My irregular musings on city life, politics, baseball, roller derby, and whatever happens to be getting my goat today.

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The Perfect Girl and Other Stories

It's been a whirlwind these last few days. The highlight for me was a visit to Paranoid Girl's Humboldt Park studio on Thursday. We first met Kelly at the February, 2003 Around the Coyote show in the Northwest Tower at North, Damen and Milwaukee. Her work is colorful and graffiti/comic-book themed, I think working with kids has a big influence on her style in its bright colors and simple lines. The piece we bought was the original Perfect Girl painting, which I first wanted back in 2003. She has done a whole series of them since then, she has a whole show of them up at Jinx Cafe for the next couple weeks, so if you are interested, you can go check it out yourself.

Friday we saw a preview production of Self Defense, or death of some salesmen, a play by Edward Sobel based on life and death of convicted serial killer Eileen Wuornos. It was in the parking garage of the Steppenwolf Theater Compancy (no, really), as part of Steppenwolf's Visiting Company Initiative, which means that good smaller productions (which are all over Chicago and never sell out) get to benefit from the name recognition and hopefully some of the cash that comes Steppenwolf's way. (Steppenwolf is the company founded by Gary Sinise and John Malkovich and guys like that in the late 1960s that became famous for raw productions in which the actors threw real punches, etc.) Agnes got tickets through her work - the nonprofit sector doesn't pay a lot, but there are often fun perks, and the parties are great.

Speaking of which, last night was the annual Holiday Jitters party at the downtown condo home of an eccentric, mysterious, charming millionare who will remain nameless in these pages. His parties are great people watching because they brink together an eclectic group of people - young and old, educators, artists, hipsters, and they guys from the old neighborhood (you get the feeling he doesn't really trust anyone else the same way). I talked to an aging hippie for a while, some other people with similar interests, wine, caviar, crap dip . . . a friend of mine hit it off with a guy who knows the owners of the Funky Buddha, and got us in free.

So this morning, a little hung over and dragging from a couple days of freel0ading at the hors d'oeuvres table of Chicago's cultural scene, Trope and I dragged ourselves over to Third Unitarian, in the far West Side ghetto. The congregation actually mostly lives in Oak Park (best known as home to Frank Lloyd Wright and Ernest Hemmingway). Most of them left the Austin neighborhood when it "turned over" (meaning African-Americans moved in) in the 1970s. In fact, the church itself almost moved. From the official history compiled by longtime church member Carl Schulstad:

Third Church members were just as aghast as were the people running to the suburbs, but Third Church was not running. . . Naively, we were especting to meet and to make friends with the newcomers, but quickly we learned that friendship was not soon to caome. Our ignorance was abysmal. We had littleunderstanding of what was involved. at first, while our new neighbors were settling in, Austin seemed to just fall apart. Good old homes became suddenly run down. Rusty old cars lined the curbs. We saw piles of litter. Idle men roamed the streets. Crime increased and the police seemed to lose interest. Two of our members were mugged, and the church suffered many break-ins. During one year we were invaded seven times. It wasn't easy,but we lasted. We were sure that all would straighten out in due time.

Third Church had to change. Membership quickly dropped to 250. there was no assurance that we could survive. then a group of our staunch, well-respected members proposed a modest change. "Let's move just a few blocks west," they suggested. "in Oak Park, we can carry on our Unitarian programs without being molested." They proposed that we move with all practicable speed. On a vote of 73 to 62, they prevailed.

Third Unitarian is only 2 blocks away from Oak Park

To move was daunting: to sell our landmark building at the currently depressed rates and then find a suitable replacement. It seemed impossible, and besides, we quickly realized that most of us still believed that our home was in Austin. Yet all of us were upset and arguing. The "movers" were justified in saying, "It was a fair vote and you are welching." The "stayers" couldn't deny the vote, but they had a stubborn belief. Stu McCarrell said it simply, "we dug our heels in, and said, 'hell no, we wont go.'"

