As usual, I'd not gotten around to making actual plans, so I ended up going out alone. But then, plans are as highly overrated as the potential fun in going out alone is underrated.
There are always at least a couple gallery receptions going on somewhere in the city. That means complimentary beverages and, in the fancier downtown spots, some phat hors d'ouvres. So, for anybody reading this who does not frequent the "art scene" in Chicago or elsewhere, the "scene" largely consists of guzzling free booze, gobbling finger foods and gettin' your flirt on while occasionally glancing at the paintings on the wall or scratching your head at some silly conceptual installation. Okay, yeah, that is perhaps a bit cynical. Anyway, it beats the bar scene.
With openings happening all over the city -- River North, River West, Pilsen, Wicker Park -- I hit the Fine Arts Building Gallery first. That's a no-brainer, as the FAB is the first building I see when I get off the train downtown. It's also right near my alma mater, and years ago I worked in there, at Fine Arts Theater to be exact, which showed a lot of films of the foreign or artsy variety such as The Piano. The place is a really cool, historic building-- used to be a Studebaker factory. It's got ancient manual elevators operated by mustachioed Eastern European guys. It's also got all kinds of interesting nooks and crannies. During lulls in work I used to creep down into the basement
(accessible from within one of the theaters), wielding my usher's flashlight, and check out the elevator machinery and boilers and what not. Or sneak into the often-unattended projection rooms as a movie ran, looking at the amazingly complex projectors and the film crisscrossing the room from one platter, through the projector, then out to the other platter. Stuff like that has always fascinated me. Also during my exploration, I found a hidden, unlit stone cellar of unclear purpose (Prohibition-era hooch hideaway? '50s fallout shelter?). It's separate from the main basement and It's underneath, I think, Theater Four, accessed by a heavy steel door and stairway secreted behind the theater screen. There is more yet to the building that I never got around to exploring.
In the fourth-floor gallery only about 8-10 people are present: not surprising, since the show is almost over. But the exhibit is impressive, featuring the miniatures, sculptures, and daguerrotypes of Sean Culver,
the paintings and drawings of Sophia Pichinos,
and oil paintings by Janet Doroba.
The tables in the center of the room are still loaded with stuff: fish and veggie sushi (with all the fixin's, including some @$$-kicking wasabi), multicolored shrimp chips (I find out what they are only after munching on a few; normally, I don't eat shrimp or shellfish), green grapes, and insanely chocolatey chocolates with cherry, mint, or other flavored fillings. And of course, an assortment of red and white wines, not to mention a bottle of green tea.
I enjoy munching, drinking and peering inside the dioramas, some of which are viewed through little peepholes. One of them is a miniature replica of a wood, complete with a little pond. Another, titled "The Optician's Nightmare" or something similar, depicts a dollhouse-sized bed floating in simulated water, over a tiny storefront with miniature counters and shelves.
Culver, a tall, salt-and-pepper-bearded man with glasses, is there, listening to a short, lispy-sounding guy, also in glasses who's yakking away at him for about 20 minutes. Figuring the lispy guy is a collector, I let them alone. Then the lispy guy comes over to me and introduces himself as Bart. "So are you an artist too?" (A question I get a lot.)
"'Dilettante' is closer," I say, only half-jokingly.
Turns out that Bart is an artist and also a big preservation activist. And for the next 25 minutes or so he talks my ear off about how the evil developers ran the local "preservationist" council; how the head is actually a zoning lawyer who's a crony of the pols and the developers. He talks about the elimination of historic districts and landmarks in favor of yet more overpriced condos, big-box stores, and McCoffee joints. And he says he's got lots more info. He asks me if I wrote for the Defender or other minority publications, which I have not but I probably could. I get his card and promise to be in touch.
