North Country Girl: Chapter 45 — That Toddlin’ Town

Formore about Gay Haubner’s life in the North Country, read the other chaptersin her serialized memoir.

On my second day in Chicago, James took me in his big Cadillac to see an apartment he was thinking of renting. Newberry Plaza was a brand new high-rise building that looked surprised to find itself towering above the single-story restaurants, bars, and shops of its Near North neighborhood. As we entered the building, we passed a new restaurant on the main floor, and, James, always one to be impressed with celebrities no matter how minor, said, “That’s Arnie’s Steak House. It’s owned by Arnie Morton, the guy who bankrolled Hugh Hefner.”

A man at the lobby desk checked James’ name, made a phone call, and a pretty young thing in a pastel suit showed up and gave us the questioning eye I had almost grown accustomed to. She was like all the people we saw in the lobbies and elevator: youngish, well-dressed, and attractive. I sensed James’ relief that there were no disgusting old people living here.

Newberry Plaza apartments were designed for happening singles, all one-bedrooms and studios, a place within staggering distance of Chicago’s most popular bars and clubs. At fifty-seven stories, it was the tallest building I had ever been in. The rental agent showed us into a boxy, ordinary apartment that was not as big as James’ place in Des Moines; bedroom, living room, bathroom, and a kitchen designed for people who never cooked. James gushed, the woman beamed, and I shrugged till I looked out the window. Down below was a sparkling outdoor pool surrounded by rows of white lounge chairs. A private pool in downtown Chicago seemed improbably luxurious.

“What do you think?” said James, with his tell of a little self-satisfied smirk. I assured him that I thought Newberry Plaza was really cool, and I could see him living there. He agreed, already mentally escaping from his tacky two-story, half-brick half-gabled refuge of the dental assistant and divorced dad, a building that put the plain in Des Plaines. He was moving to the heart of toddling Chicago. James signed a lease that day for a one-bedroom apartment on the 10th floor at what seemed to me the astounding sum of $400 a month.

That evening I discovered that the real selling point for Newberry Plaza was that it was three blocks from James’ preferred backgammon den, in the Ambassador West Hotel, which was every bit as posh as it sounds. A uniformed doorman, unsmiling as a Beefeater, nodded at James before allowing us to enter the hotel. James confidently guided me through the hushed, dimly lit lobby, where visiting dignitaries murmured to the concierge. I suddenly realized that I was wearing the same outfit I had on when I was given the bum’s rush out of the El Presidente hotel; I hoped there were no house detectives lurking about as I scurried beside James in my platform shoes and mini skirt like a furtive hooker.

The backgammon club was hidden inside the hotel. There was no sign, only a discreet door in the back of the lobby. When I walked in, I felt as if I had entered a scene from Dickens, a London club frequented by Mr. Pickwick or the three gentlemen who declined to attend Scrooge’s funeral unless a lunch was provided.

Hotel room
The Amabassador West Hotel. (Wikimedia Commons)

The walls and upholstery were all deep maroon, the color of claret. Dark wood paneling was punctuated by sconces, which emitted a golden light that was calming and flattering. Hunting prints depicting horses and dogs and men in pink hung evenly between the sconces. The place was as quiet as a library and smelled like money.

The eight backgammon tables were all occupied, mostly by older white men who looked like bankers, but there was also a man who was even darker than James with a nose like a knife, smoking a black cigarette, playing against a raven-haired woman who was the same age as my mother but half the weight, a woman who sparkled about the neck, wrist, and fingers, her diamonds catching the light like tiny disco balls. James and I sat at the carved mahogany bar, the rich relation of the one at Pracna. Without a word, the bartender placed a vodka and soda, the least fattening of drinks, in front of James. The bartender tilted his chin at me and I reluctantly agreed to have the same.

One of the older gents sighed, took out his checkbook, shook hands with his opponent, and left the club. James walked over to the empty seat, and after an exchange of raised eyebrows and hand signs, sat down to play. I watched James roll the dice and march his men around the board and felt that another rabbit hole had opened up, transporting me to a new Wonderland. I leaned back in my comfy bar chair, yanked down my miniskirt, and tried to talk myself into feeling I belonged there, despite the fact that bets the equivalent of my entire shoe box of tips were changing hands every few games. There was no music, the waiter silently and automatically replaced empty glasses, and few words spoken besides a soft “double”. The loudest noises were the chunk chunk of the dice in their cups and the swish of a cocktail shaker. It was very soothing, being tucked away in this jewelry box, and I started to relax as I sipped my disgusting drink. But Houdini James had other things up the sleeve of his suit jacket, a jacket the backgammon club required men to wear (women were not allowed to wear pants, and my tiny skirt got a few disapproving looks).

Backgammon had always been an endurance sport for James. Whole afternoons and evenings would pass in marathon games at the Villa Vera before James would pack away his backgammon board. I was settled in at the bar for what I thought would be the rest of the night when James stood, collected his winnings, finished his drink, and escorted me out of there.

