Stuart Dybek’s The Coast of Chicago, a collection of short stories (and some very short stories), is the third book I read for my Chicago reading project. Like the first two I read, Nelson Algren’s Chicago: City on the Make and Carl Sandburg’s Chicago Poems, the book captures a feeling about the city.
That was what I was looking for when compiling the reading list—a mix of non-fiction books to catch me up on history I missed and fictional works to help me understand the people that live here. The stories are almost all sad in some way, with death, misunderstandings, drownings, and other tragedies woven together with a sense of hope and optimism that feels as though it shouldn’t exist.
Pet Milk, the last story in the book, features one of the best passages about eating that I’ve ever come across:
Kate and I met at the Pilsen for supper on my twenty second birthday. It was May, and unseasonably hot. I’d opened my tie. Even before looking at the dinner menu, we ordered a bottle of Mumm’s and a dozen oysters apiece. Rudi made a sly remark when he brought the oysters on platters of ice. They were freshly opened and smelled of the sea. I’d heard people joke about oysters being aphrodisiac but never considered it anything but a myth—the kind of idea they still had in the old country.
We squeezed on lemon, added dabs of horseradish, slid the oysters into our mouths, and then rinsed the shells with champagne and drank the salty, cold juice. There was a beefy-looking couple eating schnitzel at the next table, and they stared at us with the repugnance that public oyster-eaters in the Midwest often encounter. We laughed and grandly sipped it all down. I was already half tipsy from drinking too fast, and starting to feel filled with a euphoric, aching energy. Kate raised a brimming oyster shell to me in a toast: “To the Peace Corps!”
“To Europe!” I replied, and we clunked shells.
She touched her wineglass to mine and whispered ”Happy birthday,” and then suddenly leaned across the table and kissed me.