By mid-summer of 1984, I’d gotten quite used to life in the City of Chicago. Essentially I was leading a double life, with a girlfriend in the suburbs and one in the city. But that wasn’t the whole story either. The manic energy of a 26-year-old (young) man knows no bounds. Along with the late-night dance sessions with the downtown date that I’d branded Miss McBuns in my running journal, the city seemed to beckon in other ways.
My roommate would often come home singing the song Paint It Black by the Rolling Stones, particularly the line:
“I see those girls walk by dressed in their summer clothes…I have to turn my head until my darkness goes…”
Because yes: women in summer dresses in the city can kill a young man. All it takes is a shaft of sunlight flashing from the front of a woman and her silhouette shows up through gauzy fabric. Then there are the summer breezes that playfully lift summer skirts, revealing either panties or none at all. That kept happening to my friend and roommate, and it was driving him crazy. “I saw another one today…” he’d half lament. “She was unbelievable.”
But the killer moment of that summer was a morning at Nookies, the breakfast restaurant one block away from our apartment. We’d both been out late with our dates and decided to grab some pancakes in the brunch hour. Sitting together at a small table in the center of the restaurant, my friend leaned forward and whispered, “Don’t look right away. But when you get a chance, the scenery to our right is quite striking.”
I waited ten or fifteen seconds, then dared a glance to my right. And there, illuminated by a long shaft of sunlight coming through the front windows was the lightly furred crotch of a woman wearing an extremely short skirt. We played it cool and did not stare. But he mouthed the words, “My. God.” to me. I quietly shook my head in agreement. “You have to appreciate that,” he told me once they’d left.
Indeed, the signs of sex seemed to be everywhere in the city. Earlier in the year, I was invited to attend a large party that was rumored to feature a live appearance by the porn star Seka. The night of the event, the friend that invited me handed over a silver thong and said, “Put this on underneath your clothes. You may need it later.”
“Okaaayyyy…” I said, half laughing. “Is this gonna get wild?”
“You never know,” he said with a bit of mystery in his voice. “But it’s best to be prepared.”
The admission fee was $35, and ostensibly the night was supposed to feature some avant-garde visual artists, wild music and dancing, and food if you were hungry. We showed up at the address to find a large warehouse with music thumping inside. It felt strange to have that thong creeping up my tiny runner’s ass, but I was used to small garments. My racing shorts for running weren’t all that much bigger. Yet knowing there was a silver lame crotch pouch underneath my loose-fitting sweatpants was admittedly thrilling.
I loved dancing and figured the night could get goofy and wild. How many other times in life were opportunities to get truly wild going to come along? We met a couple friends on the big open floor, but the atmosphere was not looking crazy or interesting at all. The lights were up and a large part of the crowd in attendance was suburban men in their late 30s or 40s. Most were dressed in jeans and poorly tucked-in dress shirts. Many of them had the flushed complexions of unfit and slightly flustered men.
“What…the…fuckkk…” my buddy laughed. Then we realized we’d been had. The whole party was basically a fundraiser for the porn star Seka. The crowd was a pack of chronic jerkoffs there to see their fantasy come to life. Some of them probably even dreamed they’d get a shot at Seka, who finally made an appearance of sorts, just enough to tease the crowd into submission before traipsing backstage while the emcee promised a “real performance” later on.
At that point, my friend and I had both downed several drinks. When the lights went down, the main dance floor cleared of suburban wankers and some of the more serious partiers swarmed a dance floor that was suddenly bathed in lights. My buddy asked some woman a few paces away to dance, but I froze in place. Watching him roll out onto the dance floor made me jealous.
I was instantly a bit nervous and feeling foolish in my grey sweatpants with a silver thong beneath them. So I stood there moving in place and glanced right and left to see if anyone might be up for dancing. The lights pulsed and swung around the crowd. I noticed a pretty face right next to me. “Huh!” I thought.
