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Armstrong Family Values

And you thought Liz was a party animal. Plus: Joe Meno, you have a new fan.

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As a general rule, I don't go to poetry slams, but last Sunday I made an exception for my family. Coming off a Cubs game and then a greasy Chinese dinner, my parents and my mom's two brothers were tipsy and belligerent and somehow decided it'd be a good idea to go to the Green Mill, where the art of poet heckling was born. Whole evenings--not to mention egos--are ruined in a moment there, when all the courage it takes to get up in front of a bunch of strangers is squashed by the audience's gestures of disapproval, from loud conversation and finger snapping to outright booing. It's meaner than Showtime at the Apollo, because at least those performers can hope for the sympathy of a home audience.

"Shut the fuck up!" my mom yelled at a woman onstage who called the Statue of Liberty a whore. The poet, who went by the name Original Woman, was running out of breath screaming about democracy's shortcomings, and everyone in the place was digging her except for my crew.

Later I was sitting between my uncle Bill--who reminds me a little of Homer Simpson--and my father, watching a young woman called Tennessee Mary testify about the first time a certain creep made her come. Bill, who married a woman, got divorced, then married her sister, turned to my boyfriend and said, "Hey, if you get tired of Liz there's always another," referring to my little sis. Then he busted into a loud rendition of "Family Affair," and the door guy shushed him.

Believe it or not, Bill isn't the black sheep of the family. That honor goes to his brother, David. He's the one who moved to England a few years ago because he hates Amerika--that's how he spells it. He spends much of his free time visiting crop circles and brings potions and crystals with him wherever he goes. He dedicates our family toasts to world peace.

When I was 12 David turned me on to Hawkwind, Bad Brains, and the idea of self-fulfilling prophecy. As an exercise he had me imagine exactly what I wanted. No, not just imagine it--feel it, experience my life as if I had it, and picture a red circle glowing around me as I was meditating. And lo and behold, Pete asked me out.

This is the uncle who told me the difference between "trying" and "doing your best." The word try is limp and weak, he told me. Do and best work synergistically in your brain to promote goodness and success. When I was 14 I drew a dorky diagram for him and his then girlfriend--later his second ex-wife--depicting the flow of good vibes that occurs when you talk about doing your best.

From the 80s through the mid-90s David opened several bars and clubs in the suburbs, with some success. When I was 16 he let me help design a teen club in Palatine called Paladrome, which served energy drinks and had peepholes in the walls revealing videos of trippy abstract visuals. Paladrome opened on the weekend of my 17th birthday, and my uncle had the DJ dedicate Nine Inch Nails' "Get Down, Make Love" to me. I danced on a block wearing vinyl snakeskin pants.

My uncle no longer makes his living from the club scene, but he hasn't stopped partying. When my sister went to England a few weeks ago David bought her and her boyfriend some mushrooms and ate three times as many as they did. Then they all went out clubbing, and they beat him home by hours.

Last Friday night he celebrated his 50th birthday at his 23-year-old daughter's house in Glen Ellyn. Most of the guests were under 30; the only family invited were David's two daughters, my 18-year-old cousin Kyo, my sister, and me. We pulled up to an open garage, where about half a dozen twentysomethings were playing a drinking game with red plastic cups. Inside, my uncle was massaging his ex-girlfriend's ass while she held her current boyfriend's hand.

About 20 minutes later my parents crashed the party, looking kind of confused. Apparently David had just called and asked them if they wanted to come over and hang out. He never said anything about a party, or even a birthday. "What are you doing here?" they asked me. I felt too guilty to ask them the same thing.

Shortly after my uncle mooned the room as we sang "Happy Birthday," and right about when the hookah came out, I took off, but apparently the party lasted several more hours. When she went to bed, one of his kids reported two days later, David was still downstairs "dancing like a fairy."

I usually don't go to fiction readings either--being around writers who have the guts to enunciate their words in front of a group of strangers makes me feel outclassed. I've always thought the great thing about writing is that you don't have to witness the public's reaction.

But Saturday night I went to Quimby's for a reading celebrating the second issue of Banana King, a local fiction zine dedicated to the minutiae of everyday life. When I walked in, Emerson Dameron, a literary Quentin Tarantino wannabe, was telling a story out the side of his mouth about the unsavory aspects of working the graveyard shift at a convenience mart. But it was all uphill from there: tales of a preteen badass by editor in chief A.B. Drea, a story about a young girl detective figuring out how the world works by Jeb Gleason-Allured.

Before his turn, Joe Meno, who promotes his readings the same way a punk band promotes a show--pasting up posters, handing out samplers--opened a bottle of Creme de Banana, poured himself a cup, then passed the bottle around. (It tasted like Laffy Taffy dissolved in rubbing alcohol, but it was almost gone by the time we all left.) He spoke softly, eyes twinkling. His story, a sort of modern version of the Ixion-Hera myth, was about a woman who turns into a cloud whenever her husband attempts any kind of intimacy. I felt like crying afterward--requited love and consummated love are two totally different things.

Later, I tagged along with the readers and their friends to Rodan, where I just sort of sat there and tried to look like I fit in. Amy Schroeder, the editor of Venus magazine, told me she likes Chicago's publishing community because it's warm and inclusive. And I nodded along, watching Meno talk to another writer, feeling like one of those dorks who hang around after a rock show while the guitarist packs up his gear--not having anything profound to say, but desperately wishing I did.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Liz Armstring, Andrea Bauer.

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