“I work for the clap.”
This is what I overheard Behnam Riahi, short story editor for the Chicago Center of Literature and Photography, say to a group of other professional writers. Overheard, not eavesdropped – eavesdropping is for amateurs. The abbreviation for the Center reads as CCLaP, and I’ve heard it pronounced as both “clap” and “C-clap,” but let’s be honest, it’s more exciting and head-turning to say “clap.”
Fifteen minutes early, I chose a seat in the last row next to a bookshelf of young adult fiction that housed series like Divergent, The Hunger Games, and Twilight, though it was the graphic novel version of Twilight that caught my attention later that night. Why someone would do that to innocent people is beyond comprehension.
City Lit Books closes at 8pm on Tuesdays, and the event page listed the reading as lasting from 6:30 to 8pm, so there was no room for a late start time, a mandatory practice for most readings in this damn city. When a Chicago literary reading starts at its correct time there are the dangers of tectonic plates shifting, sinkholes sucking down cars like straws, and the ever-present threat of spontaneous combustion. You get a lot of time to think about these things when you’re technically unemployed.
Behnam grabbed a seat in the row ahead. “How’ve you been since Crumbs closed?”
Everybody asks that.
I talked about the wonders of unemployment and somewhere in there asked, “Is it pronounced C-clap or just clap?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I’ve always said clap.”
Clap it is.
Taking the mic up front was Taylor Carlile, one of two emcees, getting the event up off its feet and introducing the first reader of the open mic. (You have to email CCLaP ahead of time in order to book an “open” mic spot.)
First up was Tim Chapman who read from two flash fiction pieces, the first being, “What Stays,” a story about a marriage, beginning with a man and woman in bed together, the man staring at the woman wanting to “burn the image of her” in to his retinas, then whipping the audience fast through their marriage to the end just before their divorce, where the husband asks himself, “How could a bed feel so empty with two people in it?” The second story, “Downsizing,” was more humor-laden, concerning a man who chooses to quit using his arms and the ideas of what to do he and his son create. Chapman read a little too fast, so the person unaccustomed to readings might miss crucial details, but this was a seasoned crowd who got all the information just the same. The stories themselves were good examples of how it’s possible to pack a large amount of information into a short amount of words.
Ben Margolis, founder of the Autopsy Center of Chicago (with degrees from Harvard and The University of Chicago to boot) also writes, evidenced by his open mic slot. It surprised no one that his story involved organs and chest flaps. The aptly titled, “What’s Wrong With You?” begins with that very line and goes into a man who is literally falling apart. Overall, it is a metaphor (an obvious one) for how he feels since his wife passed away – he’s disillusioned with life, with neighbors, and nobody understands what’s wrong as the skin over his chest flaps open and his organs spill out one by one with every step, and it was all performed in a low-key manner.
Ken Rogers performed “Heezy’s Wake” in a rollicking kind of way. (I have no idea if it is spelled “Heazy,” “Heezy,” or if I completely misheard the name, so I apologize for either bad spelling, lack of hearing, or both. For now, I’m sticking with the spelling of “Heezy.”) Heezy has died of cancer and her husband is running over memories of her with his friend at her gravesite, like how he caught her cheating right before the cancer hit, and despite having a gun pointed at her and the lover, he didn’t pull the trigger because it, “wasn’t worth going to the pen” and having “some convict ridin’ my ass.”
Skylar Tritch’s untitled nonfiction piece concerned the Plan B pill, taking us back to when she was fifteen and her boyfriend did not pull out as she’d anticipated. She talked of being driven to the pharmacy by her father, being greeted cheerily by the pharmacist, and how his demeanor abruptly changed into a harsh and smug tone once she asked for the pill. Overall it was a story of shame, loss of innocence, but how through it all, there is still support. In an open mic filled with great stories, Tritch’s performance added an energy missing from the room, and set up the audience well for the last of the open mic readers.
Temple of Air author Patricia Ann McNair, the last of the open mic readers, is no stranger to readings or live lit, and it showed. Reading from Temple, we heard of what happens when a deer is hit by a car, how one can, “feel the impact of all four ankles at the same time,” an image to make anyone shiver. One line that sticks is when the character feels remorse – “You don’t even believe in God, but shouldn’t you apologize to someone?” We’ve all been there before.
