Cocktail Hour


By Sam Garfield

Oct. 20, 1957

(Chicago) – For some it’s a siren’s call; a late afternoon ritual for others. Cocktail Hour — when time stands still. Heading to your favorite bar in the soft glow of an autumn sun isn’t necessarily a bad way to cap off a workday, as I did not long ago.

The next day’s column put to bed, I left the newspaper office and walked down Wacker Drive, along the river, toward the bridge at Michigan Boulevard. The fading sun softened the rush-hour traffic and dusted the stop-and-go lights with a hazy glow. I could feel the melancholy gather inside me like a low-grade fever, a feeling I no longer fought. To be honest, I welcome it these days, love the way it slows everything down. As welcomed as the evening’s first sip of whiskey. Walking across the bridge I glanced at the giant clock on the tower of the Wrigley Building. The twilight brushed the building’s glazed terra-cotta cladding in soft yellow.

There’s a peaceful comfort level at a place like the Wrigley Building Bar. No typewriters, no clatter and bells from the wire teletypes, no deadlines. I nodded to Charles, the restaurant’s maître d’ and took a seat at the long bar.  I was a few minutes early; Steve, a former colleague, would be late, as usual. A handful of people at the bar: a middle-aged man in a pinstripe suit and a wedding ring, bending the ear of a young blonde girl (probably his niece from Decatur); a sixtyish bald fellow writing notes on a napkin; a threesome of ad execs working on, I would guess, their third round of martinis.

Nice bars have a warm rhythm to them, depending on the day-part…and, of course, depending on the people. Lunchtime at the Wrigley Building Bar is always crowded, mostly with advertising people entertaining clients…or themselves. Same goes for Cocktail Hour, which starts around 4 o’clock and folds into the dinner crowd. I like to get there just before things get too hectic and settle in, the way the baseball purist takes in batting practice. I enjoy watching the barkeep at work, the way he pulls the bottle from the neat row on the bar rack, shows me the label and pours a crisp one over ice. After the first sip I always look around, take stock, if-you-will. Pen in hand, the bald guy takes a break from his writing and stares at his whiskey. He gives his glass a few turns and seems to study the ice cubes bouncing in the amber liquid. The only woman at the bar looks to be losing gusto at whatever the guy in the pinstripes is selling. I ignore the ad guys.

Cocktail Hour…when plans and promises are made and broken, where lies are always welcomed.  A few feet behind the bar sits a row of telephone booths. I thought about the people on the receiving ends of these phone lines — wives, attorneys, bookies, and, yes, editors. A good friend of mine negotiated his move from the Tribune to the Sun-Times in one of those booths.

My pal finally arrived just as the bar started to buzz with activity and conversation. At one point during our conversation — which was mainly about “the good old days at the wire service” — I drifted away in my own thoughts, narcissistic as they were. I was still listening to my friend, nodding and smiling at the appropriate time, but I was keeping one eye on all the people, glasses in hand, laughing, making profound statements, digging into their pockets to find change for the telephone — “Gotta work a little longer, hon…but I’ll be on the 6:15” — and I thought how, in a few hours, across the river, in the basement of the Mirror building, the mighty presses would be rolling, giving life to my words. And I wondered where these thirsty strangers would be reading my work in the morning — maybe at their favorite diner with a cup of coffee, or on the 7:15 from Evanston, perhaps at work.

Time to go. I walked through the crowded bar and my mind turned to Scott Fitzgerald…how he’d close this column:

Afterwards, he just sat there, happy to live in the past. The drink made past happy things contemporary with the present, as if they were still going on, contemporary even with the future as if they were about to happen again. (Tender Is the Night)

Copyright © 2012. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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