...and on the occasion of Chicago blues fest week days and months and years ago with a certain postwork fatigue settling into my brain and bones, a magazine of high drunken intellectual import sent myself and four others on a trip to the south side, tangentially related to the fest, to check out a few of the juke joints on a kind of circuit this evening. The night begins on an appropriately metanote, at the Billy Goat Tavern below Wacker Drive. A Cubs game is on. People cheer.
7:08PM: think what a waste it all is, $3 a beer here, $3 there, a round on you and now it's the ninth inning and you're down to your last two bucks. Turn to ladyfriend and smile. "Can I borrow a drink from you?"
7:30: meet fellow compatriots Richmond and Hanigan for route on Bus #2, which, you have been assured, will be arriving shortly. Quickly realize, milling about in this small crowd, that you will be venturing to Chicago's south side blues clubs with a load of frizzy-headed old white people, among which group you belong.
7:42: short bus arrives, or rather not-short bus: chalk the appearance of shortness up to the fact that you haven't been in an actual school bus in years. Take tiny uncomfortable seats with ladyfriend and comrades way way way in the back, enough distance away to comfortably disassociate yourself from some of the more loquacious old women, who proceed to nag the vaguely rastafarian-looking gentlemen who is your guide this night with questions like, 'Where are you taking us?'; 'Why didn't you take that turn back there?'; and when two black men at the bus stop at 75th and Indiana yell out 'Look at all the crackers on the bus!': 'What the hell is going on, will you tell me?'
8:16: arrive at Lee's Unleaded Blues broke and thirsty; it's a triangular space with a surly, slow lady bartender who must check with the proprietor, a great man named Sarge, for the price of every drink ordered. Onstage, Chainsaw Dupont fills the space with bumping happy blues, that rolling juking Chicago-style stuff.
8:18: during a solo, and while you are still standing looking for a seat, Chainsaw's guitar wailing away in great peals, the bluesman suddenly looks directly at you as you begin talk w/ ladyfriend about the life span of your fine city's pigeons, and says 'How you doin'?' Nod slowly, slowly, and resume conversation.
8:20: order first round of beers on ladyfriend's dime.
8:30: order second round. Ladyfriend scowls.
8:51: third round. Ladyfriend grabs the skin of the inside crook of your arm and gives a hard pinch and twist.
9:01: tour bus #3 arrives with a load of south-side tourers, men and women who seem much more at ease with the environs than your white-women cohorts. Confer with comrades and determine, upon seeing the mass exodus of the frizzy-headed women, that the best option is to be rid of them, stay put. Begin abortive conversation with black woman who sits next to you in a Red Pepper Lounge T-shirt and who calls herself very excitedly a 'Red Pepper cheerleader!' and who says the words real and real in quick succession as a kind of affirmative expletive. Like 'Oh yeh, real-real!' Wonder if this is the sort of meaning intended, exactly, or if maybe she's really saying reel R-E-E-L and she wants to pull the wailing bluesman from the stage, to 'reel' him from the stage with perhaps a hook and line or maybe with the crooked end of a shepherd's staff. Do not get around to asking the lady whether this is her intention or not -- simply turn back to your ladyfriend and speculate further on your city's waddling and obese pigeons. Do they enjoy the sensation of defecating while flying through the air? Does it make them feel nice? Do they also enjoy a defecation bomb well placed, such as the one that landed on your foot two days ago while you stood on your back porch?
9:14: proceed toward state of riotous drunkenness by ordering a fourth round of beers, all on your lady's dime, which you can see is beginning to make her angry. She pouts and then purses her lips, eyes flashing. Feel sinister, trapped: what could be worse than sitting in a bar with no drink? Perhaps being in a bar without a drink when said bar is full of people you do not know and you are quite aware that you are white? This seems to be your problem, an outgrowth maybe of your culture's absolute enthrallment to PC doctrines, the constant insistence on repentance for the evil ways of your race, of people you know only scantly or who have long been dead and whom you never knew. Or maybe you're just a complete idiot. Maybe the old white women have one up on you in this respect, themselves being rather unashamedly white, but anyhow….
