an essay by Emily Howell
The Brewster Building, in Chicago, is located on the corner of North Pine Grove Avenue and Diversey. Built in 1893, the building was declared a Chicago Landmark in 1982. If you stand in the lobby of the Brewster and tilt your head skyward, a web of bridge walkways with cast iron rails are layered 9 stories high until you reach the massive skylight in the ceiling. The walkways are made of paved glass blocks and when the sun shines through the skylight starlets of light and rainbow prisms ricochet around the cavernous room. And in the basement of this ornate, century-old building lives a hole in the wall dive bar—the Galway Bay.
A set of concrete stairs leads to the double glass door entrance of The Bay from the sidewalk on Diversey Avenue. The walls are a patchwork of stone bricks, roughly mortared together. The floors are wooden, scuffed and covered in a layer of enduring grime. There are two bars in The Bay, the front bar—a large rounded spot accessible on all sides by patrons—and a smaller bar in the back. Strings of Christmas lights are stapled to the cabinets above the bar—their shelves are crowded with empty cans and bottles of beer people have drank, most of them there, but some brought back from overseas as gifts for their Irish bartenders. Behind the bar a basket sits, full of things customers left behind. The coatrack by the door is always full, even in the summer.
There are only two full-length windows in The Bay and they are covered fully by Ireland’s flag and the Cubs Win flag. Even when the sun is shining brightly outside, the Bay relies on false light that makes the air look thick, hazy and amber as if it’s been saturated in beer.
On one side of the front bar, there’s an area with a couch and a large Lazy boy armchair where a flat screen is attached to an old-school play station. The wall it’s mounted on is made of shelves and on them there are 144 PlayStation games, ball caps that customers have lost and left, a large framed photo of the Titanic, and beaten up books, like The Third Fireside Book of Baseball, The Kings Way, and Five Star Recipes.
Right when you walk in the front door a Touch Tunes jukebox has been mounted to the wall—glaring, electronic, and alien compared to the old piano sitting nearby that no one ever plays. The top of the piano is used as a shelf for an old Royal typewriter, a red water pump, and a wooden James Buchanan Scotch box. Next to it, a grandfather clock towers, dusty with its ornate hands stuck on 3:11. Tabs are kept in spiral notebooks, the pages of which are filled with last names and tally marks.
The walls are covered with miscellaneous things: a framed copy of the Irish national anthem, a signed picture of the 1969 Cubs all star infield, framed rugby jerseys, vintage posters and tin signs advertising different beers and liquors, plaques with sentiments like “Irish Diplomacy: the ability to tell someone to go to hell so that they will look forward to the trip,” a lit up illustration of a sagging, bald old man being showered by a can of PBR, and an arrow labeled ‘fire extinguisher’ that points directly into the trashcan below.
Cockroaches have made their home among the empty cardboard beer boxes in the back room where the kegs are kept. Every time it rains or snows more than a few inches the bar floods, inevitably causing a temporary mold infestation and hours of extra work for the underpaid bar staff. The owner’s of the Galway Bay, Nolan and Jason, are middle-aged married men. Nolan, or Noly, moved to Chicago from Ireland over ten years ago and has two kids; he doesn’t wear a wedding ring and sleeps in the basement of his home. Both he and Jason rarely do anything that resembles work when it comes to the Bay, aside from stumbling in at late night hours with a throng of others and serving themselves from behind the bar. Most of the scheduling, ordering, and administrative work falls on Chris, the general manager and Nolan’s 28-year-old cousin, who’s been in Chicago for almost 3 years. Nolan, Jason and Chris all bartend in shifts, along with Bill, Tony, Arturo, Keoki, Besco, and Aldon.
Most of the regulars call Chris “Sparkles,” a stage name he drunkenly assigned himself one Sunday during the bar’s weekly karaoke night, but whenever I use the nickname, I shorten it to Sparky. I never considered myself a bar fly until my roommate pointed it out to me one day.
“What did you do today?” she asked, lying across my bed in our third floor gray stone apartment in Wrigleyville.
I sat cross-legged on the hardwood floor in front of my full-length mirror brushing shadow across my eyelids. “I went to The Bay.”
“Isn’t that where you’re going?”
“Yeah, I came home to eat dinner and change.”
“What did you do all day?”
“No one was in, so Sparky and I watched a movie, drank, and ordered Yakzie’s for lunch.”
“You’re turning into a bar fly,” she said.