Before I go into the majestic glory that was Eric May’s performance, let me reflect on the other parts of the night. Somewhere around the second or third reader was when I found that Twilight graphic novel. I couldn’t help myself. My arms reached toward it like an infant toward its mother. Its sleek cover of the whimsically drawn Edward and Bella said, “I’m a marketing ploy to drag you into this disgusting franchise,” and by God it worked. I gazed at the seat next to me where I sat my umbrella and used copy of Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell’s name cried out from the cover, “Don’t!” but I ignored him and opened that travesty of a “graphic novel.”
Holy mother of Buddha it was awful. The first page I flipped to was a ginormous close-up of Edward’s face and a speech bubble with the words, “I love you, Bella.” The rest was just as saccharine and schmaltzy. Blech, if somebody stuck a fork in my eye it’d be a damn near sight better than that book.
Naturally I flipped through the piece of used toilet paper in between performances until I saw Behnam leave his seat for a table I hadn’t noticed until then, hiding off to the left side of the bookstore. This hidden treasure was topped with beer, wine, plastic cups, and more beer. I was led to this table by Bad Judgement, poured myself a sample’s worth of a red wine (I forget the name), and drank it down. I winced some, but I’ve never been much of a wine person anyway.
Back in my seat, I was ready for Eric May. Once he was introduced he went up to the mic and started us off with a preface of the area of Parkland, the fictional, “heart of the heart of black middle class,” suburb where most of his novel Bedrock Faith takes place, “wedged between two bigger suburbs,” and, “black since the 1870s.” Afterward, we are taken to Wells Street between North and Division, where May introduces us to Erma Smedley, an upper-middle class black woman leaving a restaurant with her female date, who runs into the novel’s main character, persistent Parkland nuisance, and born-again Christian Gerald Reeves, known to most as “Stew Pot.” We soon find Stew Pot is in fact smitten with Erma, and frequently follows her to and from work to make sure she doesn’t get into trouble (he tells her all of these things to her face).
The story is hilarious as it is uncomfortable, and Eric’s performance brought it more to life than it already was. A live lit veteran, he powered through the reading and energized the whole room with every line, shooting his words at the audience like confetti. His jovial nature rang throughout the room, accented by charm and confidence, and he had complete control over each person in that room.
Afterward was a small Q&A session started off by the other emcee of the night, Anna Thiakos, where May answered questions about his novel and how he constructed it, informing us that the fictional suburb of Parkland was originally for another novel, and that each character was constructed to be some kind of opposite of Stew Pot. Then, one audience member felt the need to commend May for creating such opposite characters without making it, “…excuse the pun, black and white.” That’s fine and dandy for him, but I heard audible cringing from half the crowd.
The event ended with ten minutes to spare, so I rushed over to the hidden treasure of a beer table and stuffed two Beck’s beers into my drawstring bag. It seemed like a good idea until I slung the straps over my arms and felt the strings slicing into my bone. Could I have put the beers back? Of course, but remember these beers were free, and I have a party to attend on Thursday that will have nothing but PBR. My taste buds may be shot, but I have a reputation to uphold. I can’t be caught drinking that swill. So Beck’s it was. Out of curiosity, I checked the beer case to see if it was empty. There had to be four or five more bottles in there. The wines were hardly touched – maybe two bottles were half empty at the most, and one was un opened. It’s not like the turnout was bad either, there were at least a solid two and a half dozen people there. This definitely wasn’t a drinking crowd.
The air outside smelled like oncoming rain, so I headed out instead staying for the age-old practice of mingling. Overall, the event was a low-key and bashful affair compared to other live lit events, but that’s to be expected of a new reading series. It’s still trying to find its identity in a city filled to the brim with literary readings and events. That’s what it has going against it – possible scheduling conflicts with other events. However, it’s in a “hip” (read as: almost completely gentrified) area of Logan Square, it’s right next to the popular Lula Café, the featured readers are worthy of stepping out of your house (last month featured bull expert and The Old Neighborhood author Bill Hillmann), the event is free, and it has free alcohol. Let’s give it time to get some momentum going.
As for the authors, the open mic readers went from okay to gradually more enjoyable to the amazing (as usual) Eric May. The only disappointment I have with May is he didn’t dance his way toward the mic like he did at Story Week.