The Shack

On a cross-country trip in December 1967 I stopped in Chicago to visit a friend who was a student at Northwestern University. One night he had an engagement and suggested that I take dinner at a nearby restaurant called The Shack. This essay is a slightly fictionalized account of that dinner. 1967 was a strange year; students were uncertain about their future because of the raging war.

The winter night hangs heavily on the City. The weight of the damp, chill air seems almost too much for it to bear, when added to the great Lake pressing at its edge, always licking it but so far not determined enough to swallow it up. Of course, the Lake is not only the natural enemy of the City, but also her pride; and the City stretches herself lavishly along its shores, proudly showing off her string of jewels. The grey part of the City, the part where the work and sweat and grind of life takes place, lies behind her glistening facade; and the City does such a good job of hiding this pedestrian part of herself that the casual visitor might come and go and see only the bright shining aluminum buildings and the unbroken beach and be quite impressed. 

Less than a mile from the shore, at the northern edge of the City where suburbia begins, where the streets are quiet and the stores close at 9 P.M., there is a dining establishment called the Shack. As you walk along the sidewalk, the dampness muting the swish of frequently passing automobiles, a girl emerging from the Shack covered head to toe in a sturdy raincoat smiles at you as she sets her face against the chill, with that special smile connecting those who share adversity. 

As you enter the Shack, the warmth envelops you, and you open your coat wide so it will come to you fast. The air is heavy with the scent of tobacco, not-well-washed people, and plenty of good food ranging from corned beef sandwiches to hot dogs. The food is quite evident since short orders are being cooked on a long counter to your right, in front of which is a counter dining area. Behind and to your left are numerous booths in subdued light. At the very rear is a large coat rack where you deposit your numerous wrappings. You take a seat in a booth. 

A burly black man comes directly to take your order. The little cues of people’s behavior tell you that there is no formality, so you let yourself go and bask in being there. The juke box is playing good rock music, pulsing in a warm current through your body; people frequently stroll over and punch their selections, so the music never stops. In the kitchen across the open counter from the dining area a cook works exuberantly, swapping banter with the waiters when they come within range. 

A tall slender-faced white woman lingers over a cup of coffee two tables down from yours. A taller black man comes in and joins her; she smiles and begins to talk with him in a soft voice. He has finished his day’s work driving a taxi, and she has been waiting here for him. After a few minutes he gets up and saunters toward the kitchen to exchange pleasantries with the cook, and then the man and the woman leave together, accompanied by ribald wisecracks from the direction of the kitchen. They do not care; they will be together tonight, just for tonight. 

A hippie Mexican-American comes in with a couple of scraggly-haired girls. He is swarthy and dressed in buckskin, with a chain of beads around his neck, cowboy boots, and little bells in his ankle cuffs. They sit down at a booth occupied by a thin youth with glasses who is reading a newspaper. The youth nods to them; they are all probably from the nearby University. The newcomers sit for a while, saying nothing, for they are totally absorbed in the music. 

The three of them sit for a long time, unmoving. They are very tired, tired of the pressures thrust upon them, and they are soaking up strength from that rich music, which is the steak of the younger generation. Finally the hippie asks what they want to order, and one girl says she doesn’t know. Someone makes a suggestion and it is wordlessly accepted. During this time the youth has been glancing at them occasionally with a slight smile; now he sets aside his paper and places an order along with them. 

The hippie gets up to go to the bathroom, and on the way the music catches him and he dances in the aisle, with bells ringing and a beatific smile on his face. The waiter needles him some, then laughs and slaps him on the back. The hippie’s pleasure travels infectiously around the room. 

Slightly farther away a young Marine and his girl have been sitting opposite each other for some time, lost in their own world, talking together or just looking together. The Marine’s eyes are hard and desperate, and often he loses the present and wanders into the past which is a sordid war half a world away. He cannot remain in the present because this war will again be his future. The girl’s soft eyes search his, and whenever he wanders away she grips his hands and strokes them until he returns to her. Their shell admits no other people; only the pulsing music comes through to warm them. Tomorrow he will again be far away, carrying only echoes of the music, but tonight they are together – just tonight.

A young girl bursts in, plump and pleasing to the eye, with cheeks rosy from the outer cold. She is wearing a simple blouse and dungarees, and her brown hair falls just short of her shoulders. She greets the hippie’s group loudly and sits at the adjoining table. Her vivaciousness spurs the group to a reasonable show of conversation, for the first time in the evening. The girl has that open carriage of body which says she is ready to sleep with any man who is man enough, and who wants her enough. In her high flush of youth, she is available tonight. 

As you close the door behind you, the warmth, the voices, and the music give way to the empty night. The City lies shrouded in her troubled sleep. Faintly the sounds of the restless Lake are heard. And far away a pall rises over the swamps of Vietnam, haunting the American dream. But inside the Shack, there is plenty of warmth and love – just for tonight.

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