Thou Mayst Wander in That Labyrinth

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We ransack used book shops, dustbins, and push-carts, and have turned up some lovely Victorian prints, including such titles as The Young Poetess, The Poet's Vision, and The Murder of Sergeant Clough by the Maniac Framton. My friend across the hall is starting to compile an anthology of silly lines....

John Bellairs
in a letter to Charles Bowen, Spring 1960

The University of Chicago is an urban campus, clustered around the one-mile long Midway Plaisance, a broad boulevard on the south side of the city, and downtown was only a quick ride away via the elevated train. Myers says that in his era the Midway was threatened by the burgeoning slums caused by migration from the rural south. "The areas immediately off-campus, particularly to the south, and to some extent the campus itself, were not considered safe after dark. As a result, the area had become the target of a large urban renewal project sponsored by Mayor Richard Daley. The purpose was to form diversified and integrated neighborhoods around the campus, particularly the so-called Hyde Park area to the north. The effort proved to be quite successful."

Naturally John made it a point to explore his new home and surroundings, getting a much-needed break from the onslaught of writing and reading he was doing for class. By venturing out in the city he reacquainted himself with locations he discovered as an undergrad as well as finding new and interesting places with new friends. His meager income usually was spent during these outings on booze or books - or both.

Woodlawn Tap
Woodlawn Tap

One such pleasure was the Chicago Symphony. While living in South Bend, Bowen says he and Bellairs would both set out for Chicago on a Friday afternoon, hitchhiking via the Indiana Toll Road and making their way to Orchestra Hall where the symphony played. Bowen recalls that by showing a student ID they could get a cheap ticket that entitled them to a seat in a ridiculously high balcony. Bellairs would become a regular attendee of Monday matinees at symphony during his years in Chicago, as well as other theatrical plays and operas, all of which had specially-priced tickets for students.

Of all the eating and drinking establishments Bellairs visited, the Woodlawn Tap was probably the most frequented and revered. As the closest bar within walking distance of the university, Jimmy's, as regulars fondly call it, attracted a large student crowd during the academic year. Described as attracting such a diverse clientele (artists, business people, students from the University of Chicago, construction workers, Nobel Prize winners and writers such as Saul Bellow and Dylan Thomas), one of Bellairs's acquaintances, Brian Kenny, notes that if one visited Jimmy's today, "one could listen to apocryphal stories from people there that are probably still working toward their Ph.D. having started in the 1960s."

Robert Yaple says that the drink of choice was, at first, filthy stuff called Canadian Ace, that everyone assumed was imported due to its name and Royal Canadian Mounted Police logo; when they realized it was brewed in Chicago they switched to Foxhead.

In a review on metromix.com, it is said alongside the bottles of scotch and gin are encyclopedias and the complete works of William Shakespeare - "used to settle friendly intellectual disputes," explained owner Jimmy Wilson in 1996, when at age 84 he was still tending bar four hours a day, seven days a week, despite poor hearing and vision. The beloved Wilson died February 22, 1999 of heart failure.

For the record, the bar that Sir Bertram and the Shuffly visit at the conclusion of The Pedant and the Shuffly [76] was probably this legendary hangout.

Valois

Valois, another long-time establishment, which Yaple says snotties insisted on pronouncing 'Valwah,' although the locals always rhymed it with 'noise.' It prominently featured then two-decade-old décor and was something of a retreat for the dregs of society: drunks, drugees, pimps, and grad students.

"It was run cafeteria-style by seven little old men and you could get an excellent, complete prime rib dinner for about $1.50 - but you had to have potatoes. They'd serve anybody there except those who refused potatoes. It was too expensive to eat there more than once in a while (considering that the blue-plate special at Walgreen's was 69 cents). So dinner at Valois was always something of an occasion."

Le Meck's was then the anti-Valois, Yaple recalls, "with lots of Edwardianesque atmosphere, high prices and crummy food. Valois, however, was not a date place, unless you knew the girl very well indeed and had either already impressed her or had pretty much given up trying."

