Chicago’s Wicker Park was at one time a haven for writers, punk rock jazz musicians, artists, and disheveled bohemians. It was also a place of hard luck stories, drugs and rampant prostitution. In the young morning, street walkers of every size and shape would float out from North Avenue, with their rhinestone dresses and leather boots, looking for dates and fixes. The neighborhood was a shambles, like a clown that had gotten beat up in a particularly colorful bar fight. The area around North Ave. and Milwaukee was not the polished, commercial marketplace it is today. Wicker Park was raw, angry and uncompromisingly bohemian. Like Greenwich Village without the pleasant nostalgia, or the Lower Haight without the barefoot stoners, Wicker Park was at one time a cultural mecca and seedy bed of homespun creativity. When I was a kid, growing up in Chicago, Wicker Park was just a short train ride away from the blue collar monotony of hot dog stands, Catholic churches, liquor stores, and gas stations that made up my reality. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, Wicker Park was a frontier of sorts; a wild west of cultural relevance, music, art and potential danger. On languid Saturday afternoons, a few friends and I would pack into a Chevy hatchback and rumble down Milwaukee Ave. towards the record stores, thrift shops and cafes that made up the small north side neighborhood. Every shop and restaurant was unique, special and run by entrepreneurs with eccentric personalities. Corporate America hadn’t yet figured out how to be cool, or how to market to people that were untouchable.
On a calm afternoon I was brought to the back of the cafe and told I had been fired. The boyish, middle aged man who owned the joint told me he received complaints from his waitstaff about my speed expediting orders on busy nights. I looked into his bespectacled face, both extraordinarily disappointed and self satisfied that I had lasted as long as I did. I worked at Earwax for around six months, and during my time there, I got to see the bustling Chicago cafe from the other side of the counter. I liked being on the other side. I liked being in the kitchen. The owner gave me a few harsh words and then a few words of kindness, and he ended his speech by exclaiming, “It doesn’t matter how shit looks man, you worry too much about plating...this is a cafe man, not a fucking sushi restaurant.” I hung my white apron, stained with tomato, chive and chick pea on a metal hook in the back of the kitchen, and said my goodbyes to the small barista.
|Original business card |
illustrated by Daniel Clowes