The Mirage: Booze, Corruption and Delusion

by Mark Hahn

[Photo by Jim Frost for Chicago Sun-Times]

In the late 1970’s, the Chicago Sun-Times opened a fake tavern called the Mirage. It was on the corner of Wells and Superior in downtown Chicago. The Mirage was a setup to catch city inspectors and officials in the act of accepting bribes. A number of crooked tax accountants were also caught up in the sting operation as well. The Sun-Times reporters used hidden cameras and sound recording devices to document the corrupt practices as they occurred. Chicago has a long history of corruption in government at all levels.

The Sun-Times shut down the Mirage on Halloween in 1977. The story broke in 1978 and made the national news. I moved into a flat directly above the Mirage in 1980 shortly after the building was sold to a new owner. The tavern was renamed and reopened under new management. No one was ever prosecuted. Life went on.

The Sun-Times chose the Wells location because the cockroach and rat infested building would never pass a building or health inspection without either bribes being paid or extensive work being done. They had no intentions of doing the work. The building was constructed in 1871 shortly after the great Chicago Fire. It had not been maintained for years. The four bedroom flat I rented was heated by a single unsafe gas heater. Most of the lights and outlets did not work because of the frayed wiring. You could hear rats in the walls at night. The windows were in such bad repair that, in the winter, snow fell on the sills inside and never melted.

I set up the tiny back room with an old oak desk, a half broken turn of the century office chair, a home built bookshelf and a metal filing cabinet. The one  window in the room was blackened with a hundred years of soot. No natural light made its way inside. This is where sat up at night and did my writing.

My first typewriter was my dad’s old  Smith Corona with its cracked and blocked letters — Perry Mason would have no problem identifying a ransom note written on that thing. My dad wrote three books on it. When I moved into the Wells Street Apartment, I moved up to a new electric typewriter. It had a built in correction ribbon — a big deal for the time. For those that never wrote on an old typewriter, having a built in correction ribbon was a huge step forward. Even so, free writing on any mechanical typewriter was difficult, especially when you were drunk. You had to decide how many mistakes you’d accept before you’d just pulled out the sheet of paper and threw it on the floor. Some nights, I ended up with nothing but a crumpled mound of typing paper surrounding my office chair.

In Billy Wilder’s Lost Weekend, the connection between drunken writer and his typewriter is beautifully portrayed. Tormented novelist Don Birnham (played by Ray Milland), struggles to write on a classic black Remington. When Birnham emotionally gives up at one point, he decides to try to pawn it for booze money. He carries the typewriter from one pawn shop to another. You can feel its weight in your hands.

Sometimes at night, while sitting in this room, I was startled by shadowy figures walking past the window. I’d hear the creaking wooden landing outside my room. It always made me freeze. I’d attempt to keep the old chair from making a sound. I didn’t want anyone to know I was there. Then for hours afterward, I’d stay up trying to distinguish between more footsteps and the rats climbing around inside the walls.

If buildings hold memories of former inhabitants, this Wells Street apartment felt like it was filled with only unhappy ones. I imagined multiple murders and endless years loneliness lingering within these walls. It always felt like ghosts were hiding around every dark corner — just out of sight.

* * *

After a month or two, I noticed that inside the little room’s unused closet was another small window. The window could only be opened a few inches. This was enough for me to see a brick wall inside. The window opened into a sealed air shaft. The knowledge of this mysterious dark space filled me with curiosity and fear. Sometimes late at night, I imagined a presence behind the window. I would pause during my writing and imagine that I felt it. I had probably watched too many old horror movies. Then I had nightmares of being dragged into the dark shaft.

Finally, the mystery of what was inside the air shaft got the best of me. I gathered tools, lights and extension cords. It took more than an hour working with chisels, screwdrivers and a crowbar before I managed to get the little window to open. It was encased in a hundred years of old paint. The window was so small that I was only able to put my head into the shaft after I got it open. There was no light at all inside the shaft.

I took an automobile trouble light and hung it inside the shaft. It shed enough light to illuminate most of the interior near the window. With this light, I could see other small dark windows that led to other apartments. Looking up, the shaft faded into complete darkness. The shaft must have been sealed years ago.

I lowered the trouble light deeper into the shaft. As the metal hood of the trouble light clinked along the brick wall, the bottom of the shaft slowly became illuminated. On a pile of broken rubble rested a suitcase with an old man’s hat sitting on top of it. The suitcase couldn’t have fit through any of the windows so I wondered how it had gotten inside the shaft.

With Chicago’s rich gangster heritage, it was easy to imagine that this was the scene of an old unreported gangland murder. I couldn’t help thinking that maybe the suitcase was full of bootlegger’s cash or stolen jewels. Excitement seized me.

I was a young struggling artist and writer at the time. I was poor. I was stealing toilet paper from the corner restaurant because I didn’t have enough money to buy it. When I bought booze and cigarettes, I’d buy ten packages of ramen noodles so I could eat. A suitcase full of cash could change my life.

No one knew what was in it. It was my discovery. All I had to do was get it out. It crossed my mind that there might even be a body buried in the rubble.