I turned away from the mirror to look at her, the hand holding my mascara brush hanging in mid air, and raised my eyebrows.
“Think about it. You spend your days and nights there at least five times a week, usually more like six or seven, and all the people you’ve started hanging out with since you finished school you’ve met there.”
“That’s not true.”
“Uhhh. Greg, Rachel, Ryan, Jim, Colleen, Merry,” she lists. “And Chris.”
“Chris and I have been friends for almost two years.”
“Yeah, well, you didn’t always live in the bar he works at.”
“What the hell else am I supposed to do?” I snapped. “The rest of you are in classes and have homework. So what if I’m spending a lot of time at the bar.”
“I just wish I saw you more,” she said quietly.
“Then start going out.”
My sister and I called my dad’s father Grandpa Howell—I don’t think anything more endearing would have fit. I never heard anyone call him by his name, Ken. He was dad, grandpa, or the nickname given to him long before I was born—bighead. It fit; his head was massive along with the rest of his nearly 7-foot frame of thick muscle covered by calloused, sun-spotted skin. He lived in Prince George’s County, Maryland—a quick hour and change from where I grew up in Centreville, Virginia. There are only a few details I remember about his house—the contrast between dark wooden furniture/paneled walls and light carpet that was probably once white, a box set in the corner of his living room, the short back yard that ended in a drastically steep wooded ravine, and that the glass doors on a large wooden hutch in the kitchen as well as the exterior of the refrigerator were covered in cut out pictures of swim suit models—some yellowed and frayed with age, and others so fresh the scent of ink still lingered on their glossy surface. It was both cluttered and clean—the furthest thing from kid friendly—and I loved it.
We’d visit a few times a year, usually on the way home from my mom’s brother’s house or after making a trip to College Park so my dad could have a fix of his favorite Ledo Pizza. I’d sit on the steps leading down to his basement and watch him and my dad play darts for hours—beer bottles and peanuts littering the small wooden bar—full of odd trinkets: a lamp in the shape of a portly man wearing a top hat with a red light bulb for a nose, multiple pipes, ashtrays and an assortment of flimsy coasters sporting different beer and liquor logos. Neither he nor my dad smoked, but the basement always seemed to take on that hazy after-hours feel of a bar at 4am, when your eyes are heavy, the lights are dim, and poor choices seem to snake along the surface of your skin.
I turned 21 the November I moved back to Chicago after spending a semester in Dublin, Ireland. That spring, I started going to The Bay. My friend, Laura, who’d lived in Ireland with me, had already been to the bar and couldn’t stop talking about the one Irish bartender, Sparky. We pre-gamed at my apartment; brilliantly, I drank a six-pack of Bud Light Platinum in half an hour, and by the time we walked into the dimly lit bar, it was spinning.
“Em!” my friend Evan’s voice slid into my ear, and he materialized next to me.
“Ev!” I threw my arms around him. It’d been over a month since I’d seen him last. He still lived in the South Loop, close to campus where we all had gone to undergrad together.
“This place is great! How long have you been coming here?”
“This is my first time. Laura’s been here before. I can’t believe you actually came up.”
“Yeah we haven’t been up here in a while so–”
“We?” I narrowed my eyes.
“Baby girl!” Jones’ voice yelled from across the bar. He had two drinks in hand as he walked over.
I glared at Evan, and he laughed and leaned into my ear to whisper, “What was I supposed to do, leave him home?” His roommate has been vying for my attention for months, which I probably could have dealt with if it weren’t for his array of obnoxious traits.
“I’ll be right back,” I said, before Jones could get any closer. Barging my way clumsily through the bar, I saw Laura in the back talking to a bearded man wearing a blue and green plaid flannel shirt. Tattoos cover his freckled skin. My ability to judge my speed was slightly off, and before I could stop myself, I stumbled into him, steadying myself by grabbing his shoulder. “Are you Sparky?”
“Aye,” he said, and I saw two of his sideways smile. I sucked in my breath and tried to lock onto his eyes.
“I’m Emily.” With that I spun around, walked into the bathroom and spent the rest of the night sitting on the floor. My feet straddling both sides of the toilet with my back propped up against the graffiti clad door.
The next night, when I walked in, Chris was behind the bar. I sat on a stool, and he looked up smiling. “What’s up fucker? Welcome to the Galway Bay…I figured you might not recognize it since you spent the whole night in the bathroom.”
