The Pump Room

Heather Haldeman
year, Grandmother Earth

“I wonder if the Pump Room’s still there?” was the first thing my 79 year-old mother asked.  Mom and I were flying to Chicago this weekend, where we planned to meet my daughter, Hilary, on her college break. 

“It was the first fancy bar and restaurant I’d ever been to,” she said, reminiscing. “The very first.  The night was magic.”

“How old were you?” I asked, assuming that she was probably in her twenties.

I should have known better than to assume anything with Mom. “Thirteen,” she replied.

Up until my stepfather’s death a year and a half ago, my mother traveled extensively.  Since then, she hadn’t gone anywhere, and the trip to Chicago was a big deal for her. She was so excited, she even renewed her passport.  “Mom, Chicago’s in the United States.  Not to worry.”

“But, my husbands always did everything,” she replied, referring to her three spouses. “I’m just making sure that I have what I need to get there.”

We arrived with plans to visit The Art Institute, take a city tour in a trolley car and see Chicago’s magnificent architecture on a river cruise.  But, all of this paled in comparison when Mom found that the Pump Room still existed in The Ambassador East Hotel. On top of that, Chicago still allowed smoking in bars.  

“Hot damn!” she exclaimed, being a true lover of nightlife.

“My god, there it is,” my mother shrieked as soon as the cab turned onto North State Parkway.  She acted as if this were her greatest thrill ever. 

The doorman, leapt to attention as our cab pulled up and greeted us with a cheery smile.  He welcomed us and extended a gloved hand to help Mom out of the cab.  

My mother, the consummate flirt, peered up at his nametag as soon as she got out.  “Don,” she said, “I’m Marilyn.” Then motioning to my daughter and me, she continued, “This is my kid and her daughter.  They’re taking me here for dinner.  I’m from California.  You know, the land of fruits and nuts.”

Bubbling from all the excitement, Mom was in rare form.  Hilary and I exchanged glances, and Don was fascinated.

“Can you believe that I haven’t been back here in 61 years!” she said to Don, who was obviously impressed.

Digging into my evening bag, I pulled out my camera and asked Don to take a group shot of the three of us with the hotel name prominently featured in the background.  “Well, Marilyn, it took you long enough to get back here,” he joked, handing back the camera.  “We’ve been waiting.”  

Don ushered us through the door into the stately old-world elegance of the Ambassador East lobby with its thick marble floors, brilliant chandeliers and ornate high ceiling. Wide-eyed, Mom said dreamily, “Just like I remembered it.” 

The Pump Room’s to your left,” Don said, taking Mom’s arm like a pro. “But, I’m going to escort THIS piece of history with me.”  Her blue eyes sparkled and her false eyelashes fluttered.

“Did you know that Chicago’s the city of Big Shoulders,” Mom said, as soon as we were seated at a small table in the bar area. “It’s true.” She plopped her gold lamé handbag on the tiny table lit by a votive candle.  “Carl Sandburg called it that in one of his poems.”

Impressed that my mother had read any poetry given the stack of hand-me-down tabloids she passed on to me each week, I nodded.  “Really?  Gosh Mom, how’d you remember that?”

“Oh, all the movie stars back in the ‘50s loved Carl Sandburg.”

“Angel,” the bartender, quickly appeared and took our drink order.  Before my mother could strike the match, he whipped out a lighter and gallantly lit the end of her slim cigarette.  Mom was in heaven.

Hilary asked if the bar area looked the same.  “Did all these photographs of famous people line the walls back then?”

“I don’t remember that,” Mom tasted the wine.  “Ahhh, the first sip.  Always the best.  Sorry, excuzzy.” She loved using her bastardized Italian.  

“The restaurant part of the Pump Room seems smaller,” she said, surveying the area adjacent to the bar.  “Like when you go back to your grammar school and the desks look all tiny. But, you remembered them looking big.”

After Mom finished her cigarette, we stepped down into the restaurant and snapped a few photos of her in Booth One, where many of the restaurant’s famous took up residence.  Then, we were seated at a larger table which was more accommodating for the three of us.

“So, Nana,” Hilary said, opening her menu.  “You were only thirteen? Why were you here?”

“It was the Republican Convention,” she mused.  “Papa was a delegate and he took me along with him.  He was really excited about Wendell Wilke running for President.”

A bus boy appeared with water and a basket of bread.  Mom strained her eyes to read his nametag in the darkened room.  “Ahdbjul?” she asked.  Now it was her broken Spanish.  “Is that the way you pronounce your name?”

Abdul obliged, saying his name.  “Hmmm.  Don’t recognize that language.” Mom shook her head, her frosted bob never moving an inch.  “Where’re you from?” 

“Af –han-ni-stan,” he replied, using his native tongue.

Oh dear, I thought, here we go again.  Mom is always trying to make a connection wherever she goes.

“Wild,” Mom exclaimed.  “I’ve never met anyone from Afganistan.”

Abdul was taken in.  “Would you like two pieces of the bread?” he asked her, smiling wide.

Our waiter stood at attention.  His nametag read “Joe.”  Thank goodness. There’d be no new accent from Mom, but she did find out that he was a native Chicagoan.

After ordering, Mom continued her story.  “Papa and I sat over there in one of those tables where you sit side-by-side.”  She gestured to the tables along the wall. “I was wearing a lavender dress with this big purple sash at the waist.  It had a puffy slip and I felt beautiful.”

Dropping ice cubes into her wine, she continued.  “Over there,” she pointed to the steps leading back up to the bar. “I’ll never forget. Two waiters came down carrying flaming skewers of shish kabob. In those days, flaming food was a big deal – cherries jubilee, baked Alaska, that sort of thing.  I was hooked.  What could be better than this!”

Although there were no flaming dishes on this visit, we all enjoyed our dinners.  On the way out, Mom took in the celebrity photos, stretching out the evening as long as she could.

Don waved a cab as soon as he saw us coming.  “Marilyn,” he called over to Mom, “how was the Pump Room?”

“Marvelous!” Her blue eyes sparkled.  Her false eyelashes fluttered.

Helping her into the cab, Don leaned down so that she could hear him. “Now, just make sure that you don’t wait another 61 years to come back.”

“Not to worry!” she said, as our cab sped away.