The suitcase was maybe 30 ft down. Getting at it was not an easy task. I sat at my desk puzzling how to do it while also wondering what I would do if it really was filled with cash. I smoked cigarettes and drank vodka tonics. I didn’t write, I just dreamed.

There were old pieces of wood piled outside under the fire escape. I dragged some of them into the apartment. Using nails and duct tape, I constructed a long pole with a hook on the end. It all had to be constructed inside the air shaft without dropping it in. My plan was to hook the handle on the suitcase and slowly lift it up — hand over hand. When I tried to do this though, the suitcase flipped open to reveal that it was empty. A lot of time and work for nothing. The hat slid off the suitcase and came to rest on the rubble. Giving in to disappointment, I closed the window and sat in silence. Then I made another drink.

* * *

In Lost Weekend, Birnham had hallucinations of small animals while experiencing alcohol induced DT’s. He was tormented by a mouse and a bat. In a horrific scene, the bat ends up devouring the mouse. Birnham is driven to the point of insanity.

My only bout of DT’s occurred in the Wells St. apartment. After an extended binge on amphetamines and booze I was brought to the ground. I ended up on the cold wooden floor half naked. I shook with chills while sweating. I was gripped by irrational panic. In an effort to maintain my sanity, I held onto the floor. I was afraid what would happen if I let go of myself. I was afraid of where I’d end up if I started to run.

When Birnham was taken to the drunk ward in Bellevue Hospital, “Bin,” the cynical male nurse told him, “You know that stuff about pink elephants, that’s the bunk. It’s little animals. Tiny little turkeys in straw hats. Midget monkeys coming through the keyholes.”

For me it was beautiful women coming up through the floorboards. They drifted up through the cracks in the floor like cigarette smoke rising from the Mirage tavern down below. They took form around me like caring beautiful sexy beings. They gently put their hands against my cheeks to comfort me while looking into my eyes longingly. I looked into theirs.

After giving myself over to the ghostly form and opened my mouth to kiss her, she took her hands away from my face. Then put her fingers into her mouth and ripped the flesh off her face. She laughed at me maniacally. Her shiny skull bone face and gaping toothy mouth shone through the darkness. Her mocking laughter was worse than her horrific sight. She laughed to mock me for momentarily trusting her.

I laid still in my terror. I convinced myself that she wasn’t real. I tried to calm myself down. I closed my eyes.

As soon as I thought I could fall asleep, another ghost would rise from the cracks in the floor. This happened over and over again. Each time the ghost was more beautiful than the last. Each time when I saw the new one I told myself that I wouldn’t be tricked again. With each new apparition I ended up helplessly giving in. I didn’t want to be alone. The moment I gave in, the ghost would rip off her face and mock me worse than the last. The dark room was filled with laughter. Hours went by. Hundreds of beautiful ghosts pulled at me with promises of love. Each time it ended with another dead mouth and mocking laughter instead of the tender kiss I was longing for.

* * *

Unlike Birnam, I didn’t have anyone like his girlfriend Helen (played by Jane Wyman in the movie) to support me or my writing. I didn’t have anyone to help me get sober. No one gave me a reason to even be sober. I was alone. I only quit when I realized I had one life to live for myself. I decided I didn’t want to throw it away. Everything rested on me.

The reality is there is no heroism in getting sober, it is just choosing to get by, one day after another, without using. You don’t stand up in some AA/NA meeting, make a heartwarming speech to applause and are suddenly fixed. Addicts are addicts because that’s what they are. Addicts use because they like getting high. Alcoholics like being drunk. That’s what makes quitting so hard. It’s like a fat who who likes to eat and has to step away from a table hungry. We get where we are because we do what we want to do.

Writers romanticize their drunkenness. They tell themselves that it gives them divine insight. They cling to the experiences found at the edge of heaven and hell. Mythic drunken writers stir passions. Arthur Rimbaud, Malcolm Lowry and Charles Bukowski all come to mind. Everyone wants to frame their own struggle as an epic battle. We all want to feel that we are important.

I watched Lost Weekend on TV in the Wells Street apartment on a cold winter hangover Sunday. While Billy Wilder’s exploration into the dark side of alcoholism was groundbreaking for the time, it’s hard to say that he really captures the internal struggle of a drunken writer. He portrays alcoholism from the perspective of an outsider.

People ask, “Why don’t you just stop with one drink?” or “Why not just drink once in awhile, what harm is there in that?”

They don’t recognize the complexities of the addict. They don’t realize it is an all or nothing proposition. They don’t realize how easy it is to fall back into the habit — it is always one slip away.

In the end, Lost Weekend romanticizes the drunk’s struggle — Birnam heroically overcomes his addiction to alcohol and completes his novel, The Bottle. He dedicates it to the woman who loves him and stayed with him while he got sober. He is a new person. This is a drunken Hollywood fairy tale. In real life you are either an active drunk or you aren’t. You either use or you don’t. You will always be the same person.

I’ve been sober for twenty five years.

Art, love and life are all better sober.