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Category Archives: Life in the Chicago Countercultural Elite

The Best of Chicago in Ten Years

The Best of Chicago in Ten Years

Seattle Weekly ran its Best of 2017 issue today. On the introductory page, they ran a piece predicting the future. What would the Best of Seattle be in 2027? I liked that idea and knew I had to rip it off. Here is the Best of Chicago in 2027.

Best News Story

Be honest: When Chicago’s street gangs, underground activist groups, and police colluded in 2024 because they were sick of getting abused by National Guard soldiers here by Donald Trump’s martial law edict, we thought it would be a tenuous alliance at best. They would barely get along, do just enough to fight back, and return to their prescribed places after everything was over, win or lose. But that didn’t happen! Everyone got along swimmingly, and the tide of the war turned as the Red Star Alliance smashed the Guard’s front lines on every street from Madison to 95th. They chased the Guard out for good with a quick and decisive victory against the Bronzeville Bulge, coming within a hair of killing Trump himself when he showed up to lead his henchmen in Bronzeville… And failing only because Trump boarded the first helicopter out when he realized that hey, war is dangerous.

After that, the Alliance stayed together. The violence and murder rate dropped instantly, and notoriously dangerous Chicago was suddenly one of America’s safest cities almost overnight. The Alliance’s quest to rebuild Chicago’s ruined neighborhoods has resulted in an influx of adult education centers, after school programs, and job services for anyone in need. But nothing they’ve done so far is on the level of what they’ve created this last year: A set of independent banks and credit unions which found a way to offer loans out to wannabe homeowners and wannabe business owners without any interest. Between that and the residents of the South Side now getting in touch with their creative dreams, the ruins of the Martial War are sparking back to life faster than anyone could have imagined.

Best Real Estate Story

Willis had to know that its attempt to buy out the name of the Sears Tower wasn’t going to go over very well. But the latest sale of the iconic building has finally placed it in the hands of an owner who has decided to restore the tower’s rightful name. The Sears Tower has finally returned to us, and the city has taken the extra step of declaring the name of the building – not the building itself, but its NAME – a historic landmark so this kind of thing never happens again. The city has also decided to punish Willis by attaching its title to the now-former Trump Tower, a move meant to be just as permanent so Willis has to keep its name on a building of shame.

Best Sports Story

In a year of great sports stories – Jonathan Toews retiring a champion after defeating old linemate Patrick Kane and the defending champion Buffalo Sabres in the Final, the Cubs winning their fourth Fall Classic since 2016 over the Seattle Mariners with a 109-win, all-time squad – the best sports story may be the most unusual sports story. When the Bears announced their move to San Diego two years ago, every NFL pundit imagined Chicago would be up in even more arms than the ones the Martial War was being fought with. But the people hardly raised a peep at all. A year went by with no football, then the McCaskeys announced they would bring Bear football back to Chicago!… Only, in an odd twist, “Bear football” meant an entire team of cardboard cutouts of the 1985 Bears. The cutouts stand out on Soldier Field every Sunday and do nothing. Despite that, though, the McCaskeys have made the Bears a financial success, charging $500 a ticket, and Soldier Field sells out every Sunday as the cutouts do nothing and the scoreboard slowly runs the score up to 46-10 over the course of a few hours.

This is more than a fanbase trying to compensate for a lost team. This is one of the most dedicated fanbases in the world apparently not even realizing the team is gone. The cardboard team is more than enough to placate them. A staffer went to one of these football “games” and tried to interview fans. When they pointed out that the team was literally made of cardboard, fans looked downright confused. When they said these Bears aren’t even playing football, the fans simply said that it was BEAR FOOTBALL, REAL FOOTBALL, not the pansy passing game they play today. It’s almost as if the fans don’t even know what football is.

Best L Line

The Circulator would be awesome if the city managed to get around to actually building it. At least there aren’t any construction delays, so that’s a plus.

Best Political Story

Rahm Emanuel is out of office. But what makes this story unique is that the people of Chicago VOTED him out! No other city has even done corrupt politics the way Chicago has done corrupt politics, and Chicago frequently responds to corrupt politics by opting for the evil they know over the evil they don’t know. Now, just to set the record straight, no one thinks the Buck O’Hare Scandal is why people got fed up with Emanuel. His crime was trying to get away with replacing the sweet relish on a Chicago dog with KETCHUP.

Best Art Exhibit

The Real Capone, which got the city to take a hard look at the reality of one of its mythologized heroes. Chicago sells so many little knickknacks with Capone’s face on it, you would think he was some great champion of the people, but Capone was a nasty character. This art exhibit showed the side of him that all the cheap souvenir shops don’t show you: The victims and their families, all in graphic detail. Several souvenir shops around the city have announced that they will cease selling Capone’s merchandise.

Best Architecture Story

Remember how the Sears Tower lost its title of the tallest building in the United States to Freedom Tower years ago on a silly antennae technicality? Well, as it turns out, Chicago was right to lose its mind over it. Several members of that committee were found to have taken bribes from the New York City Government to vote in Freedom Tower’s direction. The committee ended up being rather blatant about this; when a new bank tower in Tallahassee, Florida, which was clearly shorter than both ended up becoming the tallest building in the United States, we knew something was a little fishy. They all lost their chairs and the rightful place of the Sears Tower was restored.

