My gaze followed a chewed-down fingernail pointing at an office building with a Wells Fargo sign. "See that?" my companion said. "I held a seven-karat diamond there."
I was cruising around Las Vegas a month and a half ago with a stylish, giant-haired young townie I'd just met that day. She told me she'd recently lost her job as a temp in that building after being charged as an accessory to a theft at Neiman-Marcus and having to cool her heels for five days in the slammer. We'd spent the evening sipping Agwa, booze distilled from coca leaves--"Melts in your mouth, not in your nose," goes the tagline--and talking about romance, health food, grand plans, and her stolen tangerine Louboutins. She took me to a really gnarly karaoke bar, where a blond woman sporting an oversize Homer Simpson T-shirt and an eyebrow piercing accosted us at the door, insulting our outfits and telling us that she prefers the banks in Minnesota to those in Las Vegas because "they give me the kudos there. I miss the kudos." That night tipped the balance for me. I had to move to Vegas.
Once I'd made the decision, everything in Chicago took on a new weight: a view of the skyline at night coming in north from the Kennedy; a final perfect $34 manicure and pedicure at Nail Gallery on Damen, where every time I visit they put my socks back on for me, tie my scarf around my neck exactly how I like it, and reach past the snotty tissue in my handbag to dig for my keys before sending me out the door with a cheerful good-bye; finally cashing in free-movie coupons at North Coast Video; a last shameful late-night visit to the Taco Bell drive-through on Clybourn; spending too much money on my pooch at Doggy Style, the friendliest pet store in town; a final shot in the ass of B vitamins and magnesium from my doctor, who reads this column and has never once clucked at me about the damage I do to my body; one more meal at De Cero and another at Green Zebra; and one more coast down the smooth, freshly paved section of Loomis between Cermak and Archer, my favorite stretch of road in the city.
Deciding to split also encouraged me to change my ways. When I saw my trusty hairstylist, Dennis Lafferty at Gro salon on Damen, I asked him what he would do to my hair if given free rein. (Dennis is the jovial libertine I once heard admonish his coworkers: "If you're staying out past 4 AM, you'd better be doing something you'll regret.") He told me he'd like to cut off at least four inches of my long, long hair, and I let him. Then I started getting rid of other stuff I'd been hoarding for years, spending time in clubs I've been embarrassed to hang out in since my early 20s, going on new dates, and making new friends.
Chicago's a transient city, which makes it exciting--there's always something or someone new. But eventually everyone you know leaves. People from small towns come to try out living in a city; people from larger cities come for a break. Eventually they all move on. My friend Marci is the last one standing from a tight group that formed eight years ago. I feel like I'm abandoning her, and even though she's too sweet and reasonable to admit it, I think she feels that way too.
Still, she rounded up a small posse to organize a giant semi-surprise farewell bash for me on Saturday night. They turned Reversible Eye, a small unmarked gallery space in Humboldt Park, into a wild casino with a blackjack dealer, a vegetarian buffet, cocktail waitresses in nasty thong leotards over tights, free drinks, and emcee duo Eric Graf and Nick Barr, respectively dressed as a swami and an elderly sleazeball.
The entertainment roster was packed: karaoke king and cabdriver Peter Enger, dressed as a Mexican lounge singer, sang a song in Spanish about a bereft guy whose woman has left him; my friend Elena, the gallery's proprietress, performed a gorgeous, sensual dance on the trapeze; my friend Camilla and my sister, Maggie, paid tribute to my musician and performance-art alter ego, Misty Martinez, by dancing around to my tunes in a blond wig (Camilla) and bootylicious leotard (Maggie), beating each other up, pulling off their panties, spraying fake snow into the crowd, and bashing open a pinata; my intern and beloved friend Rand DJed rave tracks all night; and my favorite band on the planet, Indian Jewelry, played a rousing set of mystical, jammy, beat-driven noise that had the audience moshing, smashing the group's cymbals, and throwing cake.
Around midnight, friends, family, acquaintances, and complete strangers came onstage to tell stories about me involving blood, live animals, dead animals, violence, orgies, roller skating, and my soft spot for babies while I sat on a cardboard throne covered in blue fabric and fake fur, being fanned from below. I wore a feathery glittery headdress, with a bouquet of kale, orchid, and amaranth on my lap. Bobby Conn and Julie Pomerleau serenaded me with a special rendition of "King for a Day," the title track from Conn's forthcoming album and movie, which they sang as "Queen for a Day," then Bobby removed one glittery heel and sucked on my toes. I will probably never experience love like that again before my funeral.
The invites demanded Vegasy costumes, and over half the attendees complied. Marci and Elena dressed as showgirls, my sister and her beau dressed as a trashy bride and groom, my cousin was a tacky tourist, a long-suppressed crush came as a security guard, a new friend was a mobster's wife, and an old friend was a mobster's mistress. There were card dealers, escorts, compulsive gamblers, and high rollers galore. I wore a liquid gold gown and tons of rhinestone jewelry and called myself a chanteuse; my parents put big white felt dots on their black sweaters and said they were dice. The three of us danced together until about 3:30, and when I left 15 minutes later because I was feeling like a kid who got everything on her Christmas list and wound up so overwhelmed she had to take a nap, the party was still going pretty strong.
Saying good-bye to my family, friends, and hometown has twisted my heart until I thought it might snap, but I got the most choked up when saying good-bye to the people I work with, especially photographer Andrea Bauer. She was my silent partner, the quiet one who never gave me the Look that says, You really shouldn't do that, or, Can we please go home now? She never once complained about being dragged along on my shenanigans, nor did she egg me--or anyone else--on just for a good photo. Perhaps most important, she has the proof that everything you've read here really did happen.
Some readers showed up bearing useful advice and the occasional gift. One guy gave me a set of lucky dice (and others continue to write asking for party info). Another one, David, who knows a surprising lot about Las Vegas, told me where I could buy a gun and asked that I remind my readers that Illinoisans aren't allowed to exercise our Second Amendment rights. A guy named Steve arrived early and stayed late, and at the evening's end he hugged me and said, "I don't know you but I feel like I do. I'm really going to miss you." I almost lost it.
I may have let those readers down by not getting trashed and spazzing out. Doing this column has trained me to stand back and watch the party from the outside. I've lost a lot of friendships (and one romantic relationship) because of it--no one likes to have their scene exposed, much less by an insider. But it was worth it. I loved this job. I loved being paid to explore my city and talk to people who do whatever the fuck they want, and maybe inspire others to do the same.
I woke up after the party with a mysterious sore spot on my chest. Maybe some errant partygoer clocked me when I wasn't paying attention. But I actually think it was heartache.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.