It was a bleak day when more than 50 of our good friends and fellow Unitarians left Third Church. They did move just a few blocks west and established Beacon U.U. Church in Oak Park.
So even the most liberal group of progressive white do-gooders in the city couldn't make integration work and split up over whether to completely disinvest from the newly black neighborhood. Don't get me wrong, these are great people and I'm proud to associate with them. The church now has a number of African-American members including key, influential personalities and at least one board member. Oak Park itself is no longer the land of "big lawns and small minds" that Hemmingway described. They have become more integrated (by race, not class), and their Boy Scouts pulled out of the national organization over gay rights. But a bunch of established suburban homeowners they remain.

And here we are, straggling in hung over from shooting bourbon at an integrated and diverse night club (again, race not class, normally it's a $20 cover), and I'm feeling a whole new wave of culture shock. Again. We are some of the youngest people to attend services at Third, primarily the congregation is made up of aging New Left radical types who have been there for decades, with a smattering of younger families. There was no sermon this morning, instead the congregation met and discussed previous sermons by our Rev. Brian Covell (you may remember him, he officiated at our wedding. I assume nearly everyone who reads this was there). One member repeated a remark he'd heard at a Unitarian convention - what would Brian do if he had to preach to a pipe fitter? Others discussed a sermon I missed about Red and Blue America (The Red Menace). Another referred to the discussion of religion in the workplace I responded to here.

Again and again we hit up against the cultural divide that seems to be tearing America apart. But the more I think about it, write about it, the more society seems to splinter: two Americas, ten Americas, a hundred. "Cross-Cutting Cleavages" my high school civics teacher called them. One of the things typical people of my generation, in my city, do well is function in a diverse environment. We accept and interact with people of other races, religions, and sexualities to a much greater degree than even the most radical members of past generations dream of. Environments and challenges that were terrifying to them seem routine to us. The culture that seems alien and incomprehensible is Out There, Red America, the outer darkness where there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth . . .

I don't believe the gap over faith and values is quite what it's played up to be in the media. First of all, partisan differences seem to have more to do with church attendance than underlying beliefs. In other words, if Blue Americans are put off by religion, it isn't the core belief system that their put off by. I hadn't gone to church for years before finding TUC. In my more lucid and self-aware moments, I realize that my loss of faith had at least as much to do with church doctrines on homosexuality and abortion, and by the church's tacit endorsement of a status-seeking materialistic culture of greed and inequality, than by doubts about the doctrine of salvation by faith through grace. All of us have spiritual questions and needs, but approximately half the country (60% of Americans do not regularly attend services according to Gallup) are alienated from reactionary hypocrisy.

I wanted to buy the Perfect Girl falling from the sky because she reminds me of a piece I didn't buy a few years back at the King Avenue Coffeehouse in Columbus. It was a tryptych of Lucifer as a winged young woman with flight goggles falling from the sky, landing in a trash can, and picking herself up, brushing herself off, and walking away. It spoke to me. I don't feel like I walked away from "mainstream" American culture. I feel like I was cast out. The problem with building a society based on competition, exclusiveness, and privilege is that a large number of people get left behind or excluded.

I actually met a pipe fitter the other week. She was definitely smart enough to follow Brian's meandering radical sermons. But would she care? Would TUC meet the spiritual needs of a shaven-headed twentysomething queer woman pipefitter? Would anyone? I'd love to find out. If we want a better America, a progressive America, we need to find the kind of coherence and organization the bigots and reactionaries have. We need bake sales and book clubs and knitting circles. And churches, even if we don't quite know what to believe. At the moment, our cultural debate seems to be a contest between oppressive, hypocritical social cohesion and atomized hedonism. That entire spectrum is shallow, dishonest self-justification. There isn't an honest choice for me anywhere in that debate. What we need is a new option, an inclusive community that accepts and celebrates people as they are while providing structure and order to civic and social life. Something that combines the diversity, creativity and energy of young Chicago with the organization, sense of community and commitment to progressive values of the old guard lefties. I don't know what this will look like, and I've been searching a hell of a long time. But I have to believe it's coming, because it's necessary.

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