Thursday, March 10, 2011


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.

Back in the day, Wicker Park's Earwax cafe was hard to miss. The hand painted burlap exterior featured a carnival theme promising exotic delights and freaky weirdness. Two large bay windows, with tables on elevated stages, sat on either side of the doorway. The tables would, without fail, be filed with brooding thinkers or disheveled artists sipping coffee from heavy ceramic mugs. To sit in the Earwax windows was to be on display. When walking through the two doors into the cafe, there was a warmth that was hard to discern. The strong smell of the coffee, cigarette smoke, and food cooking in the ovens seemed to bounce off the high tin ceilings, and wrap around you as you entered the room. The smells and sounds were purposeful and not at all pretentious. Earwax was a space without preconception - it was a cafe, but more than that, it was a room filled with potential. The first floor was heady with its dim bar lighting, and haphazard decor that looked like something out of a carny’s drug induced nightmare. The wooden tables were painted with circus colors and pinwheel patterns, and the walls were covered with gigantic canvas ‘freak show’ paintings of strong men and bearded ladies. The place was a cornucopia of wood, enamel and tin, and the whole environment was caressed with oddity and charm. In the back of the cafe, past the floor to ceiling iron prison bars, was a shop that contained records, hard to find magazines, and obscure rental videos that covered topics like Japanese bondage and German film noir. Music filled the cafe with sounds from Morocco, Jamaica or Memphis. At night, the cafe bubbled over with shoppers and their bags filled with records and books. Famous people mingled with shifty drunks and graffiti artists with their snarls and black notebooks. Everyone was working on something, making plans, sketching, writing or battling with words. Me and my friends would sit in a wooden booth for hours, just looking over records, drinking coffee, and watching other people stroll in and order carry out. We ordered tea or coffee and watched the waitress’s apron pull at her shirt as she bent over to tie her army boots. Earwax became a sort of home away from home for us, and we started meeting there at night, after school, before a show, or on quiet afternoons. We picked up our news there and scanned the cork board wall for interesting band posters. I started smoking cigarettes with my coffee, and some of my friends got an apartment down on North Ave., so we could be closer to the action.

When I was 22 I applied for a line cook position at Earwax. I had no real culinary experience to speak of, but I was eager, and I could talk my way into and out of most situations. The owners were middle aged art school types, and they both looked like they could hang out with Lou Reed. They were both jive in a comforting way. They believed in their little slice of heaven, and they were happy that I appreciated what they were up to at the cafe. After I got the position as a line cook, I went to a shoe store up the street and bought some stylish cream colored Italian shoes. I knew that if I was working at Earwax, I’d need some more fashionable footwear. I worked early in the morning and was usually the first person to arrive at the cafe. On those early spring mornings, the whole city was covered in damp dew and hazy sunlight, and everything was quiet and still. I was usually paired up with an older, rather eccentric barista, who would lecture me on the seriousness of espresso and how to pull the perfect cup. She was small, grey and fragile, like a painting teacher by way of erotic masseuse. I studied food prep, cooking, and the culinary arts with a stout man with long hair and a fantastic beard. He was a Chicano, and he taught me to have a general disdain for white people, cafe customers and the majority of the waitstaff. He also knew, almost instantly, that I knew nothing of food, or how to prepare it correctly. I spent my mornings prepping gallons of guacamole, tuna salad and hummus for the cafe’s patrons. I enjoyed the work, and began putting my creative stamp on Earwax’s dishes. Tuna salad got a little lime juice and paprika, which turned the once beige dish a pastel pink hue. I put fresh cilantro in the salsa, and cut out stencils to decorate the dark chocolate cake with powdered sugar. The mornings went by slowly, and once my prepping was done, I spent time listening to music, drinking coffee, and watching the world through the bay windows. We had a few regulars who ordered obsessive compulsive variations on oatmeal and coffee. Most of the daytime customers were playwrights, out of work artists, or tourists. At night, the open kitchen turned into theater, and I was a lopsided magician, turning out hundreds of dishes for the stream of customers. Orders flew at me like paper planes and a never ending flurry of waitresses demanded quick fixes and alterations to the day’s specials. The energy was addictive, and at night, the music would get turned up loud, and the whole cafe would take on a nightclub feel. I decorated my plates using fanciful techniques I had seen on cooking shows. I put my sauces in squeeze bottles, I cut things on the bias, and I cleaned my station meticulously. The nights hummed past, and at the end of the shift everyone in the cafe would help each other clean, and we would all drink strong German beer and smoke cigarettes as we worked. I got to know everyone’s story, and I made friends with world traveling waitresses, recovering addicts, and film students. There were wonderful quiet moments when a shift was winding down. I enjoyed the back of the coffee counter with its hand scrawled instructions, doodles, mugs, and bags of coffee and tea. The work was harsh, but filled with stimulation.

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
I never went back to Earwax after they fired me, except to pick up an occasional take out order. My friends and I slowly developed a taste for malt liquor, pot, and bottles of Guinness Stout. We had put our days of coffee and tea behind us. At the century’s end, the cafe was relocated up the street to a more generous space, but the feeling of the original room got lost in the shuffle. The energy that haunted the old location was deafeningly silent in the new spot. Still, Earwax was always a constant in Wicker Park, and it represented a colorful part of the neighborhood’s history. It’s a history that no longer exists, and can scarcely be felt among the chain stores and condo lofts that now make up the neighborhood. On March 1, 2011, Earwax shut its painted burlap doors for good. Wicker Park is now a neighborhood filled with ghosts and shiny new children, all clamoring for market share and attention. Long gone are the gruff, vagabond days of wood, tin, enamel and eccentrics.

Bookmark and Share

No comments:

Post a Comment