I turned and asked, “Do you wanna dance?” The young man faced me and said, “Sure!”
Honestly, I freaked. At that age, I had neither the confidence, desire, or awareness to know how to respond when a man accepted an advance, however unintentional it was. So I turned on a heel and booked out the door. That party was held in early spring, and the weather had shifted while we were inside. The cold Chicago winds took over the night and temps had dropped into the 20s. I ran half-frozen all the way home wearing just my sweatpants, a tee-shirt, a light jacket, and the silver thong, which rattled around my crotch. Halfway home, I couldn’t help laughing at myself.
Had I stayed around that night, things might have gotten interesting. One of my friends wound up going home with both a gal and her guy friend. It was the afterparty that turned out to be the real party for him.
As for my own dalliances, there would be other encounters with interested gay men while I lived in the city. One of them followed me on the 151 bus one morning. He pressed against me in the crowd and I gave him a stern glance and moved to the door to get off at the next stop. He followed me off the bus. When I got back on the next bus, he followed me back on, again with a physical advance. “Look,” I told him. “I get what you’re after, but I’m not interested.”
But he persisted. I got off the bus and he followed. I got back on the bus and he joined me again. “I’m getting off this bus one more time,” I warned him. “And if you follow me, I’ll punch you.”
Perhaps that wasn’t the right way to handle the situation. But I knew so little about gay culture and was frankly fearful of what I didn’t know. But the warning worked.
The inner workings of a brain
There was definitely something still driving me to explore the inner workings of my brain. Even with all the running and working and writing and painting I was doing, I was still restless, sometimes anxious, and wracked by desires outside the norm. Such is the brain of a writer and artist on a diet of sunshine and darkness.
If no one else was around and I didn’t have a date of some kind, I’d sometimes wander over to a punk bar called NEO a few blocks away from our place. I didn’t have much to wear that matched the atmosphere of that bar, but that’s why I went now and then. Above all, I wanted to hang out near people that weren’t at all like me. The courage they had to buzz half the hair off their heads, or pierce their faces, or wear makeup that looked like it was painted on with an acrylic brush…all felt like an escape from the sucky normalcy of daily life with bills and money and business relationships that seemed to be going nowhere. It all appealed to my inner David Bowie, the Ziggy Stardust side of my personality. I’d finally had the courage to try a bit of glam that night in the silver thong, but it all came to naught.
But even NEO turned out to be a rue. One night, I ran out of cash and found only a folded-up, worn-out Traveler’s Cheque inside my wallet. I tried to pay for drinks with the thing, and the glammed-up bartender told me, “You’ll need to go in back with that thing.” So I walked past the bar and down a long hallway to a door that said MANAGER. I knocked and heard a voice inside say, “Yeah, come in.”
Pushing open the door, I was surprised to find a classically frumpy businessman sitting behind a desk. “How can I help you?” he asked in an accent that I took to be Jewish, or New York, or something.
“I have a $50 Traveler’s Cheque I need to cash,” I replied.
“Drinking, huh?” he grinned, reaching in a drawer to pull out some cash. “Here,” he handed me two twenties and a ten. “Sign it off,” he said, punching the Traveler’s Cheque with a finger. “Have fun.”
That exchange took all the exoticism out of the NEO club for me. I bought one more drink that night but never went back. I guess the fact that the club was nothing but an artifice or moneymaking enterprise gutted its allure. It wasn’t a punk bar at all. It was a business catering to people living out a fantasy of their own making.
In some ways, that experience made me think differently about the whole City of Chicago thing. Was everything just an excuse to sell everything from sex to alcohol to whatever else people had to sell? I could sit in my second-floor window and watch the high-priced escorts loading into limos every night. And I thought I was living a double life?
All that felt real most days was walking out into the sunshine every morning to go for a run. That cleansing act cleared my head and helped me to make it through another day. The rest was desires and distractions wrapped around me like the helix of DNA. It takes time and experience to unravel all that.