I met Luc Sante a couple years ago when he came to town on book tour for his amazing Other Paris. A few of us went to Cunneen’s afterwards for drinks and Indian takeout. Bill Savage was our bartender and it felt altogether like a true literary evening. Since then Luc and I have kept up a correspondence via email and the occasional postcard.
I write him after seeing some Lino Ventura flick or when I’ve read something he wrote which grabbed me. Every now and then we write about the same subject, like Vivian Maier, and can compare notes. I’ve been reading his stuff for over twenty-five years, so to now count him as an acquaintance and colleague is really something.
A few weeks ago he wrote saying he and his girlfriend, Mimi Lipson, were taking a tour of places she’d lived and would be in Chicago a couple days. He wanted to know if I’d meet them for a drink. Name the time and place, I quickly wrote back.
Early on a frigid Saturday evening I walked into the Green Mill. The Paper Machete crowd was still milling about, yapping loudly, coming down from the high of putting on a show. Luc, Mimi, and an uncle (or perhaps more distant relation) of hers named Terry, were looking around for a spot to land. I led them back toward the entrance, to a booth further away from the loud talkers. We ordered drinks and took a look around. The Green Mill is a bar I don’t go to much but always appreciate the look of when I do. Especially at that hour when the crowd was thinning, in the short time before it would fill back up again for the evening’s jazz set. “There’s no place left in New York that looks like this,” Luc said. And he’d know. I pointed out the window toward Lawrence and told him the Aragon Ballroom was just half a block down. He’d sent me a great old postcard of it a few months back. In my nearly thirty years in Chicago I’ve never been inside that place.
Soon the hostess came around to ask if we were staying for the music but we decided to go next door to Fiesta Mexicana for some food. Turns out Luc and Mimi were staying at Terry’s place a block away from the Rainbo Club. Terry looked so familiar and now I could swear I’d seen him there a week or two before.
Talk turned to the publishing world and we all took turns telling our tales of woe. Mimi had a book of short stories published by an indie press the same year my second book came out. Our complaints were so similar as to seem redundant.
En route to Rite Liquors on Division for a nightcap, Mimi remarked how cozy and warm it was in their car. Luc said we could thank Bob Dylan for that. He had wrecked his old one when someone had smashed into him and sped off. Then, like a guardian angel, Dylan had hired him to write some liner notes and he bought this car. I was hoping he was gonna say Dylan was the hit-and-run driver.
At the bar Terry and Mimi were greeted like family. There was immediately a free round of shots. Luc sat back taking it all in. He said there weren’t many places like this in New York either. But I gotta believe there’s still some shitty taprooms left somewhere on the outskirts of the outer boroughs. Maybe near LaGuardia. Then he admitted he wasn’t really much of a drinker. Pot was his bag. I told him I hadn’t had pot in almost twenty years. But truth be told I’m no longer much of a drinker either. I need to be clear to get my work done and, despite what they show in the movies, you can’t really paint drunk.
We spent the rest of our time admiring the wall of aging spirits in front of us. I pointed to a tall dusty Galliano carton up near the ceiling and wondered how long it had been there. I don’t remember the last time I heard anybody order a Harvey Wallbanger in a bar. Bet that bottle’s been up there decades. Luc bought a t-shirt which said RITE LQUORS: CASH ONLY! in bright yellow on a black background. I told him he should wear it to his readings so the audience knows what’s expected of them afterwards.
We said our goodbyes and I wished them luck with the rest of their tour. They were headed to Akron, Ohio, next, then back home. I walked east on Division to take the Blue Line, but when I got to Ashland I put up my hand and hailed a cab. It had been a good night but I was ready to be home.
—RIP Joe Frank. One of the best storytellers ever, who couldn’t keep up with his medical bills toward the end of his life because our country’s fucked.