10:03: after a fifth round, ladyfriend has reached the point of absolute rage; the sneer on her face sends all sorts of sadness through your skull. 'I'll pay you back, I promise,' you mewl. A guest-singer named Shortie Mack joins Chainsaw on the stage for some slow-jam-type blues. Shortie Mack once wore a white suit even to bed, I've heard tell, and a pocket watch complete with chain and everything. Tonight he's decked in full red but for the white of his red-striped knee-high white socks and the #00 on his mesh jersey: red visor cap worn sideways; red shirt under the mesh jersey; red sweat shorts. But the man's voice is all soul, all wail and gasp and chills crawl up the spines of every human in the place but for the self-described "cheerleader" on your right, who continues to exclaim 'real-real' or 'reel-reel' and declare herself a devotee of the staff at the Red Pepper Lounge. Look to her at a certain point and realize that she's missing quite a number of teeth, but that this is not so much of an unflattering look for her.
10:38: pound sixth round of beers, as Hanigan and Richmond have issued a directive: the bus has arrived, and you are leaving. Where to? you ask the cheerleader next to you, figuring maybe she'll know -- and you're right, but there is nothing anyone could ever do to prepare themselves for her response, which is to go all wide-eyed, grab your shoulders, start jumping up and down and up and down like an excited child, and to scream with all blood-curdling horror-movie treble, 'REEEEEEDDDDDD PEpppppppperrrrrr!' And so it is by these unorthodox methods you learn you are indeed headed to the Red Pepper Lounge and Masquerade.
10:40: 'I luuuvvvv Red Pepper, Real-real.'
10:45: wade to rear of bus through, to your and ladyfriend's and Hanigan's and the rest of your comrades' great respective consternations, the passel of white women you stayed so long in Lee's trying to ditch. When you pass, realize further horror of the fact that they are now nodding to you as if you share in some grand secret conspiracy this evening.
10:50: but lo! the Red Pepper cheerleader joins you in the back of the bus, from where she leads the lot of you in a call-and-response chant for the coming glory. 'Where we goin!' [repeat] 'Red Pepper!' [repeat]. The bus rocks with the noise. Hanigan is screaming 'Red Pepper!' at the top of his lungs through it all, with a grand 'Whoo!' to punctuate. Smile. Wonder where all the pigeons are at this moment.
11:00: arrive, walk through front bar area where black men dressed to the nines sit around smoking cigarettes and trying not to stare at one another. The now-what-could-only-be-infamous Red Pepper hosts another seemingly happy bluesman this evening. Look to ladyfriend, who appears about to fall asleep against the back wall where you stand. 'You all right?'
'Hungry,' she mumbles.... A man takes food orders through a doorway at your right. Tell him you want fries, lots of them. Two orders? Sure. Sit and wait and watch the old white women clapping along with the song being played, then quickly and with great astonishment notice one of the old white women actually playing with the band! She's smiling real big for us and is hopping up and down on a bench in front of the grand piano.
From way over across the hall, just barely audible, like in some half-remembered cadence from a dream, you hear the two words, "real-real."
11:32: fries arrive spiced up hot and steaming just as the vaguely rastafarian gentleman strides in holding his bus #2 placard.
11:33: stride out past Hanigan and company and take seat on bus, whereupon yourself and ladyfriend begin ravenous scarfing of fries.
11:34: empty fry container sits on your lap as you very simianly lick your own and ladyfriend's fingers clear of grease and spicy seasoning.
12:00AM: mark the new day with a shout that wakes your ladyfriend, who is grumpy and hungry and now broke herself, all the while barreling down the highway and thinking of the pigeons of the world, the wafflers, waddlers, and drunks, to whom you make a silent vow, the content of which will not matter, for tomorrow you will recall only half of this, and there's something else ahead, for certain.