Best Theater Story

The restoration of Englewood from its wholesale destruction during the Martial War has people across the country wondering if Englewood is going to turn into a new Harlem. The notoriously violent pre-War neighborhood has gotten a makeover and a hell of a reputation to go with it. The Halsted stretch of Englewood has given rise to a series of alternative theaters which run every kind of theater known to man. There’s an emphasis on African-American work, of course, with such iconic plays like A Raisin in the Sun and A Soldier’s Play, theater based on the books of Richard Wright and the life of Malcolm X, and poetry interpretations. Much is the district is painted up and down with colorful murals which would have been illegal before the War. The new Englewood Theater District has attracted so much attention that notable African-American playwrights such as Adrienne Kennedy and Ntozake Shange have recently announced their decisions to debut new, never-before-seen works there.

Best Pizza

Giordano’s. Eight years running.

Best Hot Dogs

Franks ‘N’ Dawgs. Nine years running.

Best Newspaper

The Chicago Tribune. They own this newspaper, after all.

Best Street

Milwaukee Avenue. The Milwaukee Strip between Ashland and California remains the city’s best-kept secret if you’re looking for unique, out-of-the-way swag.

Best Ice Cream

Margie’s. It’s probably just time to retire them from contention by now.

Best Donuts

Glazed and Infused. Not only excellent donuts, but they deserve credit for the low-key role they played in the Martial War. Alliance spies used to drop off phony donut deliveries from Glazed and Infused under the guise of gifts from those supportive of Donald Trump and the martial occupation. Guard troops loved the things so much and ate so many that they ended up slowing down and being easy pickings for the Alliance.

Best Cafe

Ipsento. Not so much for the coffee as for their version of London Fog.

Best Bar

The California Clipper, which also doubles as an excellent and popular music venue.

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Grace Commons Loses its Talisman

A random Sunday in October of 2006. I sat at one of my usual haunts, the quirky little brick-and-wood spot addressed at 1741 North Western Avenue in Chicago’s Bucktown neighborhood, wondering where the hell World Can’t Wait had trotted off to this time. It was the second time this had happened – I had been given one address by the political group and told they were meeting there that Sunday, and they went someplace else without me.

So I was sitting there, nothing to do, not willing to make the return trip home because I had just dragged myself a half-mile while getting licked by the bitter winds. My health was already getting under the weather. Fortunately, no one seemed in any hurry to shove me out the door. The first person I saw was Nanette; now, I knew Nanette strictly nominally as the friendly hipster artist who was also the acting barista at the Monday jazz shows that flowed into the World Can’t Wait room’s thin walls. I thought I had a fairly accurate read on her through our brief drink and pastry exchanges then. She clearly had to be one of the many people in the building connected with the Near Northwest Arts Council. Had to be. Had that vibe.

“Would you like a cup of tea?” she asked me that day.

“Sure,” I said. I didn’t think I was in any condition to turn down an offer of tea.

Nanette brought me the tea and, as she turned to leave, casually added “Oh, we’re having a prayer service at 5. You’re welcome to come if you like.” I could swear it was an afterthought.

Whatever, though. I wasn’t planning to head out anytime soon, and I had nothing better to do. A prayer service might be good for a few yuks, at any rate. Why the hell not?

Well… My life was changed for good after I left. I couldn’t describe what about the service hit me at the time, and I still can’t. I walked into the service room flying high on some 18 months of declared, anti-religious atheism after getting pissed with two different dogmas. I thought I was done. Instead, that Sunday invitation turned out to be the beginning of a whole different path which I’ve been walking ever since. It was my welcome to a unique spiritual community called Wicker Park Grace, and it quickly became one of my life’s centerpieces. My involvement there made me a better person in a few ways, some of which I’m certain I don’t know about yet.

Anyway, of all the qualities I attached to Nanette the way I saw her then, Presbyterian Minister was among the last on my list. I figured the initial prayer service I attended was some kind of novelty thing; not a weekly meeting. Nanette, though, said she ran services like that every week, and when I returned the next week, Nanette, me, and a handful of other people sat down in a small room. You know what the service was? The small lot of us sitting down, eating dinner, and talking about the various questions and problems we all had about scriptures. I finally got to ask about all the problems I had with the two different religions I had followed in my life to that point, and had used to hammer fundamentalists afterward. It was the first time anyone ever took my questions and comments seriously. The congregation of Wicker Park Grace wasn’t there to crush opposition to religion by insisting that I just believe, or that I wasn’t reading something properly; the earliest form of the church that I knew there was just as confused, angry, and misfit as I was, and just as eager to get to the bottom of the scriptures they were familiar with.

Nanette never tried to stand pat with testimonies and reaffirmations of faith. In fact, she was the one leading us through some questions and into even more questions. For a working class kid raised in a staunch literalist religious atmosphere, this was unheard of, and it was because of this that Nanette managed to do something no other Minister I ever met had managed: She got through to me. She made me think. She challenged everything I thought I knew about religion previously, through both my experience following two different faiths and then turning my back on them both.

The new way I discovered of looking at religion had a remarkable and unexpected effect: It made me appreciate the positive aspects of the religion I was raised practicing again while managing to reinforce my atheism at the same time. I wasn’t the only person at Wicker Park Grace who started to wonder if there could ever be such a beast as a Christian Atheist. Christian Atheism or not, though, all the barriers that mentally kept me from questioning in the past finally broke down, and I began to appreciate the fact that I could be a perfectly flawed human being and still be a halfway decent person.

