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Using the Old Bean

Katerina Carson concentrates on making the coffeehouse of her dreams.



It happens time and again. A man, any man, will walk into the cafe and, trying to look as casual as possible, scan every inch of the place looking for her.

But he's come at the wrong time. Despite the fact that she spends 12, 14, even 16 hours a day here, she's sneaked out to visit a food vendor, or to pester the alderman about her liquor license application, or simply to catch a 20-minute nap.

The man will shrug and tell the barista, "Oh, I'll have a cup of the house blend." The barista will place a steaming cup of coffee before him. Anything else?

"No, no," he'll reply. Then he summons up his courage. "Is Katerina in?" he asks.

No, she'll be in later.

His shoulders sag slightly. "OK," he says. "Say, could you put that in a to-go cup? I've got to be somewhere."

He wasn't all that interested in coffee anyway. He really just wanted to see Katerina Carson.

At different times in her life a jazz singer, a schoolteacher, and a poet, Carson is currently the proprietor of Katerina's cafe on Irving Park Road. The neon sign says this place is a coffeehouse, and regular patrons know it as a great venue for eclectic live music. But it's so much more.

On a rainy May night Katerina's is almost empty. A college student clacks away at his laptop, a middle-aged guy labors over the New York Times crossword, and two women sit talking on the sofa near the front window. Carson is wringing her hands. "Oh my God," she says, "nobody's here." Half of her regular Wednesday-night jazz duo hasn't shown up--guitarist Andy Meacham has arrived, but singer Layni Katz couldn't make it. Meacham hurriedly called a woman he knows to fill in; she used to sing in local jazz clubs but gave it up a few years ago to have kids. Carson doesn't even know her name. "What if she's lousy?" she whispers. "What am I going to do?"

But the fill-in singer opens with a perfect rendition of Gershwin's "I've Got a Crush on You." She nods for Meacham to begin his solo as if they've been together 20 years. Carson puts her hand over her heart and breathes, "Oh, thank God!" Within 15 minutes she's convinced the college student, the middle-aged guy, and the two women to stop what they were doing and pay attention to the music. By the time the first set is over, the singer is grinning and a few more customers have wandered in. Carson rings up their orders--two medium cappuccinos, a spanakopita, and a slice of prosciutto and asparagus quiche--and crosses herself.

"By the time I was in second grade," Carson says, "I wanted to be a writer, a singer, a teacher, and an actor." Her parents, Spiro and Maria, Greek immigrants who met when they worked together in a Chicago men's clothing factory, later ran a restaurant, bar, and banquet hall at Desplaines and Milwaukee, across from the Blommer Chocolate Company. The Carsons lived above the restaurant until the building burned down when Katerina was two. "That was not Greek lightning," she hastens to explain. "That was the real thing." The family moved to Lincoln Square, and Spiro opened a new restaurant at Harrison and Wabash. "My older sister Frances and I got our musical education from the jukebox. We had hundreds and hundreds of 45s."

The two girls were latchkey kids. "Although we had a bunch of chores, we had all the freedom we wanted. But school was number one to our father. He wanted us to have university educations. By the time we were in our teens, we had all the classics in our library, from Dostoyevsky to Camus. We had an extremely strong work ethic but we were surrounded by the arts all our lives. We hardly saw our parents during the week, but Saturday was cleanup day and every Sunday after church was party day--we'd sing and dance, our family and guests, all day long."

Carson started a women's liberation group in her fourth-grade class. During high school she worked evenings at her father's restaurant and held countless other part-time jobs. She regularly cut classes so she could smoke at a nearby diner, but also staged musical revues in the auditorium and got elected senior class president. "I was the greatest con artist," she says. "Every day the principal would wave at me as I was walking out the door, cutting class. He'd say, 'I wish every student was like you.'"

A third little Carson, George, was born the day Elvis Presley died in August 1977. "Frances and I drove in her silver Vega listening to Elvis on our way to see the new light of our lives at Grant Hospital."

While she was earning her bachelor's degree in literature and theater at Northeastern Illinois University, Carson fell in love with a poet from Toronto. She visited him often, and he'd take her to boites, "these little places with food and drink and smoky singers and dark poets," she says. "Cafe society. They were very intimate and soulful.

"In Chicago, the parallel was Deni's Den on Clark Street. That's where my musical education continued. I saw the most poignant poets and songwriters there." She broke up with the poet, but "for the next 15 years I talked about it--I wanted to open my own boite, a little hole-in-the-wall."

Instead she taught literature, creative writing, and English as a second language at Northeastern and several community colleges. In her spare time, she sang jazz standards at small nightclubs and restaurants and wrote florid poetry. She studied improv at the Players Workshop and Second City. On her summer vacations she went to Europe; one year she joined a roundtable at the Dublin Writers Museum.

