It didn’t hit me until later, after the bar, the packed crowd, after the sweat-covered me with my hair standing on end cooled and combed and got safely back at home where my girlfriend now slumbered as I kept checking @ourmaninchicago’s live-tweeting of the bottle of Jeppson’s Malört he won at the thing, it didn’t hit me until then what we just did.
We put on a show.
The we in this case was me and Rachel Hyman of anthologyofchicago.com. And the show was Chi Lit: Tales of the Neighborhoods, a benefit for Open Books’ youth literacy programs that featured poets, writers, storytellers, scholars and journalists from around the city including Bill Savage, Shannon Cason, Sarah Gonzalez, Molly Meacham, Robert Loerzel…
I’m sorry. It’s hard to drop the showman bit after you’ve been promoting something for… so… Melanie LaForce, Paul Durica, Dmitry Samarov and Kimberly Dixon.
Long. Promoting something for so long.
I don’t like to name-drop, a lesson I learned from my good friend Steven Spielberg, but this story isn’t about the names of the amazing writers and poets who helped us raise more than $600 for Open Books on Tuesday night. This story is about the stories they told.
Shannon Cason told a touching, sad and hilarious spoken word piece about the loft he and his ex-wife once had in Bronzeville. Molly Meacham read a slam-style poem she wrote specifically for the event about the disconnect between ritzy Roscoe Village and Lane Tech High School, the not-as-ritzy Roscoe Village school where she teaches.
Poet Kimberly Dixon read a fake travelogue through the town-and-gown split Hyde Park, climaxing in the shame and guilt all sides felt. Roller derby trainer and Internet essayist Melanie LaForce read about the experience of a hip-hip brunch in Logan Square, where calla lilies are the new hydrangeas and the jokes struck pleasingly close to home for the Cole’s Bar crowd.
Dmitry talked about his recent move to Beverly, where, according to him, you can’t get a drink, but you can admire the hell out of some houses.
There was history too, as the crowd huddled close, some on the floor by the stage of Cole’s back room. Robert Loerzel read about the Victorian trash heap that once made up Lakeview. Paul Durica read about the rumors of Illinois Nazis, actual Illinois Nazis, in an old bar in Pilsen.
Sarah Gonzalez read a poem that blew me away the first time I saw it on Rachel’s Anthology of Chicago site. It was about a Pilsen bar — Pilsen again — “stuck between the U.S. border and gentrification,” the soundtrack “cumbia and ranchero, lullabies for the old men who’ve never returned to Mexico out of fear of deportation.”
I wasn’t the only one so touched. A woman I found in my Twitter crawls back at home while the girlfriend/raffle-runner slept and @ourmaninchicago tweeted about the bottle of Malört he won from us tasting like regret had this to say:
“(T)his writer was the best of the night,” the Twitter woman said of Sarah. “Brought tears to my eyes for how proud she was.”
And Bill Savage, donor of book after book of Algren for our raffle, closed the night with a look at what the hell a neighborhood is.
We did good, people said. The day after was a bee swarm of e-mail after e-mail and tweet tweet FB status of thanks, congrats and other good words.
Between the raffle and the portion of the bar take Cole generously donated, we raised $628 for children’s literacy. That’s not bad at all.
But what I like is that we got a roomful of people to think about the concept of a neighborhood, to question, as Savage’s final piece asked, what the hell makes one and how do we decide that.
We got a roomful of people in a town where you don’t know your neighbors and you just plain don’t go to certain ZIP codes, to think and relate to the concept of community, giving them glimpses at different communities about town by the people who know them.
I think it went pretty well.