Performer: Bill Withers
Songwriter: Bill Withers
Original Release: Just As I Am
Definitive Version: None.
Soon after the Engelhart Hall social in September 1986, when I met Don, Frank, Lisi and Amy, I joined them for my first taste of Chicago nightlife.
I had been to Chicago four times before this. The first time was with Dad to see an Ohio State game in 1980. After that I had been in 1982 to see a Cubs game with Dad and Scott, to have dinner at Lawry’s with Ed in 1983 and to see a Cubs game with my friend Jim in 1984. None of those times involved hitting bars. (I hadn’t turned 21 yet.) So this would be my first real time out in Chicago.
The plan was Gino’s East for dinner and then Rush and Division and the bars thereat. I knew Rush Street was infamous for its bar scene. I was a little apprehensive about what we’d encounter but game.
Gino’s East wasn’t my first encounter with deep-dish pizza, but it might as well have been. Pizza Hut had pan pizza since the early 1980s, and I think Korrie and I went to an Uno’s in Indianapolis (which was meh) once.
Gino’s was a whole different ballgame. There were five of us, and we ordered a medium, so we basically had one piece each a few slices left over to divide. I ate two pieces, but I regretted it. I couldn’t believe how huge they were. More important, I couldn’t believe how unbelievably good it was.
I was converted in a single meal. Goodbye thin-crust pizza; hello, Chicago style. Gino’s East was the greatest pizza in the world, and it became a must-stop anytime anyone came to visit me thereafter.
After dinner, we all piled in a cab—another first for me—and rode up to the Viagra Triangle (not yet known as that, of course, considering Viagra hadn’t been invented yet). We went to all the places everyone knew from the various movies, mostly About Last Night—Mother’s, Smuggler’s, Eliot’s Nesst. It was this endless sea of bodies pressed against one another, all vying for the opportunity to pay $5 for a beer (outrageous at the time) or $7 for an upside-down margarita—and maybe meet someone.
At the time, I’d never really drank, so I might have had just one beer. Heck, I couldn’t afford any more than that, particularly because a couple of places charged cover fees, even though there was no live music. The crowds definitely put me off. You couldn’t move, and the whole thing seemed pointless: This was how you socialized in Chicago?
(What I learned not too much later was that Rush and Division is where the tourists go. The locals went to less expensive, way less crowded and far cooler places out of the line of fire.)
Overall, it had been a pretty good night. We were feeling pretty good, and I felt I was now part of the crew, which made me happy. We went to catch the L home at Division. While we waited, two buskers performed in the underground station—both black guys, fairly well dressed, on acoustic guitar.
They did this song, which I’m pretty sure I’d heard before but never really listened to, and it just blew me away. The buskers were very good, and as they sang, putting an even more dirgy spin on this dirgy song, I felt an arrow pierce my heart. It was instantaneous how I went from feeling happy to missing Beth intensely.
The five of us stood in silence as they played, and we made sure to drop a couple of bucks in the guitar case when the train came. I only can imagine what everyone else was thinking, but my guess was that it wasn’t too far from where I was. (Frank and Lisi also had long-distance paramours.)
I’ve been to that station many times since; I’ve been in various L stops dozens of times with street performers doing their thing. I’ve never heard anything like that performance of Ain’t No Sunshine, not even close.