He teases me about that night and how our friendship began by me literally stumbling into him. “You just barged right into my life and now you’re the best friend I’ve ever had.”
That fall, the last semester of my undergrad, I spent Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights at The Bay. All the bartenders knew me, so I rarely paid, and when I did it was always a $10 credit card charge and I’d leave a $10 tip. I fell in with the regulars. Chris and I would sit in the darkened bar after hours, our beers illuminated by stray passing headlight beams finding their way into the bar.
Some nights, Noly or Paddy Hammon would join us. Paddy was from Ireland too and he made his living playing gigs at all the Irish bars around the city. On the nights he came around I would sprawl on the couch and drift in and out of sleep, lulled by his soft Gaelic singing.
On others, always right around 3am, blue and red lights would bounce around the room and shut off before a banging at the door and a call of “Police, you fuckers!” Cassidy, the ginger-breaded cop would pound on the glass and embrace Chris, who always let him in followed by the newest set of busty women from out of town who were often southern and “tryin’ ta see the big city.” One would always sit and chat with us, while Cassidy led the other into the ‘office,’ always unbeknownst to his girlfriend, always out the door in time for the 4am patrol, when all the late night bars let out.
Most nights though, I’d help close up – wipe the bar down with a disinfectant drenched rag, pass pint glasses through the sink, and sweep up the popcorn pieces littering the floor while Chris counted out the cash register. Then we’d sit and talk, taking turns pouring shots until sunrise.
Growing up, whenever I was argumentative or stubborn (which was often), and I still refused to listen after a walloping with the wooden spoon, the beat red anger would drain from my mom’s face, and before walking away, she’d resign herself and say, “you’re such a Howell.” Any time we’d get together with my dad’s old childhood friends, upon seeing me, they’d all turn to my dad and say, “Jeez Mike, she looks like you” or tell my mom, “Oh Judy, she is all Howell.” The handful of relatives I’ve met on my dad’s side all call me Little Virginia, after my dad’s mom, who died before I was born. A painting of her hangs in my parent’s living room – auburn hair, fair skin, freckles, light eyes that are scrunched into a squint as she smiles – the resemblance is undeniable.
Looking back, I realize I didn’t only have the Howell looks. While my mom and sister scrapbooked, my dad and I threw the baseball in the yard. While they shopped at the mall, my dad and I sat on one of the benches and people-watched until they were done. Even though we were only a family of four, we’d often have both cars when we went out for dinner because my dad would meet us on his way home from work. As soon as the check was paid, I’d always rush to leave, “I’ll ride with Dad!” In his car, we blasted Conway, Waylon, and Merle, both of us singing along. But best of all: I was allowed to roll the windows down—a forbidden concept when riding in my mom’s AC chilled vehicle.
On weekends, when I was in college, and sometimes even still, my mom would call me on Saturday or Sunday morning, her voice laced with concerned probing about what I’d done the night before or if I had a hangover. Ever since she’d been diagnosed with a fatty liver she had a distaste for alcohol and had become notorious for slipping comments into conversation discouraging drinking in any capacity. The first time I went home to visit after I turned twenty-one, my dad picked me up at the airport. On the way home, he pulled into Eggspectations a local restaurant, so he could be ‘the first one’ to buy me a beer.
During the day, The Bay is fresh and cool. The windows are open and wind rolls off Lake Michigan and into the bar from a few blocks away. Sometimes, before hours, when Chris, Bill and Keoki are milling around, repairing things to no visual difference, plugging in tips, and ordering inventory, they’ll prop an empty keg in front of the double glass doors so the wind can run down the cement steps. It’s days like these, I sat hunched over on the wooden stool next to the door, holding whatever book I was reading at the time in my lap. An occasional passerby would walk down the stairs and peer into the bar. “Closed,” I’d say offhandedly, without looking up.
When I was there it before opened, Bill would usually sit and chat with me, every so often, taking off his baseball cap to scratch his buzzed, age-spotted scalp. Every time I see him he brings up when we drank all the champagne in The Bay, referring to the day of the Chicago Marathon. My friend and another regular, Rachel, had run and afterward a handful of us had come in to celebrate. Bill was stuck working because all the other staff was at Tony’s annual cook out and someone had to stay behind. We found him in a bitter mood and by the end of the day we’d finished off a garbage bag full of champagne and he was beaming and taking pictures with all of us to text to the rest of the bar staff gloating about his records sales.
