Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Remembering Ric Hess, the Hilly Kristal of Chicago literature

I can’t claim to have been close friends with Ric Hess, the Chicago writer and restaurateur who died unexpectedly on Monday. We chatted from time to time and knew each other by name, but our relationship was more that of colleagues than friends. That didn’t keep Ric from playing a major role in my writing career.

People from outside of Chicago are often puzzled when I explain that city’s culture of readings in bars. I can understand that. In many people’s minds, literary readings are supposed to be mild-mannered affairs relegated to bookstores, coffee shops and maybe the occasional wine bar. Conversely, the accompanying entertainment to a night of drinking is supposed to be a karaoke machine, a raucous bar band or, if you’re feeling intellectual, a pub quiz. The Chicago scene is different, as I learned in my four years in the Fiction Writing Master’s program at Columbia College. Chicago, much to my delight, is peppered with writers unpretentious enough to debut their new stories in front of a hooting crowd of barflies, and bars open-minded enough to host them.

As the owner of Sheffield’s, Ric Hess was instrumental in shaping what I believe to be a genuine literary movement. In a neighborhood renowned for drunken hooliganism, he built up a classy yet welcoming bar and grill beloved by beer connoisseurs and gourmands. By opening his doors to Reading Under the Influence, Sexy Bald Men and other local reading events, he nurtured a vibrant, enthusiastic artistic community the likes of which I’ve never seen anywhere else. When I think of the key landmarks from my time on Chicago’s fiction writing scene, Sheffield’s is second only to Columbia College itself.

When you attended a reading at Sheffield’s, you weren’t just going out to hear some gasbag writers over-enunciating their meticulously groomed manuscripts. No, you were throwing yourself into the midst of a twisted, talented family of artists whose primary objective was to support, inspire and appreciate the hell out of one another. Any given Reading Under the Influence (RUI) installation could run the gamut from Julia Borcherts spinning a tale of an illicit romance with a Harry Caray impersonator to Rob Duffer reading a breathlessly detailed passage from Stephen Ambrose’s Undaunted Courage to Kathy Bergquist blessing the room with the most hilariously gruesome fisting scene ever committed to paper.

Ric presided over all this writerly rabble as both patriarch and participant. A damn fine writer himself, he sometimes graced the RUI stage with his tough, muscular prose and confident delivery. Most nights, though, he was behind the scenes. I’m sure many of the attendees had no idea who he was, or how instrumental he was in fueling the boisterous, breathtaking literary scene they were all a part of. If Sheffield’s was our CBGB, Ric was our Hilly Kristal, a courageous, innovative entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to put himself on the line for the art he believed in. Whether I was there to read or just listen, stepping into the back room always gave me a warm, welcome feeling, even before I got a pint of Red Hook in me. That’s not an easy effect to pull off, especially when you’re dealing with a group as mercurial as up-and-coming authors. As a reader, a writer, a drinker and a lover of the arts, I appreciate the hell out of Ric and all he did to facilitate that feeling.

Godspeed, Ric Hess. I wish I'd thanked you when I had the chance. For what it's worth, you damn sure made the world a better place than it was when you showed up.


  1. Great post, man.

  2. Julia Borcherts1/19/11, 12:45 AM

    Well said, Ira. What a beautiful tribute to a wonderful guy.

  3. Awesome. You hit on so many truths, from the mercurial group to the essence of a rare place like Sheffield's for good beer and great community. Thanks-Duffer

  4. Carly Huegelmann1/19/11, 12:58 PM

    Thanks Ira...beautiful.

  5. Thank you, Ira.