I had had several Ministers in my past, but Nanette is the one I consider my first real Minister. She managed to find a new life for my weather-worn soul and prevent a third form of unofficial religious dogma from taking hold of it. I learned that I liked asking questions about the big issues of religious faith and upsetting the natural order, and Nanette gave me the first real outlet I had to do that.

Wicker Park Grace grew and eventually moved to a different building, establishing a new form as Grace Commons. But people have this funny way of moving on, and Nanette was eventually installed as the Minister of a whole new congregation. Grace Commons moved yet again soon afterward, its members moved into areas of Chicago more difficult to reach – and sometimes out of Chicago altogether – and everything that Grace Commons established started falling apart. The last time I managed to get to Grace Commons, services had become bi-weekly affairs with attendance on par with the first services I ever attended there. A couple of my friends there remarked to me last year they weren’t sure of Nanette’s ability to be a full-time Minister to two congregations.

That turned out to be a good guess, because Nanette is stepping down, and Grace Commons is losing its talisman. As the Minister of Grace Commons, Nanette installed a core ethos of hospitality and welcomed everyone, regardless of their background, and was beloved for her easy, outgoing, and personable style of teaching. She oversaw Grace Commons as it turned from three people in a coffeehouse to a formalized establishment with a personality of its own. Without her, Grace Commons is taking a congregation-run course, and I can’t say I know what’s in store for it. But I think I can speak for all of the old regulars from Grace Commons when I say: Nanette, we love you.

The Need for Bicycle Racks

The Need for Bicycle Racks

It didn’t occur to me very often in the past, but it just occurred to me in one of my last bicycle trips. I’ve made no secret in the past that the suburbs – hell, the greater Buffalo and Erie County area in general – are resoundingly shitty when it comes to bicycle friendliness. The locals outside the cool parts of the city – Chippewa, Allentown, and Elmwood Village – are neanderthals. There’s little sense of curiosity or want of experience expansion in Buffalo, and so adults who ride bicycles are reacted to uniformly with a singular emotion: Scalding hatred. Going out on a bicycle in The City of Good Neighbors is always a risk because no matter what the law says, those who enforce it always side with motorists.

My most recent occurrence happened when I took a nice long ride through some of my usual haunts and noticed something very common to them: With the exception of the library, they ALL lack bicycle racks. There’s no rack at the strip mall, no rack at the real mall, no rack at any of the places I seek a mid-ride snack. At the strip mall, there’s not even a decent place for me to improvise a rack. All the signs are in the parking lot, so I have to throw a tiny wire around a large stone column.

The lack of bicycle racks anywhere is inexcusable. In Buffalo, it proves definitely to outsiders the dangerous aspect of the city’s mindset, which is that Buffalo is obsessed with its past and will never change for the future. Specifically, it’s obsessed with the 50’s All-American vision – the common WASP inhabiting a McHouse and driving a gas guzzler, forgetting – or more likely these days, desperate to ignore – the fact that the world doesn’t revolve around their narrow existence. And that’s what it is, an existence.

There are more bicycles being sold these days than there have in many years. The economy is a wreck, gas prices are sky high, and people are taking a greater interest in their health. What’s the perfect way to get around? Bicycle! So the fact that the area appears to be actively forcing us to drive is another reminder of Buffalo desperately loading up the old time machine and going against its increasingly bicycle-oriented traffic. Not having racks is an implicit form of prejudice against cyclists. Since there are very few other places to attach a bicycle to, what are the cyclists supposed to do?

The Buffalo government, for everything wrong with it, has realized that, and there are city bicycle racks and bicycle paths set up around various points. So the real pain is that it’s not the incompetence of those at City Hall screwing up, for one. It’s the people, on their private business property, who aren’t making the rack investment. For a city which is basically southern and conservative at heart, this doesn’t make any sense. Don’t places lose business without racks because cyclists don’t have anyplace to park? I really get the sense that more bicycle racks would be a win-win situation, and for the life of me, I can’t figure out why there are so few of them.

We can do this, Buffalo. For god’s sake, there are places where bicycle rentals are available in the city. It’s pretty bad that we have places to rent bicycles, but nowhere to park them. Buffalo’s terrain also makes it a challenge to ride for veteran cyclists, so by not having very many bicycle racks, we might be missing out on some potential tourists. The war zone known as Detroit is embracing its recenetly-born image as a cyclist paradise because the city is all flatland, which makes it easy to get around by bicycle. San Francisco, Denver, and Portland, Oregon are also known as cyclist havens despite their respective hills, thin air, and rain. Buffalo – with its high concentration of collegiate institutions – should make it a natural place to promote cycling. The city a good place to promote cycling, not discourage it.

A Farewell to Roger Ebert

A Farewell to Roger Ebert

My all-time favorite Roger Ebert moment didn’t have anything to do with movies. There was a certain sportswriter for the Chicago Sun-Times since the 90’s who was known as a real windbag. This sportswriter was verbose as hell, yes, but he was also bombastic, loudmouthed, egotistical, and petty. Upon first reading his columns, I assumed it was simply a public personality, but after he quit the newspaper in 2008 (giving an interview to the rival Chicago Tribune in the process), the stories which popped up out of the Sun-Times offices revealed a man who was small and a classic bully. I refuse to write down his name because he doesn’t deserve the extra attention and because he really is a rotten enough person to bomb me through email if he ever read this blog. It was Ebert who gave this guy the most pointed goodbye message when he wrote in a public note “On the way out, don’t let the door bang you in the ass.” Exact words.

