April 23, 2010

Alum puts new spin on “biker bar”

John Greenfield (AB ’93) has not always been a part of the Chicago bike and beer scene. But now both his work and play revolve around cycling, drinking, and the promotion of both. An avid long distance cyclist for years, John decided to make a grand trip across the United States and write about his experiences. In keeping with his beer-y ways, he stopped and supported the local bars and pubs that are quickly becoming a rarity. The Maroon caught up with him to discuss his book—Bars Across America—his book launch party (free tonight in Logan Square starting at 9 p.m.), and being mistaken for a hobo.

Chicago Maroon: What inspired you to take this trip?

John Greenfield: My brother did a trip like this a couple years ago. He hurt his knee after he got back so he can’t really ride any more, but I thought it was really cool. Really impressive. So I decided to do it. The book is part guide book, part travelogue, part ode to the vanishing local tap. If there’s a message to take from the book it’s that unique, mom-and-pop, local stuff like local bars and taverns should be cherished and shouldn’t be taken for granted. As society gets more and more homogenized, they’re going to be less common.

CM: You’re part of beer appreciation in Chicago—can you explain that a little?

JG: You’re referring to the Draught Beer Preservation Movement, which is more of a tongue-in-cheek venture. Once a year I would put on a pub crawl, checking out bars on side streets and places people might not have noticed before or it might not have occurred to them to stop in, like, for example, that tavern on the side street that doesn’t even have a name, just an ‘Old Style’ sign on the outside. Bars are one of the few local businesses that encourage mingling among strangers.

CM: Can you explain the connection between biking and beer?

JG: There’s a lot of tie-ins between the rise in recent years of a bicycling boom and there’s also been a boom in beer appreciation, particularly draught beer and beer pubs. For example, there’s the Handlebar, a bar in Wicker Park that was founded by a couple of my friends who met during the Critical Mass bike ride.

CM: Were you involved in the UChicago bike scene when you were an undergrad here?

JG: When I first came to college, it didn’t even occur to me to bring a bicycle along. I went to college in the early nineties and the scene was a lot quieter then. That was before Chicago added bike lanes or installed bike racks. I think I only really got into bicycling when I worked as a bike messenger for the first time, in my junior year of college.

CM: Is that as dangerous a job in Chicago as it is in, say, New York?

JG: There are obvious dangers—you’re dealing with live traffic. If you’re riding, say, a brakeless fixed gear, they tend to get into crashes and break something once a year. But you know I don’t think there’ve been a whole lot of on-the-job deaths of bike messengers in Chicago.

CM: What was the most surprising part of the trip?

JG: I was kind of surprised how much I liked riding in Iowa. Maybe it was because I had just finished riding through Nebraska and that was pretty hellish. But as soon as I crossed the Missouri River into Iowa, it was like night and day. Immediately the people were friendly, the scenery was lush and green. Instead of being Monstanto factory farms and monoculture, it was family farms.

CM: You joined with the annual bike ride across Iowa (RAGBRAI) for a couple of days and seemed a little shocked by the debauchery. Were you expecting such a spectacle?

JG: I kind of knew what I was getting into. I knew that RAGBRAI, in some respects, is kind of a rolling frat party. I was a little disappointed, because I thought people would think it was really cool that I was going across country with four front and back panniers, but instead I felt like a little bit of an outsider riding by myself. I think I’d like to go back and do RAGBRAI with a group of friends. I think that would be really fun.

CM: You say a couple of times in the book that you were mistaken for a hobo. Is that a danger in a cross country trip?

JG: [laughing] I’ve decided that when you’re bike touring you should shave. Every day. That way it’s clear to people that you’ve taken a bath.

CM: What do you do now?

JG: I write freelance for some of the weeklies and I help edit a bicycling magazine called Momentum. I also work a little bit at a friend’s bike shop. I think bicycling is a theme that’s run through my life for a while. A lot of stuff I do is bike related. I play music too, and I’ve written some songs about bicycling.

It’s great to do a big trip like this, but people should keep in mind that there’s lots of bicycle adventures you can have without leaving the Midwest or the Chicago area. Even if you can’t get away for two months, you can get away for a weekend.

A book I would recommend is Chicago’s Best Dive Bars to check out some interesting local taps. I’m trying to think if there are any Hyde Park bars in there—The Cove and Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap are in there...although, to be honest, he doesn’t give very flattering reviews of those bars.