Mississippi Delta Blues

by travis

I am mystified that today, October, 2007, many Gen-X Chicagoans try to hold on to the good old days.  They say:  “Maxwell Street ain’t what it used to be.”  DIY Punk, Steve Smith, now a real estate owner in Brooklyn, complains less about his abscess than UIC’s “urban mess” that replaced Maxwell Street’s free-for-all marketplace.  Nevertheless, we briefly tour the “ruins,” and take time to buy food, flowers and fine wine at the new Whole Foods on Roosevelt Rd.  A block away, Oriental women park Volvo SUVs, deliver young children to childcare at The Little Gym, then disappear into Any Time Fitness and Health Club, both located inside the new mall, called Maxwell Street University Village MARKET PLACE.  The new “Maxwell Street” parking facility straddles the entire 1300 block of South Union.  Its gateway towers instantly transport me to 1893 when Chicago erected similar towers at Dahomey Village, thus architecturally delineating racial hierarchies.  Today, racial stratification is far worse.

Last night, Friday, 26OCT07, I was scheduled to perform at SouthUnionArts, 1352 S. Union.  Abe Gibson (The End of The World Band), presented a tribute to Derek Bailey.

Through written instructions and object cues, Gibson will conduct a large improvisational ensemble that consists primarily of electric guitars. Gibson, who is also a member of The End of the World Band, Chicago Guitar Ensemble, and Atonal Boners has brought together a group of some of Chicago's finest musicians, including - Jesse Thomas, Steve Krakow, David Bernabo, Bill MacKay, Brian Klein, Brian Labycz, Neil Jendon, P. Michael & Travis from ONO, C. Ezra Lange, Alex Wing, Charles Rumback, Frank Rosaly, Ben Billington, and others.

I try to imagine myself defined as a “musician.”  My steel guitar teacher would be happy.  Maybe.  Maybe he would think I stopped creating the most depressing racket he ever heard:  “You funeralize every song you learn.”  This epithet I heard twice a month from a Country-Western lap steel guitar player.  No, I have not stopped experimenting.  But first, I must find 1352 South Union St., one block from Maxwell St., “[t]wo blocks South of Roosevelt” by 7pm. 

MapQuest in hand, I stack and pack sound equipment on my driveway.  In an instant, Tom Skilling’s threat of rain turns to thunderclaps and the black sky opens like a flood.  I change clothes.  (MapQuest assures me 1352 S Union is 20 minutes away; I have allotted 60.)  Changed, two kittens that live in my garden loudly insist on strokes and food (in the rain!); purring their wet, titanium white fur all over the lower legs of my black tights.  In no time at all, I have lost 15 minutes.

Auto traffic on 95th St. stretches East nearly to Euclid.  Damn!

6:31PM.  I finally enter I94West, via the Stony Island Extension.  I have managed not to mumble or snort bashings about salespeople hawking goods and services along the 95th St./Stony Island intersection, on all sides, and in all directions.  Where Whites once instituted Red Lining laws, gerrymandering and locally-sanctioned kidnapping, lynching and gun violence to keep Jeffery Manor segregated, today, drill teams of young Black boys and girls with fake rifles and large tin cups beg for money along the roadways.  Others huddle inside rusty vans, shivering from the cold, wet weather.  A middle-aged Mexican man wearing work boots, cargo shorts and a thin white “wife beater” below a heavy, hooded sweatshirt, sells umbrellas.  A Black man dressed all in shades of green -- from his furry green-and-white bowler-style hat, green/white/gold necktie (with symmetrical Judeo-Christian crosses), to his pointy-toed pea green ‘gators – sings about bags of plastic ware and pillows.  Another Black man selling red, green and black striped flags follows closely behind Mr. sartorius green.  ENTER:  A procession of candy vendors.  No, I don’t need Great Balls Of Fire.  No, I don’t need bags of Mellos peanuts (which I buy at the Mellos factory for 200% less).  No, I don’t need hand towels, bath towels, white sox, and laundry bags.  No, I don’t need necklaces with flashing lights, shirts with flashing collars, running shoes with flashing soles.  No, I don’t need blow-up Spider Man, blow-up Dora the Explorer, blow-up “Happy Birthday” balloons, blow up magic wands, blow-up stars. 