That moment was important because it sort of solidified Ebert’s mentality as an everyman critic. Said sportswriter was widely hated in Chicago, and in that one statement, Ebert – a former sportswriter himself – was speaking for hundreds of thousands of people dying to tell him that exact same thing.

As a writer, Roger Ebert was one of my bars. Every time I wrote something which I thought was on a level as good as he could be, he would end up raising it, and much to my madness, he would also make it look very easy. While Ebert never learned of my existence, this was a kind of game I was playing with him in secret as a way of challenging myself to be a better writer. The trick was that Ebert always WROTE like an everyman while still maintaining the influence of the literature he loved. That made Ebert come off as witty, brilliant, passionate, educated, and observant while still being accessible at the same time. That’s not an easy trick to duplicate. I like to think that I pull it off when I’m at my very best, but it takes a hell of an inspiration for me to get there. It’s still asking me to write above and beyond my normal level. The trick is that Ebert never came off as mechanical, which is something I tend to struggle with.

Ebert spoke to me through one of my most beloved escapes from reality: The movies. It’s hard to think that anyone, anywhere, could hold so much influence over an entire generation of writers through the simple task of reviewing movies. But when you give it some real thought, this actually makes perfect sense. Movies are one of the ubiquitous forms of media in society. They’re everywhere – aside from the regular theaters, it’s easier than ever to access movies on television and online and through the countless places that sell DVDs. A lot of the expressions we use from day to day had their origins in a movie scene. Has anyone ever made an offer you couldn’t refuse? They just quoted The Godfather. Movies speak to everyone in some form or another, whether that be famous quotables, famous scenes or characters, or even parodies of popular films.

Growing up in Buffalo, I was a frequent reader of Jeff Simon, the film critic for The Buffalo News. A lot of the things that can be said about Ebert could easily be applied to Simon. It was Simon’s columns that taught me to think more about what I was seeing, and Simon is a promoter of small indie films that would otherwise go ignored in Buffalo. Simon is a great critic, by all means. I disagreed with him a lot, like everyone does with film critics. But Simon’s own way of writing his interpretations of movies could easily come across as pompous and, at times, even insulting, so I wasn’t able to appreciate his work as a kid the way I do now. Ebert changed the way I thought of movie reviewing. He had a talent for slicing through four or five layers of allegorical depth in any given movie and challenging the way I looked at it. When I started reading Ebert’s work, I started taking a more critical look at movies myself, and asking myself upon shutting off a movie, “What’s REALLY going on here?” How many critics can say they turned people into better movie watchers? He was never snide or condescending about the way he looked at movies. (He could sometimes be pretty insluting, though. His review of Atlas Shrugged, Part I is a delightfully venomous attack on objectivism, and his review of Fanboys relied on stereotypes so tired that every popular geek franchise fanbase bombed him with letters to the point where he was forced to apologize.)

My one complaint about Roger Ebert was that he was never able to quite accept the changing times as we would have liked. He seemed to take the popular mantra about age 30 being the new 20 a bit too seriously, though there’s truth in it. He hated the idea of video games being considered a form of art and passionately campaigned against it long after the idea was pretty much set in stone. (And despite not knowing very much about video games.)

I got a lot of Friday yuks from reading Ebert’s reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times. In my line of work, they were always a wonderful way to pass through the long wait times between runs. While riding through The Loop, I always made sure to keep a couple of books on me, but when the movie reviews rolled in through the Friday editions of the Sun-Times, I rarely needed them. Except if the book I was reading happened to be one of the many authored by Roger Ebert. Then it was fair game. Farewell, Roger Ebert. Everyone gives you a thumbs up, even on the occasions we disagreed with you.

A Tribute to Local Independent Musicians and My Most Unexpected Chicago Reunion

I’ve never met Robert Plant. Never shared a room or a building with him. I know we’ve been in the same country at a few points in our lives, and we might have intersected cities once or twice. On a personal level, though, Robert Plant is still a massive, thundering deity living over the hills and far away. He is to be heard and worshipped as he sits on his golden marble throne somewhere on the top of Mount Olympus, never to be touched by us lowly knaves.

This is actually just fine with me for the most part. I like Robert Plant a lot, and love his work whether he’s there playing it himself or with Jimmy Page, Alison Krauss, Strange Sensation, or the immortal band that put him on the map, Led Zeppelin. I own many of his albums, including the maligned Dreamland; the classic Principle of Moments; the severely underrated Mighty Rearranger; and the anthemic Walking into Clarksdale, which he created with his old bandmate Page. Beyond the incredible music, though, what would a guy like Robert Plant have to offer a humble dayworker such as myself? I have no doubt that Plant loves each and every one of his fans, but for a trendsetting bigshot of a musician like him, it probably gets tiring to hear from millions of people – some whom are truly nuts – how they own all your work and are obsessed with House of Cards as if those millions of other fans didn’t exist. If we were to end up sitting next to each other on the Amtrak, I’m fair sure I would struggle to find any kind of common ground on which to base any casual conversation. (Although I would be sure to ask “Dude, you’re Robert Plant! Why are you riding the Amtrak? In business class, no less?”) Don’t get me wrong; if I was ever offered an opportunity to meet Robert Plant one-on-one, I would take it. Then afterward, we would both return to our agreed-upon roles: Me as the starry-eyed fan looking up from a ground level containing thousands of others just like me and him as Thor moonlighting as a musician. I pay ticket money, he plays In the Mood, and we go on with our lives.

