when the city gave real estate breaks to connected developers like stocking stuffers, there were two types of neighborhood bars: those that understood and cared about the changing landscape, and those that didn’t. Ginny’s fell in the latter category, one of the few leftovers from the 1960s hillbilly takeover of Uptown that had sent everyone else fleeing except for the most committed members of Students for a Democratic Society. Ginny had basically given up around 1987, when her sister died, and now she was one code violation from the end, which would happen soon enough. By this time next year, a mid-scale seafood restaurant would be serving up nineteen-dollar swordfish steaks in this spot, and Ginny would be sleeping on her son’s foldaway sofa in Schaumburg.

Marty’s was the other kind of bar.

When he’d been alive, Marty Halversen operated his place with a sense of whimsy. If any other working Chicago bar had once been a speakeasy, the newspaper reporters and Wild Chicago producers hadn’t discovered it yet. Marty had liked to boast that his liquor license was the third issued by the city after the end of Prohibition. He’d put the license over the bar, in the same frame with a picture he’d taken of Capone drinking in his basement. By the time Marty left, those days of potluck Sundays, sponsored basketball teams, and neighborhood golf outings were fading, but the new owner, a neighborhood kid named Scott Silverstein, spoke just the right mix of regular-guy sympathy and monied schmooze to keep it going. He loved giving tours, showing cameramen and tourists Capone’s secret cashier’s booth, the trap door to the basement, and the old still that he’d preserved so well.

At night, the place filled with actors and bankers and lawyers, anyone willing to dress down a little and appreciate original fixtures and tin ceilings but also willing to spend five bucks on a weiss beer. The regular crowd still gathered to drink with Scott and raise a glass to Marty’s memory and the glories of what once had been. The old patrons still had their corner of the bar. Scott could put in all the kitschy lighting he wanted. They owned the bar’s soul.