It’s not how it used to be. It never was.
The Western Flyover went down quick. Built to ease traffic around Riverview Park, it had, in recent times, become a run-down eyesore. The park—where so many Chicago children rode roller coasters, ate cotton candy, went on first dates—was bulldozed and gone fifty years back when the wreckers came.
I watch the machines whacking away at the concrete of the pockmarked bridge until the rebar sticks out all over like frayed nerve endings. A small crowd gathers to gawk. A fat man shimmies up a nearby light-pole and furiously snaps photos.
I stand back a bit, closer to the Marathon station, where American United Taxi used to be. In a year, this gas station will be gone. The building across the street where the Chicago Dispatcher cabbie newspaper and a greasy spoon called the Point was is now an empty lot behind a chainlink fence. As each structure disappears, bits and pieces of my history follow. What’s left of these places is mutable and grows fuzzier each time I remember. Without the buildings as proof, the time I spent in them feels made up.
The Old Style sign swinging at all hours against the whipping wind doesn’t say ZIMNE PIWO like so many around Chicago. Just BLUE LIGHT. The bar stands where the northern end of the overpass used to be. A typical Chicago two-story building with an apartment upstairs and a business at street level.
The Blue Light was a corner bar in the middle of a block.
After 9/11 the jukebox was full of America-will-put-a-boot-in-your-ass songs. But they would’ve been on there even if the Twin Towers still stood.
The Blue Light was a dump. The kind of place where promotional Budweiser ads hang dusty and fraying decades after the beer reps dropped them off. Years after what they advertised was no longer on the market. These posters were the decor because the owners didn’t care about what their bar looked like and because they were free decoration.
But the day I watch the overpass come down, the Blue Light is no longer that Blue Light. There is now a big picture window and exposed brick walls inside. The bar is now along the north wall of the room rather than the south the way it was in my day. Also, many flatscreen TVs. Peering in, it’s clear it’s been out of business for some time. I haven’t been inside since long before Sharon and Kenny sold it. I think back a few years to when I dropped off a couple here in my cab. They were fighting the whole way. She started flirting with me, asking if I’d park the cab and go in with her. She was doing it to piss off her boyfriend, but it came off as a perfect example of what the Blue Light had always been: a dark place where men and women go to treat each other badly. I did my best to soothe the guy’s ego as I let the couple out into the oversized mitts of the gorilla guarding the door. This was definitely not my Blue Light. Sharon and Kenny were way too cheap to hire a bouncer.
—I got lead in my pencil but no one to write to.
The punchline of Wes’s favorite Viagra joke. He tells it every time. I’m thankful to pretend to laugh because it’s one of the few in Wes’s repertoire which doesn’t involve the word nigger.
Wes is built like a fire hydrant. A squat bald man who fancies himself a real cut-up. He’s a doorman at a big apartment building. When he isn’t bitching about the rich people who live there, he’s ragging on his coworkers—all worthless niggers according to Wes. A couple hours and a dozen Miller Lites in, he gets weepy, asks if I ever met Gayle—his dead ex-wife.
Wes is my favorite regular at the Blue Light.
I turn away from the bar’s darkened façade to where the overpass used to end. I can see across Western Avenue now to the sprawling cop station across the street. When I worked here, I’d listen for car and motorcycle engines idling, then cutting out, as regulars parked underneath the ramp.
I see Timmy the Cabbie’s American United Crown Vic left angled while every other car is perpendicular to the roadway. He’s inside trying to mooch a dollar stein of Old Style off Wes or Bill or one of the others. Timmy’s face is scuffed and scratched like he’d used it to screech to a halt outside the bar to save the cab’s brakes.
I see Bill’s behemoth of a Harley. Tassles, detailing, storage racks and all. Hard to believe it never collapsed under that mountain of a man after he walked out of the bar, a case of Miller Lite augmenting his prodigious gut.
Sue’s out there, her SUV idling as she talks on her cell. She’s still in her Wrigley garb. She’ll run inside in a minute or two, breathless, ready to get behind the bar, or sit and drink with her girlfriends if it’s her night off.
Tommy used to sleep in the underpass sometimes. I see him out there near closing time, waiting to come in to mop the floors in exchange for bottomless Old Style. Tommy was the first one I got to know at the Blue Light after Sharon.
I see the shithead I cut off earlier in the night loitering in the shadows, waiting for me to come out after I’ve thrown away the empties. Does he have a gun? A knife? A bunch of his deadbeat pals posseed up to kick my ass?
I knew about Riverview Park long before I got to Chicago. I read about it in a book. It’s where Lefty Bicek takes Steffi on their date, before leaving her in a basement to get gang-raped by guys he’s known all his life.
Now there’s a cop station and a strip mall where the park used to be. Cops came into the Blue Light and put their service weapons on the bar before ordering frosty mugs of Old Style. I wonder if they kept coming once it changed hands and the flatscreen TVs were installed. I have no idea what kind of bar it became, but I doubt it was one where it was okay to put a gun down next to your drink.
All that was twenty years ago. Now I work at a different bar across town.
My life is totally different.