It Was Over Before It Started

[from Reservoir / March 7, 2007]

This was supposed to be a happy story.

This was supposed to be a story about a morning spent among cops and clubbers, firefighters and factory workers, alcoholics and insomniacs, all of whom had found their way to this magical place on Cermak that opened for business at 6 a.m.

This was supposed to be a story about possibly finding a gem buried deep in the heart of the southern frontier of the South Loop, where vacant lots give way to high-rises and sleazy reminders of yesteryear sit in an uneasy truce with the promise of a better tomorrow.

This was supposed to be a story about Buster’s Bar & Grill.

The name alone screamed “legendary.” There were whispers of two monstrous quarter-pound beef slabs served up as the $3.95 Buster Burger. They spoke of the chicken in vague riddles and of the fries in nonsensical rhymes.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Imagine my heartbreak when what I found that morning 233 E. Cermak was not a neon sunrise but instead a pile of rubble pushed off to the side of the Hyatt-in-progress.

I felt a sadness forming somewhere inside of me. Not for Buster’s, of course; I never knew Buster’s and for all I know it could’ve been the worst bar in the city. That’s not the point.

The sadness came from realizing that more of these types of places – the small-time, out-of-the-way local bars and taverns that give any sort of character to Chicago beyond the obvious landmarks – are slipping away and nothing of any real substance is coming back in their place. That’s not to say that there’s a drop in the number of places to go, and it’s not to say that the gin joints are the only places worth going to.

At the same time, so many of us remember places like Simply Ray’s, or Shark Bar, or the Artful Dodger, or Life’s Too Short, or JT Collins, or even the recently-departed Big Horse Lounge. They were in a class of their own, they were in weird locations and they had their own brands of charm that can’t be bought with gold lettering and flat-screen TV’s. They were one-of-a-kind, and if you met anyone else who knew the place, it was as if the two of you shared some divine secret of a world no one else knew about.

The tragedy isn’t that I didn’t get to hang out at Buster’s that morning. The tragedy is that once upon a time, I could have, and that this bar, like so many before it, is now nothing more than a pile of bricks and dust in the way of so many investors and visitors that will never know and never care what came before them in this little corner of town.

Hold on to your dive bars as long you can, barflies. You never know when one’ll be taken away.

“All stories, if continued far enough, end in death,” wrote Ernest Hemingway, “and he is no true-story teller who would keep that from you.”

This was supposed to be a story about the good times, but evidently even Hemingway saw this one coming.

Buster’s, we hardly knew ye.