The Congress Plaza Hotel

fig. a; ca. 1913.

I used to believe that I could only work in absolute silence.

Being in Chicago’s South Loop, such a luxury as the absence of bustle is hard to come by. But lately I’ve grown fond of the humdrum of routine business that occurs at The Congress Plaza Hotel.

Its charm has largely faded; like a distant cousin of Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, the Congress Plaza, once an illustrious and renowned establishment, stands as a shade of its former glory, lending to it an eerily nostalgic quality that draws a wide arrangement of characters.

The constant leak of guests into the bar, where I sit beneath a blue blinking Miller Lite sign mounted on a brick pillar, supplies enough snatches of stories and whispers of tales to last me long after each visit:.

One evening, two gentlemen put a dollar in the pool table and set up a game that lacked much action, but made up for in conversation. One gentleman, addressing the ball, explained how his father used to play pool with a drumstick, such as a musician would employ.

He’d stand with one hand behind his back, the other gripping the butt of the drumstick, aimed at the cue ball. With a jab reminiscent of an advance thrust with a rapier, he’d lunge, propelling the ball directly to the desired target. Each time he landed a hit so perfectly measured it could be nothing but an act of pure talent.

On a separate occasion, a group of older women dressed as flappers for some themed event at a restaurant gathered around the bar to take pictures. Two carried parasols; the cloche hat and string of pearls, as expected, completed each guest’s ensemble. Chattering away, they feiged the “Charleston” as they scuttled onto the street.

There was a time when I would have considered such happenings only distractive, detracting from my work. But I see now that the coming and going of so many stories bleeds into my own, giving it a time-stamped flavor, such as that a fine wine would accrue after years in the cellar.

In the Congress Plaza, I lose a sense of age. The hotel itself, its smorgasbord of guests, the archaic popcorn machine that now serves as a shelf supporting a single potted plant — these becomes environmental fixtures of my writing, unique to the location in which it was conceived.

Put simply, they color it — perhaps a worn navy blue or unpolished gold.

Without this constant influx of travelers and tales, it would not be so welcoming a place. The halls would sing emptily of stories long told, never to be heard again. Instead, they ring clear.

Thank goodness for it’s noise.