Algren on Division Street Credit: Art Shay

Eater Chicago recently broke the news that, to quote the headline, “A Nelson Algren-Inspired Bar is Coming to Wicker Park from Bar Deville’s Team.” The story details how the new place, the Neon Wilderness, to be located near the Polish Triangle, the convergence of Division, Milwaukee and Ashland, will serve high-end cocktails such as the Polish Broadway, an old-fashioned with Żubrówka vodka. The mixologists behind the plan are award winners, and Eater Chicago’s Ashok Selvam seemed upbeat about this addition to the near northwest side’s high-end cocktail possibilities. I imagine it would lend some much-needed balance to the stroller corridor/brunch-spot and bro-sports-bar scene that thoroughly gentrified Wicker Park/Bucktown has degenerated into.

But this Algren scholar could only groan at the thought of an “Algren-inspired bar.”

My problem isn’t a bar referring to Algren, per se: I root for anything that gets Algren’s name in circulation, and maybe even gets his books read, from the Nelson Algren Committee’s annual birthday bash to the Tribune‘s Nelson Algren Award short story contest. I have often enjoyed Piece Pizzeria & Brewery’s Golden Arm Kölsch beer. But the title of Algren’s 1947 collection of short stories (written between the early 30s and the mid-40s) has become a watered-down cliche, evoking on-the-edge-but-not-really-dangerous nightlife, where the beer lights reflect off the sidewalk puddles, the down-on-their-luck barflies are all colorful raconteurs, and any stray sex workers of course have 24-carat hearts. Finish your day job in the Loop’s concrete jungle, then head out to the neon wilderness for a drink.

Will this place serve food, I wonder? How might the menu nod to Algren? A pal suggested a few dishes based on Algren titles: Who Lost an American Grilled Cheese, the Bouillabaisse on the Barroom Floor, and a Wok on the Wild Side, with Chicago: City on the Bake for dessert. I imagined a panfried frog legs appetizer, the Simone.

My main beef might be just that anyone who uses the term “Neon Wilderness” reverentially misses its heart, and what it signified about Chicago. In Chicago: City on the Make, Algren described Chicagoans navigating an urban landscape defined by religion and booze: “Between [streetcar] stops stretch the streets where the shadow of the tavern and the shadow of the church form a dark and double-walled dead end.”

The title of The Neon Wilderness depicts just such an existential bind. It comes from the first story in the collection, “The Captain Has Bad Dreams.” In it, the unnamed police captain conducts interviews of a seemingly endless lineup of petty criminals, and he has begun to sympathize with them.

Such men haunted the Captain. In sleep he saw their pale lascivious faces; watched them moving like blind men beneath the thousand-columned El, where a calamitous yellow light filtered downward all night long. In this tragic and fluorescent dream they passed and repassed him restlessly, their faces half averted, forever smiling uneasily as though sharing some secret and comforting knowledge of evil which he could never know.

They lived in an unpossessed twilight land, a neon wilderness whose shores the Captain sometimes envisaged dimly . . . 

Algren revised and adapted this story in The Man With the Golden Arm, and the first half of the novel ends with Captain Bednar metaphorically crucified as he finds himself trapped between the accused criminals and the audience who laugh at them. Against his own instincts, he feels himself among the accused.

So, in the spirit of the Captain, I thought I should try to sympathize with the proprietors of the Neon Wilderness and try to seriously ask the question: What sort of bar would capture the spirit of Nelson Algren, or the spirit of bars Algren depicted?

Of course, any of Chicago’s many “dive” bars could fit the bill, anyplace where they only take cash, sell cheap beer in cans bought from the liquor store down the street, and skim most of the ring before paying any taxes. You know, the sort of place Algren took Simone de Beauvoir on their first night together. As she wrote in America Day by Day:

“[Algren] is not a tourist; he comes here often and knows all these people—bums, drunks, old ruined beauties. No one would turn around if the madwoman of Chaillot came in. At the back of the room, there’s a small black band. A sign says ‘Absolutely No Dancing,’ but couples dance anyway.” Algren then takes her to “something even better [where] there are only men—the men of West Madison Avenue [sic] with the faces of criminals or idiots. They’re so dirty you’d think their very bones were gray, and they spread around them a dreadful stench of poverty.”

Not exactly a call-brand-vodka crowd.

But that’s too easy. In his fiction, what sort of bar did Algren depict as a positive force in the otherwise dehumanizing landscape of industrial Chicago? What kind of place did 1940s Division Street need, and benefit from?

