Wednesday, January 19, 2011

North America's Last Guillotine

A guillotine sliced just once in North America, in 1889 on the island of St-Pierre, a stone's throw from eastern Canada. You can see it at the L'Arche Museum there.

Monsieur Neel had killed another man in a booze-fueled fight and was sentenced to die by the blade. Only one problem: St-Pierre didn't have a guillotine, so the islanders had to import one from Martinique. There was no executioner either. So the islanders convinced another prisoner - Monsieur Legent - to pull the lever in return for a reduced sentence.

As promised, Legent dropped the timbers of justice. The locals then shunned him. He was unable to get food or shelter and eventually had to be evacuated to France. The Juliette Binoche movie version bypasses that part of the storyline.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Al Capone and St-Pierre

In Chicago we have Capone sites such as the St Valentine's Day Massacre lot and Holy Name Cathedral. But I ran into more Capone recently while working on the island of St-Pierre.

St-Pierre floats 15 miles from eastern Canada, near the province of Newfoundland (which I cover for Lonely Planet's Canada book). The fog-mantled little land mass is a territory of France, complete with berets, baguettes and Bordeaux. Back in the day it was forsaken and lawless.

Enter Capone. When Prohibition dried out the U.S.'s kegs in the 1920s, he set up shop in St-Pierre. He transformed the sleepy fishing harbor into a booming port that hauled in 300,000 cases of alcohol each month. Bottles were removed from their crates, placed in smaller carrying sacks and taken secretly to the U.S. coast by rum runners. Cutty Sark whiskey crates piled so high on St-Pierre's docks that locals started using the wood to build houses. Some homes are still around - as is the bootlegging supposedly.

So they may be toasting Capone on St-Pierre today, as Jan. 17 is his birthday. In Chicago, groupies typically mark the day at Capone's gravesite at Mt Carmel Cemetery in suburban Hillside, leaving offerings of whiskey or a Cuban cigar.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Flo's Algiers Lounge

If your gramma decked out her basement like a tiki bar, the result would be Flo's. Faux palm trees sway, lights twinkle, and plastic baskets of pretzel sticks tempt on the formica tables. The bar is in a converted drycleaner's building. Flo and her husband bought it 30+ years ago. He died, Flo got a gun, whipped up some pierogies to serve with her Budweiser, and kept the place going. The rest is history as only a Chicagoan like Flo can tell it.

The sassy octogenarian will give you an "Impeach Mayor Daley" bumper sticker. She'll tell you dirty jokes. She'll bring ice for your whiskey via a shopping cart from the back room (because those damn ice bags are heavy).

Once a month Flo hosts the Revolutionary Swing Orchestra. The 15-piece brass band plays oldies and polka tunes for a rockin' crowd of mostly senior citizens. Catch the next gig on Jan. 22 starting at 9pm.

Flo's is at 5436 W Montrose Ave in Portage Park.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Vonnegut Library/Museum Opens

The new Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library has opened in downtown Indianapolis. Why Indy? Because Vonnegut was born and raised there, of course.

“All my jokes are Indianapolis. All my attitudes are Indianapolis. My adenoids are Indianapolis. If I ever severed myself from Indianapolis, I'd be out of business," Vonnegut once said.

The library/museum is currently open Fridays and Saturdays. After the official kickoff party on January 29, it'll extend hours to weekdays. Other quotes to tide you over until then:

•    Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God. Cat's Cradle
•    All persons, living and dead, are purely coincidental. Timequake
•    Why don't you take a flying fuck at a rolling doughnut? Slapstick
•    So it goes. Slaughterhouse Five

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Chicago Food Trucks

You probably know Chicago lags behind its big-city counterparts in the food truck department. While technically we have trucks that sell food - like 'naan-wich' seller Gaztro-Wagon, sammie man Meatyballs Mobile, and thick-icing'ed Flirty Cupcakes - the chefs must prepare all their chow in a licensed kitchen offsite, according to current city law.

Food trucksters are hoping to change the regulations so food can be cooked fresh to order onboard. Check their website - - for updates. In the meantime, new trucks continue to hit the road. The newest, rolling as of last week, is Sweet Miss Givings, a brownie/cookie/muffin purveyor who gives 51% of proceeds to charity.

Check the Tribune's food truck Twitter feed for locations of all the local trucks.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Snowman vs Sandman

It doesn't suck when your job requires travel to the Caribbean during winter - especially when you live in Chicago. For comparison purposes:
  • Average temperature Chicago vs Virgin Islands: 29 degrees/84 degrees
  • Average water temp: 42 degrees/79 degrees
  • Average rum shot price: $3/1
But when it comes to Chicago snowman vs VI sandman in an alley fight, I'll take  Chicago.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Buh Bye BoA Cinema & Wonder Bar

As the new year rolls in, we bid adieu to a couple of long-standing if under-the-radar Chicago entertainment venues.

1. Bye, Bank of America Cinema - For 38 years this oddball movie house - hidden in an obscure northwest side bank building - screened Hollywood classics like Laurel and Hardy along with themed series such as "Mustache Cinema" (where one might watch Mutiny on the Bounty, the only Clark Gable movie where he's sans 'stache).

2. Underground Wonder Bar - Lonie Walker's teeny jazz and blues club has been open every night for 21 years in the Gold Coast and given many newbie musicians the chance to cut their chops. Established musicians, too - Liza Minnelli and Tiny Tim rank among the eclectic crooners who've grabbed the mic.

In both cases, the venues fell victim to new landlords who kicked them out. The cinema is hoping to start up again as a Wednesday night series at the Portage Theater. The Wonder Bar is trying to move to a new site at 736 N Clark St.