Chicago's a big city with a small-town feel, and if you cross paths with someone once, you're bound to meet up again. Last summer one of my favorite things to do was to sit with friends on my front stoop and watch the yuppies go by. My apartment, where I'll live for just a few more days before heading off to Vegas to seek my fortune, is in a particularly overdeveloped section of Wicker Park--or West Town, to be precise. My friends and I would drink booze out of bottles--no paper bag, because it's basically impossible to get arrested if you're not homeless in this part of town (believe me, I've tried)--and light fireworks, encouraging passing women to yell back at mooing gel-headed jerks.
After dinner with my folks one night, I took mushrooms with my intern and a friend, put on my roller skates, and had the two of them drag me up and down the street. We found a construction sign saying the lane was narrowing and dragged it to the corner of Division and Damen, where I set it up in the middle of the street, then directed traffic around me, while the two guys poured beer on each other, smashed bottles on the sidewalk, and wrestled in the gutter.
We went for a stroll/roll up toward Wicker Park proper and on the way found two strangers, one of whom was carrying a bottle of warm red wine and said he was a zombie. We exchanged hugs for chugs and went on our merry way.
I ran into the zombie again two Mondays ago at Reversible Eye, where New Orleanians MC Trachiotomy, a guy named Lefty, and Jayme Kalal, the Chicago expat also known as Microshards, were headlining. This time the zombie (whose name is Steven, I later discovered) played a marionette in the local fledgling weirdo outfit He Not In. They were followed by Trachiotomy's truly head-scratching act, where he pedaled in the air while lying on his back, crooned about angel dust, and rapped about his beloved dead dog like a thug bemoaning the loss of one of his homies (he even poured out some tequila for Pablo at the beginning of the track). At the end Trach did a heart-wrenching partial cover of "When the Levee Breaks" that obviously stirred up some real anger and sadness in him, turning his usual jokey bounciness into a scary, vein-popping, yelly performance. It almost made me stop dancing.
Afterward a bunch of us went to the Note at 3 AM, who knows why, where we encountered two older Polish gents--one in a beige trench coat, collar up, and a fedora, the other in a red sweater-vest and baseball cap. They looked like comic book characters, but it was unclear who was the villain and who was the hero. The one in the sweater-vest handed me four business cards--for an ad agent, a toy-and-gift shop, a Polish-American bureau of sorts, and a bioenergetic healer--then picked me up in his arms like he was carrying me over the threshold and spun me around. We all drank tequila sunrises and danced like maniacs until the bartenders yelled at us to leave.
The next night I said good-bye to Red-I, a dance club/karaoke bar in Chinatown where Trachiotomy and Kalal were performing again. The place has crimson walls and matching overstuffed leather sofas lining the perimeter of the room. There are always paper plates full of Chex mix at the bar, I hear there's some kind of amazing custom urinal in the men's room that looks like a pig's trough, and drink prices change according to how the bartenders feel about you that week.
You have to check your pepper spray and Taser at the door, but otherwise anything goes at Red-I. There have been Tuesday nights, which a few of my friends host, when someone's locked the doors from the inside and let us party with our shirts and shoes off past closing. One of the regulars buys cheap Asian cigarettes from a massage parlor around the corner and resells them. Several private rooms, painted in the kind of garish tropical colors that are acceptable only on old women aboard luxury cruises, have karaoke sound systems, and you can do whatever you want in there as long as you pay for it. Once a friend went to Red-I on a Wednesday night and some businessmen gave her $500 to strip for them.
Some nights it feels really dead and sinister, but other nights it's the kind of place that creates memories you'll use later to prove to your grandkids that you were crazy and cool back in the day. You never know what you'll get week to week, but it's always worth checking out: on a good night you'll find young Asian techno fans, stern Chinese businessmen, hipsters, noise nerds, and an old man trying to untie ladies' halter tops--all dancing together, doing gymnastics, dogpiling, or lying on the floor with spilled cans of two-dollar Pabst flowing through their hair.
Some friends are hosting a semi-surprise going-away party for me on Saturday night. All I know is that some of my favorite bands and DJs are performing--I don't know which ones--and that the theme is Vegas. You're invited, but you have to dress up as a Vegas character: showgirl, Rat Packer, Italian mobster, hustler, fanny-pack tourist, grandma, sketchball, etc. It'll be the subject of my last column. E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Liz Armstrong (hugs), Amdrea Bauer.