She tilted an eyebrow. Now she was intrigued.
So they left the flashing signs of the Loop, the honking cabs and tall buildings, to head west on Madison, past the opera house and over the river to where the streetlamps were few and far between, the sidewalks were cold and empty; the only proof that spring would happen was the "Vote Kennelly" signs in loyal windows; Election Day was in early April.
You could hear the thumping rhythm outside the door of their first stop; heat and sour stink hit them as they walked in, the blare of the small band. Heads turned, then turned back to their beer — Algren was a regular. Simone registered the details: toothless bums bobbing their heads while a cripple leaped into the center and began a hop-frog dance amid other clutching dancers; bright, cracking makeup on the wrinkled face of a drunk old woman; vaguely melodious shouting and occasional pitched screams. It was a voluntary madhouse, a museum of expired vices, a final cry of joy for ruined lives.
He may as well have shown her a Van Gogh.
"It is beautiful," said De Beauvoir, breathless.
Right then he knew. Any other woman in Le Petit Café would've run out of this dump in tears, but she saw it with the same wonder and affection as he did. Their eyes caught. He pulled her away and on to the next bar, where she met more characters. It turned out Richard Wright was a friend of Simone's in Paris. Another whiskey, and then back to Wabansia and Bosworth. The sex was phenomenal. Algren had never made love to a woman on anything like even terms, but Simone examined his body and his bookshelves with equal curiosity and energy. The cat made himself absent. The next morning Simone got back to the Palmer House in time to answer a call from the French consulate — there was to be a tour of the Art Institute and the Loop, a lunch with the Baroness de La Paumellière who was also in town, along with members of the Alliance Française. After lunch in the Arts Club, they whisked her into a black sedan for a tour of the city's wonders, the skyscrapers, floes of ice rolling on the lake, the statue of Ceres atop the Board of Trade, the opera house she'd passed last night. All very nice. She drummed her fingers. Dinner was at 6. There was still time. She directed the driver to Wabansia and Bosworth; Algren bounded out of the door without a coat. He nodded at the sedan. "My neighbors are going to start asking me for money."
Upstairs they reunited as if they hadn't seen each other in years. Then they got dressed, and she insisted he take her for a walk around Stanislawowo, a piece of America fermented in Polish backroom vodka. They downed shots, ate sickly sweet sour cream cakes, and strolled through the cold as Algren told her his story, talked about his writing. Already he was her "crocodile" and she was his "frog." There needed to be more. She would be coming back east in April. There would be more time then ...
Back at the Palmer House, lobster and martinis for dinner, spent in a fog. Simone made a last call to Algren; the phone had to be taken from her so she wouldn't miss the late train west. Since the 1920s she'd been with Jean-Paul Sartre as his helpmeet, his partner, his servant, once and even now occasionally his lover. But the experience with Algren, her "local youth," had been illuminating to say the least — the American, for example, did not feel it necessary to argue philosophical points while inside her. That alone had changed her world. Heading toward L.A., she read "The Neon Wilderness," recalled his "hovel, without a bathroom or a refrigerator, alongside an alley full of steaming trash cans and flapping newspapers." Mostly she recalled how much it hurt to say goodbye. Meanwhile at Wabansia and Bosworth, she'd left behind a copy of that week's New Yorker. At a certain point it dawned on Algren that the Simone referred to in the "Talk of the Town" as "the prettiest Existentialist" was indeed his Frog Wife.
Thomas Dyja is the author of "The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream." Excerpted from "The Third Coast," due out from Penguin on Thursday. © 2013 by
The Third Coast
By Thomas Dyja, Penguin, 544 pages, $29.95
Dyja will appear at this year's Printers Row Lit Fest, which is June 8 and 9. Check printersrowlitfest.org for updates.