If there is one thing that Chicagoans love to talk about, it's being from Chicago, I wrote, about fifteen minutes before leaving my house and heading to the reading. And it's true. When at a loss for a conversation topic, a person living in Chicago can always default to what neighborhood from Chicago are you from? Aren't the winters terrible? Where are you from originally?
Talking to the organizers and readers, I had all of these conversations before the reading even started.
It's odd, the idea that some of the people who are most aggressively from Chicago are really from somewhere else. Suburbanites who, when asked where they're from during their travels elsewhere, proudly declare that they are from the City That Works, the City With Broad Shoulders, the Second City, but when pressed for a neighborhood, begrudgingly say "well, about 30 minutes away from the city. A little town. You probably haven't heard of it."
But that's ok. Chicago has its own gravitational pull. It's the Chicagoland Area. You can be close enough and still part of it. You can be from somewhere else and make this your home. It's ok. Those of us who were born here will accept you. Even though we'll talk shit behind your back.
The Winded Readers reading was the product of a transplant from St. Louis. The curated authors would all read stories or poems about living in, moving, coming back, or going to Chicago. It was like Stuart Dybek reading The Adventures of Augie March while riding the red line to a Cubs game after eating a hot dog and an Italian beef. Each reader would get twenty minutes to read, reinforcing the reason we are the Windy City. It happened at a coffee house in Rogers Park, which is a neighborhood that people should stay away from (because we don't want you to come here).
The reading that night was part of the weekly series, the Stella Symposium. Started as a political speaking series, the symposium morphed into an all-encompassing entertainment venue. They keep the name "Symposium" so that if a doctoral student comes to give a talk, they get to put something impressive sounding on their resume, even though they gave a talk to no more than forty people crammed inside of a coffee shop. Amateurs are given equally resume bolstering opportunities, making the Symposium a prime venue for first timers.
Stella Espresso, the coffee shop that I had already known well, a block away from my apartment with free wifi, is a nice enough place. Leftist literature in the back, large windows, tables and chairs that are stabilized with napkins and coffee sleeves. It's one of those nice places that is just run down enough that you feel comfortable. Sure, the baristas typically leave you wanting those plastic-nice people from Starbucks, and they play Animal Collective songs far too often, but it's still ok.
The point is that this would mark the first reading series that I would go to where alcohol wasn't an option.
The Symposium likes giving new readers and writers a chance to get their feet wet, giving them free range to write what they like, and Jessey, the night's curator, even goes to their houses to help them practice reading aloud. Which, for the most part, you could tell as the readers gave passionate readings, used inflection and accents with surprising skill, and maintained decent contact with their audience. In other words, it was a reading. A reading that featured amateurs and first timers, was free, and was, for the most part, enjoyable.
But there was no booze.
One of the things that the Symposium does afterwards is go to a bar called [name retracted. Don't come to my neighborhood bar]. This is part of the fostering of community that they hope to do. But still, that booze came after the reading, not during.
I had brought along my friend Cal. Cal is a playwright and current manager of a smoothie store. Cal is used to going to performances where things are staged. Cal listens to podcasts, narrative stories playing in his headphones, but he uses them as background noise, not something he actively wants to listen to. Cal hates going to readings. He doesn't understand the point. Cal also wears ripped, salmon khakis under sweaters from Express. When the reading was over, it was Cal who suggested that we get a bottle of whiskey and drink heavily.
Cal, his girlfriend, Emily and I sat in my living room, playing drinking games for hours. Throughout the night, we told stories about moments from our lives, frequently highlighting the Chicagoness of it all. Things that happened while living in Edgewater, Wrigleyville, the Loop. Moments on trains or at bars or parties. The politics of living in a segregated city. The Midwest compared to the rest of the country. We drank and talked and drank far too much. The soft light from the lamps was orange and warm, bathing the living room with comfort and happiness. It was probably the whiskey making everything nicer, but I prefer to think that the good feelings stemmed directly from talking about a city we all loved. Cal's girlfriend, Sarah, is from just outside of Boston. Emily is from Milwaukee. Cal is from a little town about an hour away that's pretty small; you probably haven’t heard of it. I was born here. We all call it home, because it is our home.
We are all caught up in its gravitational pull.
Stella Symposium is every Friday at 7:30 at Stella Espresso. Picture credit: Bekki Wasmuth.
Find podcasts of the Symposium at egnyte.com
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