After a filling meal of pierogis and sauerkraut at the Busy Bee restaurant in Wicker Park, I crossed Damen and hurried through the park, past the smackheads and other lost souls, arriving at the party at about nine. When I walked into the cramped apartment on Evergreen, I recognized him immediately from the photo on my copy of The Man with the Golden Arm. Nelson Algren was sitting restlessly on a chair in the kitchen and talking to a tall blond named Dottie. He took long drags on his Marlboro and sipped from a glass half full of what looked like rye. The frames of his glasses were held together by Scotch Tape. He wore an unironed, plaid shirt with mustard stains. Algren seemed like a caricature of one of his own characters.
A guy that I knew, an old beatnik named Bill Smith, who owned a hole-in-the-wall bookstore on North State Street, sat nearby and asked me if I would like to meet the writer he called “Lord Nelson.” Of course I jumped at the opportunity, and so Bill introduced me to him as a nice kid with literary pretensions.
Algren smiled at me knowingly and asked me if I wrote poetry or stories. I felt embarrassed because my entire literary output at that time was a few handwritten poems that I had never shared with anyone. I hardly considered myself a writer at all. I felt that Smith’s hyperbole had put me in an awkward situation with Algren. I reluctantly shared the subject matter of my poems with him, and he said to me to always remember the common man in my future writing.
I wanted to say something of more importance to Algren. Perhaps ask how he now felt about Simone de Beauvior, the French author with whom he had a bittersweet romance for many years. Maybe I could express my empathy to him about how he got shorted by the Hollywood bigwigs on royalties for the film adaptations of the Man with the Golden Arm and Walk on the Wild Side. But after a half minute of painful silence, Algren turned his attention back to Dottie, while I walked away into the smoke-filled living room looking for a drink.
Lisa Barr will be speaking at the Chicago Jewish Authors Series at Max and Benny’s on Monday evening, April 20th, at 7 pm. Lisa’s amazing novel, Fugitive Colors, relates the unlikely journey of a young Orthodox Jewish man from Chicago’s West Side to the art salons of Paris and Berlin in the turbulent days leading up to the Second World War. Booklist calls Fugitive Colors “masterfully conceived and crafted. Barr’s dazzling debut novel has it all: passion and jealousy, intrigue and danger.” Lisa Barr has been a journalist for more than 20 years. She has served as an editor for the Jerusalem Post and later became managing editor of Moment magazine and a staff reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times. Please rsvp for the event by contacting me by email at email@example.com or by phone 847-542-4624.
Our friend Mary Cunningham shared with us a photo of the Nelson Algren mural painted on the concrete viaduct at the Ridgeland Avenue Green Line station in Oak Park. The quote is from Algren’s novel Never Come Morning. This quote once again reminds us how poetic Algren’s prose can be:
“The great trains howl from track to track all night. The taut and telegraphic murmur of ten thousand city wires, drawn most cruelly against a city sky. The rush of water beneath the city streets. The passionate passing of the night’s last El.”
Next Saturday (March 28) marks the 106th anniversary of the birth of Nelson Algren. The Algren enthusiast here in Chicago can celebrate his birthday all day long. Beginning at 11:00 am, Algren’s book Never Come Morning, will be discussed at the Cliff Dwellers book club, meeting at 200 S. Michigan. Then one can head north to Lakeview (Algren would have hated the term “Wrigleyville”) and view Michael Caplan’s fine documentary film, Algren, at the Music Box, located at 3733 N. Southport, at 2:00 pm, followed by a special birthday celebration. More festivities will take place that evening at the Bloomingdale Artists Building, 2418 W. Bloomingdale in Bucktown, where the Nelson Algren Committee will host Algren readings, music, and an homage to the love of Algren’s life, his very own “Frenchie,” Simone de Beauvoir.
The lineup is all set for the next four presentations at the Chicago Jewish Authors Literary Series at Max and Benny’s Restaurant and Deli . Now in its fourth year, the Series has been well received in the community. I hope that you will be able attend at least one of these. The lineup is:
March 23—I will be presenting on the life and work of Saul Bellow. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Bellow’s birth.
April 20—Lisa Barr will discuss her thriller of a novel, Fugitive Colors, set in the art world of France and Germany during the dark years preceding the Second World War.
May 18—Charlene Wexler will be discussing her novel Lori, an emotional journey of a woman, which spans thirty years and two continents.
June 22—Jami Attenberg, of The Middlesteins fame, will be returning to the Chicago area to introduce us to her new novel, Saint Mazie.
If anybody has any questions on these events, or wishes to rsvp for any of them, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.