Art & Culture in Chicago

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The Loop's Dirty Little Secret

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   cals2There is one last sacred place downtown. 

It is small, smelly, soggy, and guarded by loyal homeless guys.  But they are friendly, and they all know my name.  Everybody knows my name there,
 and they’re always glad I came.  This place is my own personal “Cheers.”  It is called Cal’s Liquors, and it is the last dive bar in the loop. 

At 61 years old, Cal’s is barely hanging on.  The city isn’t too happy about it being in the loop because it is loud and the attached liquor store sells half pints of booze, which attracts the homeless.  The homeless, in turn, scare the condo owners who live next door with their odor and enthusiasm.  There are no beer taps in the bar, and you’re probably better off with a bottle anyway because the “dishwashing system” is questionable.  If you are a female and you need to use the bathroom, empty your pockets first because if anything falls out while you’re dropping your pants you will not want to fish it out of the standing water on the bathroom floor.Despite its neglect, I love this place because it is unpretentious.  Bands play on the weekends, squishing their equipment into a tiny space at the end of the bar.  Although some bands are terrible and most are mediocre, just about every band that has played in Chicago has played at Cal’s at some point, so you’re bound to see some great stuff eventually.  Those who feel belittled by stages will feel right at home because Cal’s doesn’t have one.   When asked about competition from Reggie’s and the Bottom Lounge, Mike Feirstein, the manager of the bar (Cal’s son) said in an interview for the Sun Times: “Those places can’t duplicate what I have. The bands play on the floor. On a good night, you’ve got people standing a foot away from you and you get that feedback from the audience, so if you’re having a good show and the music’s happening, it just explodes in front of you.”

The crowd varies, but it mostly consists of businessmen (as it is in the heart of the financial district) and bike messengers.  “You’ll run into local music icons as well as your Mutual fund manager, and that roughneck messenger that was on the elevator that you looked at funny who could kick your ass for fun,” said beer aficionado Matt Morgan in an online review of Cal’s.  If you walk in on a late afternoon and sit at the bar, the person next to you will undoubtedly start talking to you.  Last Friday I spoke with a wasted self-proclaimed first generation feminist about abortion while a guy a few seats to my right repeatedly bought me beers without ever speaking to me.  I mentioned to one of the bands that I thought their band name was odd (FCAB, short for Free Chicken and Beer) so they gave me a cd.

Although Cal’s is a little rough around the edges, many of us have had warm and fuzzy experiences there.  I met my boyfriend at Cal’s.  A few weeks later, we had our first kiss there.  I was at Cal’s when Obama got elected.  We danced on bar stools to Stevie Wonder until we were too drunk to stand.  And on the fateful day when the city shuts down Cal’s and they host their last rock show, I will be there, beer in hand, dancing and crying.

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Written by Kelly Reaves

December 13, 2008 at 9:45 pm

Posted in feature, music

Tagged with , , ,

3 Responses

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  1. ….yup, makes me thirsty for beer in a bottle..

    Dr Bob

    January 13, 2009 at 8:51 pm


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