I was waiting in the lobby of the Art Institute for Mark to walk me through the new Saul Steinberg show when a man giving directions to some visitors caught my eye. I’d been spacing out for about fifteen minutes, just watching groups of out-of-towners bicker with each other before the ticket-takers when I saw him. He had a buzz cut, glasses, and wore a blazer and tie. He also had a tremor, most pronounced as he pointed out various rooms on the wall map of the museum. I knew him from a long time ago.
In 1997 I moved back to Chicago from Boston. I moved in with my old classmate Frank and another guy into an apartment on the edges of Wicker Park. At that time the neighborhood was only on the cusp of the bro-and-boutique shitshow it’s been for the last decade and there were still some remnants of bohemian life to be found. The epicenter of that dying community was the sprawling coffeeshop Urbus Orbis. It would close by year’s end and eventually be replaced by a gym for yuppies, but during its last year I got a lot of idling in on its worn armchairs and couches. I even got to put some art up on the walls before the place shuttered for good. It was but the first of a succession of coffeeshops I haunted which flamed out in quick succession.
I’d never been particularly good at chess, but the group of enthusiasts at Urbus inspired me to pick up the habit. I would play—and usually get beaten—by the same few guys over and over. Watching them play each other was usually a better time for everyone involved. One of them was John, who I got to know gradually as my chessboard losses to him mounted. He was hardly an artsy type, dressed in polo shirts, and possessed of a stiff, formal manner of speaking. He had an aristocratic aura about him. Like one of those dissipated nobles in books, whose family had lost its fortune tragically and who must now mix with the hoi polloi.
He had a place nearby on a quiet side street lined with mansions. He also had his own coffeeshop on Broadway, just past Boystown, but spent all his free time at Urbus. I would end up having an art show at Cafe La Piazza too, just a year or two before it became the Starbucks it still is today. When my stuff was up on the walls, I’d occasionally journey to that faraway neighborhood and if John was there we’d play a game or two.
I can’t recall when he and I lost touch. Some of the Urbus regulars made the move to Jinx and then to Atomix and to Filter. But others, like John, stopped coming around. I didn’t have a cellphone or email back then, and I never liked talking on the phone, so if I didn’t see people during my rounds in the neighborhood, they might as well have moved to the other side of the moon. In the lobby of the museum I kept trying to make eye contact with him but to no avail. I considered just walking up and reintroducing myself, but then Mark arrived and we went in to see the Steinbergs, leaving John by the stairwell, looking about for visitors to assist. Aside from the tremor, he looked much as I remembered him.
Would he have remembered me and would we have anything to talk about? Maybe I’ll hang around that lobby some other afternoon and find out, but odds are John will just remain a memory.