“You know Bill is filthy rich?” Chris told me one day.
“You’re kidding?” I said, taking a frothy swallow of my freshly poured shandy. It was the beginning of summer, and they had just put my favorite Leinenkugel on tap for the season, per my request. “Why the hell does he work here?”
“Gives him something to do,” Chris shrugged. “He likes the regulars. Only way he has friends.”
I finished undergrad in December, a semester earlier than all of my friends, so I started spending more time at The Bay. Despite my 3.8 GPA, lengthy list of internships/accolades, and overachiever attitude, my BA in Photography had left me feeling useless. I didn’t have any responsibilities besides going to my sporadic part-time nanny job. I was biding my time—waiting until August, when I was supposed to move to Virginia for grad school. I was dreading it; I didn’t want to leave, and despite the fact that I realized logically I couldn’t spend the rest of my life drinking all night and day, I didn’t care. I was happy, busy, distracted, and mostly, I was never sober long enough to think about the future. Sometimes, for days straight, I wouldn’t see the light of day unless it was the red glow of the sunrise as I walked home at 7am. I’d pull my curtains shut and sleep, waking just in time to see the same glow setting and darkness blanketing the city. I’d shower and eat for the first time that day before setting out in darkness, back to The Bay.
The time I’d spent at Columbia had stamped out my desire to be a photographer—even the act of picking up my camera seemed daunting. I was burnt out, uninspired and broke. I’d decided I wanted to teach after working with the Museum of Contemporary Photography’s educational outreach program, but didn’t have the prerequisites (or funds) for a masters program in education. During undergrad I’d filled all of my electives with writing workshops—I’d enjoyed writing as long as I could remember, and one of my professors encouraged me to pursue it further. So, I’d applied to a handful of MFA programs for Creative Writing—hopeful that would at least be a baby step in the right direction.
I remember these things about my Grandpa Howell: he always bought my sister and me ‘boy’ toys (to which she turned up her nose and I relished); he carried around a pocket knife; he was relentless in his teasing because it was the only way he knew how to show affection; he was always drinking beer or liquor; he always told stories that captured the room; there was custom made sticker on the passenger side window of his champagne colored Lincoln Town car of his self-developed mantra ‘scart, say yer scart” (scared say you’re scared); he was loud, crass, and his hands always shook. He was a Howell.
Late morning, on October 2, 2002, he was mowing his lawn, and a neighbor noticed that the mechanical hum of the mower had been on the other side of the house for an abnormally long amount of time. She went to check on him and found him crumpled on the ground next to the puttering machine, his gold rim glasses resting in the grass a few inches from his face. He was dead, but the ambulance still came and took him to Fort Washington Hospital.
My dad called my mom to give her the news and left work to go to the hospital alone. I was in fifth grade, and I remember walking into the house with my younger sister after the bus dropped us off on the corner of our street. My mom was standing behind the counter, both her hands grasping the ledge, leaning against it. She asked us how our days were, and we took turns rambling as we dumped the contents of our backpacks on the kitchen table and sat down to do our homework.
“I have some bad news,” she said.
We both looked up.
“Grandpa Howell died today.”
She looked at me when she said it. My sister, who’s always been quick to emotion, ran to my mom and sobbed into her pant leg.
“Where’s dad?” I asked.
“He’ll be home later.”
That night, around eight, the three of us were sitting around the kitchen table when the rumble of the garage door opening cut into our conversation. We sat in silence as my dad shoved the key into the lock, turned it, and walked into the room. He stood with his brief case in one hand, his tie and jacket slung over his arm—his white shirt unbuttoned slightly and wrinkled. I stood up, “Is it true? Did he really die daddy? Is grandpa really gone?”
From their seats, my mom and sister started crying but my dad held my gaze. He walked over to me and steadied his shaking hand on my shoulder, “Yes, it’s true.”
Then, we all cried.
Most of the days and nights I spent at The Bay blur together in my mind, but July third stands out. It was around 11am, and I was feeling particularly sorry for myself. I’d been consistently drunk or drinking for the past week. The next day, Rachel, Greg, Ryan, Blair and I were going to the Dave Matthews concert to celebrate the fourth, and the following morning, I was supposed to fly to Virginia before driving to the Outer Banks with my family for a week. I didn’t want to go, and I’d been bitching to my mom each time she called about how I didn’t want to spend an entire week of my last month in Chicago not in Chicago.