Strangely syncopated songs of fat salesmen harmonize some surrealistic pillow of sound as wet umbrellas collide with rear-view mirrors and with each other.  They advance on both sides of my car, weaving through big white Chrysler station wagons, gold-on-white Lincoln Navigators, bright red and black striped Cadillac Escalades, oversized champagne-colored Minivans with flickering television sets in the ceiling, and champagne-colored Caravans with flickering television sets in the ceiling, all lined up like hearses headed to a graveyard.  In the next lane are 18-wheel construction vehicles, vehicles transporting handicapped people, and hot food delivery vehicles.  Did I mention?  This is the springtime of tow trucks.  Tow trucks are all traveling Eastbound.  Only Eastbound traffic is moving.  I settle into the deep, dark rattle, hum and din of electronic drums beating concealed subwoofers beating, beating into the slick, black pavement; beating Kirk Franklin, beating Kanye, beating Dr. Dre, NWA and Young Buck into the pavement.  I settle in and watch the show, as part of the show.  I wait for the red Hyundai Tiburon to “fender-bender” its hood beneath the big, black Avalanche.  I wait for the fistfight, and I wait for the lights to change.  There is nothing to be accomplished by bashing the bawdy.  This road is far livelier during daylight hours.

I94 is moving!  In no time at all, my eyes are wide open, my senses acute, and my heart is rushing, fearing the Sheriff is lurking behind every pillar, every camera overhead and every underpass.  I am illegal.  I reduce my speed to 70MPH.  I feel emboldened by every driver that passes me in this driving rain.  I am not in the fast lane.  I switch OFF the ONO CD, because I feel increasingly anxious, paranoid and terrorized by the sounds of ONO at the Alternative Music Festival, 17NOV84.  [Recorded in Evanston/Northwestern Univ./Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, with P.Michael/Ric/travis on Instruments; LouAnne Ponder/Honor Guard; Curtus Benton-Marr and Carlotta Del Rio Altar Boys.] 

My groin pulses hard, hot and sexy against 92% polyester, 8% spandex.  I fantasize navigating my Navy-issue HMMWV through these high winds and heavy seas.  Juicy sound of rubber on smooth, new pavement sizzle like Friday night fish frying in the pan.

Flashing lights ahead:  “9 MINUTES TO CIRCLE”

Six minutes to SouthUnionArts.  I am early.

Exit at Roosevelt Rd. (1200S.)  Left turn at Union St.  Every block is under construction.  There is NO 1352 S Union.  Where 1352 should be, there is only the new Maxwell St. Mall Parking Garage.  Across the alley to the South stands Gethsemane M. Baptist Church, Rev A. Sharp-Pastor.  Donated by Senior Choir Deacon Clarence Sales, Pres.  Founded March 12th 1922.  Gethsemane is located at a dangerous confluence where S. Union meets on-street parking.  Here, Union narrows to one lane.  The easternmost lane, separated by a low, concrete barrier, becomes a northbound lane entry into the Roosevelt Rd./Taylor St. Dan Ryan exit ramp.  Though beautiful in light refracted from traffic on the Dan Ryan high above and facing it, the brown and light gray brick church house is nearly surrounded by overgrown, trees, shrubs and bushes.  A beautiful, black Volvo station wagon is parked in front of the church.  I avert my eyes from the broken window on the rear, driver side, closest to traffic; too close to me. The driver ahead of me does not “STOP.”  Ahead, 14th St., dark, unleveled roadway and mud, but few street lamps.

South of 14th St., a new UPS warehouse sweeps the eastern corridor.  To the West:  Construction.  Highlighted by tonight’s thunderstorm, this is the ugly construction site of instant urbanism, convergent investment and ten/pen degradation.  It is a swampland of ditches, dirt and muddy materials.  I make a “U” turn, but the 2-Way street ended at Gethsemane.  I face a choice:  Either hit the concrete barrier, or enter traffic exiting the Dan Ryan.  Another “U” turn, and I am forced to drive three blocks further South, to 16th, one block West to Halsted, then six blocks back to Roosevelt.  Now to begin again:  One block East and I am back on Union.  I cruise the two blocks very slowly.  No sign of SouthUnionArts (SUA). 

I Reverse and park on Union.  Hazard lights on.  I walk through the dark, mall.  Four White people slip silently past me on the sidewalk.  On a bench sits a gesticulating statue made of metal.  Nearby, another dead-eyed statue looks like a begging Black lawn jockey.  Two White people shop.  There is no sound; no back beat; no accent.  They quiet Range Rover engines and take parking tickets.  Several others eat, drink or dodge the rain in a strange silver-gray and darkening anti-soundtrack momentarily disrupted by some circadian interference.  Their reactions point to me (Native American/Black), as an anomaly in this New World colonial settlement.  I am both outsider and other.  If there exist either Blues bars or even Blues people here, I do not see them, I do not hear them, and I do not fear them. 

In The Little Gym day care children scurry within walls painted bright, golden orange, red and blue.  All wall space is plastered with energetic alphabet animals imprisoned in paint.  And yet, these children are entirely silent, encased, as they are, behind a thick, glass prism, maybe a diorama.  They cannot smell the sauerkraut, peppers and fried onions piled upon polish.  They do not smell the pork chops. 

