Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Movie Star, or Maybe the King of Pop

See, it's not about races, just places, faces
Where your blood comes from is where your space is
I've seen the bright get duller
I'm not going to spend my life being a color.
LTB, on Michael Jackson's "Black or White"

This week, a friend from work held an open mic at her apartment for friends and acquaintances. It's something that she and her roommate do every month. When I first heard about it, I was skeptical that it could be any good, or that anyone was going to be there. And I was wrong. On both counts. These two people are really, really put together, at least when it comes to this show. They invite tons of people, have great performers, and provide a great time in every way. (Things I have seen: tap dance, poetry, improv comedy, surprisingly effective monologues, original music.) When I first went, I was blown away. So I signed up to perform, and brought along my friends' band to play a few songs. It's the kind of thing that makes me happy I live in a city, and at least moderately sure I never want to live anywhere else.

Below is the story I read at the open mic. Enjoy.

* * *               

That morning, I was going to Pilsen. In preparation, I put on my typical outfit for a day out on the town: a tie, a collared shirt, an argyle sweater vest, a thick professorial-looking jacket, slacks, and of course, my trusty brown fedora hat.
At the time, I lived in Hyde Park, and didn’t own a car. Now, there are two ways to get to Pilsen from Hyde Park on the CTA. One is to take the 55 bus to the Red Line, the Red Line downtown to the Pink Line, and the Pink Line into Pilsen.
This is the roundabout way.
The other way to get to Pilsen from Hyde Park is to take the 55 bus to Ashland and Garfield and the Ashland bus up a couple dozen blocks to Pilsen.
This is the way through Englewood.*

In selecting my route for the day, an internal dialogue sprang up between two of my sub-personalities; I’ll call them Ordinary James and Liberal White Guilt James.

Ordinary James: So I guess I’m going to take the Red Line to the Pink Line. I like trains better than buses, and I’m not that familiar with Englewood. I might have a hard time navigating over there. 
Liberal White Guilt James: Let’s be real here. The roundabout way is racist. The only really good reason to take that way is to avoid Englewood, i.e., black people. If you take it, you have to admit you’re kind of a racist. 
Ordinary James: What? No, that’s ridiculous. Anyone who knows me knows I’m not a racist. 
Liberal White Guilt James: So, what, you’re not afraid of black people? 
Ordinary James: Of course not! Some of my best friends are black! 
Liberal White Guilt James: I rest my case.

So it was that I ended up taking the way through Englewood.

Upon my arrival at Ashland and Garfield, I noticed that Englewood looked empty, almost eerily desolate. It is a quiet place, I said to myself, with no one on the corners, hardly any shops or other public activity in view. I was comforted by this. I left the 55 bus, crossed the street, and waited a few minutes for the Ashland bus.

Was that so bad? said Liberal White Guilt James, congratulating himself on his astounding dearth of racist sentiment.

Later in the day, I returned to the corner of Ashland and Garfield on my way home to Hyde Park. Stepping off the Ashland bus, I immediately realize that my previous characterization of Englewood was in error. Sure, Englewood is empty, when you step off a bus at 8 in the morning on a Saturday. Saturday afternoon is different. On Saturday afternoon, it is a hodgepodge, a milieu, a veritable sea of humanity. A sea I’m about to have to wade into.

As soon as I leave the bus, heads on all corners swivel violently. Who is this guy? What is going to happen to him? And most importantly: why is he dressed like Indiana Jones?

As I cross the street and round a corner to get to my bus, a man gesticulates at me, bidding me closer:

"Hey, man. C’mere. I—I wanna talk to you."

No thank you, I think, too anxious to say anything out loud to anybody, especially creepy dudes gesticulating on corners. I keep walking. Liberal White Guilt James’ cocky self is nowhere in evidence.

I reach the bus stop, which is populated by a dozen or so people, all of whom apparently have nothing more interesting to do than to wonder what I am doing there. No one has a magazine so interesting or a conversation so engrossing or even a daydream so captivating that they need to pay more attention to it than to me. After a moment, the following commentary is issued:

"Dude look like he step out of a book."

It’s true. I do. I nod inwardly and accept this accurate if overly candid assessment of my appearance. Who but a character in a book would dress willingly as I have today?

"Dude look like Matt Damon."

Matt Damon? Do I? Could I ever look as cool as Matt Damon? That guy is great. Maybe I should come to Englewood more often.

"Heh, Matt Damon gonna get robbed."

This last is greeted by chuckles from some and a sudden feeling of unadulterated dread by me. I do look like Matt Damon, and Matt Damon gonna get robbed.

I shuffle as far from the main group as I can while still remaining at the bus stop. I don’t want to be mistaken for a Matt Damon who is not getting on the bus. A man dressed completely in camouflage clothing approaches me and starts advising me on the subject of Michael Jackson, perhaps making the link between the King of Pop and myself because of our shared fondness for fedora hats.

Remember Michael Jackson, is the substance of his advice. You should remember that guy. He was great.

It is my studied opinion that this man was trying to make me feel less worried about getting robbed while looking like Matt Damon, which to his credit, he did, but only because I got more worried about having to discuss my uncharitable feelings about Michael Jackson with a devout fan. He looked touchy.

After a few minutes of being reminded of how great Michael Jackson was, I see a bus pulling in a few blocks away. According to the sign at the stop, no buses besides the 55 come to the stop, so I’m reasonably sure this bus is a 55 bus, which is the bus that I desperately want it to be. I’m right. I board the bus, and, what’s this? No one boards with me. Nobody. Were they all just sitting there, waiting for something to happen? Not a soul at that bus stop was waiting for the bus, no one but me, Matt Damon, Michael Jackson, Liberal White Guilt personified in a tie, an argyle sweater vest, and a fedora.

*Note: for non-Chicagoans, Englewood is a historically black and low-income neighborhood on the South side of the city. For Chicagoans: yeah, I know Ashland and Garfield is technically Back of the Yards, and not Englewood. I went with common usage here.

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