One afternoon in early October, Matt Craig is more harried than usual. Typically he tends bar at the Dearborn Diner during the lunch rush without mussing a hair, but today he’s sighing and muttering to himself as he pours drinks and serves sandwiches. When asked the reason for his distress, he rolls his eyes and jerks his head toward a man and a woman sitting together at the bar. “They’re back.”
It’s one o’clock, and the man is drunk as a skunk. Unable to keep perched on his bar stool, he’s draped over the shoulder of his companion, who’s also on the verge of collapse. “Hey, Matt,” the man yells, nudging his drink with a knuckle. “Put this in a to-go cup for me, would ya?” Before turning to explain for the umpteenth time that he can’t put a double rum and Coke into a to-go cup, Craig says, almost under his breath, “They started taping the Jenny Jones show again.”
Except for a couple months off every summer, Jenny Jones–along with Jerry Springer, Oprah, and Judge Mathis–is taped in Chicago. Its guests–playas and their haters, overweight toddlers, 13-year-old aspiring strippers, and 13-year-old sisters of strippers in need of a makeover–are flown in for 36 hours from the id of America and put into white stretch limos for delivery to the show’s studio at NBC Tower. They come for the spotlight or the catharsis, telling their stories to anyone who’ll listen–who, Craig says, often turn out to be employees of the Dearborn Diner.
The guests stay at the Hampton Inn that squats above the diner on the southeast corner of Dearborn and Illinois. The show provides them with a $40-a-day food allowance at the restaurant (alcohol no longer included), which has become their hangout when the show’s not being taped. “It’s a freak show in here sometimes,” Craig says. “There are days where you have freaks across the board.”
From the outside, the Dearborn Diner evokes Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. On a rainy evening, its neon sign spills white, red, and green light onto the wet pavement. Inside, there’s not much diner to it. Along the east wall the glowing onyx bar lights up shelves stocked with fancy vodkas and gins; a row of black leather booths and dark wood tabletops stretches along the west side. There’s only three breakfast items on the menu throughout the day, and the squeaky-clean service is more suited to Gold Coast swank than Route 66 nostalgia. It’s not the sort of place Tom Waits would sing about, but it’s got chemistry.
At around 8:30 on a chilly night, the diner is half full with businessmen in V-necked sweaters relaxing after a day of meetings downtown or glad-handing at McCormick Place. They’re having beers and whooping it up watching a baseball game when three women walk through the door. The bartender says they’re strippers who taped a segment on Jenny Jones that day. The women, in pink and yellow makeup and stuffed into tube tops and spandex, are greeted at the door with wolf whistles. They visibly warm to the attention.
By 9:30 everyone’s lubricated. The women sip wine coquettishly and begin to dance at the bar. Soon they’re strutting around the room doing a mock striptease, rubbing balding heads and sitting in laps. Everyone’s into it, including some of the employees. “Nights are when the freaky stuff happens,” Craig says. Often there are love connections, though not all offers have takers. “I’ve only worked four nights total, but I’ve been asked up to rooms twice.”
He’s not troubled by the Jenny Jones people as much as by the people who prey on them. “It’s easy to pick on them because they’re so freakish, but it’s no different than five or six businessmen who come down here and sit with their buddies and slap each other on the back and act real brutish.
“People who come into bars,” says Craig, “they always flock to the lowest common denominator. Whoever behaves the worst, they set the limit on how bad behavior can be.”
The servers and bartenders, mostly students or actors in their 20s, have a love-hate relationship with their Jenny Jones customers. They may love the stories–the time a champagne bucket was returned with a condom in it, or when a fistfight broke out between a jealous boyfriend and a lover, or when a man locked himself outside his room drunk and naked–but they also say guests of Jenny Jones can be a pain in the ass. “They’re really demanding,” says one waitress, “and they don’t tip shit.”
Their main complaint–other than ignorance of restaurant etiquette and frequent check fright (“What do you mean two sandwiches and two iced teas for $24?”)–is the extra red tape involved. The guests are given a piece of paper to keep track of what they’ve spent, but because some of them figure out ways to cheat, the servers have to call the hotel desk to make sure everything’s legit.
“Sometimes it’s entertaining, but sometimes people get aggressive,” Craig says. “They come down and float through and it’s exhausting, ’cause you just don’t know where to draw the line about how much you want to get involved.” He remembers a man who’d met his girlfriend in a conga line. The guy was going on the show to find out if she was cheating. If she wasn’t, he was going to propose to her. He wanted Craig’s opinion. “All the stereotypes about a bartender being a good listener aside, I had to look at him and be like, ‘Do yourself a favor and don’t propose to this woman.'”
At seven o’clock one night in early November, the diner’s lone customer is Keil, a vacationing Irishman sipping a Budweiser. A bartender named Travis has just finished telling the story of a couple of Mexican guys from the kitchen who spent a night with two Jenny Jones guests after making a delivery to their room. Judging from the size of the women, Travis says, the show must have been called “You’ve Gotta Do Something With Those Tits.” The Mexicans didn’t speak English, but the women sent back a note that Travis translated for them. It said, “You are so hot! Come up to our room and party with us!”
Keil, in his late 40s, begins to explain why he’s having a bottle of Bud instead of his usual pint of Harp. He’s just two days off a ten-day bender that ended when he hacked up a blood clot the size of a marble. That blood clot scared him so much he saw a doctor, who told him to stay off the booze. A pint’s too much, Keil says, so he’s having one Bud–“which isn’t really alcohol”–and going to bed.
A young woman walks into the diner and orders an orange juice from the bar. She looks about 18 and has big hair, heavy makeup, and silicone spilling from her shirt. Travis had seen her earlier in the day with her mother. They were on their way to a taping.
She eyes Keil and rocks on her left foot as she sips her juice through a straw. Keil’s chatter becomes more animated. As he launches into a description of how his job on an oil-drilling platform off the coast of Scotland is conducive to both alcoholism and sexual deprivation, he scoots closer to the girl and orders a pint of Harp.