I started following local bands when I was in my mid-teens, after cursory reads of the local entertainment section of the newspaper revealed a world of hidden music I wasn’t aware of. At local festivals, I started becoming more attentive of the bands I was watching. McCarthyism was an early favorite of mine, and I later learned of the music of Kilbrannan and moe. Upon my return, one of the first things my best friend did was take me out for St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo, where we spent the night jamming to the unique musical stylings of Penny Whiskey, a band that rose from the ashes of Kilbrannan after their breakup a few years ago. During the St. Patrick’s season in South Buffalo, in the Goin’ South Irish Feis, Jackdaw is a hot ticket. In my last few years before I moved out of Buffalo, going down to the Buffalo Irish Center to hear live music became a way for me to socialize; albeit only to an extent, because at that point I had alienated myself beyond most human contact and didn’t know quite how to socialize with people.

It wasn’t until Chicago that I began to really appreciate the small-time, independent local acts and the color they brought to the neighborhood. Moving there, I was clueless about the local culture, and knew that I was going to have to learn about it if I was to be anything more than a hermit. After living in the city for a few months, I joined a political group which happened to be renting space in the NNWAC building in Bucktown. Our meetings happened to overlap with music nights on Mondays, when one of the local bands would play in the front of the building while my group sweated in the back. Leaving the group after some seven months freed up my schedule to finally visit the NNWAC building on a Monday to listen to the music and take in the show. I quickly came to like the crowd there; I also loved the fact that the bands were always up for a chat with the audiences, and willing to play with us; I would shout the occasional mock request immediately after a set closed for a Rush song. (Usually it was By-Tor and the Snow Dog. One band cleverly responded by teasing me about their second act being nothing but a Rush medley.)

As I took in more of the local sights and music, I got to better know what the performance venues looked like, and I became a regular at a weekly talent night in what a friend described to me as an underground art gallery. The place was called Quennect4, and it was so rebellious that it wasn’t even registered, meaning it didn’t exist to the powers that be. It was housed in the ruins of a business which didn’t exist anymore, which all meant the Police could (and a couple of times, did) raid it. They were so secretive, they encouraged people to stay inside to smoke in a designated smoking area. The up and coming bands around Chicago got to know me there. One band once asked me to go onstage and play bass with them, but I had to say no on the entirely reasonable ground of “I don’t play bass. Or anything else, for that matter.”

The connections between musicians and audiences in small indie venues are always more personal. Starting out playing in a small place, I imagine it’s hard for musicians to think of themselves as Robert Plant or Bono. There’s no security row to block the people at the show from the stage, and those small shows – especially when they feature bands that haven’t yet made names for themselves – have much more of an anything goes atmosphere. The invitation to play bass at Q4 made me love the place, and I loved it all the more a few minutes later when a random audience member audibly said “Fuck it, I’m gonna go up there and play some bass,” and then did just that. Playing a show in the middle of 60,000-seat Soldier Field, standing some seven feet above the front row where you can’t see anything but tops of peoples’ heads, might have a disconnecting feeling. Everything is carefully organized and choreographed, and the highly alert security forces are all prepared to throw you out for moshing when you should have been waving a lighter. For the indie bands, it’s just between them and complete trust in an audience so close, you can feel the afterburn of their Jack Daniel’s shots.

After my little scotch ordeal concluded on Monday, I thought it was time to reacquaint myself with Chicago’s musical underground. It had been awhile, after all. The quest to do that took me to a small pub called Schubas, which coincidentally took me right back to Southport. Schubas was holding a singer/songwriter showcase featuring the locals: MER, Johnny Perona, Scott Burdsall, Meagan Hickman, and Tim Stop as a featured artist. Although I tried to keep up with the Chicago indies, that group of names still didn’t mean very much to me. The one person onstage whose work I knew – who I knew – was a woman there to lend her vocals to Perona: Leslie Beukelman. I knew Leslie from back in those early music nights. Along with Nanette and the music night organizer, Rob Clearfield, Leslie was among the first people outside of work or politics I spent time around. While I met a lot of the musicians Rob brought into the sets, Leslie always stood out by virtue of her radiant smile and otherworldly singing voice.

After paying the cover, I quietly stepped into the Schubas showroom in the back and took a quick look around. The show hadn’t started yet, and the audience had apparently decided late arrival was fashionable. I returned to the front of the bar and ordered a beer; being a beer snob, I went with one of the local delicacies: Green Line, a brand of 312, named for the city’s area code. Taking my time sipping the frothy liquified hops, I returned to the still-sporadically-populated showroom and quietly looked around. There wasn’t anything unique or charming about it; it came off like the proverbial smoky room Journey probably had in mind when they penned Don’t Stop Believin’: Dark, standing room only, warmed largely through body heat. No smoke, though, because Chicago law forbade it. No wine or cheap perfume either, although the night was young. Its charm was in its charmless, no-frills, practical approach. I approached the deejay box along the right-side wall and leaned against it, hoping to appear inconspicuous. That effort was mooted because I was dressed like a giant white glo-stick. As far as going unnoticed went, I might as well have grown a pair of angel wings, because even that couldn’t possibly have made me more visible.

