Loving Travel Blog Post Paints a Loving Portrait of “Vegetable Bingo” At The Hideout


My wife and I celebrated our anniversary, and my birthday, by going to Chicago for three nights. My wife plans these trips and occasionally consults with me. We were packing a lot in.

-Nice downtown hotel booked cheaply on an internet travel site.
-Dinner at a Pilsen steakhouse restaurant with the kids.
-Chilling at a lakeside beach
-Dinner at a hip new place complete with street-side seating, people watching, and happy hour
-Discussion of a new book by its author at the nearby American Writer’s Museum
-Matinee performance of True West at Steppenwolf
-Drinks and live blues with friends at Rosa’s on West Armitage
-Vegetable Bingo at the Hideout

Wait. Vegetable bingo? How did that make the list?

At dinner my daughter and her partner suggested we join them at the Hideout the following evening for a weekly event that benefits neighborhood gardens. Years earlier she had been part of creating such a garden, Mindful Living, in Logan Square. All volunteer, city-sanctioned, neighborhood supported. We visited. It was a labor of love.

There are 1800 such gardens throughout Chicago and the surrounding area. An organization called NeighborSpace (www.neighbor-space.org) preserves and sustains gardens on behalf of community groups through property ownership, insurance, water, education, tool lending, project planning, fundraising support, and more. With that support, community groups operating gardens like Mindful Living can focus on gardening, generating food, beautifying neighborhoods, engaging families and contributing to safer neighborhoods. The Hideout had the idea to help gardens, hooked up with NeighborSpace, and Vegetable Bingo was on.

Our daughter Moe described it much more simply, giving us the elevator speech version.

“The Hideout gives up their backroom every Wednesday to help out the gardens and maybe sell a few more drinks, a different community garden gets the bingo profits every week, and it’s a lot of fun. (Moe understands collaboration). You should come.”

So we did. We have been to the Hideout before. As its name suggests, it has a colorful history.

Legend has it the Hideout was built, slapped up might be a better verb, in 1881 with building materials of an unknown origin by area factory workers who needed a boarding house. It became a public house serving alcohol in 1916 and continued serving throughout prohibition as a neighborhood tavern and speakeasy. It never had a name, until it was required to as a legal bar in 1934. Even after gaining a name, it did not sport a sign proclaiming it until 1996.

The wooden two-story Hideout is inconveniently located on West Wabansia in an industrial area between Lincoln Park and Bucktown. Its neighborhood is changing. The Hideout now finds itself on the very edge of the proposed Lincoln Yards development. Across the street, where they tore down a big Chicago Streets and Sanitation facility, they built a soccer field. Regular patrons are worried for the Hideout’s future. My guess is any dive joint in existence since 1881 will find a way to survive even the best of times.

Vegetable Bingo is held in the back room which was added on in 1954. It’s where bands play, when they are not jammed in the corner of the bar. Sometimes bands play in both places. It’s musical heaven for tunes of all genres. Playing the Hideout is a distinct Chicago honor. Robbie Fulks played there every Monday night for six years beginning in 2011. Their house band, Devil in a Woodpile, can still be seen regularly in the back room. The cover charge is only $5.

Music is not all they do back there. In addition to Vegetable Bingo, they started and still maintain a popular event known as Soup and Bread, an ongoing community meal and hunger relief fundraiser, and are hosts to a couple of local TV shows, First Tuesdays put on by reporters from Chicago Reader and Propublica, as well at The Interview Show produced by WTTW. Quite the place. Eclectic to say the least.

I like it because it is one of the few Chicago places where you can get a drink at a reasonable price. Last Wednesday they were selling cans of PBR for $3 and bottles of Old Style and Miller High Life for $4. Thank you god for reasonable prices and a non-snooty (non-snotty?) vibe in a metropolitan area. I love it there.

My wife and I got there early from the Steppenwolf matinee. The Hideout opens at 4:00. We sat at the picnic tables on the front patio till then. There was a beautiful breeze off the lake. It was quiet. If you forgot about the city for a moment you might think you were sitting at some old place in the Illinois Valley. After a while a young guy opened the door and invited us in. Low ceilings, ancient bar, scuffed floor, a beer can collection in a glass case on the wall by our table, various clever hand-written signs. We ordered coffee with shots. Believe it or not the bartender carded us.

A young woman we’d talked to outside took a stool at the bar and was soon joined by her boyfriend. They sat close together and touched constantly. I took them as Hideout regulars. A steady stream of people walked past us to the back room carrying bins of vegetables, empty straw baskets, various gear. They set up a makeshift table near the entrance and filled it with old bingo cards. Three for $10. Vegetable Bingo was getting ready to go. Moe texted.

Moe-Do they have a grill set up in the front?

Dad-Not yet.

Moe-I’ll bring food.

Dad-Sounds good.

Moe-Save 6 seats. They fill up.

Dad-Will do.

Our son Dean texted soon after.

Dean-Stayed late, bad traffic. Won’t be home till 7:00. Can’t make it.

Dad-That’s OK. We’ll see you soon anyway.

Dean-Have fun.

