Lists have been promoted from a guest star to a plot-regular in my life lately. There was always someplace to go, somewhere to be and something to get done. My world looks like a dizzying blur. Consuming one thing after another, without waiting to swallow. No wonder my body is nauseated more often than not. And this isn’t even alcohol. Just me — in a state of constant flux. I barely begin to look closely in this new country when I have to turn my head and look at something else. I have two years in this place. 730 days to explore all of the 588 square kilometers of this city. I love it. And I hate how much I love it.
I have learned to walk faster. Dress appropriate. Wear comfy shoes. No heels. Walking into things without knowing where they lead. Questioning when I arrived — if I landed or was still up in the air.
Like most things in my life, The Green Mill was a coin toss decision. The place is so well-known to Chicago residents, it’s almost an afterthought. To me, spoken word poet, this was home to the Uptown Poetry Slam, the first poetry slam in the world (another experience to cross off my list ; number 12. On day 13, still remained unchecked).
You can spot if off the red line. The words “Green Mill” written in cursive script on the corner of Lawrence and Broadway. The doorman greeting me with a “Please be quiet during the performance” should have tipped me off. Little cards with the word ‘shhhh’ were passed out, and the staff gave people dirty looks if they talked. Grab a martini, Manhattan or Schlitz at the bar and then scramble for a seat. If you continue to talk, you will be openly shushed by the bartender or staff. A jazz band called The Fat Babies played in the background. It was in a fit of giggles that I realized I forgot to check if this was a poetry night (it was on my list). I had nothing to do tonight. It was then that I began to exhale. Really look.
Long, ornately wooden-framed murals of mountains, countryside, and seashores cover the walls with ornate wooden frames. The wooden, shell-shaped, light fixtures mounted on the ceiling are so big that they could crush people if they ever fell. Four poles holding up the ceiling are decorated in both — mirrored and black & white tiles. High-backed booths are crescent shaped with velvet seat backs. And, in the far corner, in all her alabaster glory, stands Ceres, Goddess of Harvest, rechristened Stella by the house musicians. Stella was salvaged from the lower depths of the Green Mill, dusted off, and returned to complement the authenticity of the art deco/art nouveau décor in the light fixtures and artwork, embellished with lavishly scrolled frames.
Deep smoky jazz fills the club. Some trained, many untrained swing dancers shuffle across the dance floor dressed in perfect checkered suits, fedora hats and gingham dresses cinched at the waist. They pair up and break apart only to twirl back to the dance floor for another slow dance, with another partner. People in dancing shoes that have been well worn and polished in the preparation of this night. They know how to look effortless without looking like they have been practicing.
A jump back into the 40s, The Green Mill has been around for 110 years and has a proper past — with gory stories and all.
A leather-bound scrapbook behind the bar contains clippings from almost every major magazine and newspaper in the country. Stories of times when Al Capone ran the place : The lounge rules were strict — Whenever Capone entered the room, the bandleader had to stop whatever he was playing and perform Capone’s favorite, Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.”The booth to the right of the bar and across from the side door is where Al Capone used to sit so that no one could walk in either front or the side without him noticing. This place has a proud speakeasy legacy, reveling in the past, thriving in the present. I had to write it all down, before this feeling went away. Catch it before I forget.
The Green Mill is a leisurely stroll in a yellowed-out page of a book. A page from a carefully concealed book — A guilty pleasure in a dizzying life like mine. This was a place decked in vintage velvet. It hasn’t changed clothes to look trendy. It doesn’t answer to anyone. It doesn’t need to change to grow. A stop. A deep breath. A meditative retreat. A time of guys and dolls, a time when people would swing and dance and when the lounge singer was king of all. I almost wish you had to wear a tuxedo or evening gown just to get inside.
This is where my spinning stopped, where my head stopped hurting, and I could dance, without thinking. I was dancing. And only dancing. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. These people were not trying to analyze anything. Or examine. Neither was I. What were we looking for? Was it the theatricality of dressing up, or the big-band music? I know my affectations tend to skew toward the sepia-toned. But I don’t think it was about some romanticized nostalgia: this was too bizarre.
I was able to rest while dancing in a speakeasy. The next time I go, I put on my heels and a checkered dress before I walk in.