"I started thinking, 'My God, everybody works so hard in this country,'" she says. "Any country I would go to in Europe, the lifestyle and the rhythm were so different. Whether you were a farmer or a truck driver, you'd have time for the arts. Here, everybody's driving themselves crazy. I realized I wanted to create a place where time stands still."

So she quit teaching in the fall of 1999 and opened Katerina's the next February, after plunging into debt up to her ears. Like a cross between a theatrical producer and a NASA mission control manager, she oversaw every detail of the opening--the menu, the CD collection, the hiring of counter staff, the color scheme. The warm rust red walls are decorated with framed photos of Melina Mercouri, Billie Holiday, and Marlene Dietrich. The countertop is copper. The quiche is served with grapes, and don't think hours of consideration didn't go into the contrast between the reddish purple grapes and the tawny egg.

Carson instructs her staff how to stack wet cups in a perfect pyramid after washing them. She cleans beneath the coffee grinder, brewer, and espresso machine with alarming regularity. The Italian soda bottles are arranged like bowling pins. Even the gelato tubs in the display cooler seem arranged in a logical progression by color, like a sweet spectrum.

She also schedules a full slate of music and entertainment. Like Meacham and Katz on Wednesday nights, the John Brumbach Quartet are regulars on Thursday nights. Rembetika, Greek blues, is played on Friday nights, but the musicians are taking the summer off. Saturday nights she books jazz and Latin jazz, and on Sunday afternoons there's flamenco and classical guitar. Carson is making plans to bring a calypso band in this summer, as well as drummer George Fludas and pianist Ron Perillo. Earlier this year she staged a "celebration of erotic love and springtime" and on Valentine's Day a "dating game" hosted by Aaron Freeman. She's also setting up tributes to Gwendolyn Brooks and Maria Callas.

"She's so intense," says one customer. "I'll bet she even naps hard." Sure enough, one wintry afternoon she snatched some sleep on the sofa in the back of the cafe, half sitting and half lying, with one foot on the floor and the back of her hand resting on her furrowed brow.

Many of her customers have become her friends. There's Susan the illustrator, Stephanie the law student, Greg the filmmaker, and Amy the author, among many others. Carson regales them with tales of her love life, counsels them on their own romances, offers to lend them money when times are tight.

"I need a boost," says one regular, Dave, as he pulls up a stool on a bleak Thursday afternoon. "Gimme a triple-shot cappuccino."

"No," Carson says flatly. "Just a double shot. Three's too much."

"I don't know," he says. "This weather's been getting me down."

"You'll see," she replies, "you only need a double." She draws it up. Some 15 minutes later, Dave seems downright perky.

"Hey," he says, "this is starting to kick in."

She nods. "See, today was a double day."

Pinballing from one end of the counter to the other, Carson is a manic philosopher, spouting aphorisms that range from homespun to classical to ribald. When a discussion about Cary Grant turns to the actor's reputed bisexuality, she chimes in, "That reminds me of my friend Stephano. Every time I ask him how our mutual friend Vasily is doing, he replies very nonchalantly, 'He takes it from the front and behind; he's just fine.'"

Later a customer moans about the recent breakup of his marriage. Carson listens patiently, takes a deep drag on her Parliament, and offers this nugget: "My philosophical trilogy is expect the unexpected, believe the unbelievable, and never, ever, say never."

In March, an anonymous customer mailed her a cashier's check for $10,000. "To keep the arts alive," the customer wrote. "Onward." The money came at a perfect time--the piano needed new parts, and the ice machine was broken. She needed to buy some new equipment to meet liquor license requirements. On top of that, she'd just had her heart broken.

A few months after her opening she'd met a man from Germany in the cafe and they'd hit it off. He came back to visit three months later, and they fell madly in love. The two shared their dreams and made plans. He told her he'd visit again the last weekend of March. He never arrived. Carson was too proud to call him and demand an explanation--and anyway, she was $10,000 richer. "At 22, I would have longed for the love," she says. "Now at 39, I know a good thing when it happens."

In her world, every event teaches a larger lesson. The day after she kept Dave from overdosing on caffeine, the sun reappeared. She propped the front door open to draw in some fresh air, then sat at the end of the counter and lit up a cigarette. Before she could take a deep breath, her eyes became saucers. "Oh my God," she nearly shouted, and pointed toward the door. A half dozen customers spun in their seats. "What is it?" one asked. "A fly," Carson said. "Look." The customers squinted.

"I'm going to show you something," Carson said as she rolled up a New Yorker. "Flies have these big eyes that see everything. That's why you can't kill them, right? You're swinging and swatting and still they get away. It's their eyesight." To kill a fly, she explains, one must feint left and right several times before coming in for the death blow. She demonstrates this little dance. When the fly finally alights, she delivers a compact swat, sending it into the afterlife. "See?" she says, and then she closes the front door.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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