While waiting to get my eyebrows waxed for free last summer at Shop CHICago, a femme bazaar sponsored by the nonprofit arts group Gen Art designed to promote girl bonding and the buying of crap, I got into a spat with a tall blond who didn't understand the concept of a line. She sat down in the chair when it was my turn to go, and when I asked if she was somehow involved with the event--if she had some kind of VIP status--she said, "You must be really insecure to say something like that."
It wasn't the first clue I'd entered a whirlpool of estrogen--anyone could see the second she walked in that a ruffly, silky, lacy, pink-polka-dotted monster had engulfed the usually sleek, minimalist Sound-Bar and filled it with booths run by local clothing boutiques and jewelry designers. Twenty-five bucks got you inside, where ladies who lunch smoked while shopping. Beauty on Call, a sort of escort service for beauticians, sent some freelance aestheticians and massage therapists to offer the complimentary brow shaping and hand and neck massages. The landscape glittered with trash: cheap-ass rhinestone rings, ridiculous hats no one but a crazy aunt would wear, slutty chenille tube dresses topped with feather boas.
This year's event, held at the sprawling River East Art Center last Thursday, was a lot more dignified: though admission was free and Gen Art estimates that 2,000 people showed up, it felt more like a crowded day at the mall than a giant catfight waiting to happen. About 45 vendors signed up--same as last time--but this year's bunch included fewer hustlers hawking junk and more upscale boutiques selling chic handmade handbags and jewelry, and local designers with honest-to-goodness talent. And no one was allowed to smoke around the merchandise.
I had a completely different kind of conversation with a tall blond woman this time. Alexandra Fisher, who's half of the design and marketing outfit Clamdiggin, was working the booth for the Wicker Park boutique Hejfina, where she and her life/business partner, Kevin Johnson, sell T-shirts with hand-cut appliques of crabs, waterfalls, birds, fruit, and the like. I don't know her very well--I'd met her a couple times before at art events--but it seemed her normally ample bosom was even larger. "I'm having a baby," she volunteered. I must've been staring.
Those T-shirts, like everything Clamdiggin makes, are meant to promote a sweet hippie ethos of finding beauty and happiness in nature. Fisher and Johnson make drawings, paintings, and photographs of animals, produce, and people enjoying the great outdoors and place them in public urban environments--sometimes for pay, more often not. They've created dozens of hand-decorated chalkboards and photo backdrops for Cold Comfort, Hejfina, City Soles, and others; they've screen-printed cardboard coasters with images of oranges and put them in places that could use a dash of nature, such as Rodan; and they've tacked up street art in unassuming places--"nowhere intrusive," according to Johnson, "just on plywood or old buildings."
Their latest project is a photo of a magnolia tree in full bloom that'll show up in the window at Jake sometime this spring. "People know all the logos," said Johnson, "but if you show 'em a leaf they couldn't identify the tree it came from. Living in concrete makes people so detached from their environment."
They moved here from Tucson five years ago, with just six bags and no money, to soak in the city's "discipline and work ethic," Fisher said. Having done so, they're moving their headquarters back to Arizona. "We'll have more time to work there," Fisher said, "because the pace is slower. Business and living costs are lower. It's a discipline move--it's definitely kind of a social black hole out there." But Fisher insists they're not abandoning Chicago. "We'll still come back and do stuff here," she said. "We're back and forth." They'll be back for a few weeks in June to give some sort of lecture-workshop at Hejfina about their aesthetic and branding in general. "We're a force," said Fisher. "We're not going anywhere."
"So, you a Boy George fan?" I asked the elegant woman sitting next to me at Sound-Bar later that night. Her near-white hair was pulled back in a tight chignon; she wore a pair of gold alligator brooches high up on the lapel of her crisp black jacket and a band of diamonds around her pinkie.
She smiled wryly. "Are you?" she asked.
I had to admit I really wasn't. I'd shown up for the club's one-year anniversary party, at which Boy George was DJing, to take in the inevitable throng of freaks--and I mean that in a good way--that follows He Who Colors His Jowl Flab Black to Create the Illusion of Jawline.
Judy and I bonded over our mutual apathy for Georgie Boy, as she called him, and she bought me a martini. I tried to clink her wineglass but spilled a third of my drink on my shoes, narrowly missing hers and her gorgeous suede trench coat. She cleared her throat and shifted on her stool, and for a moment I thought I'd lost my new friend.
We got started on the topic of friends--how mine always seem new and most of hers are from childhood--and she told me she'd just come from a wake. Her friend Patsy Felch, a lawyer who took on the New York Times in front of the Supreme Court--and won--in a case about the electronic use of freelance work, had just passed away of breast cancer, Judy told me. We clinked to Patsy, and this time I took care not to spill.
Meanwhile, Andrea Bauer, the photographer for this column, was wandering around shooting the club kids (now full-blown adults, but who cares?) who were keeping the flame alive. God bless 'em, the freaks turned out, looking even better than they did a decade ago, if only because now they have more money to spend on makeup and clothes.
"I'm really kinda mortified," Andrea told me afterward. She'd gone up to Boy George and said, "It's really cool to meet you. I feel like I've known you since I was six." She asked to take his picture and he complied, and then he handed her a postcard promoting himself as someone called DJ Victim. It wasn't until she walked away and examined it that she realized he was an impersonator.
The real Boy George, a notorious diva who's canceled two events in Chicago in the past year and got started an hour later than scheduled, was actually worth the wait. The dance floor smelled like cocoa butter and pheromones--Eau de Spring Break. Through the blasting Euro techno, "Just Can't Get Enough" peeked out, smiling at me in recognition. The hyperactive laser lights were about to send me into a seizure and the glass panels in front of the DJ booth looked like fun-house mirrors, so I closed my eyes. Before I knew it I was dancing.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.