Express Grill and Jim’s Original Maxwell Street Grill fill the senses with reminders of Maxwell Street polish sausage, Vienna beef hot dogs, pure beef hamburgers, and many more fried meats, not to mention all the trimmings.  The block is double-parked.  Instead of food, I ask the entirely Oriental staff:  “What address is this, please?”  “1250 S. Union.”  “Any idea:  Where is 1352?”  “No”  “Any idea:  Where is SouthUnionArts located?”  “Don’t know.”  “Thank you.”  I go quickly to my car.  I feel strangely silly for having asked directions.

7:06PM.  I continue the slow crawl from 1250 S. Union to the construction site.  No SUA.  Getting panicky, I remember:  Five years ago I drove through Maxwell St. looking at the drab new construction and picked up a roofing nail in my right passenger tire.  I banish the memory.  I turn East, hoping for a sign.  Nothing.  I am much more panicky in my reasoning.  How many ways might I have heard, written or copied the wrong address?  Overhead, the warm roar of I94.  I think of going home.  I wonder:  Why am I searching like this?  Why am I playing this show; I never heard of Derek Bailey before last month.  Every time I drive into town, there is a parking issue, or a coin meter issue, or forgotten quarters for meters.  Why do this?  The lack of an answer causes me to berate my bad judgment.  No one I know has ever heard of Derek Bailey.  I never heard of SouthUnionArts before this show.  Aren’t I too old for this silliness?  No.  I emailed 25 people about this show.  I am committed.  But then, in this deluge, who would hazard such searching for 15 minutes? 

And, why are there no cars on the street?  Everything is desolate, legitimized by natural selection.  I relive the era of UIC party lights, Blues players in parking lots, alternative art scenes, and eccentric junk collectors from weird little towns in AL, MS and TN.  There were wild garden and even wilder gardeners, who came all the way from Boston.  Transplanted to Maxwell St., with their recycled woolens, their smelly armpits, their matted hair, and their leathery, fleshy hands and missing teeth, they grew native plants and vegetables; attended by Lincoln Ave. poets, silly performance artists toting bags of soil, children’s toys, building materials and fabric.  Next door some Black Gospel group trying to sound like Mahalia, waited to be fitted for concert clothing by Jews on Halsted or Roosevelt.

I turn East, onto 14th Place.  The gated street is nothing but sewer holes in the ground, like mass graves, and the propped-up shells of irritating new houses, every bedroom exactly like its 3-storey neighbor.  It fits like a fake Willmette.  It feels like an abandoned Hollywood set.  Dead End.  I am now mad!  I want a telephone directory.  I am too embarrassed to return to 1250 S. Union and ask for a directory. 

I run into Barbara’s Book Store, Roosevelt at Halsted.  I feel a deep relief only book store people and open-mic people feel.  We think booksellers know the neighborhood.  Illusion!  First, I had to find the Barbara’s Information counter.  The White male, aged 20-30, perched in front of a Dell computer system (thin, flat screen; fat, black box).  Nevertheless, the presence of the monitor made me feel oddly unselfishly connected to all my electronic accounts.  Home Free!  Or so I thought.

“Hello.  I am lost.  Where is SouthUnionArts located?”  “This is Barbara’s Books, what is SouthUnionArts?”  “It is an art center, presumably located at 1352 S. Union.”  “Where is S. Union?”  “It is the next street East of here.  Do you have a telephone directory?”  “No.  But I have a computer.  What is the address?”  “Please Google SouthUnionArts; the address I have is 1352 S. Union, but there appears to be no such address on S. Union.”  “Damn! [He swears at the computer.]”…  Then he tells me:  “There’s no such place as SouthUnionArts.”  “May I please see your monitor?”  “Sure.  See!!  [the monitor blanks out completely]”  “Damn! [He swears at the computer again.] … “Pieceajunk.”  In a few seconds the monitor redraws, and I see that he has MapQuested “S. Union Arts” instead of SouthUnionArts or South Union Arts.  I ask him to please Google, not to MapQuest, South Union Arts.  Google returns lead off with the SUA MySpace page, and I ask him to Click it.  He says:  “No, this is some guy who is 102 years old….”  “No,” I say  “That is the center’s MySpace page.”  He sneers in disbelief, but, a second later, my advertised address is confirmed:  1352 S. Union.  He then says:  “It is closed.  See, right here, it says the show closed October 25.”  [The monitor blanks again.  The clerk swears again.]  I had not the patience to argue.  I steered him further down the page to the October 26 entry.  “I am the travis referred to in the Derek Bailey performance.  I was due at the center at 7PM.  It is now 7:12PM.  Showtime is 8PM.  I have driven a very long way, two miles from Indiana, but now that I am here, I need to find 1352 S. Union, any suggestions would be deeply appreciated.”  He looks me up-and-down, pausing at my white shirt and red/white/black bow tie, and, for the first time, he seems willing to communicate with me; this time on an entirely different level.  “I will MapQuest it.”  MapQuest took us back to the location I circled three times previously.  “There is only a mall/parking lot there.” 

