Some 30 years ago, I read Stuart Brent’s The Seven Stairs, an autobiography about the author’s life-long love affair with his books and his Chicago bookshop, once a Mecca for bibliophiles and authors. Brent’s customers included patrons like Katharine Hepburn and Ernest Hemingway, and he counted among his friends numerous writers, including Nelson Algren.
Though little read today, Algren wrote several worthy novels, including The Man With the Golden Arm and A Walk on the Wild Side, both of which were made into films. Algren and Brent became close friends, and on several occasions, according to The Seven Stairs, Algren led Brent on a walk on the wild side of Chicago.
Brent reports that, on one of these excursions into the underbelly of the city, Algren took him to a Clark Street tavern, “a long, bare hall perhaps 150 feet long and thirty feet wide.” They had just taken their seats when a man at the bar slugged his female companion in the face, and they fell to the floor, clawing and punching each other until the bartenders ejected them. “The tavern din,” Brent tells us, “was terrible, a demonic blend of shouting, laughing, swearing, name-calling—the human cries at inhuman pitch.”
Soon Brent noticed a peculiar odor, the smell of “a zoo.” He then writes: