Hello, Chicago.

So I guess the reason Chicago asked me to write this essay was the fact that I was at the Old Town Ale House the night that a film I was in won best picture at the Oscars. Which means I must love Chicago or bars or Chicago bars or booze or something. And, of course, that is the truth — I love all those things. Except booze. We have a more ambiguous relationship.

I started acting in Chicago when I was 16, which is a tad over 30 years ago. Everyone in the plays I was in tended to be 8, 10, 15 years older than me. I thought they were the greatest people in the world, and they took me under their wing. That’s when I started going to bars. (The statute of limitations allows me to say this without anyone getting in too much trouble, I hope.)

Michael Shannon at Old Town Ale House
Photograph: Ruth Wiesen

I remember my first trip to Moody’s Pub after a performance. Ravenously hungry, I ordered a burger. And to drink? … A beer. Soon enough I found myself at the L&L Tavern on a regular basis. That’s where everyone went after their shows in Lake View, where there were so many theaters. It was a dive bar full of geniuses and eccentrics like you might imagine at New York’s White Horse Tavern in its heyday with Dylan Thomas slurring his eloquent speech. And the jukebox — the first time I heard Iggy Pop sing “Down on the Street” was off the L&L jukebox. Sometimes I would climb up the side of the building it was in. The next time you drive by, just imagine me hanging off the side like Alex Honnold climbing El Capitan. Thrilling stuff.

I found my way to Old Town back when they had pinball and all the bartenders were older women: Pat, Jeanette, Michelle. They were kind but blunt, with no time for nonsense, but they managed to seem genuinely concerned about you.

I have to mention: Sergio Mayora! Weeds! Poetry night with Gregorio! And poetry night with Marc Smith at the Green Mill!

I think I passed my word count. The point is, I love Chicago bars. They can be a lot of trouble and lead to mountains of heartache, confusion, and malaise. But they’re worth it in the long run, as far as I can tell. — Mike

Michael Shannon has starred in movies and shows including The Shape of Water (that Oscar winner for best picture), Nine Perfect Strangers, and Bug. He has appeared onstage locally at Steppenwolf and A Red Orchid Theatre.

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