The Lighthouse (January 31, 2012)

On a quiet side street terminating in one of many far North Side Chicago beaches, lies a hidden gem of a dive bar that, if I have anything to say about it, will be a secret no more. In a way I hate to violate the establishment’s privacy, but this is the type of place I assumed no longer existed: a humble watering hole where everybody knows your name, or at least your face. No logo adorns a garish awning (in fact the tavern bears no signage at all), no Groupon deals drive hipster masses to the front door in search of the latest special on PBR. In fact, the Lighthouse Tavern, which opened for business in 1923 as a hotel bar inside of of the neighborhood’s then-fashionable resorts, doesn’t even have a website.

It is more than likely that the bar’s owners won’t appreciate this modest bit of publicity, but in a City I love that has become, in many ways, gentrified and chain-business occupied to oblivion, I am utterly giddy to discover a little piece of something authentic.

Yelp reviewers can identify with this paradoxical dilemma: to protect or share? David L. writes, “This bar is so cool you almost don’t want to tell anyone about it.” Denise P. waxes, “No pretenses here.You get eye contact. The best kind. Tracy behind the bar really wants to know if you want water with your libation, sugarmuffin. Billy remembers you have a cat, too. And he knows you like your wine in a rocks glass, not a wine glass. The beauty of The Lighthouse is that everybody pretty much leaves their weekday personas at home.”

The Lighthouse had me at its authentic nautical ambiance. I am not talking Red Lobster kitschy flair here folks. I mean antique seafaring tools, photos, maps – remnants of another century in the Windy City’s port of the Midwest past. It secured its grip with the well-preserved 1950s-era twin bowler arcade game. And I was completely gone after two hours spent enjoying the most satisfying people-watching exercise in which I have indulged in recent memory.

The Lighthouse answers the question: where did the front line members of Chicago’s counterculture movement end up? Turns out, their coordinates can be pinpointed to barstools within the Lighthouse. The scene was Easy Rider meets Hair: tresses were long, unruly and streaked with gray; leather and denim everywhere mixed with the intoxicating aroma of patchouli and whiskey. At approximately 8:00 PM on a Friday night, the nondescript bar of which I had hitherto remained ignorant was crawling with people drunk on shots and nostalgia.

As one of the youngest patrons by far that evening, I enjoyed an outsider’s perspective that simultaneously included me in a sustained toast to the good old days, whatever that meant to these people who survived free love, the Civil Rights movement and the administration of Richard J. Daley. I greedily grabbed snatches of conversation that alternated between lucid and soused, nostalgic and bitter. While gulping down cheap wine, I wanted to drink in the collective memory that coursed through the well-kept space.

I have already mentioned that the Lighthouse boasts very little PR infrastructure. I learned of the place like almost everyone who walks through the doors becomes initiated – word of mouth. I have lived in my neighborhood for over two years, consider myself informed and have passed by its door countless times. But I guess I was invited in when I was finally ready to appreciate its special anachronisms. As I come to value my own quirky, anti-establishment character, it seems I have found a new place to unwind.

Illinois is the New California (May 27, 2010)

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Despite what appears to be the inevitable ascent of the Chicago Blackhawks to Stanley Cup Glory (!), those of us in the Prairie State don’t get a win that often. In sports, we are a long suffering people. The Bears have not won anything since 1985, the 1990s glory days of the Chicago Bulls are long gone, The White Sox brought it home in 2005 (but honestly, say what you want, the Sox have never been “Chicago’s Team”), and the Cubs? Well, let’s not go there.

We are the State that brought you the bootlegging empire of Al Capone, as well the long reign of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley and “outfit” politics. We are the land of unionized crime, and the entity that has sent two of its last three Governors to Federal prison (once the legal formalities of Blago are complete). Last Fall, we also suffered an embarrassing first round exit from the IOC’s final decision making process to determine the host City of the 2016 Summer Olympics. Ah yes, we have much to be proud of. No wonder we are also known for our drunkeness.

If it appears that I am guilty of conflating Chicago with the State as a whole, that is by design. Downstaters can howl all they want about Illinois being more than just the Windy City, but facts are facts. Chicagoland (City and suburbs) represents more than 75% of Illinois’ population, and roughly the same percentage of its economy. Take Chi-town out of the equation, and we’re left with just another agriculturally centered Red-leaning state.

However, it is not our legacy of losing, corruption, crime and other forms ignominy that I wish to write about today. As a career advocate for human services in Illinois, I would like to call attention to the sorry, pathetic state of lawmaking, and the attempts by the legislature to pass a fiscal year 2011 budget that make the more publicized financial problems of California and New York appear tame.

The Illinois State Senate is preparing to vote on a package, likely by the end of the day, that does nothing at all to address a badly needed increase of revenues. A 1% income tax hike, responsibly proposed by Gov. Pat Quinn, has been shot down over and again, not because lawmakers feel the funds are not needed, but instead because it is considered politically disadvantageous to stand up and do the right thing. The solution, according to these officials, is to attempt to balance the budget, and catch up on backlogged bills, by placing the burden squarely on the shoulders of the social services community – providers who care for children, the aged, the mentally ill, the abused, the homeless and substance abuse addicts. Yes, kick the weak and overworked while they are down. Brilliant!

Under this budget providers will be forced to operate where contracts and funding levels can be changed or cut at any moment. Key points include:

• An Emergency Budget Act that makes funding even more uncertain by giving the Governor unprecedented power (until January 2011) to make additional cuts.

• No human service organization will know about contracts to take affect July 1 for several more weeks, thereby dumping the costs of a quick shut down on the community, clients and staff.

• The Governor will be able to cut budgets at any time.

• There is no solution to late payments; they are simply kicked further down the road.

• There is no comprehensive solution to inadequate human services funding, or the larger issue of the State’s slow descent into insolvency.

If we slice through the political jargon here, what this basically means is that a budget will pass, but no one will know know anything about it until the Governor decides how the money will be allocated. Huh? Last time I checked, the State was not a monarchy. Unacceptable. Don’t we have a right to know where our tax money is going and how it is being use?. Isn’t the point of a budget process to sort all that out upfront? Nope, instead, weak and scared lawmakers are passing the buck right back to Quinn and telling agencies to lobby him for some of those lump sum dollars. What did we hire these people for?

Let’s not wait for the November elections to tell these turkeys how we feel. Call you legislator TODAY and demand better. If you don’t know who your district reps. are, you may access the following website to figure it out:

http://www.elections.state.il.us/DistrictLocator/DistrictOfficialSearchByAddress.aspx

In our cynical age, activism is often derided as both nerdy and pointless. That’s what they want you to believe because if you stay quiet, the status quo can continue unmolested. Let’s demand better Illinois! Let’s show the rest of the nation that we may produce a lot of silly headlines, but we have some backbone too.