First Time: First Digs

My very first apartment was in Naperville, IL. I was 19, and was kicked out of North Central College for literally not making the grade. I had no intentions of moving back home to Wisconsin, much to the chagrin of my parents, who spent the better part of the next decade inquiring when I’d be coming back. Answer: I wasn’t. It was a full-time job at Crown Books and a part-time job at learning how to become an alcoholic for me. Yes, this was the life.

I lived in an apartment complex next to the Metra tracks for three years, with two different roommates. First Emily, then Aaron, and then Emily again. The whole period is sort of a blur of pot, Milwaukee’s Best Light cans and a rotating cast of characters. Rooms and rooms filled with our friends, listening to music, playing cards, smoking cigarettes and pontificating about life.

I guess it was mainly just one room, the living room of the second year with Aaron Feaver. And the music was always either the Beastie Boys — generally focused on Paul’s Boutique — or some greatest hits album. The kid owned more greatest hits albums than anyone I knew. Violent Femmes. INXS. Fleetwood Mac. CCR. And Bob Marley. Always with the fucking Bob Marley. I cannot even listen to Legend because of Aaron. I know we were potheads of the highest order, but enough Marley, man!

The thing about Aaron that was infinitely frustrating was that the kid was always ridiculously high, completely carefree and yet, managed to be a brilliant mind — earning a degree in physics or calculus or civil engineering or something. He went on to get a master’s and then maybe even a doctorate. Kid is working for Boeing, last I heard.  However, despite his genius intellect,  there *was* the time he and two of my other friends went out into the wild west (of Illinois) and brought back sheaves of naturally occurring cannibis and laid their bounty out on our kitchen table.

To this day, I cannot imagine 1. why I was not with them on this particular adventure, instead finding myself aroused from a dead sleep at 4 a.m., 2. why on earth they thought this ditchweed was going to be smokable, much less produce a high, 3. and why on God’s obviously green earth, no one thought of the fact that when you get busted for weed, you get busted for the WEIGHT of what you have, regardless of whether or not it comes from the dankest, hairiest nugs wrested from some holy place in Hawaii, or the most ragged, ridiculous pile of nothing you found in nowhere, Illnois. They’re still going to mark pounds, not ounces. I looked at the pile of brush on the kitchen table, ascertained its worthlessness and became buzzkill #1. I told them to get it the hell out of the house and went back to bed.

Although that was my very first apartment, it’s not the apartment that holds the dearest place in my heart. That honor goes to 3763 N. Kenmore, my very first apartment in Chicago. Located at the corner of Grace and Kenmore, it marks the beginning of my adult-ish life — August, 1997.  I had a job at a downtown financial establishment, and a place in a real city. Like most WASPy immigrants to Chicago, I had previously only spent brief flurries of activity in and around Lakeview; hanging around Belmont and Clark — exploring the mysteries of The Alley, getting fringe and weird with the masterminds of improv over at the Annoyance when they were still at Belmont and Broadway, and going to the occasional show at Metro. Cabaret Metro, as it were. A place that would go on to change my life in ways I couldn’t possibly have imagined. But we’ll get there.

So, having limited knowledge of the city, it was only fair I should find an apartment smack dab in the middle of Wrigleyville. And I do mean smack dab. Short of putting my bed up against the ivy and waking to the sounds of batting practice, Grace and Kenmore didn’t get any better. And I really mean that. The apartment on Grace and Kenmore was perfect at the time. We could open our windows during the National Anthem and hear the crowd sing along; you could do the same for the 7th inning stretch. If one were so inclined, you could just go and sit down at the end of Kenmore and hang with the guys shagging homeruns and follow the game with Harry and Steve on someone’s TV or with Ron and Pat on the radio if you wanted some real drama. We could still come home after a day’s work and walk up to the ticket booth and pay $10 for a decent seat at a Monday night game that first year. It was 1998, and the magic of the homerun race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGuire was literally in full swing.  You also could still pretend baseball wasn’t riddled with HGH and steroids.

A baseball sidebar: I invited my parents and some of their friends down to watch a Cubs/Brewers game toward the end of that year. They arrived VERY early — 10 am early — to barbecue in my front yard and get the party started. My friend, Jeff, was in town from Naperville to join the festivities and enjoy a late-season game. This was pre-9/11, and you could still bring coolers filled with liquid into the ballpark, and while they weren’t *supposed* to be filled with liquor, you could whip up a good batch of vodka pink lemonade, and no one was any the wiser. The Brewers and the Cubs had an incredible game. It went into extra innings and it seemed everyone and their brother on both teams had a homerun, pitchers included. The Cubs came back to win the game and it was one of those days where you just think to yourself, “that was one of the greatest games.” And if you’re blackout drunk, you just might say it out loud, tauntingly, ad infinitum to the guests from out of town. Until my dad was ready to get into a fistfight with him, my sister tried to talk some sense into him in the kitchen and when all he could do was mindlessly say  “That was one of the greatest games I’ve ever seen” on robotic repeat, she was ready to put up her dukes as well. I managed to end the party when I said “fuck” in front of my dad and my mom told me to ‘watch my mouth.’ After hours of making sure everyone was okay and trying to keep everything on an even keel, I snapped like a dry twig. I whirled, facing my mother in a slight crouch and said, “It’s MY fucking house and I will say fuck if I fucking want to. Fuck fuck fuck fuck FUCK fuck fuck.” Then everyone looked at me as if *I* were the fucking lunatic. Good times.