Three or four drinks later, I'm checking out this real cute Asian lady who's in the gallery. She looks to be about 40ish and is with one of the other attendees of the show. She had been talking earlier to the server guy about him coming to work for her in some capacity, whatever it is that she does. Bart knows her, and he introduces us: Judy's her name. She says she and Bart attended the School of the Art Institute together, and she graduated in 1974. Perhaps sensing that I might be flirting with her, she laughs: "You probably weren't even born then! I could be your grandmother." Could've fooled me.
I learn that it is she who made the sushi and delicious chocolates. Probably figuring me for a hungry art student, she fixes me a plate piled with leftover sushi, which I take it away in a plastic bag. I forget to ask for some more chocolates.
SO I JET on outta there and head west to Dearborn and the Blue Line, a few blocks away. On Adams just before Dearborn I hear someone playing a flute. What's more, it's the Little Fugue in G Minor, one of my favorite Bach pieces. So I cross the street and head over to the flautist, who's sitting out on the sidewalk. He's a black dude with thick black-framed glasses (he reminds me of Rog from "What's Happening"). By the time I get there he's switched to the theme from Mission Impossible.
I throw a dollar into his cup. "Hey, nice Fugue in G minor!" I shout.
"Hey thanks! Yeah, the Little Fugue," he says with a big grin.
"I love that! Good work."
As I walk away the guy launches into "My Heart Will Go On."
Down in the subway tunnel, waiting for the Blue Line, I light up an American Spirit, disregarding the "No Smoking" signs. I'm gonna smoke a half cig, that's all: why is that such a problem? A guy comes over and asked me if I could spare one. Which I must, according to the Universal Smokers' Code, not to mention plain human decency.
The dude is obviously gay and interested. Yet, having had three glasses of wine, I'm feeling talkative, so we banter a bit. Why not? Since he has an Eastern European accent, I ask him where he's from, and he says Bulgaria. Yuko's his name, deejaying and making trip-hop music is his game. I have him say his Myspace page, twice, into my oldfangled microcassette recorder I carry around. Who knows? He might have some good stuff.
We continue yakking on the 10-minute train ride to Damen. He exits at Damen with me, asks me where he can get rolling papers. I point out the mini-mart next to Filter. I then go about my way toward Green Lantern Gallery, a loft space at 1511 Milwaukee. But first, I pause outside the Double Door to finish the Spirit and just look around at the bustling nightlife surrounding Wicker Park's famed Six Corners. The hipsters and artists can rant on and on about how the place has become gentrified beyond belief -- and it has, even within my short memory of the place. But it's still the place to go in Chicago for cool nightlife, for art-related happenings, and just fun people-watching. The artists who can't afford to live there any more still show up at the venues and apartment spaces.
Like the one at Green Lantern. As I enter the building and climb to the second floor, I hear the sounds of a madcap marching band: blaring trombones and tuba over a pounding tribal drumbeat.
I step inside, and to the first guy I see, I yell: "Encroachment?!"
YES INDEED. I've seen environmental encroachment twice before. They're band geeks gone bad. They do wacky music and performance art with costumes and puppets. They do parties, festivals, antiwar protests, Burning Man.
The airy loft apartment is full of mostly twentysomethings but some older folks as well. The majority are dressed in dorky anti-fashion: chicks who could be bike messengers, multicolored hair, black-framed glasses, piercings, odd-colored shoes that look like they were lifted from a bowling alley, vintage dresses, outfits that look homemade. (By comparison, I'm dressed sort of plain: for a creative guy I tend to dress pretty uncreatively. I don't really like shopping, not even at thrift stores.)
ee is playing in front of the stage, which abuts the huge windows overlooking Milwaukee Ave. I station myself back in the kitchen section, leaning on the counter as someone sets down a fresh case of PBR. I just keep quiet and observe and listen as the band plays and partygoers get down.
The first couple people I recognize are Dave, proprietor of Butcher Shop/Dogmatic -- which I visited last week for the first time -- and a girl, who was also at BSD, who I also see at just about every other art happening I've been to, but whose name I forget.
The third person I see is the equally ubiquitous Lee Groban.
