February 19, 2004

A Bloomsday Memory

O'Malley and I decided at the last minute to attend the 2002 Bloomsday reading, which is held in cities around the world on June 16 to commemorate the day on which James Joyce's Ulysses takes place. The Chicago reading actually occurred a day late, on June 17 -- a schedule change apparently due to a "venue conflict," as party planners like to say. But the venue was certainly worth scheduling around: the Cliff Dweller's Club, perched atop the Borg-Warner Building across from the Art Institute, is an artists' haunt featuring an outdoor terrace and stunning views of Lake Michigan.

In fact, the view was the reason I was able to convince O'Malley to join me in the first place. O'Malley is a bright blonde with a wicked sense of humor who generally has better things to do than hang with the likes of me. She's actually read Ulysses in its entirety -- unlike the other 99.9 percent of us. She also grew up in a family who worshipped great writing; her father was a long-time purveyor of antiquarian books in Manhattan. Plus, she herself has been known to put pen to paper and turn a cherished phrase or two. But the idea of listening to a few hours of adults reading aloud to one another was not exactly O'Malley's notion of a great time, especially at 5:30 on a breezy, sunny Monday evening.

"Are we going to have to listen to Molly Bloom's incessant whining?" O'Malley asked.

"'Yes I said yes I will Yes,'" I replied. "But it's at The Cliff Dwellers Club -- and there'll be cocktails."

"How lovely of you to invite me, laddie."

In the true fashion of most sons and daughters of Ireland, O'Malley and I agree on one point: A few cocktails always make a little culture just that much easier to swallow. Once we arrived upstairs at the club, we had a brief wait in a cramped, dimly lit hallway as a crowd of guests were checked-in by a seated woman gripping a fistful of cash and an officious man standing alongside her. The man leaned forward to verify guests' names on a type-written roster. As I stepped ahead, O'Malley caught a glimpse of the wide lake beyond the next room's broad windows. "It's gorgeous," she said. I smiled, nodded, then turned to the rather grim pair of greeters and said that I would like to pay for two people. Their eyes immediately lowered to The List. "Your name?"

"Oh," I said. "I didn't think to call for reservations."

The man looked somewhat perturbed. "I'll have to add you to the wait list," he explained. "We can only have so many people." I gave my name, then sighed and turned to look at the beckoning rows of chairs inside the clubroom as well as the breathtaking view of the expansive blue lake. "You can't go in there," the male greeter snapped like a cop at a crime scene. "You have to wait back here in the hallway."

As I turned again, O'Malley raised her eyebrows and smiled. I recognized the smile. It was not O'Malley's oh-too-bad-well-let's-just-cool-our-heels-in-the-hot-and-crowded-hallway-and-wait-like-pigeons-because-you-didn't-think-of-getting-a-reservation smile. It was more like O'Malley's get-me-outta-here smile.

"Maybe we should skip this," I suggested, "and head downstairs to Rhapsody? They've got a nice little patio where we can relax outside and drink."

"Great," O'Malley replied. "Instead of Joyce, we can just tell one another dirty limericks."

We rode the elevator downstairs, walked through the lobby, turned the corner and headed the half-block down Adams to Rhapsody, a fine restaurant connected to the back of Symphony Center. I apologized for not making reservations, but O'Malley was a good sport, insisted the apology was not necessary. Then we reached Rhapsody's entrance and found the door locked, the restaurant dark. We laughed that our desire to enjoy a simple cocktail was apparently turning into its own Ulyssean journey. Then we decided to sally forth and head north on foot to a comfy hotel lobby bar across the Loop, near the river.

Along the way -- the setting sun warming our faces, our quickening pace merely teasing our thirst -- I suggested that perhaps the only thing better than attending a Ulysses reading is not attending a Ulysses reading. O'Malley smiled again. "Serves us right for trying to do something half-way cultural," she said.