I sat lounging with my arms dangling off the rounded back of one wooden barstool and my feet propped up on another. Chris sat across the bar writing down inventory, a bud light open next to him. Without moving my arms I leaned toward the bar and sucked down the remains of my rum and coke before sliding back into my lazy lounge. I let my head fall backwards and my eyes registered the ceiling for the first time. How had I never looked at the ceiling before? It reminded me of a high school classroom, made of the same flimsy plaster panels. Cracks webbed between the beams, there were large chunks missing in places—openings to black cavernous spaces I could only assume were home to all kinds of dust and cockroach carcasses. “Jesus,” I said to Chris, lazily motioning toward the ceiling with a brief twitch of my wrist. “This place is falling apart.”
“You’re fucking telling me.”
The morning after the Dave Matthews concert, I woke up 45 minutes before my 7:45am flight. Wearing the same clothes as the night before, I grabbed my half-packed suitcase off the floor, ordered an Uber, and ran down the three flights of stairs to the street while all the alcohol from the night before pounded against my head. Somehow, we made it to Midway airport in 20 minutes, and after throwing a convincing fake-panic attack on the phone, allowing me to skip straight to the front of the security line, I ran to my gate.
“Oh good!” the flight attendant said cheerily, “We were just about to call your name over the loudspeaker. Glad you made it.”
I puked three times on the flight to Dulles, thankfully I had an aisle seat near the bathroom. When my mom pulled up to curb at the airport, she got out and put my bag in the trunk, squeezing me into a hug before I slunk into the passenger seat. As soon as we pulled away she said, “Rough night?”
“You could say that,” I said, grinning at her.
She didn’t smile. “You reek.”
“Well, I didn’t exactly have time to shower this morning.”
“I mean you reek of alcohol. It’s coming out of your pores.” It’s coming out of your pores. That was her favorite line. She said the same thing to my dad every time he came back from a weekend golf trip or grabbed a few beers at the club on his way home from work.
“I’ll shower when we get home.”
“You better watch it,” she pushed. “You’re going to become an alcoholic. You know it runs in your dad’s side.”
“I’m not an alcoholic, Mom.” I rolled my eyes.
“Thank God you’re starting grad school soon. I can’t wait to get you out of Chicago.”
My stomach dropped. I turned and stared out the window at the dull Virginia landscape and began to count the seconds until that week was over. I clenched my hands shaking hands together in my lap.
From above, Lake Michigan looks like crinkled contact paper with air bubbles trapped beneath the surface. Occasionally, a white cap appears—a slip of motion at the heart of so much stillness. I press my forehead against the oval window squinting in an attempt to see the skyline I know will appear any second. My foot hammers against the floor of the airplane and I twist the claddagh ring on my right ring finger—proof of my paternal Irish heritage. When I see it, the outline of Chicago at dusk, deep black with pinholes of light standing starkly against the surrounding deep blue, I feel the familiar tingling at the back of my scalp. Pressure builds behind my eyes and I breath out slowly through pursed lips—when I first moved I had traveled back every two months, but it’s been seven since my last trip.
I go to The Bay every time I’m back in the city. I organize a dinner with Greg, Laura, Rachel, Ryan, Jim, Colleen, Merry and Chris at the sushi place up the street where we can BYOB and afterward we all walk to the bar, playing rounds of pool for hours and drinking more than most of us have in months. Greg and Rachel have both started new jobs and rarely make it out anymore, Jim and Colleen moved in together and spend most nights at home on the couch, Ryan steers clear of the basement bar and the unrequited love he has for one of the bartender’s girlfriends, and Merry now works at a bar down town where she brings in a grand a night – on a bad day.
I watch all of us, laughing and happy, it looks the same as it did before I left—it even feels the same—but it’s different. None of us can drink like we used to and we’ll wake up in the morning hung over, we’ll spend the day recuperating and then we’ll go back to our routines and responsibilities. For a few weeks after I leave and go back to Virginia we’ll be good about staying in touch, but it will peter out—until the next visit. We’ve all moved on, except Chris, who tells me over and over that he’s sick of working there, that he’s going to quit—but every day he continues to descend the gray concrete stairs and push through the grim-covered glass doors into The Bay.
Emily Howell is a writer, photographer, traveler and taco enthusiast. She earned her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Old Dominion University and BA in Photography and Teaching Artistry from Columbia College Chicago.