That's Lee on the right and antisocialite Liz Armstrong on the left, apparently ignoring him. (This pic is from some other party; I stole it from Liz' Flickr site). Here's another one, a mask of his face:
Like Savoir Faire, Lee is everywhere. He is a poet, artist and instantly recognizable scenester. He can usually be seen at art-related events chatting up girls half his age as he clutches a beer or a joint, swaying precariously -- and sometimes, falling down. He speaks fondly of his hippie days in Brooklyn and the Bay Area.
I try to talk with him, with little success, over the noise of horns and drums and dancing around us. From what I can make out, he says he's going down the street to Gallery Chicago (where I'm also going) in a bit. He recently had something done to his teeth and was advised not to smoke, so he hasn't bothered securing his usual supply of groovy greens for the folks at GC. "But I guess I could still do hallucinogenics," he slurs.
"Ever do 'shrooms?" I say, just out of curiosity.
Of course, he says. And I may be getting this wrong, but I do believe he said: "Although the last time I tried it, it was more of a body high. You know, not the kind where you see God."
I continue to just observe and soak up the sights, the sounds, the scene. After ee is done playing, I go out on the balc in back and have another Spirit and talk to Caroline, the impresaria behind Green Lantern, and some dude. The only other girl I bother talking to is a beautiful, charming six-year old.
Why am I talking to a six-year-old?
Well, after hanging out back, I re-entered and wandered over to the now-empty stage, and I listen to a guy strumming a guitar and a girl trying to sing something (apparently they're trying out a new song; no one's listening). I pick up a drum and bongo along with them for while, just because I feel like it.
As we play, a few colorfully dressed little kids are running around near the stage. I think it's awesome to see kids at art events. How fortunate they are to grow up in a milieu of art and creativity and grown-ups who are not quite grown up.
One of the kids, an absolutely adorable blonde, blue-eyed moppet, tells me she's six. Her name is Darby Crash -- after the lead singer of the Germs -- and she's there with a babysitter, she says while drinking a Pepsi (which is no doubt part of the reason she's so hyper). She does some gymnastics tricks for me.
She tells me she lives in the neighborhood, and I remark that she lives in a pretty cool place. But she wrinkles up her nose and complains about the dearth of convenient parking. "We had to park aaallllllll the way over here," she says, tracing out a little map on the stage next to me. "And walk aallllllll the way over here." In case I"ve missed the point, she does doggie panting to illustrate it.
Around 10, my celly cell buzzes. Hey! It's a text from Linda, whom I met last Saturday at BSD:
hi. had fun last week. would love to get together for a drink.
NOW, LINDA'S A PRETTY and somewhat nerdy dark blonde -- one of the first individuals I met at BSD last Saturday. She was dressed like a teacher. The reason, I soon found out, was that she's a teacher. Specifically, a third-grade teacher in Lawndale, a depressing, blighted West Side neighborhood that's "always in the news," as she put it.
When I asked Linda where the beverages were kept, she told me to go to the "beer machine" in the back. Scarcely believing this, I wandered on to the back of the gallery (a former meat packinghouse or warehouse or something), saw no machine, and then decided she was pulling my leg. I went back, feigned a dirty look, then strode away and ignored her a few minutes. Eventually I came back and playfully chastised her for screwing with me.
But Linda insisted the beer machine was real. She led me to the back, then up a flight of concrete stairs. At the top -- voila -- an ancient vending machine stocked with Miller ("Henry Miller," the hand-scrawled tab read), Beck's ("Bleck's"), Old Style ("Mold Style"), Heineken and a couple others. So it was real! And a buck per can.
Because of the near- or below-zero wind chill that night, I decided not to bother going to see Ami and Radiant Darling at the Viaduct; I'll have to catch their next show. I hung out and drank PBR's and smoked a Spirit and chatted with Linda and her friend. As it turned out, both were from my neck of the woods -- the south suburbs. Linda had grown up minutes from me over in Chicago Heights, although she'd gone to the local Catholic high school. She was very friendly, although perhaps a bit neurotic. When we got on the topic of blues clubs, she said she'd never go to Buddy Guy's downtown, because parking's scarce and she was afraid to use public transit. "All the crowds, the people, the lights ...." she groaned.