Astoundingly, there was another meal, this one right across the street at the famous Pump Room. This was the absolute cherry on this sundae of a weekend, as my idea what a fancy big-city restaurant looked like had been formed when I first saw a photo of the Pump Room in my mom’s TimeLife cookbook, and it seemed unchanged ten years later. Red-jacketed waiters lifted silver domes, boned Dover soles, cracked eggs and grated cheese over Caesar salads. As waiters pulled out my chair, before me was a wide, empty plate, guarded on both sides by rows of heavy silver knives, spoons, and forks of various sizes. Our waiter whisked away that empty plate and then solemnly opened a bottle of champagne, deadening the pop of the cork with a thick white napkin.

Dining room
The Pump Room. (HB-05666-B, Chicago History Museum, Hedrich-Blessing Collection)

Over more food (I was starting to feel like a Strasbourg goose) the old James came back. He rehashed the night’s backgammon games, giving himself extra points for his luck, daring, and ability to quickly and logically assess potential dice throws. I was once again in my supporting role as admirer and eager student, James quizzing me on odds, probability, and back game strategy.

The clock struck midnight, and in Chicago as in Acapulco, it was time to disco. James’s new apartment was a stumble away from Faces disco, where a long line of hopefuls stretched down Rush Street waiting to get in. James, of course, was welcomed at the door by a large man who slapped him on the back as James slipped him a folded up bill.

Six months before, Faces would have left me agape. But after the glories of Armando’s, I thought the place looked second rate, like a TV commercial set for “K-Tel’s Greatest Disco Hits.” The crowd was pale-even-in-summer swinging Chicago singles, the men in shiny Huk-a-Poo shirts and the women in dresses made of even shinier synthetics and sporting early variations of Farrah Fawcett’s famous feathered hair. The gaudy clothes were the only spots of color. Faces was all urban greys and blacks, and you had to feel your way down to the dance floor, which lit up in flashes, as if sending out a mysterious Morse code message. A fog-machine enveloped the club regularly, and the dim lighting and the strong drinks probably made for many regrettable pick-ups. Faces had cloned the soundtrack from Armando’s; we were still push pushing in the bush and rocking the boat, don’t rock the boat, baby, which blasted at ear-popping volume. A cute cocktail waitress found her way in the dark to our table. She gave James a hug and kiss and me a side eye that let me know they had slept together.

Faces disco. (Pinsdaddy)
Faces disco with Newberry Plaza behind it. (Pinsdaddy)

I was stuffed to the gills with continental cuisine, but when James stretched out his arm I heaved myself out to the dance floor to join the disco revelry. We danced till closing, then James, a steady hand on the wheel even with champagne and many vodkas in him, drove us back along the empty Chicago highways to his Des Plaines apartment, where we stayed in bed till my plane left the next day.

Chicago wasn’t as glamorous as Acapulco, but that weekend beat the hell out of slinging burgers and fighting with Steve in Minneapolis. And along with the copious drugs and sex, I enjoyed how different James had been with me. He still loved playing Svengali, guiding and grooming his wide-eyed young girlfriend. But for the first time I felt that James had listened to me, asked my opinions, treated me almost like an equal.

James always got a thrill out of kissing and stroking me in public, but our goodbyes at O’Hare were so uninhibited that every time I came up for air I saw another passenger staring at us. James held me tightly in his arms, until everyone else had boarded; I had to push myself away and run down the ramp to the plane, the door shutting behind me. On the flight home, I imagined how cool, how fun it would be if James flew me down Chicago once a month for backgammon, disco, and salami and eggs.

With nothing but this thought in my silly little head, I took a cab from the airport to Steve’s place. I wasn’t expecting a warm welcome. Steve let me into the apartment without a word and went back to his beer and whatever he was watching on TV. With a twinge of guilt, I started to tidy up the debris of what looked like a three-day party. I emptied the overflowing ashtrays and found several different shades of lipstick-traced cigarette butts and roaches. It seemed Steve had also had a fun weekend, although you couldn’t know it tell from his sullen pout.

I finally realized, “I can’t stay here.” I told Steve that I would pack my things and get out, and got a noncommittal grunt in response. I would make Patti and Mindy take me in for a few days, then make my apologies to Liz, hoping she needed a roommate for the fall semester. I walked out the door the next morning with my pink Samsonite suitcases. I didn’t see Steve again for seven years.

How did we find each other before cell phones and the Internet? (And how can you lose anyone now?) James somehow tracked me down at Patti and Mindy’s. As I dabbed off ketchup stains from my Pracna uniform I listened to James’ husky voice on the phone, telling me he had never met anyone like me and asking me to move to Chicago to live with him in his cool new downtown apartment. He didn’t say anything about love. I didn’t care.

At this point, five years after my first disastrous experience, which I had come to think of as “the moonshot,” I had learned that sex and love did not necessarily go together. They had with my first love, Michael Vlasdic; we were drenched in Lysergic acid diethylamide and teenage hormones, and sex was our souls touching. But with the right guy, sex could be about friendship, a chance to laugh and play and say “I really like you.” With Steve, the wrong guy, bed was a battlefield and sex was about control and craving and power, who was on top, who was under the thumb. With James sex was the floor of the mercantile: my bouncy flesh and boundless curiosity traded for his depth of experience and wealth of knowledge. It was an exchange so satisfactory to both of us that Adam Smith would have approved.

If James’s offer had been to move me to stodgy, suburban Des Plaines, I would have balked. But at that point, I was a gypsy with little to hold me in Minneapolis: I was sleeping on a couch and living out of a suitcase. I said yes.