All of the musicians sounded excellent. I took a particular liking to Hickman and Stop (whose band was the second set), and in fact I was going to put my name on Hickman’s mail list but I got occupied doing other things. I talked with one of the other patrons, a friend of Hickman’s who was there to lend her his support. The crowd trickled in during the set, and by the time the songwriters were finished, there were enough people in the room for me to lose the musicians as they mingled and charmed while working the room. This was ultimately why I chose to start supporting the local indies, no matter where I lived. Off the stage, whatever divine aura that maybe existed was gone, and the musicians went right back to being the regular people from their neighborhoods. People who loved their music enough to want to create and share it with others, possibly over beer or coffee. There was a genuine affection between these artists and the people in the audience who had ponied up the money to see them.

Leslie sounded incredible, as she always did. She was allowed to sing one of her own songs, with which she killed the room. At some point, I stepped out to retrieve a scotch on rocks to calm my nerves a little bit. I wanted to jaunt out of the crowd and say hello, but I’m shy, very introverted, and not a big fan of self-embarrassment and I wasn’t sure if Leslie remembered me. Although Nanette and Rob both became valued and trusted friends, I hadn’t seen Leslie very often. Although we had spent a lot of time around each other way back when, it had been so long that I figured worst case scenario, she misses me and I don’t push it. Best case, she remembers my image vaguely and I have to jog her memory a little. I knew there was no threat of her snapping at me, because she had always exuded a naturally warm and sunny personality which could put a seasoned Marine drill Sergeant at ease. Yet, people losing patience with me and breaking keeps lingering as a fear, no matter who, and no matter how unreasonable. I’ve had this fear of Nanette, the last person on Earth who would verbally attack me. I was badly overthinking this whole scene, but a lifetime of being the outcast tends to do that. My head was still going at warp speed when Leslie reached the back of the room and we made eye contact.

She smiled. “Hey! Do you remember me? Leslie!”

Did I remember? How could I forget?

“You don’t make yourself an easy person to forget,” I said.

I meant every word of that. Leslie was still her cheerful, outgoing self for the next 20 minutes while we caught up. I chose to give her the nutshell version of the turn my life had taken rather than the full one. She came up with an endless number of questions to ask, and we talked about things from the sorry living state of Buffalo to our mutual friends to our own pasts in Chicago. I got comfortable enough to confess that I was a little surprised she remembered me so well. Musicians have to have good memories if you think about it. Leslie’s was at least as photographic as my own. She also appeared happy that I had come from a place all the way over in Lincoln Park just to see this show. I actually didn’t think of it as some major distance. What was it, four stops on the nearby Brown Line? Maybe five? It didn’t seem all that significant to me. Showing up didn’t exactly make me Marco Polo going to China.

Leslie had to go – she said she would be sticking around for a quick beer before heading out the door. I turned my immediate attention back to the stage, where Tim Stop came out and rocked his set. I left after awhile myself because I was busy the next day. Still, the night had been a good one. It had exhibited everything I loved about independent musicians and given me a reconnection with someone I had known from way back in the beginning, when everything in my life (and apparently hers too) was going right.

Zen Master

“I am the vine, you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”
John 5:15

That was the Bible passage presented to me by my minister at my 1995 confirmation. I liked it; it had a really cool ring, and it seemed to have a cloaked message about how I was going to go on to become a great religious leader or something. But I also wondered just what the minister saw in me that he thought it fit to bestow that passage on probably the most stubborn confirmand he knew during his long ministership. I had, after all, probably set a record in the number of parent/minister meetings he set up. I was the one who ignored the workbook, colored on my sneakers, forgot what essays I was supposed to be writing, avoided listening to the tapes of classes that got made for absentees, once wore sneakers on acolyte duty, and tried to forge his parents’ signatures for assignments. This wasn’t what anyone could call casual mischief, either; I was doing it out of a contempt for the very idea of getting stuck in a weekly two-hour class for my invitation to the wafer/wine club. Although church membership was the ultimate reward for putting up with the Reverend’s extended sermons, I didn’t see it that way; I saw it as the right to take communion every two weeks and nothing more. I wasn’t shy about my bewilderment in having to do this, and I constantly presented the question of just who the hell thought up this stupid idea. The eternal answer never changed: That’s how its always been done. It’s tradition. Because we said so!

In my two years, I was one of only about three confirmands through those classes who went on to be a Sunday regular. I wasn’t outwardly religious, but on the inside, I was very conservative about my faith. I tried like hell to suppress my naturally inquisitive personality, but eventually I couldn’t take it anymore and left the church for a whole new religion, a process which became pretty familiar to me at the outset of the 21st century. In the ensuing years, I switched religions three or four times. Add one more if you count my conversion to the Ahmadiyya branch of Islam, which is probably still the one I feel the closest connection to. (Yes, I’m counting Atheism.) My soul, as you can assume, became an unsalvageable wreck. In 2006, just a few months after I moved to Chicago, I became embroiled in the political and artistic counterculture when I joined an organization whose stated goal was to round up enough support to impeach George W. Bush. That group wasn’t religious, but its primary meetup joint was a gallery owned by an art group on Chicago’s West Side and shared by a lot of small businesspeople. They held jazz nights every Monday while we were in the back room, and the jazz was always drowning out whatever point the leader of the group was trying to make. The building was also very hot, and the back room we were in was hotter, so I would usually creep out of the meeting once or twice a night to order a pastry and a root beer from the barista in the front, cool off a bit, and catch a few spare notes from the band of the week. I got to be acquainted with one of the regulars, Nanette, in the way one usually finds acquaintance with a regular server or grocer: We exchanged friendly words, and she knew what my usual order was. Nanette was basically a nonentity who seemed to be clearly affiliated with NNWAC, the Near Northwest Arts Council, who held our building. A very friendly and welcoming nonentity, but a nonentity nonetheless. And she got me on a path that changed my life.

