Let’s face it, the guy was a bum.
He lived in a third-floor apartment in a gritty neighborhood. He hung around pool halls and taverns. More often than not, you’d catch him dealing cards in a poker game at the corner firehouse. He wrote about dope addicts, plug-uglies, and gamblers. And the things he said about Chicago couldn’t be printed in a tourism pamphlet. Not only that, the guy’s been dead for nearly ten years. So how does Nelson Algren rate a fan club?
A gang of Wicker Park artists and culture lovers–bums like Algren himself, a couple of them friends of the great writer–have the answer and a mission. The Nelson Algren Committee celebrates the genius, the radicalism, the earthiness of Nelson Algren. “He made the terrible mistake of being antiestablishment,” says Warren Leming, an artist and a member of the Nelson Algren Committee. “He knew, for instance, that this city was built by the families of wealthy meat-packing assholes, and he said so. You don’t do that in Chicago.”
Some 400 people crammed into Lotte’s Pub last December to celebrate Algren nonetheless. It was the committee’s first Algren bash. “We had to turn people away,” says Stu McCarrell, who was once Algren’s pal. Saturday, December 1, the committee will be at it again, this time at the Bop Shop, 1807 W. Division. There will be videotapes of Algren speaking about his life in Chicago, McCarrell and another Algren chum, Roger Griffith, will read from his works. There will be readings from Conversations With Nelson Algren, a compilation of interviews collected by E.H.F. Donahue, a New York City cab driver and Algren fan. There will be music by John Mierl and the New Tradition Jazz Band and Yves Francois and His Orchestra (playing what Francois calls “continental underground”). And there’ll be a birthday cake for the committee.
Saturday night’s blow might be something like the parties that Algren himself threw in his flat at 1958 W. Evergreen, where he lived from 1959 through 1975. McCarrell remembers Algren would pack 40 or 50 people into his little flat. Guests would include “Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, and street people.”
After Algren died in 1981, Mike Royko led a call to rename the section of Evergreen between Milwaukee and Damen after the author. Mayor Jane Byrne told Royko she’d have the City Council approve the renaming. Before the council even had a chance to vote on the new name, street crews were out attaching the new signs to utility poles.
But Evergreen Street residents complained to their alderman, Michael Nardulli, that the trouble caused by the renaming–driver’s licenses would have to be changed, relatives would have to be notified–wasn’t worth a memorial for some poet that nobody had heard of anyway. They called Algren “Robert” in the petitions and flyers they circulated. “By the tone of the handbill, you’d think they were being threatened with bubonic plague,” Royko wrote later. When the ordinance came up for a vote, Nardulli convinced his colleagues to kill it. The next day, crews were back out taking the signs down.
Just last month, though, thanks to the committee’s efforts, shiny new Nelson Algren Way street signs were attached to poles just above the Evergreen signs. “I took Alderman Luis Gutierrez on a walk around the neighborhood,” McCarrell says. He convinced the alderman to support the renaming after showing Gutierrez some of the old sights–like the Luxor Baths on North Avenue, where Algren used to get a steam and a rubdown while arguing with “pigheaded judges and lawyers”; Lubeck’s bakery; Lotte’s Pub up on Cortland near Damen, where Algren drank and played poker while politicians were entertained by whores upstairs; and the site of Algren’s first neighborhood apartment on Wabansia.
That apartment was razed to make way for the Kennedy Expressway, but committee members and Algren-philes alike still make the pilgrimage to Lucky’s tavern down the street to see the place where, according to legend, Algren first made love to Simone de Beauvoir.
The Wabansia apartment site is one of ten stops on a walking tour the committee offers. McCarrell, tireless in his dedication to the writer, is the docent. He helps organize the winter parties, and what he hopes will become yearly August picnics and March birthday celebrations. McCarrell also is collecting material for an archive that will include, among other things, a video that Leming is making about Algren and Wicker Park.
Last year, fellow fans Wes Andrews and John Lubinski, who own and manage the Northwest Tower and Flatiron buildings at North, Damen, and Milwaukee avenues, asked McCarrell what they could do to honor Algren. They had hoped to tie in the history of Algren with a unified, cleaned-up image of Wicker Park. “Arts have played a huge role in Wicker Park,” Andrews says. His buildings house numerous political organizations and arts groups.
McCarrell, who says he is a poet and playwright but pays the bills as an electrical engineer (Andrews adds that he’s also an inventor and a political theorist), suggested the first party, and its success inspired him and the newly formed committee to slate future activities.
Perhaps the most cherished Wicker Park spot for any committee member is Algren’s Evergreen apartment. McCarrell convinced the current owner to affix a plaque to the front of the building and wrote the inscription it bears: “Lyrical, tough, tender, compassionate. He showed the people’s pain.”
Admission to the Bob Shop bash is $5, $3 for seniors and students, or, as McCarrell says, “If you’re short come anyway.” For more information on the party or the committee, call McCarrell at 235-4911.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/J. Alexander Newberry.