Step into Yo Mama's cafe on Milwaukee Avenue and you'll be greeted by Mama herself. "How ya doin' honey," she coos, flitting around the granite and marble tables, taking orders and giving a few herself. "Oh, you should give me that ring girl," she tells a customer. In red lipstick, earrings, and nail polish and a pretty pink-and-green apron, she's as sweet as only mothers can be. Except this Mama isn't anybody's mother, and his real name is Andy.
But such surprises should be expected in a cafe owned by Jeffrey Reid. A photographer, dancer, filmmaker, artist, musician, and clothing designer, the 35-year-old Reid has now decided to become a restaurateur.
"I wasn't going to let the yuppies move all the real Wicker Parkers out," says Reid, an off-and-on resident of the near-northwest-side neighborhood for ten years. "All walks of life are welcome here because everybody has a mama."
Yo Mama's looks like a homespun cross between a groovy 60s hangout and somebody's cozy living room. There's a small stage in front outfitted with a carpet and pillows for lounging. A green piano faces the stage, and the walls are lined with small tile-covered tables and mustard yellow booths. There's an apricot-colored couch at the back, surrounded by plants, glass coffee tables, and bright yellow bookcases filled with piles of magazines.
Then there are the strange paintings on the walls. Devoutly religious, Reid says he's read the Bible five times, and his interpretations can be found in his oddly shaped paintings. One heptagonal canvas shows a nude woman wielding a sword in front of a church. Another painting, done in purple and gold, has a cathedral and a naked woman holding a candle. Still another features the requisite nude woman, floating in the air with a gun pointed at the onlooker.
"I'm an Armageddonist," says Reid. "I believe that there's going to be a new heaven and earth. With me liking women so much, I had to intertwine the two. The women are angels so they don't have on clothes."
Reid's paintings led him to move into the storefront that's now Yo Mama's. In 1992 he opened R Gallery, which was dedicated to his images of doomsday. "People would come in and say, 'You should take that out of the window because it's offensive,'" he says. "It would be one of my nudes with a gun and the city in the background. My friends were like, 'You're scaring people.' My gallery was about Jesus' return and the coming of the Messiah. It's a weird love-hate-sexuality thing, and people were telling me, 'You can't do this, it's too much to deal with.'"
Undeterred, Reid continued painting, producing a work each month and participating in three Around the Coyote art fairs. But not many people were buying, and his friends told him the gallery wasn't worth the effort. "They finally convinced me, because I wasn't selling enough paintings," he says. "People would scratch up my windows. One militant feminist group was tagging my whole fuckin' place with stickers that said, 'Watch out, we're going to get you.' I had to get out. People were harassing me.
"The whole gallery was to tell people the end of the world is coming, not to make money. It ain't gonna come all that soon, and somebody has to tell everybody."
Looking on the bright side, Reid was persuaded to take advantage of the space to open a cafe. "The location was good, and everything was taking off around it. People were coming to Wicker Park, and Urbus was filled, Earwax was filled, and if I opened a cafe I'd be filled too." With financial backing from a friend who later bailed out, Reid began building the cafe from the ground up. "There was nothing in here," he says. "It ended up costing $60,000. We sanded the floors, put sinks in, put water in, built the tables, built the stage, designed the lighting. We were building for a year."
Reid decided to name the place Yo Mama's after a friend's joking suggestion. "It hit me like, bam! I had to use it. I was kicked out of the house at 16 because I was a bad kid. I never felt that feeling of being at home, so I wanted to do the opposite. I want people to feel at home, and you go to your mama's when you want to feel like you belong and are wanted."
Yo Mama's opened briefly in September, but it was closed down because Reid didn't have a license to serve food. He opened again at the end of November and is holding the official opening party on Saturday, with an evening of performance art, a show of hat fashions, four DJs, and his own acid jazz band Chapter 11. There'll also be a variety of free food--an eclectic mix from jambalaya to pasta--hinting at what's to come on Yo Mama's menu. "We only serve coffee and Swedish pastries now," says Reid. "But I'm planning to have a combination of soul food, Asian, and Middle Eastern, the best of all of them." Reflecting his spiritual strivings, Reid sets all prices to end with the number seven (scones, $1.57; cheesecake, $1.87; bottomless cup of coffee, $1.27). But he admits his pricing does more than summon "luck and good karma."
"I make my prices so that when people buy shit, they'll have a lot of change and give it to me."
Yo Mama's opening party takes place this Saturday from 7 PM to 2 AM at the cafe, 1466 N. Milwaukee. Tickets cost $7 in advance, $10 at the door. Call 862-5293 for info.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.