I was recently invited back to Chicago by Sam Weller to speak to his City of Stories classes at Columbia College Chicago. I was more than familiar with the class having been the lead Graduate Teaching Assistant for this class and a contributing editor to the City of Stories Blog in 2016. As Sam put it, he wanted “to have my energy” brought to his classes.
I was thrilled to have a former professor and boss reach out to me like, dare I say, a colleague. I was eager to stand in front of hundreds of young artists and tell them, in so many words, that they were at the beginning of great things just so long as they took their work seriously (while at the same time not taking THEMSELVES too seriously). I was anxious, however, about the whole “energy” bit. It seems my excitable self had set the bar high.
In February of 2017 I was accepted into the English PhD program at University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee and in the following August I moved out of Chicago, a city I’d called home for three years. I was a country kid when I moved to Chicago, and afraid of the silliest things, seriously, read my first blog post and see who I was when I came to the city. I worked my ass off when I was living in Chicago. I had been wait-listed in the program, received less-than-stellar funding, hadn’t published in years, remained unknown to the then head of the department, and, heaven forbid, was a tall blond blue-eyed white male sports fan who wrote about the working class and was embarking on a writerly journey into Fine Arts College Land. Needless to say, I felt I had something to prove. To the program. To my peers. To myself. To Chicago.
I took my energy and channeled it into my writing. Then into submitting to journals and competitions. Then into enduring the social minefield of a cohort of big personalities with even bigger egos. By the end of my first year, I was able to sit back and see what my hard work led to.
It led to a lot, let’s leave it at that.
But the hard work also left me tired and I have been tired ever since. I’m writing this at quarter to ten at night but it feels as if it is four hours later than that. I have a can of local brew sitting next to my laptop and, let me tell you, it’s bitter. It comes from a Milwaukee microbrewery just down the street from me. It’s fine for what it is. It comes from close by. Compared to literally everything in Chicago, it’s also cheap. But when I was living in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago, I was spoiled. Three residential blocks from my apartment was the Holy Grail of beers in Chicago. Dovetail Brewery.
(Above: The Dunkelweizen. PC: RS Deeren)
Dovetail Brewery is a newcomer to the Chicago craft beer scene, having opened their doors and tapped their kegs in 2016. However, Hagen and Bill, the masters behind the beer, have been hard at work on their art for decades having studied brewcraft in Munich, Germany. As they put it, they “brew like monks (minus the vows).” Maybe it’s this dedication to hard work when it comes to art that drew me to these folks. Maybe it’s how they cut their jib, making their industrial taproom home in a ninety-year-old warehouse along the southbound side of Ravenswood Ave. The bar itself is made from reclaimed wood found in the building and the walls are made up of the same. Maybe it’s the rotating selection of local artwork for sale on the walls. Maybe it’s the relative quiet I can get to write here on an idle Wednesday afternoon (and all the electric plugs for my laptop!) Maybe it’s the dog-friendly atmosphere. I say “maybe” to these signifiers but I know the answer. I love Dovetail for these and everything else it has to offer: a cozy nook on a not-too-hard-to-get-to, not-too-much-on-the-main-drag corner where I can get amazing, European-style beers from people who don’t just give a damn, but from people whose love for their work, their art, makes me give a damn.
Besides the back porches of my apartments while living in the city, Dovetail is my absolute favorite place in Chicago. When I moved to Milwaukee, I knew I’d be back. Even if Milwaukee is Brew City and SUPER German, I knew I’d already found THE place to bend my elbow in Ravenswood.
Fast-forward to Sam’s Tuesday City of Stories class. I was recovering from a Nyquil dose from the previous night, had just started Midterm Student Conferences with my Milwaukee students, and had back-loaded my schedule so I could speak to Sam’s students. I remember almost tripping on the stage as I walked up in front of ~150 young artists. I talked about my great grandfather, my love of cemeteries, and the hard work a young artist needs to put in every. Single. Day. I told the students to get out of the Loop, for Chicago is her neighborhoods. I talked about how Chicago scared me when I first moved in and how I was like most people who kept my head down as I walked to the train or stood at the bus stop. I urged these curious, creative minds to recognize these tendencies in themselves and to push against them and forge a connection to the communities throughout this city.
While planning this mini-lecture, I also had a strong feeling that Sam and I would make our way out for a beer afterwards. I also knew that he lived close enough to Dovetail so that it would be easy for me to deter him from suggesting we grab a cold one at the South Loop Club (and also, the SLC does a great job itself of deterring people from going there. You’ll understand this jab when you’re older). And given that we just spent an entire class talking about exploring the city beyond the Loop, I knew when I said, “Let me take you to my favorite place in the city,” that he’d be onboard.
We took the Red Line to the Brown Line and got off at Irving Park. We walked along Ravenswood Ave past Begyle Brewing (another great spot) and entered the old warehouse of Dovetail. We sat at the end of the bar. By the turntable. Unlike how it was a year ago, the place was busy. Good for business. At the curve of the bar, where I usually see her sitting, was Adrianne Dost, a part-owner and head of special events. I enjoyed my first beer (pictured above) and bragged to Sam about all the things I had no part in creating. All the things listed above. But as I’ve said, Dovetail and her people make me give a damn. And like how people do when they start drinking, especially two authors with big personalities like Sam and myself, we roped Adrianne into our conversation. I asked questions I knew the answers to, “You’re dog friendly?” “You give tours, yea?” just to have her answer for Sam’s sake. Sam asked questions. Adrianne answered. The bartenders came and went. It was a lovely time.
Then Adrianne told us about the second story of the brewery, something I did not know anything about, and described the first wedding that they had recently hosted up there.
“Would you two like to see the loft?” she asked.
“Of course,” we said.
“Then grab your beers. I’ll show you.” Just like that. No beer left behind and away we went to explore.
(Above: Adrianne shows Sam the wedding hall. PC: RS Deeren)
The room smelled of grain and coarse wood. The polished hardwood floor was perfect for intimate occasions, especially weddings. And the practicality of the barrels was, to my practicality-loving heart, a beautiful touch.
“What did this place used to be?” Sam asked.
“A machine shop,” Adrianne replied.
Just like that, I went back to the long history of working people and beer. The monks who worked the fields and brewed their saisons. The autoworker who came home to a few Bud Lights. The millennial author who sits at a micobrewery in Chicago to write about the crappy jobs he’s had. It was all connected in this warehouse
(Above) About a quarter of the barrels stored above the bar. PC: RS Deeren)
I need to cut this short because if I don’t stop now, I’ll start talking about the menu, the rotation of visiting food trucks, the seasonal street festivals, etc. I’ll leave you all with this: If you aren’t curious, you aren’t creative. If you aren’t creating, then what the hell are you doing? Curiosity leads to questions and these questions lead to connections to the world around you and the lives that populate it. Chicago is filled with enough nooks, enough attractions, enough park benches to make your own.
Even if your first question is “What am I doing here?”, at least you now have an answer to work towards. I would argue that every artist asks themselves this question regularly. They have to. They NEED to. It’s how they justify the long hours, the stupid amounts of coffee, the bouts of imposter syndrome.
I may be some nobody from the woods of Michigan, but I know hard work when I see. I know how it drives an artist’s creativity. I know how it can lead to something amazing. Without sounding like I’m being paid by Dovetail, I’ll end with this: I can taste the hard work art that goes into their beer. That’s why I love it.
Look to your fellow artists, see the work they are putting in. See the work you’re putting in. Is it enough to help you sleep at night? If it is, then you’re going to be just fine. Now stop reading and get back to work. (RS Deeren: Guest Blogger)