Myers recalls an Italian restaurant on about 53rd Street, possibly called Enrico's, that served greasy pizzas and an outstanding steak with garlic butter sauce. "There was one bar that had a special limited-access room for university students (or at least grad students) into which you had to be buzzed in by the bartender. The first time this happened to us, I remember John exclaiming, 'Hey, did you realize that we're The Boys In The Back Room?'"

These friends share my addiction for antiques bordering on the disgusting, and have found a name for such trash: KITCH is the official title, invented by Gilbert Highet, and includes all the curious which affronts the sensibilities of sane people.

John Bellairs
in a letter to Charles Bowen, Spring 1960

Kitsch was not invented by Highet but is a common German word meaning 'trash,' and is the word most frequently applied since the early 20th century to works considered pretentious and tasteless. My encyclopedia adds that a museum of kitsch was opened in Stuttgart and had John known of it he would surely have made a pilgrimage there.

Charles Bowen
2006

Ciral's House of Tiki

Other popular haunts included the Berghoff, the longtime Chicago institution serving schnitzel and sauerbraten and other German fare; the Tropical Hut, though always referred to as the "T-Hut"; Ciral's House of Tiki, itself another tropical themed eatery, with the obligatory masks and spears and shields that was in operation from 1962 to 2000; and Gordon's, which closed around 1999. Yaple recalls it having a somewhat passé ambiance but not enough to be charming. What sort of impact Gordon's had on Bellairs is unknown but it gave birth to some memory that was honored by the villain Snodrog of The Pedant and the Shuffly, a nasty wizard whose name is Gordon's spelled backwards.

There were also a number of bookshops in the Hyde Park area, both new and second-hand, to feed Bellairs's passion for reading.

Joseph O'Gara, who Yaple says had the most desirable books but also the most expensive, owned one such location. "O'Gara was an interesting, cranky man, and his shop was open very late, so we spent a lot of time there. One night a bunch of us - Bellairs, Bernie Markwell, and a couple of others - discovered a large cardboard carton of books shoved cavalierly under the shelves. These books were being discarded as unsaleable and O'Gara invited us to take any we fancied. Now, 'free' and 'books' were the sweetest words in the English language to us, and we descended upon that box like the 4th Crusade upon Byzantium. I walked off with a 3-volume set of The Correspondence and Diaries of...John Wilson Croker (London, 1884). And John went into raptures over Fighting the Devil's Triple Demons (which, as I recall, were alcohol, narcotics, and Catholicism). As we left in triumph, I noticed O'Gara regarding us somewhat askance. Sure enough, the following day the box was empty, and the books that even we hadn't taken were up on his shelves for sale."

Bellairs also found books at Kroch's & Brentano's, a independent Chicago-area bookstore chain with numerous stores.

During his days at Notre Dame and later in Chicago, John collected what was called kitsch. Yaple explains that such objects were not mere gaudy trash, but things upon which their creators had lavished appreciable amounts of time, energy, and expense - "and which still remained gaudy trash." Marilyn Fitschen says John bought whatever he could afford and friends who knew of his passion would also give him various trinkets as gifts. One item that stands out in particular for both Marilyn and Yaple was a clock Bellairs saw on display in a window in Hyde Park: a tall, painted, High Victorian cast-iron figurine of the Dickens's character Sarah Gamp holding a dog with a clock in its belly. When the clock was running, the dog's tail wagged up and down, and its tongue went in and out. John's ideal of style was later embodied in Prospero's house and furnishings as seen in The Face in the Frost, notably with a very similar clock.

Because Bellairs had these various extravagances, spending more money on books, booze and tobacco, he often found himself in financial straits and had to find funds through various means. Sometimes friends helped him out: Yaple recalls one year, around the Ides of March, "his check for something reasonably important (like tuition or taxes) was about to bounce, so he went to a finance company and took out a personal loan. Unfortunately, just down the street from the loan office was a bookstore. Inevitably, he walked out of that store with a load of books, but broke again. His friends passed the hat and bailed him out. And since it had thus become a matter of honor, not just money, he put himself on a strict budget (temporarily) and paid it all back promptly. Through it all I never saw him lose his Puckish sense of humor."

He also held a series of odd jobs we're told, including a brief stint as a social worker.