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Midnight at the Oasis

Andersonville's Jamaican Getaway

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By Neal Pollack

When it comes to partying, Jamaicans are known for starting late. That's why no one's surprised when Cheslon Granville strolls into the Soul Jam Limited, the bar that he owns in Andersonville, at 11:30 PM for his own 51st birthday celebration. It's a steambath outside, and Soul Jam's patrons are dressed accordingly, but he's wearing a neatly pressed white suit, a red silk shirt, buffed white suede shoes, and a gold crown. He looks and smells good, better than anyone else in the club.

Everyone's happy to see Granville. They hug him, pose with him for photos, slap his back, and generally admire his presence. Granville, who is quiet and not usually showy, doesn't really seem to mind the attention, but he makes his way to a far corner of the room by the end of the bar and waits for people to come to him.

"I love the people in this neighborhood," he says. "I been coming here a long time. I picked this neighborhood number one. Every different kind of people come here. I like fifty-fifty people, black and white, whatever, because that's what I know."

A woman comes up to Granville and envelops him.

"Happy birthday, baby," she says.

"Thank you," he says shyly.

"You look like a king."

"Oh," he says. "No. Oh, no."

In the back room of Soul Jam's narrow low-ceilinged basement, shirtless Jamaican men play a wicked game of dominoes under a bare, swinging lightbulb. They're hunched around a table, slapping down tiles with smoking speed and shouting over the music--the basement also houses monolithic speakers and a DJ booth that contains thousands of reggae records by artists like Dennis Brown, Frankie Paul, Gregory Isaacs, and Buju Banton.

Soul Jam is a squat little bar on Clark Street between Foster and Berwyn. It's decorated with chipped tropical murals and roughly painted palm trees. On the floor is a glitter-flecked, well-trod red carpet. There's a pool table, a dart board, more million-watt speakers, and not much else. The bar mainly attracts Jamaicans from around the city, but also neighborhood people: a mix of whites, blacks, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Chinese, Arabs, and Native Americans. In a basement kitchen Enid Barrett works over an ancient Westinghouse Continental oven, stirring up a pot of beans and rice and preparing enormous quantities of jerk pork and curried goat.

"The only beauty about this bar," Barrett says, "is the clientele."

Barrett came to Chicago nearly four years ago from Trelawney, in the Jamaican mountains, to join her husband, who had been here for ten. When she arrived, she was also reunited with Granville, her closest childhood friend. Granville, who has worked as a mechanic for the Robinson Bus Service for 16 years, had just bought the bar in 1990, but when Barrett found him, he was already despondent and close to giving it up. His mechanic's job only allowed him to be there on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. He was also trying to raise two preteen daughters, and as a result, business was suffering. Barrett couldn't help but step in. Like all Granville's "employees," she works for food and drink and holds down another job during the day.

Before Soul Jam, Granville was a weekend DJ at the now-defunct Silent Nights, a reggae club on Clark Street, where he developed a substantial following. When the club shut down, he took his sound system home to Rogers Park, but there the dub kept his neighbors awake, not to mention his children. So he bought a neighborhood bar called the Star Inn, and turned it into Soul Jam.

"Granville has to have something to do," Barrett says. "It's his hobby. And it doesn't matter to him if he's not making a lot of money as long as the bar can keep itself going. As long as it pays [its own] bills and it's not out of his pocket, then he won't mind not making a bundle of money. It's something he wanna do.

"This is one of the friendliest bars I have ever seen. Since I started working at this bar, I've been hopping around bars, a thousand bars. This bar, you come in, you're free. You can talk all you want to. People listen to you when you come in here. It just takes maybe one or two or three visits, and it's like you become a part of here. And everybody knows you. We look after you. We watch your back. Like you've been here forever."

Granville has few rules, but he is very strict about the ones he has. The first is: no fighting.

"I have been out here for four years, and we haven't had the cops in here, not even one time," says Barrett. "We haven't had no fights in four years. We haven't called the police. The bar's very clean. We're proud of that. We went to get the license last year, me and Granville went down, and they said this is one of the best bars. Number one on Clark Street."

She pours a bag of basmati rice into an enormous soup pot. She stirs a tray of goat, tosses it once, and puts it back in the oven.

"Granville was always near perfect," she continues. "No matter how a thing look big, he can break it down small, very small. If someone has an argument, he'll just walk in and make it very, very simple. It will be over and done with. He's near perfect. Wise. Very wise."

The other rule is: absolutely no marijuana allowed. If he catches anyone lighting up a joint, in the bathroom or the basement or anywhere, he immediately shuts the place down.

"A lot of people walk into this bar and think there's something else going on, but there's not," Barrett says. She recalls an incident a few weeks ago, during Andersonville's Midsommar Fest. A guy walked into Soul Jam waving a $10 bill.

"Let me have a dime," he said.

"What?" said Barrett.

"A dime."

"What are you talking about? You should ask me please."

"Dime!"

"I don't have dimes for a $10 bill."

"No, a dime bag."

"And I was like, 'Get out of here!'" Barrett says. "We're Jamaicans, but you know what? We're clean. You want marijuana, you gotta go somewhere else. I always growed up around the stuff. I have never touched it once in my life. Most people think we smoke pot all the time. Pot. If Granville ever comes down in the basement, and if he ever, ever smell anything, he has a fit. This place could be big, if we wanted the crap. But because we don't do the crap, we lost a lot of clientele. That's fine with us. We've got our friends."

By 12:30, the birthday party has grown to about 150, and Granville's patrons are effusive in their praise for him:

"It's the only mixed-race club around."

"Granville, he treats everybody equal."

"Your first visit here will make you want to come back here for the rest of your life in Chicago."

"They fit you in, Granville and Enid. They make you have a good time in the best way possible."

The bass is rib-shaking, lung-filling. The bar vibrates. Women in vinyl pants groove with men in cotton shirts. The pool cues dart and the darts fly. Clothes slide off, sweat drips, tattoos flash. In the basement, members of the Buffalo Troopers motorcycle gang are dancing hard-core soca.

"Granville!" somebody shouts, "It's hot in here! Whaddya think this is, Jamaica?"

"This is nothing," says Granville, who is not dancing and has not sweat a drop. "It's just body heat."

The food is served heaping and spicy on paper plates at 1:30 AM. The dancing continues and will until three, when Soul Jam shuts down. After that, Granville and Barrett usually walk over to the Lakeview Lounge, a country bar on Broadway. "Reggae music is Jamaican heritage, and most Jamaicans hang out where reggae music is," Barrett says. "But Granville and I, we're different. We go to five o'clock country bars. That's where we hang out. We do the steps since we came here, so we're keeping to the bars where we can do this at. I love country. Granville love country."

Barrett has moved upstairs, where she's working the bar. Granville's still standing modestly off to the side, singing with the music, flirting a little, and drinking E & J brandy.

"He's overwhelmed," Barrett says. "This party is very special for him. He has not had birthday parties. I gave him one last year, his 50th, and I give him this one. He's never had birthday parties like that before." Granville receives more hugs, handshakes, and back pats.

The DJ stops the music and calls upstairs over the sound system: "I'm going to ask for everyone to step down inside the basement. Granville has asked that everybody step into the basement. There's more food and music for all, and room for everybody to dance."

Granville smiles. "See, it's my birthday," he says, and downs another shot of E & J, "but it's their bar."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Cheslon Granville and photo of Enid Barrett by Lloyd DeGrane.

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