Binoy Kampmark writes: The Green Mill cocktail lounge is bouncing, alive with a current so intense it electrifies. The seating seems to be moving, winged and taking flight from its hinges. The ambience is trilling like summer larks with a naughty chord. There is a shrine resembling the most holy Buddhist tributes to the ancestral dead, floral decking, finest cloth. It is for Al Capone, one of America’s more ruthless killers but, more to the point, bootleggers who operated with abandon in the 1920s. The jazz club is protected by a statute of the Goddess of Harvest, Ceres, a superb accompaniment to the art nouveau interior. This is Chicago’s North Broadway, duller than the past, but still able to tantalize its visitors.
Every city worth its historical freight is marked by a notable feat. Sumerian Ur gave us bureaucracy and book keeping; Alexandria, one of history’s most known libraries; Paris, revolution and love; London, the first metropolis, dour and interesting in equal measures; New York, dizzy high rise and a skyline challenging heaven. Chicago? In some ways more innovative with its skyscrapers than New York, but by far, its legacy lies in the pleasure industry, the self-appointed task in undermining Prohibition.
This city’s name in history was assured during an era where temperance movements had grasped the holy writ of life, scolding and lecturing irresponsible America into submission. “Thou shalt not drink and make merry.” Some preferred to use the term ‘The Noble Experiment.’ This was 1920. The human body had to be preserved from the impurities of the bottle. Families could not be allowed to destroy themselves with the devil’s libation. The US voted with its feat and adjusted the constitution in the form of the eighteenth amendment. The people had spoken.
Prohibiting drink, so it turned out, was as foolish as prohibiting sex on premises. Simmering blood finds ways past the puritanical authorities to warm beds, cars and back alleys; drink finds its way past cold sober guards to sheds, underground bars, in short, speakeasies. It made Al Capone, and the Kennedy family, rich. While Chicago in the boring twenty first century has done little to preserve those fabulously illicit places, it has at least preserved the Green Mill, this jewel of delicious indecency.
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The music chirps, the instruments fondled with loving attention, toyed, emitting the sweetest sounds. A touch gypsy, a touch folk music — a fabulous hybrid, the most beautiful of half-castes. A generous dollop of jazz, wrapped and packed for the audience, eagerly sipping and listening They are initially freezing — the coats multiply, algae in a hot house; the clothing racks bulging like a bunch of summer flowers. Hands wander hungrily, lips too. The lights are dim, mellow. The bartender resembles a bulldog, an Irish ginger nut keen to please.
“What you fancy?”
Martini. Dirty. Very dirty.
He obliges. The juices of the olive container provide a base. The vermouth sloshes and coats. The ice is brought out — on the rocks it is. The gin, an utterly fabulous spank as it moves up the glass like a creeper searching for light.
No country in the world does this better — making a drink that might have been consumed within Eden’s green borders had Adam been adventurous enough to make it. (Eve would have been more than capable, but preferred to listen to serpentine tales, so boring was Adam.) The full taste, divine, a god glancing over the glass rim with beady eyes, an angel between the lips as you sip. With such drinks, it’s a sin to gulp. Let it linger, let it warm in your mouth. Then swallow, allowing heaven to swim down your throat.
Another sip. The evening progresses. The band members take a break and mingle amongst the audience. More drinks are ordered. A touch of serenity as it purrs through the establishment, taking hold of the guests, enfolding them as the night continues. The mellow lights shift and play, a perennial tease. The olives are gradually being drained of their cooling gin and vermouth base. It is time to consume them, stranded as they are on the pick. It is only one in the morning.
Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.