"What do you mean? There are lights everywhere," I said.
"Yeah, but fluorescent lights."
Later in the conversation, after we'd both had a few brews, she made some sort of statement involving "we" (I forget exactly what) and I asked her, "Who's 'we' -- you and your friend?"
"Nooo!" and then, with a wistful look: " Oh, I guess I want to feel like part of a 'we,' again."
I admit, that made me think "stalker" for a second. But then, after all, she was just voicing what so many of us feel -- especially in the wake of a breakup -- but would never say out loud. Perhaps not great strategy, but it's honest.
SO ANYWAY, I shoot back to Linda that I'm otherwise occupied tonight, but maybe some other time. I continue taking in the scene at Green Lantern. After awhile, and a PBR, I decide to set off for Gallery Chicago. I bid Caroline adieu and look around for my sushi.
No sushi! Someone's made off like a sushi bandit.
Caroline sees me gaping perplexedly at the sushi-less fridge. "Oh, I'm sorry," she says, sounding embarrassed. "I've got some Thai food. Would you like this instead?" She opens her fridge and takes out a bag containing three cartons. "It's tofu. It's pretty good."
I take it, thank her profusely, and then leave.
SO I HIKE SEVEN BLOCKS south on Milwaukee, past storefronts and over the winding river of headlights and taillights that is the Kennedy Expressway, the downtown Chicago skyline looming ahead. At Gallery Chicago, the door's open as usual. (Gallery owner/painter Ken Hirte is an Army vet of some kind or another, and one of the regulars is a former Seal, so they don't seem too concerned about intruders.)
We pass through the small storefront gallery and into the studio/living space in back: an unevenly lit, warehouse-like space of brick and exposed beams, decorated with a jumble of finished and unfinished paintings and sculptures. In the back is a kitchen space, an entertainment center with couches, an office space and a bed. The only enclosed room in the place is the bathroom. There's a basement workshop, too, into which I've only peeked a couple of times.
Ken says hi. Most of the regulars, including Lee, are gathered around the kitchen table in back. As usual, it's an older crowd -- but I feel quite comfortable around an older crowd. Vito Carli had just left, Lee tells me. Plexiglass art genius Walter Fydryck is there. There's the 50something Jamaican guy whose name I forget. The Navy Seal guy hasn't made it tonight. But there's Gail, the 40?something white woman whom I last saw at the AfroPunk show last May moshing with all the kids. Now that's cool. But tonight she's pretty much 3 1/2 sheets to the wind and doesn't recognize me.
A little cigarette of some sort is being passed around, and I assay to take a puff but grab it so clumsily that it burns my fingers and I drop it -- plus exhale too quickly. Which actually is okay with me, as I'm already quite sorted; smoking and drinking together never seems to work well for me anyway.
As usual, people are talking politics. I have a couple glasses of Ken's homemade wine, even though I shouldn't. Lee shouldn't've either, because he ends up falling and knocking over a framed picture. Last time I was here a few weeks ago, Lee was there showing a bizarre surrealist film he and a friend made in Brooklyn, featuring himself reading his poetry against dilapidated urban backdrops, backed by trippy music. In one shot, the funny-without-even-trying Lee, looking like a demented, bearded tree-person, is shown duckwalking in circles, lying on the ground in front of a dumpster, and, through trick photography, leaping around upside-down. All the while, reciting his poetry. All you can say is: Wow.
It's 12:15 when I realize I have to leave. (Because of the way the trains run in Chicago.) But I don't want to. I'm flirting with Gail and I'm listening to some intriguing political conversation between the Jamaican guy and Ken and another guy. And so the moment passes. And next thing I know, it's 12:45. The last train to my neck of the woods leaves from downtown in five minutes. I will never make it. Maybe I should've taken up Linda on her invitation.
(To be continued, if I feel like it)