It's Wednesday evening, and Jeff Gramm has been fretting over the sparse turnout for his band Dingle, which is headlining Lounge Ax for the first time. His mother Wendy, an economist, happens to be in town for a meeting at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. Now she's sitting off to the side of the Lincoln Avenue rock club, sipping Huber draft from a plastic cup. Today's her 51st birthday.
Earlier Jeff had been told that his father Phil, the Republican presidential candidate, would also be coming to the show. To his relief, that plan has since been scrapped. Jeff says he's always trying to convince his father that the band occupies very little of his time and interest. But he adds that his mother has been more supportive. She often listens to tapes of the band--which plays a reflective brand of folk rock--and comes to shows whenever she can. Jeff says this would have been the first and probably last time that his father watched him rock.
It's nine o'clock, two hours before Dingle's set, and so far there are only 15 or 20 people in the bar.
"It's not very convenient for people in Hyde Park to come up to the north side," I tell Jeff's mom, referring to his U. of C. classmates, who constitute Dingle's primary audience.
"Especially when we don't have cars, hint hint," Jeff chimes in. She rolls her eyes.
Journalists with better credentials trying to get a handle on Gramm's family have been deflected by the campaign for months, but I've got an in. I'm working for A, a magazine on Asian-American culture, and my agenda seems innocent enough. "Mother's Day, mothers and their kids, that's the angle," my editor explained. "We're trying to get Yoko and Sean too."
I gave Jeff a copy of the magazine to show his mother to clear the interview. Wendy Gramm is of Korean descent, yet she's not listed among "The Top 25 Most Influential Asians in America" featured in the current issue. But for the moment she is the Gramm campaign organization. Request approved. Half of the prospective first family is at my disposal.
Going light on the issues keeps things relaxed. Wendy Gramm's manner reminds me of my mother, though the pride and warmth she displays toward her son are every mom's. "My mom rocks," Jeff says by way of explanation.
Phil Gramm suddenly enters the nightclub with a small entourage, including a serious-looking fellow in a blue pea coat who had walked through the entire bar earlier that evening, to the puzzlement of club management. The candidate, staging a birthday surprise, presents Wendy with a dozen roses.
Phil, Wendy, and Jeff Gramm join me and a photographer as we clamber upstairs to the empty apartment above the club. It's a bit strange, but none of the candidate's handlers accompany us on our little mission.
The photographer is getting ready to take the family's portrait. "Come on now, Jeff, show some teeth," Phil Gramm urges. Then he adds impatiently, "Would you smile?" Jeff is smiling, but apparently not enough for the candidate. I figure he must be cranky from a long day's stumping--it's now almost 11 o'clock. I try to joke with him about getting his money's worth from Jeff's orthodontic work. But Phil Gramm doesn't seem to hear me. He's distracted. Weighing my two policy questions, on immigration and gangster rap, I decide to ask neither. It doesn't seem like the right time.
I later ask Jeff what he thinks of his dad's platform. "No comment," he replies. "Did you really think I'd answer that?"
Through the window and across the street the Biograph's marquee blares The American President. Someone spots a photo op and mentions it to the photographer. "Nice idea," she says, "but we can't get it in the picture."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yael Routtenberg.