My Reading Was Usurped By Slurpees!

ScottFonzCourtesy Scott Kenemore What passes for fun in the Midwest.

We have 7-Eleven stores here in Chicago, thank you very much.

I was supposed to come to New York this month to give a reading from my new novel about a zombie attack on the Windy City. I bought myself a plane ticket (not that expensive on JetBlue, but still) and was all but eagerly clutching it in anticipation. (If you’re not from the Midwest, you might not have a sense of how excited I was: a reading in the East Village, in a cool bar, and as part of the Guerrilla Lit Reading Series was something to look forward to.)

But then the venue — Bar on A — was closed, reportedly to make way for a new 7-Eleven. This development was was harder to swallow than a KZ3™ Battle Fuel Slurpee.

When you’re a writer living in Chicago, you think of New York City as “headquarters.” It’s where your agent and publisher are, where important stuff happens, and where you occasionally get to go for meetings or readings or whatever. It’s fun and cool and inspiring, and filled with interesting things. It’s awesome for writers in ways the metropolis of the Midwest is often not.

Being a writer in Chicago can feel like trying to meet women at a party thrown by a church. I am not the first person to have observed this. In “Chicago: City on the Make,” Nelson Algren bemoans “a city whose pleasures are so chaste” and laments the “hipless biddies entitling themselves ‘Friends of Literature’” who stand ever-ready to throw a stuffy daytime function where the punch is non-alcoholic and the conversation is polite.

Writers don’t want this.

Writers want to go to places like the East Village and womanize and get drunk and meet interesting, daring, wonderful, terrible people.

IMG_2672Alexa Mae Asperin Bar on A after its closure.

Examined one way, the loss of Bar on A is just the separation of me from this particular trip I was looking forward to. You suck it up and move on. Whatever. But examined another way, it forms the infinitesimal germ of a worry that maybe, just maybe, headquarters itself might be in trouble.

New York is a town that knows how to treat writers right. Even aspiring ones. Ten years ago when I was a poor MFA student in Manhattan there were always amazing things to do, especially in the East Village. The thrill of going to readings in the same bars where Allen Ginsberg used to read. The night I physically bumped into Robert Downey, Jr. and then lost my hat somewhere inside Niagara. Ending a long evening at McSorley’s Ale House after an absinthe-book release party (which is exactly what it sounds like it would be). These and others — more wonderful and less repeatable — will stick in my brain forever.

Change is constant. Neighborhoods gentrify. Immigration and emigration happen. No sensible person expects even the most vibrant and exciting neighborhoods to remain unchanged forever. I don’t expect the East Village never to change.

plywoodAnnie Fairman Bar on A is shrouded.

And there are glimmers of hope in Chicago. I’ve seen poetry readings here that share the stage with burlesque acts. I’ve been to literary magazine parties that were actually not boring. (I do not say that Algren’s ghost would be “pleased” exactly — with the current state of things — but I find it likely that he would allow that some progress has been made.)

Chicago has its own East Village, actually.  It’s a small, pocket neighborhood that’s part of a larger one called Ukrainian Village. Back in Algren’s day, Chicago’s East Village was kind of edgy and cool. (He set at least one of his books there, that I know of.) It had gambling dens and beer joints and was full of hustlers who wanted to be the next Capone. Then, in the 1960s, the character of the neighborhood was forever changed by the completion of the Kennedy Expressway (kind of like how Robert Moses built the Cross Bronx Expressway and terminally bisected all those neighborhoods in the Bronx). What was left behind was not the same. Now it’s a neighborhood overshadowed by its neighbors. A place with no defining, unifying character.

The thought that New York’s East Village could end up like Chicago’s is sobering indeed. No freeway is scheduled to run through it, but could it instead face death by a thousand cuts (or convenience stores, as the case may be)?

Probably it means very little that Bar on A is closed.  The loss of one oak, however venerable, does not signal a deforestation.

But I have always been a worrier.