If you’re the sort of writer I am, you tend to let the subconscious do the heavy lifting. I don’t formally “research” characters, but they inevitably come out of the mix of social interactions that I enjoy. I used to hang around bars a lot, and being a writer provides a great excuse to do this. As I’m not so much of a drinker these days, this happens a lot less. But if I no longer vibe on alcohol itself, I still enjoy bars. The great thing about Chicago is that you can always find one open late—the byproduct of a post-Depression ordinance meant to kick-start the local economy.
Not drinking so much changes your view of the late night. For one thing, being drunk anesthetizes you against a lot of the misery abundant in such scenes. Where before you saw only the swashbuckling bonhomie of revelers, now the standouts are often lonely alcoholics or troubled people in the midst of some deep personal crisis. But they, too, need a place to go, and I’m glad such hostelries exist for them, along with the bartenders of B-movie mythology who announce, “You look like you’ve had a hard night …” It puts the issues that writers face (“I can’t finish this chapter” or “I can’t get this character right”) into perspective.
But the main reason for going to a late-night dive? In an era of gentrification and the faux sophistication it brings in its wake, this is where you find the soul of the city. So if you think that the blue-collar, hustling, potty-mouthed, bighearted, and broad-shouldered Chicago is dead, step inside a Division Street bar at 5 a.m. You might just bump into the next Algren.