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Wicker Park Days [Part I]: Beach & Paulina

The first person I met by the time I arrived in Wicker Park in 2004 lived in the garden apartment of my building. Garden apartment being Realtor spin for the basement hovel in our three-flat, wood-frame house one address down from the intersection of Beach and Paulina in that Near West Side neighborhood of Chicago. Person being a polite term for wild-eyed, wild-haired beatnik Dave.

I joke, of course. I grew to like Dave quite a bit that year I lived upstairs, and we became friends. My roommate and I were just slightly taken aback by those glassy eyes wandering behind plastic-framed glasses with only one side piece, and with his thin frame and long tangled hair sticking up so that he kind of resembled a tree. Where the other side of his glasses should have started there was only a thick wad of masking tape holding in the lens. It would not have been inconsistent had his gray t-shirt been put on backwards absentmindedly as he ascended from his fog to greet us when we moved in.

"Wicker Park, here we go," I thought.
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Its reputation precedes it, a neighborhood with presence and vibe and a faster unique pulse than most corners of the world. Eclecticism is the rule. High Fidelity is the cultural signpost I usually invoke to explain where I lived in Chicago to people who aren't familiar with it, although the movie doesn't even begin to capture the range of characters who congregated in the neighborhood's cafes and bars. Past the movie, where I live now I might say, "Wicker Park is to Chicago what Austin is to Texas." That usually gets it pretty close, anyway.

I would describe Dave as a beatnik rather than a hippie, although I admit that there is plenty of overlap. The distinctions are drawn on the lines of jazz, Sonic Youth, and art. The overlap involves wine, drugs, and general attitude towards The Man - and especially working for The Man.

Sonic Youth, in fact, provided my entree into Dave's world. I asked casually what he was up to one night as he sat on our steps smoking a cigarette - "Just hanging out," he said - and I told him I was heading over to the Vic for a show. Dave was going to see Sonic Youth at the Vic a few weeks later. I had been playing their latest CD, Sonic Nurse, somewhat obsessively. We bonded. Apparently I was the first person living in the upstairs apartment that could - or at least would - talk about something like Sonic Youth with someone like Dave.

Admittedly, my apartment was much nicer than his. My roommate and I had professional jobs, and with them we had two stories, hardwood floors, new appliances, garage parking, and central air. What we did not have was starving artist credentials. In order to join the conversations with the characters that hung out with Dave, I sensed I had to prove something about my priorities. Having studied and traveled abroad helped, as did the fact that I was literate about music and to a lesser extent, art. Having been a philosophy and English major also helped. The fact that I wrote a lot just because I enjoyed it didn't hurt either. Most of all, it helped that I didn't seem to think I was better than someone like Dave, at least no more than we all thought we were better than everyone else.

Of course there are caveats to anyone's credentials, even for Dave, and they always matter. Dave's mother was something of a reputable artist around Chicago, and lived pretty well up in Evanston. His girlfriend of many years (more of a hippie) sort of supported them with her manager's job at a Starbucks in Park Ridge. Still, it's true that he had forsaken whatever he might have been doing instead to hang out and record his slide guitar through an old mixing board that resembled something from the Bat Cave circa Adam West onto VHS tapes because, he felt, that was the medium that best captured the sound - yes, sound, on VHS - he was trying to create.

There were plenty of nights Dave and I and whomever else stayed up late listening to music and drinking, talking about whatever came up: philosophy, neighborhood happenings, art, whatever. Inevitably music threaded its way through the discussion. Some nights we'd explore the exceptional jukebox down the street at the Beachwood Inn - my treat of course, which was no big deal because beer there was cheap for Chicago and Dave was happy drinking whatever was on special. I could afford it, and he couldn't, but that hardly conferred any special status on me. It's part of the ethos that those who can, pay, and that's that.

One night, as Walter Fydrick prepared a show at the David Leonardis gallery around the corner, he stopped by to talk with Dave and flirt with Dave's friend Ilana. We listened first to Coltrane, I can recall quite vividly. Later, the conversation turned to Johnny Cash. My father has a lot of Johnny Cash records from his youthful days working at a record store in Ohio more than forty years ago. As I mentioned this collection, Dave brought out a record he had bought in a record store in Wyoming. He was moving back to Chicago from Seattle in the early '90s - yes, he was there for some of that Seattle stuff, but whatever, he says - and stopped in Wyoming to visit his sister at college. He ended up spending four days in a record store playing music and talking with the owner. One of the gems he brought back was a rare Sun Records original release, an original Cash record in perfect condition. He said the guy sold it to him for two bucks or something on the last day. I can't remember which record it was for the life of me, but I know I was very, very impressed. Meanwhile Walter talked about art, and art theory; Ilana nodded, starstruck; and we all refilled our glasses with red wine, sitting on makeshift chairs down in the breezeway.

*

Ex-Chicagoan Joel C. Boehm lives and studies law in Austin, Texas. He still maintains Agony & Ivy, a website mostly about the Cubs. Boehm very recently completed his first novel, Just Drive South, and is looking for a publisher. He can be contacted about that, the Cubs, Wicker Park, or anything else but debts owed at jcb@agonyandivy.com.



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Posted on October 2, 2006


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