The story from there is one I’ve told a million times. My group’s lease ran its course and it was forced to alternate meeting spaces, leading to a mix-up one Sunday where I showed up at the wrong place. Not wanting to immediately face the stiff late-October breeze again, I took up Nanette’s invitation to a prayer service which was starting soon. Expecting my participation at the time to be a one-shot deal ending in a polite disinclination to future services, I was drawn back when I learned that this peculiar Christian group didn’t revel in common religious dogma. Instead, they challenged it, and were very pointed about doing so. Nanette turned out to be an ordained minister whose little church wasn’t part of NNWAC. (Although, for the record, the church believed in and supported NNWAC.) At this church, I finally found an outlet where the people took my questions and doubts seriously and didn’t offer single-serving answers about just believing or spending extra time with the good book. I also think they made me a better person, to a very large extent. At least that’s how I see it, anyway; Nanette herself once told me she saw a gradual change in the way I looked at religion.

The church, Wicker Park Grace (now known as Grace Commons), was my introduction to a rising branch of Christianity called Emergent Christianity. (Some circles refer to it as Red Letter Christianity.) Along with a cadre of new sports teams to cheer for, an encyclopedic knowledge of the Chicago city grid, and a weather-toughened ability to ride a bicycle in the worst of conditions, Emergent Christianity and my newfound religious questions were among the most important things I brought to Buffalo from Chicago. Even though I live in the fucking suburbs, far away from civilization, and therefore can’t visit any of Buffalo’s one or two Emergent churches, my newfound outlook on religion is getting to be far more important than I expected when I returned.

Emergent Christianity explores original languages, cultural contexts, and histories of the original scriptures in a way that traditional religionists either can’t or don’t want to think about. The result is frequently an interpretation that challenges, offends, and frustrates the Christian orthodoxy. To get an idea of just how new and comparatively radical Emergent Christianity is, consider that its ideas – which include theologies like the Kingdom of Heaven not being a place we go when we die, the book of Revelations being an angry satire of the Roman Empire and not a preview of the end times, and the idea that one doesn’t even have to believe in any gods in order to be a good Christian – tend to baffle and piss off a generally open-minded populace in Chicago, a 21st century megalopolis. Even the atheist groups there – one of which I belonged to for a couple of years – hate Emergent Christianity because it turns a lot of their common arguments against Abrahamic scriptures into nonfactors.

My views on religion were seen as weird and offbeat in Chicago, but the beauty of a large-scale multimillion-population city like that is people see the freaks as nothing more than the kook on the corner. The misfits and offbeat are seen as facts of life, and the better part of the greater populace even looks at them as colorful accompaniments who are welcomed into the city’s multi-personal tapestry. Chicago doesn’t totally LIKE everyone who creates his own drumbeats to march to, but it knows how to deal with them and even grow a little from the experience. The trouble with Buffalo is that it’s not the world-class city it used to be. Although the city has improved since I lived in Chicago, it still adheres to a more rigid way of life and still has trouble accepting anyone who doesn’t conform to a much narrower definition of the normal. Buffalo doesn’t respond well to things it sees as challenges to the greater lifestyle, and it sees challenges in things as simple as riding bicycles.

In matters of religion, Buffalo is still very much a witch hunt town. South Buffalo is such a hotbed of Irish Catholicism that my family was seen as odd just for being Protestant, and Protestant is the most common Christian denomination in the country. I think this story tells how religion plays an important role in a proper South Buffalo identity: In February of 2008, I stopped in a sports bar in downtown Chicago, just a few blocks north of The Loop, to watch the Chicago Blackhawks play against the San Jose Sharks. The Blackhawks weren’t serious contenders quite yet, but they were newly reloaded with players like Martin Havlat, Jonathan Toews, and Patrick Kane. They were playing that season with the main purpose of letting the league know that, after years of performing doormat duty for Detroit, they were fed up and not going to play dead anymore. I was interested in that particular game because the team was having a ceremony to welcome two of their alienated legends – Stan Mikita and Bobby Hull – back into the fold as ambassadors for the team. The team was in a thick hunt for a playoff spot which they eventually missed by just two or three points. As I drank Rolling Rock, watched the game, and chatted up fellow puckheads, I took notice of a few older folks who entered the bar around the start of the third period and watched the rest of the game out. The older folks began talking Sabres, and I immediately identified them as Buffalo natives. They happened to mention that they were relatives of Patrick Kane – himself a South Buffalo native – and were at the game but left because it was starting to run a bit later than they expected. When I mentioned that I was born and bred in South Buffalo myself, they asked what street I grew up on (Rutland, where they knew of) and what family I belonged to (they didn’t know my family, since my father is from rural New York and my mother is from Long Island, my family has no real roots in the city), and tellingly, what parish we were affiliated to. I said the closest parish was Saint Thomas – again, they knew exactly what I was talking about – but that we were members of Salem, in McClellan Circle. They weren’t quite as familiar with that, and when I mentioned that it was a Protestant church, it closed the topic.

