A Memorable Menu
I had gone to Chicago with dancer Katrinka Moore and fellow writer Donna Ratajczak to perform our collaborative piece, “Love Me Like a Bitter Pill,” at a trendy club called Joz. Donna was a University of Chicago alum, and we stayed at the loft of some friends of hers in town.
The night after our performance we went out to a blues club with several of Donna’s local pals. Another friend of theirs was the harmonica player in a band that was appearing at a club on the West Side. This guy had an interesting story. He had dropped out of a doctoral program in philosophy at an Ivy League school to make a go of it as a full time blues harp player. Now he was living his dream.
Chicago’s South Side is the neighborhood that’s most associated with the blues, but the West Side has long had its own estimable blues tradition, exemplified by the late Magic Sam. At the time of our visit the South Side was a traditionally black neighborhood, but parts of it were racially mixed and much of it was gentrifying, for better or worse. The West Side, on the other hand, was the most notorious slum in town. Its residents were almost exclusively African American, and mostly impoverished. It was an extremely high-crime area. In the danger department, the cliche New York analogy would have been the South Bronx. White folks rarely ventured to the West Side.
After a dinner of fantastic takeout ribs from Lem's (of the South Side), six or seven of us crowded into a car and drove over to the West Side. We spotted the club, which was called Purple Rain, presumably in honor of the Prince film, and parked about a block and a half away. It was indeed a blighted neighborhood, with burnt-out buildings everywhere you looked. As we walked toward the club several people on the mostly deserted street admonished us, in concerned tones of voice, “You folks take care of yourself around here.”
The club was a ramshackle place that had the look of a Mississippi juke joint. I believe the club’s name was hand-painted in purple above the entrance.
As we walked through the door everybody in the place looked our way. Except for two of the musicians, we were the only white people in the place, and at thirtyish somewhat younger than most of the clientele. A man with grey hair got up from a table where he was sitting with several other guys and asked us if we’d like a table. “I guess,” someone said, and to our surprise he asked the other guys to get up. Then he got a rag and wiped the table. At first we figured he worked there, but it turned out he was a regular customer who just wanted us to be comfortable. I felt a little weird about displacing the people who had been at the table before us, but they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, the whole time we were there people came over to ask us if we were doing okay, if we were having a good time. Everybody was going the extra mile to make us feel at home.
The featured performer was Tail Dragger, then completely unknown outside the West Side scene, but now a recording artist on Chicago’s legendary Delmark label. Tail Dragger is a Howlin’ Wolf protégé, and his moniker was bestowed upon him by the Wolf himself. Like Howlin’ Wolf he sings in a gravelly voice, and that night in 1986 he worked with a wireless mike, at times slithering across the floor snakelike as he sang.
The guy who had cleared the table for us came over and introduced himself as “Top Hat.” He invited the women in our party to dance with him, and he danced with the grace one would expect of a man named Top Hat.
We all had a ball. It was one of those experiences you never forget.
Nor will I ever forget the menu. Purple Rain wasn’t really a restaurant, but limited food service was apparently available. The handwritten menu hung behind the bar. It read: