This is the first installment of Gavin Colton’s new column, Quarantine Chronicles, that will detail his experiences amidst the coronavirus pandemic.
I couldn’t get into the hotel room because my name wasn’t on the reservation, so I went to meet a friend who lived in the city for a lunchtime drink. She suggested somewhere near her office, so we met at Italian Village on Monroe and drank bottles of Peroni.
The woman behind the bar seemed unsentimental about her job and angry with the men at the end of the bar who erupted in fits of laughter every few minutes. I figured she didn’t want to be there; I knew some establishments that had already closed because of the virus, but most restaurants, deemed essential, were still opening their doors. Chicago had done what it could to deter the drunkards, cancelling the St. Patrick’s Day parade and breaking the custom of turning the river green.
The men’s voices sported an increasingly Italian twang the drunker they got. Despite the looming threat of a lockdown, these folks were as carefree as ever. No one sitting at this bar gave a rats about the virus.
It felt like the right kind of place to kick the weekend off. Meeting in Chicago for St. Patrick’s Day weekend was a tradition that me and my college friends had kept up since graduation. We were determined not to break it, despite some friends dropping out because of sick or at-risk relatives.
I received an email from UK announcing that classes would resume online until at the earliest April 6th. The news freed me to drive to Los Angeles with my friends Ben and Emily at the end of the weekend. They were moving to Los Angeles for Emily’s job at UCLA hospital—Ben’s brother Johnny and Emily’s sister Liz were piling into the truck too. They’d all be arriving the following day.
Later that afternoon, I met Maggie in the lobby of the hotel we were staying at downtown—a modern millennial establishment that allowed dogs, even encouraged them. The hotel featured pineapple-themed Pineapple pillows on the beds, pineapple-infused water in the lobby, pineapples stitched into the towels, and so on.
I had arrived in Chicago a day early to meet Maggie. We’d never met in person before—we’d been set up by some friends weeks ago and had been texting and calling a couple times a week, sharing Spotify playlists and starting our own private book club. We’d read Sally Rooney’s Normal People together and agreed on the nuanced ways that the author dealt with pain and grief in the story.
I was drinking at the hotel bar when she arrived, hard-shell suitcase clipping behind her. We hugged; she was about as tall as I’d approximated from her Instagram photos. I was a little buzzed after the bottles of Peroni for lunch, and Maggie was keen on a drink after her flight from San Francisco, so I suggested we go back to Italian Village after we dropped our bags up to the room—the bar served free pizza during happy hour, I told her.
The manager greeted us at the top of the stairs to the main bar, recognizing me from earlier. I felt good walking into a bar and getting my hand shaken. I hoped it gave me some substance with Maggie. The manager was a lanky man and wore a snappy suit jacket, the kind of guy who makes sure you have a pleasant experience. His smile spread over his face and squeezed his eyes into two slits.
The men from lunchtime were still at the bar, their faces a bit redder than earlier. They were arguing now about whether to go home to their wives or not. They all seemed to go by Mikey—Mikey J, Mikey G, Mikey Two Times.
They paid for a round of beers for me and Maggie. Neither looked short of change, so we accepted them. Hearing my accent, Mikey Two Times began telling me about his Irish heritage while Maggie talked with Mikey G about the best lobster rolls on the East Coast. I got to talking about the virus and the cancellation of St. Patrick’s Day. Mikey Two Times was as upset about it as I was.
“If the mafia were worth anything, they’d find a way to turn that river green,” I told him. He eyed me for a moment. He looked nervous all of a sudden, more sober even. Then he started patting me down, running his hand under the bar, until the manager came over. Mikey J wet his palms with an ice-cube and flattened the slicked-back hair on his head.
“This guy’s talking about the mafia,” Mikey Two Times said. He was laughing, which I was glad about. The manager looked at me, first at my face, then down to my shoes.
There was a weight to the word mafia that I was just beginning to understand. I’d read a sign on the way in that Italian Village was the oldest Italian restaurant in Chicago. It hadn’t occurred to me that the walls had seen any real action over the years. After what felt like a thorough appraisal, the manager burst into a grin; I must have looked worried.
Mikey Two Times slung an arm around me again and beckoned over the bartender, who’d taken over from the woman from earlier. “It’s all good my man. You know, it’s just some things we don’t say, you get it? He gets it.”
I had just met Maggie an hour ago and already these men had hijacked our date, these initial moments when we would figure out if our laissez-faire Facetime dates could translate to a smattering of old-time romance.
It didn’t bother me much. I nudged her with my elbow when Mikey Two Times really got going on something as if to say, listen to this lunatic. It didn’t seem to bother Maggie either. She leaned into my lap when I poked my head over her shoulder to hear what Mikey G was saying about those lobster rolls in New England.
It was easy with Maggie, like I’d known her for years. She could banter with strangers and she knew enough about most things to keep a conversation moving, in her favor even. The tab cost us $12 after a mix-up behind the bar. We tipped well and set out to find some food. The only thing I’d eaten was a breakfast sandwich from Smash Burger in the Cincinnati airport earlier that morning. And the beer was going to my head— I had to steady myself when I popped down off the barstool.
Frigid air from the lake whipped around the streets outside. I had only packed a couple of pairs of boxers, some socks, a couple of shirts, a Trinity college hoody and a pair of jeans for the trip—I tend to travel light wherever I go. I hadn’t planned for cold weather, or for the weeks of self-isolation that would ensue.
We ate at the Giordano’s near Millennium Park. I had been once before with an ex-girlfriend and enjoyed it enough to want to go back. The restaurant was as busy as I remembered it, the shiny red and white checkered tablecloths gleaming under steaming pizzas sitting on U-frame pedestals. No one seemed to be concerned about distancing themselves from anything.
We ate what we could of a deep-dish pizza and drank a pitcher of Sam Adams. Maggie looked good across the table from me. She was quippy in conversation and liked being the contrarian, even when I could tell she might just as easily agree with me. I liked that. I went to the bathroom to wash my hands when a waiter came to box the leftover slices.
I washed my hands well, lacing my knuckles together, scraping my palm with my fingernails, and twisting my wrists in my fingers. All the handwashing had turned my hands to dust—I could feel my skin tingling under the soap.
These days I thought about handwashing the same way I thought about brushing teeth: it wasn’t worth doing if you weren’t going to have a good go at it.
Maggie had heard about a club that played live music and suggested we go. It was a bit of a distance, but the walk would do us good after the food, I supposed out loud.
It was a smoky spot in River North bounced by two burly men dressed in black shirts. We walked down the stairwell toward the music. Electric guitars lined the wall. I matched them to famous guitarists: Hendrix, SRV, Slash.
Inside, there were sofas and single loungers arranged around squat coffee tables. Unscented candles in small glass jars punctuated the darkness so that all I saw were the lit made-up faces huddled around candles in conversation while the band played next to a kitschy mural of Bob Marley.
There were seven people in the band, fronted by a black woman in a flowy green and yellow maxi dress and singing old Motown, rock, and pop numbers. I imagined she could sing just about any number.
We settled on a sofa next to the dancefloor. I didn’t feel much like dancing yet—I wasn’t drunk enough to let Maggie see my dancing, which tended to look more like the beginning stages of a fit than the smooth movements that Motown required.
I decided I enjoyed Maggie’s company. I hadn’t been on a date in months, not a real one that required putting on shoes and socks anyway.
We ordered glasses of whiskey and I told her a story about my Dad sharing a hipflask of Glenmorangie with some Welsh men on a train into Ireland and Wales to watch a rugby match at Lansdowne Road. I thought of my parents, at home in Ireland. I wondered what they would make of Maggie. It was still in the early days, but my mind tends to leapfrog into the future with people I date.
It was mostly women on the dancefloor, some dressed in elaborate outfits that glimmered and sparkled under the colored lights, others in denim skirts and Converse shoes. One couple was glued to each other, I could see the sweat on their faces glistening, the wet hair down the back of their necks. One of the women looked like she was on something, MDMA probably, her pupils ballooning in her eyes.
After the second glass of whiskey, we edged towards the band—I don’t remember whose idea it was to dance. I had learned a few steps while living in Kansas, which I hoped would impress Maggie. She was short and easily whirled around, but after a couple of choruses she realized the limitation of my moves and found her own space to dance. The band were playing a Lauryn Hill cover that Maggie had requested. She seemed to be enjoying herself.
It wasn’t my kind of bar, and I guessed that Maggie would’ve have been happy somewhere a bit more downhome too, somewhere with twist-off beer bottles, ice in the urinals and college football schedules plastered on the walls.
I paid the bill while Maggie went into the toilet. I shouldn’t have; I’d saved for months for the Chicago weekend—it was always a blowout (and now I had the drive to L.A. to consider)—and already I was bursting my budget on overpriced whiskey. I got to talking with an Englishman working behind the bar. He asked me, what I was up to in Chicago? What Visa I was here on? How did I like the bar? But he didn’t offer a discount at the end of our small talk.
On the way back to the hotel, Maggie admitted that she regretted giving the leftover deep dish to a homeless woman, then she said she felt bad for her regret. I knew what she’d meant. I suggested a nightcap somewhere closer to the hotel, where we could get a late-night bite.
It felt like the right thing to do, to walk, rather than Uber. There’s something romantic about walking.
We stopped on the Clark Street bridge and listened to the slow slosh of water off the riverbank. The city was lovely and quiet, the river calm, reflecting the monstrous buildings and scattering of lights that lurked in the sky. Despite the cold, the air felt heavy; the forecast promised snow for the next day.
I spotted a man below on the Boardwalk. He looked drunk, staggering toward the water. The man didn’t notice us— he was focused on the phone in his spare hand, which illuminated his face.
We watched him steady his feet and unbuckle his belt, then begin pissing into the river, steam spewing up from the water under him, making his own contribution to the river for the weekend.
I have tried to recreate events, locales and conversations from my memories of them. In order to maintain their anonymity in some instances I have changed the names of individuals and places, I have changed some identifying characteristics and details such as physical properties, occupations and places of residence.