Mr. Barbara’s telephones the SUA number.  No answer; just tones!
Mr. Barbara’s telephones the number from the SUA [.com] Web site:
“I am sorry, the number you have dialed is out of service for repair.”
Mr. Barbara’s tells me SUA MUST be located in the Maxwell St. Mall.  Strangely, he also said that he would look for telephone numbers until he found an answer.  “I’ll let them know you are looking for them.”  “Thank you.”

I agree with Mr. Barbara’s.  Inside the parking garage, I drive all four floors looking for entry to shops.  Nothing.  I park.  I elevator to the first floor.  There is no store directory.  No shop bears a S. Union address.  Most places are closed.  I stop in a fast-food shop called www.dinnerbydesignkitchen.com.  I enter only because the young, White female receptionist might be a UIC student, hopefully, an artist.  She has never heard of SouthUnionArts! which is, presumably, located one block away.  “But,” she says, “there is an old church across the street from the parking garage, did you go there?”  “I drove past it looking for an address.  There was no address, and the entrance was blocked by homeless Black people huddled beneath mats, bags, two large, floral carpets and the like.”  “Well, that’s the only place I can think of.  Sorry.”

I return to the “Pay on Foot Lobby” of the Parking building.
“No Charge!” 

I drive across the alley to Gethsemane.  The car in front of me abruptly Reverses and disappears into a heavily weeded parking lot set back along the South side of Gethsemane.  My eyes follow, and what I see in front of the driver causes me to lose my mind in a blast of Déjà Vu.  I have been here before.

Before my astonished 2007 eyes, a deep parking lot abutting an expansive, garden, nearly overrun with native weeds and wildflowers, some still in bloom.  In the last parking spot, a visual mnemonic peg is pulled.  A bright, blue Chevrolet C/50-8366 Blue Bird school bus fills me with longing.  It is heavily decorated, bearing all manner of signage in bright yellow against a deep blue field:  “Mississippi  Delta Blues” reads the front bumper.  “Heritage Folk Music.”  “Down Home Music.”  “Chicago’s only Bluesmobile.”  “Est. 1982/City of Chicago.”  “Coast To Coast.”  “Factory Outlet.”  “Discount Records & Tapes.”  Although the paint is fading back to yellow, I don’t recall a time it looked any better.  This is the same blue bus to which, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and until the UIC South Campus Expansion Project hijacked Maxwell St., I made Sunday pilgrimages to buy $2 cassette tapes.

I am mesmerized.  My eyes and my body are plucked with sentimentality and historical disbelief.  Windows bearing the names of Blues icons are still intact.  Lightnin Hopkins, Muddy waters, John Lee Hooker, Jimmy Witherspoon, Elmore James, Little Milton, B.B. King, Bobby Blue Bland, Little Walter, Johnny Taylor, Albert King, Sonny Boy Williamson.  I bought, and still own, these artists and many, many more obscure cassettes. 

The thunderstorm stops, as abruptly as it began.  And with its cessation, I am reminded that many Sundays I tramped through far worse mud, slush, and ditches of garbage, old clothing and cast-off memorabilia nobody purchased.  These were the good times; the times when the dirty, filthy Maxwell St. Market District looked, smelled, felt, and did its business in the gutters like a lawless third world country.  Back then, I scavenged beautiful pieces of white lace from glass strewn mud holes peppered with half-eaten hot dogs.  I use that white lace on stage to this very day.

Another car arrives in Gethsemane parking lot.  I ask a young, White guitarist:  “Is this 1352 S. Union?”  He looks confused.  “Is this SouthUnionArts?”  “Yes.  The entrance is at the back of the church.  First go down [into a moat!], then go up the stairs.”  He, like me, had found a way to navigate the rain and wind and weather, as well as the New Maxwell St., to answer a call, but not for Mississippi Delta Blues.  This time, we answer Abraham Gibson’s Electric Prayer for avant-garde jazz, experimental and free funk guitarist Derek Bailey (29JAN30-25DEC05).  The time:  7:30PM.  Abe says we will start a few minutes late.  I set up my equipment, and then I step outside of time and once again bury my mind in Mississippi mud.  I notice that all four tires are kept in movable condition.