Pretty swank, this Mandel Hall. Once I find my seat in the front row of the balcony I give the place a good look-over—hand-carved oak, Tiffany windows, stenciled tapestry. A wide smile breaks across my face when I think of the irony. My old pal, Nelson Algren, prose poet of Chicago, friend to whores and junkies, hustlers and winos, bookies and players, sluggers and counter-punchers, is about to address U. of Chicago students and faculty. Images of Frankie Machine, the man with the golden arm, swarm my mind. He’d have something to say about his creator wasting a Saturday night in Victorian-era overkill. The January snow begins to coat the leaded arched windows that wrap the hall. A pianist softly plays Beethoven. It looks like most of the crushed-velvet seats are empty. Is it the weather or the speaker? Algren, I know, hates a light gate. This is the last time you’ll be the main card here, I’d tell him later. I can taste the whiskey I’d be sharing with Algren in a few hours when I notice the coed on the stage. A short pleated skirt, tight pink sweater, and flirtatious blond ponytail. She adjusts the microphone on the podium and places a water pitcher and glass nearby. I recall the Depression days at the University of Illinois, when Algren and I practiced journalism during the day and honed more useful skills at night.
Out he comes, glaring at the small crowd, ignoring the polite applause. These U. of C. types are about to get an earful. His customary Army Surplus jacket is gone; he’s a long way from the seedy taverns and lunch counters of West Division Street. Algren wears a gray sport coat and gray and blue flannel shirt; no tie. With his unruly hair and metal-framed glasses, he carries the look of a disheveled college professor.
Algren answers the bell with both fists. He stares down the suit-and-tie crowd and unleashes a tirade about the wrestler Strangler Lewis, who refused to enter the ring unless he knew what his share of the gate would be. I chuckle at the blank faces; the girl with the ponytail smiles but doesn’t know why. Only Algren, who enjoys keeping people off balance, would tell a story about a professional wrestler at a gathering of literary scholars. Then comes a flurry of jabs against his critics and some modern writers, who shy away from emotional involvement and ignore the humanity of their characters.
This hits a nerve with me, jars my memory. I’m back at Illinois with Algren; we’re seniors, ready to leave the cornfields for the big city. We’re walking across the quad, and he says, “So, Sammy, you gonna stick with journalism? Or you gonna stretch yourself and get in there and get your hands dirty, you know, become a real writer?” Here’s the deal, the rub he has with me: We both see this guy, down-and-out, maybe looking for a handout on a busy street corner. Algren sees someone who has a tale to tell, and before long, he has a haunting short story forming in his head. I see a bum, and I want to know why the city doesn’t do something. Emotional involvement…he’s talking about me.
This night in Hyde Park, Algren saves his biggest punch for Chicago. Sandburg’s city is gone, he proclaims, replaced by a shoulder-padded, gray flannel replica. The Chicago body blows last several minutes. He finally lets his audience off the ropes, acknowledging Chicago is still a great writer’s town, because the best writing is done in the wee hours, when guys like Algren are at their best.
I don’t stay for the question-and-answer period. There are drinks to be had.
Most of the good tables at the Stage Lounge are taken by the time I arrive, but a five-dollar bill gets me a nice spot not far from Herbie Mann, who has just begun his first set. After Algren’s gruff performance on the U. of C. campus, the soft Brazilian sounds from the young flautist provide a welcome groove to the evening. I’m working on my second George Dickel when Algren shows up, ponytail in tow.
“Sammy, how you doin’? This here’s Peggy, graduate student, American lit or something like that.” Turning toward the girl, Algren then says, “Sammy and I were college chums; he’s a top newspaper columnist, some Chicago tabloid.”
I give my pal a hug. “Nelson, great to see you. Peggy, I’m Sam Garfield, it’s a pleasure.”
“Nice sounds, huh?” Algren places good jazz right up there with a quick left hook and a straight flush.
A waitress fills our tiny table with a round of drinks.
“So how’s life in Gary, found any people worth writing about?” I ask. Algren has recently relocated to Indiana. His love-hate relationship with Chicago has triggered many such moves.
“You really want to know ’bout Gary, prick, or just want to toss some shit my way? Peggy, here’s the deal ’bout newspaper guys—the good ones, the few good ones—they’re always sparring, always looking for the soft spot…”
I let Algren talk, so I could study Peggy. What is she, twenty-two at the most? He has at least twenty-six years on her. She taking it all in, hanging on every word. Like one of Algren’s junkies, she’s hooked. This is Algren’s playground: a smoky room, good booze and good jazz, a good looker.
I finally jump in. “You like jazz, Peggy?”
“For sure, especially at a place like this.” She turns and watches Mann play his flute. “What I really like about it is how complex jazz is—a combination of sadness and laughter. That’s its unique quality. I think jazz speaks to the human soul because it’s never frivolous or meaningless.”
“Not bad,” Algren says, lighting another cigarette. “She gets it, Sammy.”
I recognize Peggy’s fairly accurate recreation of last week’s Langston Hughes’ column in the Chicago Defender but don’t call her on it. “Yeah, not bad,” I say.
“May I ask you both a writing question? What do you think is the difference in discipline between writing fiction and non-fiction?”
“It’s all how you see the world,” Algren says. “Sammy here, he’s all ’bout taking down all the facts—from every angle, not wanting to miss a thing. Not one misstep, not one hiccup. Shoes tied tight. Me, I’m just running barefoot through the wet grass, like a ten-year-old boy, only seeing what I want to see. What’s your game, Peggy? What makes you tingle?”
“Poetry. I’ve got a collection of poems, and I’m trying to get a book of my poems in front of someone at Doubleday, but it’s been really hard.”
“Named my cat Doubleday,” Algren mumbles in his drink.
I laugh, but Peggy isn’t sure. Cat? Was that fiction or non-fiction?
I’m still chuckling when a young couple walks up to the table and asks Algren, “Oh, excuse us, but could we have your autograph? We love your writing.” He nods and scribbles something on a napkin and hands it to the woman.
She smiles. “Thank you so much, Mr. Bellow.”
Peggy’s ponytail bounces from shoulder to shoulder, totally off balance. The way Algren loves it.
A Checker taxi drives me through the snow to my place at the Del Prado, a Hyde Park hotel on the edge of Lake Michigan. I moved into the Del Prado five years ago, when the Chicago Mirror made me lead columnist, the same year Linda divorced me. I ride the elevator up to my floor and think about nights like this many years ago in Champaign—Algren and I would finish our drinking, me heading home alone and Algren walking into the night with a girl, sometimes two, in tow.
I pour a nightcap and watch the snowflakes fall into the black lake. Somewhere, there’s a father bragging about his collegiate daughter, how she’s editor of her school’s literary magazine, how she’s making all the right connections in the big city.