Dad-Will do.

Texting it so right to the point. I love it for that. Dean just started a good new job and is working a lot of hours. He seemed energized when we all had dinner together two nights before. Our kids have a lot going on in their lives. I’m just glad we can be part of it.

I realized spots were being taken quickly at the folding tables in the back room. I laid claim to six and spread our stuff around on the chairs. I won’t say we were the oldest people there, but it was close between us and the owners who came in and made a brief appearance.

The young people who asked about the availability of our other four chairs were so nice when we claimed dibs on them. It was a big mix of folks. Some well-dressed coming off work, others in tattered shorts and t-shirts, tattoos, dreadlocks, bald heads. No matter what they were wearing or how they looked they seemed relaxed. There was a lot of laughter.

They seemed to have regular places to sit, and most brought snacks if not dinner.

Moe and Don showed up with fat falafel sandwiches, spicy hummus, soft warm pita bread and stuffed grape leaves. Along with it were little containers of a creamy red pepper paste and cucumber sauce. We don’t get those kind of eats in Ottawa. The sandwiches were so big my wife and I split one.

“How much for the sandwiches?” I asked.

“Four bucks. Good cheap place near the store.”

Moe and a business partner have a business in the Fulton Market district on Randolph. I didn’t think there was anything cheap there. Goes to show if you know what you’re doing you can still find a bargain in Chicago.

Her business partner, Liz, came with her baby, who we hadn’t seen since Memorial Day. Amazing how much he’d grown over the summer and how alert and inquisitive he was. He took a liking to the pita bread in a big way. He was busy but well behaved.

Adults who brought kids stayed on the patio our front. Older kids played bingo along with their parents. They had good speakers out there so the numbers could be heard from the stage in back. It was a beautiful night. Eventually, they began selling hot dogs in the front, at $3, a pop as an additional way to raise money for the garden. Little in the way of fresh condiments though. I kept thinking I could grab one of the big white onions I’d seen going up on stage and chop one up so the hot dog eaters could have a more authentic Chicago hot dog experience, but it was not my gig.

As we began to eat, Vegetable Bingo at the Hideout kicked off. The bingo caller was a young guy with big black frame glasses and a voice with a satiric twist to it. He began by admitting it was his first time calling bingo. He was helped by a young woman who seemed to know him and was originally from Peoria. Throughout the evening he made lame references to Peoria that no one got. In fact, his attempts at humor had people groaning. His corniness itself was fun.

Part of the deal with anyone calling bingo are the clever side remarks the caller makes about the numbers. Without it, bingo calling is pretty mundane. Say the letter and the number clearly, repeat it and move on to the next.

I used to call bingo (very loudly) at the nursing home when I worked as a nurse’s aide. At the home, I had to wake my players up. Other aides would stand over residents and cover spots on their card they missed. A lot of dozing took place among the senior set. The Hideout crowd was much more animated.

When someone from the crowd called BINGO, the crowd would loudly chant as one PROVE IT! PROVE IT! until the potential winner climbed onto the stage, verified the numbers and letters with the woman from Peoria, and claimed their prize. Behind the Bingo set up was a table loaded with nice baskets of vegetables, and a few other things; 4 packs of hoppy craft beer, a coffee per week for a year from some obscure espresso place. But the crowd was clearly there for vegetables, both to win them, support those who grew them, and eat them.

I got close several times. There was a big ass basket of kale I planned to choose if I won that eventually went to someone else. My daughter Moe won and came back with a basket of heirloom cherry tomatoes and very sleek purple and tan striped eggplants. Her partner Don immediately had recipe ideas for the eggplant.

We stayed till the last number was called, and then the crowd made its way to the bar. It had been a long day. Colleen and I said our goodbyes and grabbed an Uber, leaving the young people behind.

As we traveled back downtown, I began thinking about Chicago and how we imagine it as downstaters. Some of us ascribe violence and danger to the entire city, are intimidated by its size, puzzled by its neighborhoods, blown away by both the traffic and the transportation systems designed to avoid it, and generally at a loss as to how to navigate it all. We know cities offer much more, not only culturally but overall, yet we are dubious about how day to day life feels. When downstaters pop into the city for a few days they can easily feel anonymous and small.

We tend to believe small towns have an edge on creating community. And that may be true to some extent. But a community is not defined by city limits. Community is the bond you feel to others through relationships and membership in groups. Community gardens; the people who plant and tend them, and the people who support them, are an example. Who would think a sliver of Chicago dwellers would be bound together by kale and zucchini? The feeling in the pop-up bingo parlor in the backroom at the Hideout that night, even the Hideout itself, was of shared values and enjoyment.

Community is where you find it, and if you look closely you will find that community abounds in Chicago and other big cities. You may have to look for it in unusual places, but don’t ever think it’s not there. The crowd at Vegetable Bingo was young and hungry. Hungry for vegetables, but also hungry for a sense of belonging. I think they found both inside that beat-up old building on Wabansia. I know my wife and I did. It may have been the nicest part of our short stay in the city our kids have taught us to appreciate.

This article was originally posted on the blog daveintheshack.