Thursday, April 7, 2011

An Evening of Gentlemanly Pursuits, Part I

Some background.

Grant Achatz, Chicago celebrity chef/darling/villain/prettyboy, will open two new restaurants in the West Loop very soon: Next and Aviary. Though he rose to fame with Alinea, now ranked among the greatest restaurants in the world, he is trying to woo a new following. Enter Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan. The pair essentially started the West Loop’s renaissance when they first opened Blackbird more than ten years ago. More than that, Kahan literally grew up here, working at a deli on Green Street. Achatz would be nowhere near West Fulton Market Street were it not for Kahan, Madia. And now he’s elbowing into what is very much their territory.

This piece began as an article about the restaurants that Donnie Madia and Paul Kahan opened.

Last year, well before I knew about Achatz, I wanted to find out why all of the restaurants in the Kahan-Madia empire—there are five, soon to be six, in all—are so popular. I pitched the story to a writer for The Atlantic, who said he liked the idea, but it never got published. Why it never got published will become apparent, I think, almost immediately. But the more I think about that night, and everything leading up to it, the more important it seems to become. So here, after rewrites and more rewrites and revisions, in roughly 1000-word installments (and with Achatz as an excuse), is the article in a radically different form than the one I first “submitted.”

One last thing. It’s no longer as much about food as it is about other things. Some things are reconstructions, imaginations, and outright lies. A writer's claims to veracity are always conditioned by his or her sense of how words relate to reality; by the substances they consume while "researching"; and by whom they're trying to impress. To varying degrees, my own sense of the relationship between language and the world is affected by all of these. The piece is nonfictional to the extent that it aims to capture a real mood, a sense, a bundle of affects that characterizes a particular moment in my life and the life of a friend. In this way, I have convinced myself that the writing is honest. And maybe only in this way.

Part I: Aftermath

I woke up on the hardwood floor in Tyler’s apartment, twisted into a crumpled pile of chewed up meat. There was blood everywhere. On my shirt, my pants. The tip of my thumb was sliced somewhat less than totally open, and had turned an alarming shade of purple. There was a crust of stale sweat coating my body. It felt as though the alcohol had sucked all the fluids out of my skin, and now I lay as dried out as an iguana. Pieces of malignantly flaking skin hung off my lips. I ran my shriveled tongue against the raw roof of my mouth and felt something scrape off. I swallowed and coughed, as the day began to insist upon consciousness, sputtering like a dying fish on the deck of a listing ship.

The earth tilted at a hideous angle. It was a eighty-five degrees in the apartment and new-summer sunlight gushed through the bay windows, activating violent headache whose pulsations generated a fuzzy blinking purple dot in the upper right hand corner of my right eye. I probed my eyelid with my fingernail and the dot grew spindles and darkened. The dot beat in rhythm with a buzzing noise in my ear that ebbed and flowed. Some amount of time passed.

Then I heard Tyler fall out of bed. There was a pause, and then the sound of some hesitant footsteps. Collapsing elaborately onto the living room couch, he asked if I had slept. Some narrative impulse kicked in, and my brain began the descrambling process of ordering the night’s scenes. The last memory I had was of walking from the El to the apartment holding my thumb over my head—I suppose to staunch the bleeding—screaming at the top of my lungs about something.

“I think I slept,” I said. My voice filled the room, floated above us, and stuck to the ceiling. I was still poking at my eyelid.

It was, by any stretch, a successful night. We had eaten at four of the best restaurants in the city and had been treated like minor celebrities, thanks to what amounted to a fortuitous accident. When the hangover subsided, I would write a magnificent review that weaved together commentary on food, new media, masculinity, loneliness, language, and the brawny vigor of Chicago in Spring. For now, there was only the pain. Pain that sharpened the room and muted everything else. But pain that would make for a fantastic introduction, later.


I sat in the cab on the Dan Ryan Expressway, flipping my black notebook. My last legible entry was at 11 PM. “Spaulding Gray is way better than Dickens.” After that my script morphs at an accelerating rate into horrifying alien scrawls from which I could pick out only occasional words, punctuation marks, possibly a salsa stain. Nothing was usable. It looked like Cy Twombly or a three year old or an Alzheimer’s patient had gotten to my right hand. There were spirals and something that looked like a deranged smiley face.

Worse news awaited, as it always does, in the litany of my phone’s misbehaviors. I remembered I had called a writer from The Atlantic—whose number I had thanks to my participation in a creative writing class at a University where he was a visiting professor—twice. Once at midnight to tell him how great the piece was going to be, and then again at 12:14 to apologize for calling.

Just to cap it off, I had apparently called my parents at 3 AM (an hour later on the East Coast). A distant echo of my father’s voice padded off my memory. The mucosy sound of his sleep-addled voice. Some gauzy, nasal declaration, uttered from the depths of middle-aged sleep, which is already haunted by the idea of late-night phone calls.

And then, on the last page of my notebook, I could make out “we are the generation that calls our parents at 3 am. That’s what we are.” In what must have felt like a monumental expenditure of effort and concentration, I had managed to scribe out a single sentence in my post-evening glee or self-pity or disgust. In careful script, it was the dutiful message of parental love I had left for myself. I love my parents, and nothing more.

By some miracle of gastric muscle control, I didn’t throw up. All that headcheese and quail and expensive bourbon jostling around in me. I couldn’t possibly afford the clean-up fee, so I just opened the window and breathed in the offensively hot air. Nor did I think that I could survive the indignity of hurling. A panic started to grow up inside me and began to take the place of the pain.

I had to write something about the night. Had to begin putting the pieces together somehow. I sat in the cab and breathed, and breathed some more, and knew that the panic would grow into remorse and regret over a missed opportunity.

But these would become just another part of the hangover ritual. Like standing under the shower and letting the water drip around your open mouth. Like coffee. Like porn, penance, promises, and probably a fitful late-afternoon nap. I’d stare into the mirror and ask “What the fuck.” I’d call my ex-girlfriend and pretend I felt amazing and ask what she was up to “these days.”

And when the day spit me back out on the other side, I would be purified and then I would write.

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