"That's just alcohol." The mixed drinks at Ceres Cafe famously come with the mixer on the side. Credit: Maya Dukmasova for Chicago Reader

“Humor can often be the most disarming thing and put people in a position where they’re questioning things that they might not have otherwise,” said Matt McLoughlin, a lanky man with a thick handlebar mustache and a tiny ponytail, as he and a few acquaintances settled at a table in the center of Ceres Cafe in the Board of Trade building. On the night of Wednesday, October 16, Ceres became ground zero (or perhaps one of several ground zeros) for an evening of drinking and alleged romantic indiscretions by Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson. He was fired by Mayor Lori Lightfoot on December 2 for allegedly lying about what he did that night.

After the mayor’s announcement McLoughlin didn’t hesitate to call on the city to gather at Ceres and mark the occasion by getting “Eddie Johnson drunk.” The Facebook event he created started trending immediately; more than 2,300 people ultimately responded they were “interested” and more than 700 said they were going.

“I think it’s a disgrace that after years and years of lying, covering up police misconduct, the code of silence, it took this thing that was gonna be embarrassing to the mayor for her to actually pull the trigger on firing Johnson,” McLoughlin said.

On Monday, December 9, the cavernous, subway-tiled bar was well lit, decorated with pine garlands and Christmas wreaths, and filled with a mixed—and unusually integrated for Chicago—crowd. There were finance bros in their slacks, button-downs, and fleece vests; rambunctious girlfriends celebrating a birthday; office workers in company polos standing around high-tops; and at least three dozen people there to lambaste Johnson. The swooping curve of the bar lovingly held people alone and in pairs as they nursed stiff drinks and watched the Giants-Eagles game over plates of wings and baskets of fried appetizers.

I’d never been to Ceres before and the first round made clear what I’d been missing. A $10 whiskey-coke is really a tumbler of the spirit on the rocks, with a lukewarm can of the mixer on the side.

“Yeah that’s all whiskey—that’s just alcohol,” said Michael Ehrenreich, an avuncular man who introduced himself as an activist. “Apparently this is an important institution within the finance community and the rest of Chicago.” He’d never been to Ceres either, even though he works two blocks away. The fast casual atmosphere belies, perhaps even excuses, the dive-bar intensity of the drinks. “I can be two blocks away from the police commissioner who’s getting blackout drunk? It’s just very funny to me.”

Ceres, I was told, is unlike most downtown watering holes, which either serve bougie aperitifs to white-collar types or watered-down pours to tourists. The crowd, like the beverages, feels different here. “What I like about this is it’s the union of the finance industry that’s destroying the city and the police that are destroying the city in this perfect cocktail of just the worst that’s happened to Chicago,” Ehrenreich observed. “And that’s why I’m here to get drunk. I want a taste!”

As the liquor flowed and the crowd grew thicker, a table of about a dozen cackling friends who had gathered to mock Johnson fused with McLoughlin’s party for a group photo. “I’m trying to see who I’m gonna end up kissing before the night is over with!” a woman exclaimed.

Revelers got "Eddie Johnson drunk" at Ceres Cafe to dwell on the absurdity of the police chief's firing.
Revelers got “Eddie Johnson drunk” at Ceres Cafe to dwell on the absurdity of the police chief’s firing.Credit: Maya Dukmasova for Chicago Reader

At another table, a couple of regulars named Chuck and David said they usually come to Ceres for the strong drinks, good food, friendly service, and “the ladies.” Chuck hadn’t even heard all the seamy details about Johnson’s firing but wasn’t at all surprised that a night of alcohol consumption here ended in alleged infidelity and indiscretion. “Everybody does that here!” Chuck said, lifting his glass. “He probably had two of these and don’t remember half the shit he did.”

“He was gonna lose his job anyway,” David said. “Every superintendent gets fired for something.”

The dreaded last call drew closer. The reported details of Johnson’s evening were retold and rehashed with dashes of wild speculation, adding grist to the rumor mill. Was he really drinking with nearly a dozen other cops at South Loop’s Bar 22, as reported by the Chicago Crusader, before drinking for hours more at Ceres after 8 PM and canoodling with a woman from his security detail? Strange, since Ceres closes at 9. What was he doing in the hours before he was found in his vehicle at 12:30 AM? Was he really discovered sleeping while pulled over or was he receiving oral sex from a woman who was neither his wife nor his drinking companion, as alleged by the “Second City Cop” blog? Why would anyone call 911 over either of these scenarios? Was he really fired for lying about it all, or because Lightfoot saw a safe way to look tough on police misconduct?

“If we know anything about the police this would not have come out if they wanted to hide it,” Michael said confidently.

“It’s a cover-your-ass thing, I think,” said one of a half-dozen guys gathered nearby—computer programmers who’d initially come to see one another, not to celebrate Johnson’s departure. “There has got to be something else, that has to be something bad he did. She wants to go on the record and say ‘I wasn’t a part of that.'”

“The man was wasted, he got some head, and now he’s fired? I would never work if I got fired for indiscretions,” said stand-up comedian Dawn B. As she sipped her cognac on the rocks she scoffed at the idea that lying to the mayor was a fireable offense too. “What did he lie about? Let’s all have an understanding, because hella people have lied in all positions. Chicago is a goddamn lie.” Her manager Veronica chimed in that lying about whatever happened that night doesn’t hold a candle to “all the bullshit. When he said that bullshit that he’s never seen misconduct out of police I was like, ‘Come on now! Laquan McDonald wasn’t misconduct?'”

“I’m just out here drinking, hoping to find out the truth,” Dawn said. “I’m just a citizen trying to get an understanding. Why is sex misconduct? Why is shooting or racial profiling—why is that not misconduct? It is misconduct but you won’t lose your fucking gig behind it. I’m here because I want to support the mockery. I want to support the nonsense. Hey I’m about to get Eddie Johnson drunk—I hope the result is some head!”

By last call, the rumor mill was in full swing.
By last call, the rumor mill was in full swing.Credit: Maya Dukmasova for Chicago Reader

The crowd kept on talking and laughing and snapping pictures and gossiping about what the conversation between Johnson and Lightfoot must have been like. Ceres’s manager, a short middle-aged white man in a brown turtleneck and beige sport coat, darted around the establishment, preparing to close down for the night. “There’s Lori Lightfoot in white face!” Dawn shouted. “She would wear that outfit.”

Ridiculing the powerful is an ancient ritual in human societies, often sanctioned and encouraged by rulers and religions so the populace can express its frustration in festivities instead of revolution. But it’s also an occasion for ordinary people to wink and nudge at one another, to find comrades and conspirators, and to realize that our collective energies can be harnessed for much more than partying.

“It’s sad in a way, we all know the truth about the way the city is run and who benefits,” McLoughlin said, reflecting on the evening. “Whether it’s corrupt police, a corrupt mayor, a corrupt state’s attorney—some people have lost their jobs in the last few years but at the end of the day there are thousands of people in the city who have had their lives ruined by those individuals and they don’t get those back. Any time I’m at a protest or even something as silly as this it’s reassuring to know that we are not alone in acknowledging what’s happening here. What happened is a joke, it’s a sick joke that this is what it took for this guy to lose his job. I think ‘cathartic’ is the perfect word for this. Getting fucked up here is cathartic.”   v