I had no in, so I did what suckers do: I signed up for a class advertised in the Reader next to massages and unwanted household goods. Had to borrow $200 from my folks to pay tuition.
The ABC Bartending School is above a liquor store in a lonely building in the West Loop. A makeshift classroom holds tables covered with bottles of yellow, red, orange, blue, pink, and green water and different glassware. Twenty students take turns making Pink Squirrels, Harvey Wallbangers, Fuzzy Navels, Sex on the Beaches, Kir Royales, and dozens of other cocktails we’ll never make if we ever land an actual bartending gig.
Our instructor is a tired-looking old fellow. He goes through the motions. What landed him at this sorry place is likely the same thing which landed his students here. No clear direction. No prospects. No way to pay for what we do because we have to. Bills due but the current gig is killing our insides. A half-hearted Hail Mary.
The ad in the paper promised an income of many hundreds of dollars a week and job placement upon graduation. After pouring many dozen ersatz forgotten cocktails into brandy snifters, cordial glasses, flutes, and Collins tumblers, we’re given a diploma and a hotline number updated every Friday morning.
For the next month I sit by the phone Fridays as 10 a.m. approaches, fingers ready to dial. The first half dozen places on the recording never change: Pizza chain, suburban hotel bar, Tex-Mex joint. I don’t have the heart to try them. I know I can’t handle a place with a uniform or a corporate employee manual. I’m too old for flair. I keep hoping for some neighborhood spot. A mom-and-pop.
Sharon’s message gives little description of her bar but I call anyway. She answers as if I’d interrupted something important. Like she’s running very late. We set a time for me to come by.
The Blue Light, with its standard-issue Old Style sign waving slowly in the wind, looks like every other Chicago tavern I’ve passed a million times without a second look. All have their own crowd for whom it is a home away from home, but unless it’s yours, it’s indistinguishable from its neighbor down the street or miles across town. Through the diamond porthole in the front door I see a rail-thin woman with curly brown hair and eyes popping out of her head running around a fiber-board-paneled bar decorated with peeling beer ads and neons. I push the door open and introduce myself.
After confirming I graduated from the bartending school, Sharon launches straight into training. I’m hired.
She shows me the grey lockbox under the bar filled with cash for poker machine payouts, stressing in no uncertain terms not to pay out to anyone I don’t know. Strangers are to be told the games are “for amusement only” like the stickers next to the screens of spinning slots say. Every other bar along that stretch of Western gets raided. The Two-Way, just up the street, closes down for good after they get busted. But the Blue Light is spared. So many of the regulars are cops and you don’t shit where you eat.
She shows me what to set the pizza toaster oven to and how the popcorn popper works. She tells me to add fifty cents to all drink prices after 2 a.m.—a kind of unhappy hour premium. Most of the business is transacted in those two unhappy hours.
I never ask Sharon about where the bar’s name came from. Did she and Kenny name it or inherit it from the previous owner? The Old Style sign swaying in the whipping wind above the door, likely from the 70s or before, hints at the latter.
Did whoever it was name it after the 1932 Leni Riefenstahl film? Or, perhaps, after Cherenkov radiation—the phenomenon responsible for the blue glow in nuclear reactors?
Maybe it’s a tribute to the sprawling police station across Western Avenue.
As one cop put it, “Blue isn’t the greatest color for visual perception but it works just fine for things that really matter.”