Chapter 16: Naperville to Chicago

Beyond Dreams of Aberystwyth | The Book

Desperate Housewives territory indeed. Ross was one of the only men in this world of women of a certain American class paying I don’t know how much for a posh lunch and fashion show at White Eagle Golf Club, Naperville. I didn’t know what to expect – I could have felt intimidated, I could have felt sneering – but I tried to go in happy with myself and with an open mind.

Despite the weirdness and uncomfortably class defined nature of it I could see these people really were trying to do good in their own way. The event was a fund-raiser for Family Service Services, a charity supporting women fleeing domestic violence. Wow! – that’s not very fashionable. It instantly moved me that these women had chosen this cause to champion and raise money for (probably loads).

As we went in there was a raffle and tables of prizes laid out donated by local businesses you could put your tickets in for. I went for the ’Dick’s Gift for Jane’ tool kit (for me), ’American Girl Doll’ (like Cabbage Patch Dolls, for my niece), a hamper of doggy stuff (for the dog), and yoga lessons for Hilary and Ross, which they didn’t want at all! Who knew how I’d get any of this stuff home? Anyway thankfully I didn’t win, especially for Hilary and Ross who were delighted they didn’t have to go to yoga lessons! Then we had a very nice lunch, after which it was the fashion show.

I’ve never been to a fashion show before or anything like it. The announcer mentioned terms like ‘relevant’… Details on a cardy were still ‘relevant’ …to what I wondered? There was a moment when fur coats were modelled – I’m sure they were real – and I’m pretty sure I was the only person thinking ‘Urm, haven’t we had some discussion about this sort of thing? Isn’t it at least controversial to wear animal skins?’ Apparently not here. What was also odd was that most of the women attending were over 50, and probably never going to wear the fashions being displayed. They gave a cursory glance as the young things paraded down out of courtesy, no longer even wistful for the days they could wear such things.

At the end 4 men were modelling some menswear and there was a lot of extra clapping and giggling. Who were they and what was all the fuss about? (Why weren’t the women getting the same thank-you’s?) Ah, these were local Important Men, doing their bit at the charity lunch with a cheeky stroll down the catwalk – government representatives, local businessmen. The clothes didn’t get a mention, it was all who they were, their jobs, achievements, their wives, the charity work they do, number and names their children, how many of them are at college. Self-promotion, not terribly well disguised. I found it rather shameless but no one else seemed to mind.

After the fashion show a woman was introduced who made a short speech – the wife of a Republican candidate for something – the way wives in America do. I asked Ross if the wives of Democrats were ever invited to speak at these do’s? He raised his eyebrows in a way which bespoke ‘You must be joking.’

By the end of it all I had met some nice, friendly people who clearly have the best of intentions. However as Ross said, he could have done a lot more good giving all the money he’d spent on the tickets, raffle, etc directly to Loaves and Fishes. I asked Hilary if the Naperville Women’s Club asked their members to give what they’d spend on this event straight to a charity one year and not to have the do, they would, and she said no. They want to ‘have fun’ and this is their way of doing it. Also I suspect there is a powerful element of being seen to do it. It’s probably a terrible social no-no for some of these women not to turn up. In terms of having fun though I noticed some women looking bored as hell and some deeply unhappy. I felt for them. I’d probably look like that if I belonged to this world. I wondered how many were thinking how many of these gigs do I have to do to before I die? The desperate of the desperate housewife.

The last place we visited in Naperville the following day was Hilary and Ross’s schul – synagogue. After my journey across Eastern Europe this was very moving a fascinating for me – so this is where the Jews ended up.

My uncle told me that when everyone was leaving Eastern Europe to go west, if you had enough money you kept going to America, if you couldn’t afford it you were stuck in Britain. (As our lot were.) The community who built this synagogue were ones that ‘kept going.’

Here Ross and Hilary were amongst that community in Naperville, more recent imports from the UK 4 years ago. The synagogue was modern and simple, with facilities, community rooms built for purpose and a little shop. An up-to-date westernised version of the synagogues of Eastern Europe that I saw, but at the same time, a million miles away.

Our reason for going was because Hilary had to pop in. Hilary writes her blog and for local magazines and is becoming increasingly well known. She was about to start her own show on community TV and needed a theme tune! She knows a composer and asked him, and knowing a few musicians too, asked them to record it. So there they all were at the schul on Sunday morning, Hilary having arranged a recording session to take place one of the meeting rooms! Hilary popped in for a moment’s supervision while I had a look around. Another example of American goodwill, friends helping out, the schul helping out, as well as another turn Jewishness has taken on its international journey.

I really admired Hilary and Ross’s ‘go for it’ approach to life, which works well for them in the USA. This was beneficial to me, as one of the things I wanted to do while in that area was participate in Chicago’s vibrant performance poetry scene. The Uptown Poetry Slam in Chicago is THE original poetry slam (a poetry competition) and famously the place where performance poetry began. It was started by poet Marc Kelly Smith who still runs it every Sunday night at the Green Mill Jazz Club, where Al Capone used to drink. Cool. Though poetry is not particularly their thing, Hilary and Ross’s ‘don’t say no to anything’ approach meant they were more than willing to take me to Chicago for a night at the poetry slam.

We drove into Chicago, another America, its famous architectural high-rise beauty. We found the Green Mill easily enough in a part of Chicago much different to Naperville – urban and boarded-up in patches. We found somewhere to park behind a delicious smelling Ethiopian restaurant.

The Green Mill is a lovely bar, quintessentially American, you’ve seen it in all the movies – a small stage, booths and a bar that goes on forever. I felt immediately at home there, this place was more ‘my territory’ than any other place I’d been. I hadn’t been to a poetry night for many a week now and it felt grounding to be here. The night was 7pm – open mic, 8pm – 2 guest poets, 9pm – the slam. I signed up for the open mic, and tentatively for the slam (see how scary the vibe was).

Now this will be a shock to many on the British poetry scene but they did something totally radical – they started – and ran – on time! I know! But you know, it worked. Marc Kelly Smith was an excellent host and is a great poet. He introduced everyone with great welcome and with wry and intelligent humour. And he swore! I haven’t heard anyone swear since I landed in America, thank ** for that! There was a mixed bunch of people and poets – mostly young, but older too, good mix of women and men. There were quite a few angry-at-mother poems which were weighing the crowd down a little, and drawing Marc’s notice: ‘Don’t do the one about your mother!’ he pleaded with the slammers. But it was all in good humour, and as Hilary said it was ‘real’. (In a way that possibly, Naperville is not.)

And here – in my comfort zone – was where I had some success. I did my poem ‘American Dream’ (see Chapter 11) for the open mic – about the fascinations which brought me here – which went down well. Cheered on by this and the friendly vibe, I decided – though a little nervous of slams – what the hell – I have to go for it. There were 6 of us, one round, all men except me. And I won! I did the only poem I have about sex, which may be a bit shameless, but hey, it was a competition! Ross recorded it sideways on my mobile phone and Marc Kelly Smith said I was the highlight of the evening for lots of people. Wow. Everyone cheered and Hilary and Ross gave me a standing ovation!

So I was well-chuffed. I’ve never won a slam before and as ever practical fellow-writer Hilary said on the way home ‘you can put that on your cv’ which I certainly have!

The next day was Monday – Ross had to go to work and Hilary put me on the train at Naperville. ‘I’ll miss you’ she said, as I have her. Those Decents get everywhere.

Funded by Arts Council England

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