The answer to that question is in The Man With the Golden Arm, and, for better or worse, it’s not a cocktail lounge—it’s a shot-and-a-beer bar defined by the personal values of the man who stands behind it. The moral center of Algren’s masterpiece is Anthony “Antek” Witwicki, aka Antek the Owner, proprietor of the Tug & Maul Bar, situated on the ground floor of the Division Arms Hotel at 1860 W. Division, where the novel’s title character, Frankie Machine, lives. In a world largely populated by people deeply alienated from themselves and their city, Antek is the one character that Algren depicts as consistently doing the right thing, even if doing so risks business, friendships, or the wrath of the law.

Algren introduces the man and the bar together:

The sign above the cash register at the Tug & Maul Bar indicated Antek the Owner’s general attitude towards West Division Street:


Antek’s customers, from Meter Reader the Baseball Coach to Schwabatski and Drunkie John, held the bar directly across the street in lively contempt. For the joint across the way didn’t even have the simple honesty to confess itself a tavern: it was a club, mind you, Club Safari, Mixed Drinks Our Specialty.

Nobody mixed anything but whisky and beer at the Tug & Maul. To ask Antek for a martini would have been the equivalent of asking him for a kiss. Antek kissed no one but his wife and served no man anything but whisky and beer.

Tug & Maul
Shove & Haul
Old Fitz, Old Crow, or Old McCall—
When you’re broke go home—
That’s all.

That was not only Antek’s own poetry; it was also his coat of arms. It was inscribed on the back of an oblong strip of tin originally intended to advertise Coca-Cola and leaned, against the pretzel bowl, to warn the barflies who buzzed all day long between the curb and the bar.

And all day long brought Antek news of the carryings-on in the Safari, who had just gone in and who had just come out. They could see right into the window of the Safari and thus could undo any man’s reputation without so much as taking a foot off the rail. “I seen Nifty Louis steerin’ some old swish in there again yesterday, what they was drinkin’ was somethin’ wit’ leaves on top.” That pretty well placed Louie on the Tug & Maul’s social register.

For Antek held to the old days and the old ways, familiar whisky and well-tried friends. Neither bright neon nor a soft fluorescence lighted either his ceiling or his walls; but there was plenty of butchershop sawdust along the floor and an old-fashioned golden goboon for every four bar stools. He’d roll you for the drinks and give you a square shake, friend of passing stranger, every time; while penny-ante sessions went on, in one or another of the booths, from noon till 4 a.m. If you came in already stewed you right-about-faced right back to the place you’d come from; but if you had had too much out of his own bottles, he’d see you didn’t get strongarmed on his side of the street.

He drew the line at television. . . .

No sawdust carpeted the Safari’s floor and no penny-ante players were tolerated there. If you wanted to gamble you went to the 26-table or the bingo board. You received a receipt for every drink and a floor show was offered five nights a week. The tables had tablecloths, the lights were dim, music murmured from the walls and there were no drinks on the house.

I quote this passage at such length because it reveals the values that, for Algren, made a place like a Division Street shot-and-a-beer tavern a good place. After World War II, the city was being transformed, and Antek maintains old-fashioned values, starting with treating people right. He resists modern innovations like neon and television. (Spoiler alert!) Throughout the novel, he always does the correct thing: he gives the sightless, odious (and odorous) Blind Pig a square count on a wad of cash stolen from a dead man even though doing so puts him between Frankie and Sparrow. He helps Frankie when he’s on the lam for the murder of Nifty Louie, and after Frankie’s death tries to defend his “old friend” against the implacable machinery of the law. His bar sits just across the street, and a thousand miles away from, the depersonalized postwar cocktail-lounge aesthetic of the Safari Club. The names of the two bars express the difference between old Chicago values and “the new way of doin’ things nowadays,” a phrase used repeatedly in the book. The industrial brawn of a Tug & Maul evokes manual labor: as a noun, “tug” means “a sharp or sudden pull” and a “maul” is a heavy hammer for driving wedges. A “safari” is a tourist trip to some exotic land full of wildlife—perhaps even a wilderness lit by neon.

Mike Royko, in his column after Algren’s death in 1981, praised The Neon Wilderness as Algren’s best book, and wrote that he was amazed how his fiction “captured” his own boyhood neighborhood, with “the dope heads and boozers and the card hustlers.” Algren, Royko continued, would sit and watch the “passing scene—which often included somebody with a brick chasing somebody with a wallet.”

Nowadays, Algren would see restaurateurs with a concept chasing drinkers with debit cards.