From the outside, Wicker Park's Empire Liquors, the brand-new bar in the old Reservation Blues space, doesn't look like much. It's an anonymous building, the windows seemingly half-assedly covered in black butcher paper. But inside, the window coverings are actually part of a flat wooden art piece with tiny jagged slits that make you feel like you're peering out at the cold, cruel world from inside a magical woodland womb. White-painted tree stumps serve as stools and tables. Spindly silver chandeliers glow like sullen moons reflecting off mirrors set in the ceiling. Tiny votives on every table flicker like fireflies. Erich Ginder's white resin antler coatracks line the walls.
The opening of Elm Street Liquors' gothy little sister last Friday night was packed with well-heeled women with fancy dye jobs and important-looking jewelry casting flirty glances at men with expensive jeans, expensive haircuts, pronounced pectorals, and dull eyes. I sat in a secluded nook in the back with a couple of friends and a young graffiti writer known as Kram, who said he'd snuck his way in by peeking at the guest list while pretending to tie his shoe. Above us twinkled a chandelier made of crystal long-stem roses, one of many cool sculptural touches that make the place look like a mock-up in a cutting-edge design catalog. Giant oblong leather tiles laid out like bricks cushioned our backs. And on the floor in front of us a drain waited patiently, just in case someone had to lean over and puke.
Sure, Empire Liquors will probably bring more Lincoln Park to Wicker Park, but that damage was done a long time ago. The only major misstep was the music programming. DJ White Shadow, the entertainer of the evening, has a decent hip-hop collection, but the place looks so cool it begs for something more avant-garde.
Kram asked about my personal happiness and commented how everything with value is a product these days. He's incredibly bright for his age, and cute, and the conversation got me thinking thoughts that could get me in trouble--I didn't ask, but the kid can't be 18. I put down my Grape Coolade--my favorite-ever cocktail, made of grape vodka, Concord grape syrup, sour mix, soda water, and lemon juice--and said good night.
The next night Salem Collo-Julin led about 20 people out to 1934 W. North Avenue, warning us that we very well could get arrested for what we were about to do, which was stage an homage to the protests that happened when The Real World came to film here in 2001.
We left from Heaven Gallery, whose "Don't Media Panic!" variety show ended with Eric Graf's heroic performance piece called "High School Fantasy." He took a shower behind a see-through curtain, then played some shitty improvised acoustic ballads in a towel, then did ten keg stands in a row out on the roof in front of a cheering audience. After his fifth long swig he started projectile vomiting and swaying like a Weeble but never falling down. "The human body--the things it can take," he gibbered afterward. "It's amazing."
Then Collo-Julin shrieked at everyone to come with her, handing out pamphlets of legal advice and copies of Steve Bogira's piece from the Reader's recent guide to Chicago issue on what happens when you get arrested. And we should have been arrested--the protest was just a few bodies short of an angry mob. People blocked traffic, kicked and banged on passing cars, slammed themselves against the building's doors, and jumped on hoods of parked cars.
"Fuck you, Viacom!" we screamed hysterically to black windows--the building now houses a Cheetah Gym but no residents. Someone across the street threw eggs at us from a third-story window. "This is not a safe neighborhood!" we chanted, laughing.
A police car showed up, then drove around us and away. The cops didn't even tell us to disperse. What does it take to get arrested in Wicker Park nowadays?
A half-dozen models--real women, not praying-mantis-shaped clothes hangers--shuffled stiffly into a dimly lit room in designer Anne Novotny's brushed cotton twill A-line tunics, sliding their feet through a thin layer of sand coating the floor. They coiled together, forming a circle, then broke off into little workstations made of heaps of rusted detritus and piles of sand. Donning rustic-futuristic eyepieces, sinister rubber aprons, and tools of suspect function, they got to work measuring, sweeping, weighing, and scooping up sand and depositing it into handmade cotton pouches, then emptying the pouches onto a small dome.
This was the beginning of "The Weight," Novotny's high-concept fashion show/dance piece for the Happy Dog Performance Company, which ran the whole weekend at Happydog (in the old Buddy space). Full of emotional drama without being overwrought, it was equal parts performance, talent showcase, and commentary on female friendship.
The models worked silently, dutifully, but nothing actually got done. Nothing changed, nothing grew. Three new women entered the room wearing trenchcoats, stood on a scale, and were weighed by the workers, who kept adding bags of sand to the trenchcoats' pockets.
Eventually one of the trenchcoat women snatched a pair of high-waisted, wide-legged trousers from a clothesline that was rolling past her and put them on. Another woman took off her drab trench and gratefully accepted the washed silk skirt and airy puff-sleeve blouse her friend had grabbed for her. They danced together joyfully, heaving themselves into twirls.
When one betrenched woman remained, the others forced a whisper-thin 1940s-style collared dress on her. She sagged, and they held her up until she seemed stable. Then they let her go. She teetered gracefully like a feather on the edge of a building, rebalanced herself, stumbled, then picked herself up by the hem of her dress and stood solid.
The audience gave the performance a standing ovation. It was pretty heavy-handed for a fashion show, but who says fashion has to be frivolous? If we toil for nothing we get no pleasure, Novotny seemed to be saying. Amen to that.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Andrea Bauer.