Reporting Mason Johnson
[Editor’s Note 11/4/2014: Hungry Brain recently announced that they’re going to be closing. I’m sad about this, but happy I’ve been able to spend so many great nights there. I’m also proud of this interview from 2012. For those who’ve never been there, I hope this interview can convince you to stop by before they’re gone for good!]
2319 W. Belmont Ave.
“I think he’s hiding something.”
This is what Daniel Shapiro, local comedian, has to say about the man serving us drinks.
Matt Rowan, local writer and substitute teacher, elaborates: “He’s got the shady bartender thing going on really well.”
We’re at Hungry Brain, a nice, little bar in Roscoe Village. With its shabby bartop and barstools, and chairs that look like they came from a thrift shop, Hungry Brain looks like a dive. But in the good kind of way. If it looks worn down, it’s because it’s been well loved, like your favorite paperback book. Frayed pages or not, you still love the words inside. Plus, Hungry Brain isn’t a dump. It’s always nice and clean, cozy and comfortable.
When I ask The Bartender if I can interview him, he replies, “Can you leave my name out of it?”
Now you can see why Dan and Matt think he’s hiding something. Plus, to add to his air of mystery, his features are sharp, his jaw square, making him seem just a little intimidating. Spend more than a minute with him though and you’ll see that he is quick to smile and quicker to laugh. Suddenly, he’s just a guy you want to talk to.
“I can call you… employee number one,” I say.
“You can call me Janis,” he says. “She’s the owner.”
“I’ll just call you employee number one.”
Then, I launch into the interview. “Can you tell me what you do?”
“Can I tell you what I do?”
“Like when? Now.”
“In general,” I say. “Interpret the question any way you want.”
“I live to make animals and people happy.”
“Animals?” I ask. “What animals?”
“I am a dog walker by day.”
“Oh,” I say. “I know a lot of dog walkers.”
“Do you like them?”
“Yeah,” I explain. “Not a single one of them is a horrible person.”
The Bartender has been walking dogs for fifteen years. I ask what everyone wants to know: “Are there dogs that drop better poo than other dogs?”
“Yes,” he says. “I prefer solid poo. It doesn’t matter if it’s big or small.”
“Are you a strict always-pick-up-your-dog-poo kinda guy?”
“Absolutely. You never know who’s looking, and I’m in the business, so if a dog walker doesn’t pick up a dog’s poo then it doesn’t look well.”
I ask him again, “What do you really do?” And he gives me the stink eye, as if I’m being a jerk.
I clarify: “I don’t mean that your first answer isn’t good enough–I like it–it’s just always interesting to see that people have multiple answers to that one question.”
“Well I think the other half of it is that I pleasure people. I make people happy. I shouldn’t say ‘pleasure people,’ that doesn’t sound very good. I bring people pleasure by supplying drinks and a comfortable atmosphere.”
I look around the room at the atmosphere. In general, people seem to be having a good time. Hungry Brain is pretty dark, mostly lit with Christmas lights along the top corner of the walls. There’s a little stage at the front, complete with a comfortable couch smack-dab in front of it, and next to the couch is a Ms. Pac-Man machine. The place would easily put anyone at ease, all it needs is a little extra friendliness, which The Bartender easily provides.
“How long have you been at the bar?” I ask him.
“What did you do sixteen years ago?”
“Lay on the couch and drink beer,” he admits. His voice booms when he says it, half a laugh coming out at the end, then he continues, “I was about to sell myself for medical experiments, actually. I had gotten hired and everything, and then, at the last second, all these jobs came through.”
I ask about the kinds of experiments, and he says, “I don’t know what I was going to have to do, but I would have had to stay in the hospital and they were going to draw blood up to seven times a day and I don’t like needles or blood, but I needed money.”
Then I get to the gritty stuff, The Bartender looks like a tough guy, so I try to pull some good ol’ fight stories from him: “Have you ever had to strong-arm anyone out of here?”
“Twice,” he says.
“Fifteen years, just two people?”
“Yes,” he says. “You got to be horrible to get kicked out.”
“Not a lot has gone down here, that’s nice.”
“No,” he says. “It’s a polite crowd.”
“Has the crowd changed?”
“I’d say… yeah. We do more events now so it’s a little artier.”
He says this happily; he seems to like the crowd. He’s not the kind of hipster-hating bartender that complains about the tight jeans his patrons wear and their crappy tips. Usually, when there’s a reading or band, he stands in back, leaning on the counter, enjoying the show. Occasionally he even joins in himself, yelling jovially back and forth with performers. It’s endearing.
“When we started I feared it was gonna be an ‘old man’ bar. A lot of people with a lot of odd stories that you weren’t sure were lies or not… The psychiatrist who ‘treated’ Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Farley and gets a call from Yoko Ono every Christmas… The guy who worked for the CIA and fought in Honduras.
“Those were the early days,” he finishes. “But no more.”
“Do you miss them?” I ask.
“I do actually,” he says. “A lot of those people have now passed on.”
Hungry Brain opens every day at 8 PM and closes at 2 AM, 3 AM on Saturdays. The drinks are cheap enough, the company’s pretty good, and the jukebox ain’t bad. Stop by and say hi to The Bartender.
Mason Johnson, CBS Chicago