In Buffalo, what I’m doing is heresy which itself is worthy of crucifixion. Old dogs are of course notoriously difficult to teach, but in matters of faith, they are perhaps more stubborn than in anything else. The more religious faction of Buffalo’s old guard sees itself as the last hanging thread between the Christian morals of a decent person and the anarchistic outbreak of society because of those who don’t accept Jesus Christ as their lord and personal savior. And here I am, questioning and critiquing everything they believe, calling bullshit to the cherry-pickers’ faces, and challenging them to defend their archaic dogma. What I’ve learned, though, is that there is a small contingent of people who agree with me are are having trouble reconciling fire-and-brimstone Christian faith with humanity. And if the conversation steers toward religion, I’ve turned into some kind of sponge which they use to absorb all of their problems and questions about what their pastors tell them. Often, these aren’t people I see often, and sometimes its happened with people I didn’t even know. Within minutes in a discussion about peoples’ problems with religion, I’ve formed a connection with the other person. And I don’t mind doing it.

Vines bring life to certain plants, and I’ve been bringing life to peoples’ questions if they’ve been too timid to ask them in the past. Maybe my old minster was on to something after all; gradually, I’m becoming the vine.

Coming Home

I had a case of the severe nervous jitters yesterday as I sat on the North Avenue bus, waiting for it to slowly weave its way westward. It was probably the most absurd case of nervousness I’ve ever experienced; I was going to my little Chicago church, Wicker Park Grace – the name is now Grace Commons – knowing full well that I wouldn’t be kicked out. Hell, for all intents and purposes, Grace was my home. Everything else I had ever known in Chicago was merely an extention of it. Even my apartment was little more than a spot to sleep and hang my ever-expanding hat collection.

Sometime during the ride, I took notice of an attractive young woman who got on the bus with a small child. This normally isn’t a big issue because good-looking woman are all over the city, but as I took notice of her profile, I thought, Amy? I’m blind as a bat and couldn’t get a good look from where I was sitting, so I tried to let the thought drift out of my mind; the person I was thinking of had become another economic victim and had to move to Nevada to get back on her feet. I started to rethink this when she got off the bus at my stop. I dashed across the street, and, still a little nervous about going inside, waited for the woman to go to the corner crossing and return to the front of the building. It was then that I got a good look at her, and…

“I thought that might be you! I spotted you when I got on the bus!” she said. As we conversed and caught up with old times, I wondered if she was a little nervous about her return to Grace Commons too. Grace Commons had been touting a baptism for weeks that was scheduled for that very Sunday, and Amy told me that it was her child, Felix, who was being baptized. Somehow I doubted she was quite as nervous.

My (totally irrational) fears were immediately laid to rest once I walked in, though, and I was treated like the prodigal son. I had done a lot of work for Grace Commons simply out of goodness and the obligation I felt to give back to it. Through my time in Buffalo so far, I’ve thought of it often and wondered if I had been forgotten. But the spirit of inclusion which had gotten me to return after my first visit there manifested itself again, and I was asked to light the candles just for old times’ sake. My friends – or at least the ones who were there – were thrilled to see me, and I had work in the cleanup process, just like when I was there every week.

It might seem like a little, foolish thing, but I liked that I was involved with the physical aspects of cleaning up after the service. It was the way my old friends in Chicago showed me that I would have a place there. I have an ego, and if there’s a large, important bit of work the place is trying to get done, I have a drive to feel like I made a tangible contribution when it’s finished. One of the most painful parts of my move was leaving all the work to be done, and there had been many weeks when I was almost a one-man show. When I overheard the minister, Nanette, talking about perhaps starting a rotation during the week, I felt knew then that my departure had been felt. If that didn’t give me that impression, the reactions of my old friends upon seeing me again certainly did. There were countless hugs and questions about my situation not born of courtesy, but from real concern for my well-being.

It was a lucky coincidence that I happened to go in on the week that Amy was baptizing her son. Since baptism is an important sacriment, it gave the work I did an added sense of importance. It made my contribution worthwhile, knowing I had helped out with it. It also turned out to be the final appearance of another friend, Noelle, who will be moving to Oregon soon.

Over our traditional potluck dinner, I discussed my life and my frustration with the way St. Patrick’s Day is celebrated in Chicago.

The real surprises came the next day. I had a hankering for a breakfast sandwich from Potbelly, so I went to the Potbelly I used to frequent in my messenger days, inside the Merchandise Mart. The woman who had usually taken my sandwich orders was still working there, and she spotted me right off and asked me how I was doing. Later, I went to the Dominick’s I once lived by and was recognized by one of the employees.

The reactions of everyone upon seeing me again gave me a sense of worth I never really felt when I was growing up. It’s sometimes very difficult to keep my depression in check, and at a couple of points in my life I’ve seriously contemplated suicide. But for all the times I’ve asked myself if there’s anyone in the world who would realize I was gone, seeing my Chicago friends again was a potent reminder of the fact that, yes, there are many people in the world who lead slightly richer lives because I happened to be among those whom Richard Dawkins calls the Lucky Ones – those who are lucky because, among the millions of others who could have been born in their place, we happened to be among those who made it into the world.

In the meantime, I’ve also learned how to be an ambassador to the United States without ever leaving the country. I’m staying in a hostel in Chicago, and it’s easy to meet a lot of interesting people in hostels. There are times when we take our country for granted, or forget that people from other countries may not have the viewpoints we might think they have. I met a group of Japanese tourists who asked me questions about the United States, the people, and how we see ourselves in the larger world. I gave the most concise and honest answers I could, and in discussions about politics, I tried to be as objective as possible; I even managed to shut off my ranting libertarian switch. I also tried to teach them a little bit about how to play pool and foosball.