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Be Nice or Leave

Sometimes you gotta do one. Sometimes you gotta do the other.

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The man approached me like he'd just figured out the answer to a riddle that had been bothering him for ages. His denim button-down shirt was tucked into jeans, and clear snot was collecting in the divot between his nose and upper lip. "Hey!" he yelled. He stared at my shirt, which had leather appliques arranged in a vaguely Inca-looking pattern. "That's a nice top. It's like Cleopatra, but subdued." He drawled "subduuuued" like Keanu Reeves. Then he introduced himself as Neo.

Neo asked if I wanted a drink--sure, I said, a soda--and he approached the bar. When he got there he immediately turned around and walked back. "Aw, I got beer right here," he said, licking his upper lip and motioning to a white Thermos he'd set on a worn wooden table.

Neo had come to the Charleston, a cozy little bar in Bucktown, for the first installment of Sunday Salon, a monthly prose reading series, because he thought it'd be an open reading, where he could get some traction for his as-yet-unpublished collection of short stories. "Then I found out it's just a bunch of people reading from books," he said, snorting the last word.

Caroline Berger, who cohosts the original Sunday Salon in Brooklyn, kicked off the night with a series of emotional, high-concept passages about being a woman and dealing with love lost and misdirected. It was a little too Janet Jackson for me--"My name is not 'Hey baby,'" she ranted in a missive directed at men who whistle at her on the street. Next Gina Frangello read from her novel My Sister's Continent, giving what would end up being the most together performance of the night, sassy and stylish, not sagging with feminist cliches or snark.

Told from the view of a reckless twentysomething ragamuffin with loose morals and an identical twin who's annoyingly successful and mature, Frangello's piece stirred a familiar anxiety: when am I going to settle down? Earlier in the week I'd instigated a Jager-fueled cluster of fistfights at Heaven gallery during a fund-raiser for this year's Version festival; later I would have taken off on an impromptu 4 AM road trip across the country had the ATM not taken my debit card hostage.

"Are you enjoying this?" Neo asked derisively. I told him yes, I liked that it was so calm. He also asked me if I might be able to get him published in this paper (which he said "appears to have a reasonable amount of integrity"), then he asked me out on a date. I said no to both.

Mike Zapata, a publisher, founder, and fiction editor of the local literary magazine Make, wrapped up the night with a bombastic reading of his story about teenage troublemakers in Chicago. Zapata, who also writes sketch comedy, kept interrupting himself with off-the-cuff qualifiers, explaining the story on the side as he went along. He was so loud I put my hands over my ears for a few seconds, then I remembered the tiny sign tacked to the mirror behind the bar that said be nice or leave, so I folded them back in my lap, sat back in my chair, and tried to imagine I'd taken that ill-advised road trip after all.

Saturday night I got more than tipsy at Sofitel's Le Bar during the last of a series of semiregular outings I would have with a group of three girlfriends, including my editor, before two of them move to New York.

It was pretty Sex and the City, the four of us dressed up all fancy, sipping cocktails with names like the Clementini and the Menage a Trois, divulging details about mortifying sexual encounters and carrying on about teenage capers and high jinks. After a couple hours a very tan, white-haired, liver-spotted gentleman approached our table and asked if anyone spoke Spanish. "Si, poquito," I stupidly fessed up. The man, Antonio, told us he was a surgeon from Madrid and that he'd come to town for an orthopedic conference. Tagging along were two earnest male students about half his age.

I don't know how many times I said "Shut up" and "No, she's married" en espanol to that old man, but Antonio would not let up. The four of us figured if we were going to let him kiss our hands and let his sweet but goony disciples fawn over us, he was going to buy our next round of drinks. We asked our server for glasses of Veuve. "Are you sure you don't want Mo't's Brut Rose?" she said with a wink. After we finished our bubbly, which was delicious despite its resemblance to UTI pee, we checked the menu and discovered she'd recommended a real wallet buster--it was 20 bucks a glass.

Before leaving we used the extravagant, labyrinthine ladies' room on the third floor, where a wedding reception was wrapping up. I couldn't resist the candy bar, where a procession of golden girls delightedly scooped Gummi Bears and Sour Patch Kids out of fishbowls and deposited them into silver monogrammed barf bags. As soon as I tried to take my turn, a gent in glasses and a tux told me this was for guests only and would I please leave.

Meanwhile my editor had snuck into the main room and ganked a three-foot-tall centerpiece of orchids off a white-clothed table. As she hurried toward the elevator I grabbed a more modest arrangement off an outlying table near the candy bar.

We made it to the elevator without incident and stood there giggling until we realized we weren't moving--we'd forgotten to press the down button. Cursing our stupidity, my friend banged on the button and whispered, "Please, please, please!" Then a leg shot through the slowly closing elevator door. A tuxedoed torso followed, and then the red-faced, gel-haired head of one pissed-off dude. "What the hell are you doing?" he screamed. "You're thieves! I'll make sure you spend the night in jail!" He snatched the centerpiece out of my editor's hand but failed to see the one I'd hidden in the corner.

We held in our laughter until we'd finally escaped to the cabstand outside. Then we exploded, feeling like we'd staged some huge coup. I'm really going to miss these outings.

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

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