I used to spend a lot of time in coffee shops. Back when I had a job with set hours and bosses that expected me to be there at those hours, time off was often passed at a series of establishments that (with one exception) are no longer there. Coffee shops are rarely opened solely to make money, the owners often have idealistic, even utopian, aims. But even the less ambitious want to provide a place for people to meet and be comfortable. A good cafe is a particular sort of ecosystem with its predators, its prey, and more than its share plankton-like organisms filling up much of the available sitting space…
Urbus Orbis (1997)
I moved back to Chicago in the Spring of 1997, settling in a place on the western edge of Wicker Park with two roommates and a couple neglected cats (which I had to feed because their owner couldn’t be bothered.) I’d never had a hang-out before, never felt like I needed one, but moving back to the city where I went to school, four years after graduation, I didn’t know many people and was starting over from scratch.
Urbus Orbis was the anchor of Wicker Park long before Wicker Park morphed into the obnoxious playground for aspiring suburbanites that it’s now become—the area charitably known as The Crotch or mistakenly as Six Corners. The building that housed the cafe is now a Cheetah Gym, which should tell all that needs telling about the changing demographics of the neighborhood. In 1997, the boutiques and chi-chi restaurants were just taking root, there were still artists that lived in the area, and hipsters were not quite the codified phenomenon they are today.
It was a sprawling brick-walled room with many windows facing Winchester and North Avenues. Blocky tables surrounded by a variety of chairs took up much of the floor space, with the northwest corner devoted to the kitchen and counter area. There was also a back room in which small theatrical productions could be performed. The staff consisted mostly of aspiring writer/artist/hippy/punk/confused/slacker/god-knows-what types with the occasional plain college kid thrown in. In the eight months that I hung out there, I had crushes on at least two or three of those coffee girls, but that’s par for the course, isn’t it? Sitting for hours on end, pouring that bottomless cup down your throat much of the time, you look around at the other smelly, poorly dressed guys at other tables, then fixate on the white girl with dreadlocks behind the counter.
I met some people there that would reappear at future coffee shops as well as other random spots over the coming years.
Crazy Joe, who mostly spoke gibberish, but with a chessboard in front of him, was capable of long stretches of clarity; the Prince of Darkness, who’s nickname would be a no-brainer if you saw him; and the loudmouth who still nurses a grudge against me thirteen years after the fact for saying out loud that everyone in the room was sick of his voice…I attempted to play chess with much more skilled opponents, but mostly I just took in all the comings-and-goings and sketched. I put up paintings there in the fall, a couple months before the place was shut down. Tom, the owner, struggled to pay the rent for years but it finally overtook him and he had to give the place up…It was the kind of place where you’d have to bang on the bathroom door to make the junkie inside hurry and finish shooting up so you could take a piss; it didn’t belong in what Wicker Park was becoming. I still see the odd former patron here and there, but less and less so as the years pass.
A few doors east of the Shell station at Damen and Division, a sign with a black cat on a yellow background beckoned passersby to Jinx. Opened in 1998, it instantly inherited many Urbus mainstays suddenly left with no comfortable perch to hold forth from. Division hadn’t yet hatched the sushi joints, sports bars, and nail salons that anyone going through would now recall. The Mexican bakery was still open on the southeast corner with Damen; either a Roaster’s or Duks Hot Dogs at the northwest. The cafe’s walls were painted thick yellow over a textured almost-stucco surface. The owners espoused a retro Mod kind of style: a gang of hip kids on scooters made this one of their regular stops. Most of the people who worked there were in bands, several would go on to some acclaim, a few still going to this day.
The coffee was really strong, so three or four hours of refills would make one believe that bursting out of one’s skin was a real possibility (and preferable to the current condition.) I painted and drew a lot here, ending up with enough pictures to have a whole show. I made friends that lasted and acquaintances who still bring a smile to my face on the rare occasions that we cross paths. It was a center of social activity even for someone as antisocial as myself.
A couple years and the enthusiasm with which the place was opened had definitely ebbed. The place was shuttered for awhile, then reopened for some time under different ownership. I tried going, but it wasn’t the same, more like a zombie version of a place that was better off put to rest.
This is the only one of my coffee shops that remains open, though it recently changed ownership. At the corner of Chicago and Damen, it hasn’t succumbed to yuppie sprawl, yet…The spaceman theme and tunnel-like layout, made it less conducive to my purposes. Smokers were relegated to the narrow back section, and since I wasn’t then capable of painting without smoking, the range of perspective was severely limited. A few stubborn stalwarts going back to the Urbus times hung here as well.
It was different though, maybe because many of the familiar faces had drifted away, maybe because rebuilding a comfortable spot for a third time was too much work. Unlike so many of the people that lingered in these places for a time before going back to school, getting a “real” job, or just growing up, I never had their drive to be elsewhere. So I’d go to Atomix, but not in the everyday way of the two places…I still stop my cab and get a coffee to go when I’m in the area.
Filter opened sometime in 2002 I think, right in The Crotch, on the southeast corner of Milwaukee and North Avenue, in the first floor of the Flatiron Building. It was a large brick-walled space littered with mismatched couches and tables. It seemed packed with students and aspiring internet moguls and a few stray veterans of my cafe past. It didn’t have the hippy/artsy vibe of Urbus, nor the hipster vibe of Jinx, but was more like a college-town hangout spot, suited to the young professionals raising real estate prices in the surrounding streets. It had its charms though: a steady parade of pretty girls behind the counter and plenty else to occupy the eye if one was inclined to put marks to paper. The series of paintings I did here was probably the most accomplished of any of the cafe pictures I tried, but there was also a summing-up quality to them—as if this period was ending, and as it turned out, that was so. By the time the place closed (for reasons I never learned, as it always seemed to be busy), I was back to driving cab and no longer likely to linger for the three, four, five hours that was the norm in the past.
It was good to have these places to go to when I felt I needed a place to go. The desire to be in a room of strangers hasn’t entirely dissipated, but it’s not what it once was. Maybe when I don’t have to make my living driving cab, I’ll find a new place to while away the afternoons. Some place with a table in the corner and a good view of the whole room.