But for the most part, I was never fazed by the party — partly because I was up for the party back then, and partly because despite anyone’s recollections to the contrary, the party wasn’t as hedonistic as it is now. Gone are the days of the dive bars like the Wrigleyville Tap and when you could go down the street from Sluggers to do your laundry at Laundryland (it’s a Chase bank now, natch).  When Yakzies still had an obnoxious yellow awning and Bernies didn’t look like every wooden faced bro bar in the city. When John Barleycorn was where it belonged — on the mayhem of Lincoln Avenue between Diversey and Armitage. But I bitterly digress.

I found my roommate like I’ve found all my best roommates in the city; the lottery process of the rooms to share section of The Chicago Reader (or now, Craigslist). It was back in the day when you had to actually read the print version of the magazine, scouring the tiny ads in the back for your true mate — either the ones you would drop $.99 a minute on to ascertain their potential date worthiness by the dulcet sounds of their voice (BAD IDEA), or the ones you would scour in an effort to find a suitable living arrangement. I fared much, much better with the roommate ones than I ever did with the few larks into the Reader Matches scene.

I had never had to look for a roommate who wasn’t previously known to me, and in retrospect,  my first meeting with Ann Marie was pretty comical.  I remember looking around at the apartment, intuiting she wasn’t a serial killer and announcing “I’ll take it.” She looked at me like *I* was fucking crazy, since I should have been the one in the supplicant position, applying to live with her, as it were. Luckily, she didn’t kick me out right there, and we sat down to continue our chat. We figured out that we were both small-town Wisconsin girls living in the city, making our way, Packer fans to the end. We also worked out our proclivities for puffing, various and sundry substances that could fit in a pipe.

It turned out we were two peas in a pod. We spent countless hours firing up bowls, snacking, watching various and sundry on TV and playing cards or Yahtzee. We shared stories and secrets. We shared music.  She gave me Crowded House, I ended up giving her everything else.

Music. It was so much easier to go to shows living in the city. There wasn’t the angst of a huge commute; an hour in traffic or trains and buses to see a band for an hour. The small, intimate club scene of Chicago became my home. Schuba’s, Double Door, Metro, The Vic, The Riv, Park West, The Aragon (when absolutely necessary), Subterranean, Gunther Murphy’s, Lounge Ax, Beat Kitchen.

Back then, it seemed like I was at Metro more than anything. I don’t know if it was because it was my neighbor or because that’s just where the bands I wanted to see were playing. The 90’s in general were good to me. Indigo Girls, Gin Blossoms, Judybats. Almost getting crushed by a sea of flannel in the front row of Material Issue. Better than Ezra, Sarge and Semisonic.  I became the nominated representative to sit (literally) outside  in the frigid December air for two hours to get tickets for when Dylan came to Metro in December of 1997.  There was also the time my friend Shawn and I recklessly and foolishly said that we were too tired or too whatevered to go see Nirvana at Metro (she had two free tickets) and that “they’d be back again.” Unless of course, Kurt killed himself or something. Ouch.

And then, one May day in 1999, Big Star was playing a show at Metro. I was so excited. I found out about Big Star working at my college radio station in Naperville. I  was clueless — but my friends showed me. See? R.E.M. loves these guys. See? They’re poppy and lush and beautiful.  See, Trip Shakespeare covers them. See, the Replacements sing a song about the lead singer, Alex Chilton. And so I dove in. And fell in love. But they never toured. So, it was what it was, listening to this underrated band that all my favorite bands loved and just knowing that it was enough, I suppose. Like knowing I’d never see XTC live.

But, then …I would. Alex and Jody were touring with Jon and Ken from the Posies — a dream come true. I tried to keep low expectations, because I had heard that Alex could be unpredictable when playing live, that he could sometimes be … well, kind of a dick. I was there, front row, trying just to be happy that it was even happening. There was the whole matter of standing for hours to be in the front row. There’s that whole matter of the opening band, and all. My friends and I talked about what we could be in for. My friend, Shawn and I were just hoping for anything better than the aforementioned Material Issue show where before getting smushed against the front of the stage, we had to stand and be crushed by the sound of a band called Specula. Their name sounded like an instrument used in giving a Pap smear, and the experience was less pleasant.

We chatted amongst ourselves and then this band came on. There were five of them, all dressed alike, in what I remember being white suits, but my memory could be completely wrong. All I remember is that they looked awfully Beatles-esque and my hopes were lifted. And they started playing and I was mesmerized. I instantly decided one of them was the “Paul” of the band and that the other was the “John.” I’ll admit, it didn’t hurt that they both were easy on the eyes. The five of them just went through song after song, and I’m sure I sat there with the stupidest smile on my face.  They had a HORN! They sang harmony! They were so fucking good!

I made a note of their name — Frisbie — and I swore that I’d go to their shows whenever they played in Chicago. Lucky for me, they were Chicagoans, and I’d have plenty of chances. The next show I can remember going to was at Lounge Ax, and I vaguely remember saying something vaguely stupid to one of them after the show. I think this is the start of my becoming a groupie.  I hated that word. It conjured up visions of blowjobs in backrooms and the stories of whorish girls who’d do anything for a backstage pass; wild rides of Cynthia Plaster Caster and her salacious sculptures.  I wasn’t “down to fuck,” I was down to rock.
Not to mention they all had serious girlfriends or wives and such, and there’s always that weird conundrum of having your rockstars being so attractive because they’re so … good. Dan Wilson is sexy as fuck, but if I ever found out he cheated on his wife, I’d be crushed.

And here’s where I struggled for weeks. I didn’t know where to go with this piece. It was supposed to be a first apartment piece, but I won’t lie — I cheated on this one. Instead of writing the story or having the idea first, song second, I wanted to go the other way around. This month marks The First Time’s second anniversary. And when I found I was cutting it close with readers, I decided I’d read. And I decided I knew what I wanted to hear these guys play. I wanted you all to hear something original from them. You hear them tackle covers from all eras and genres with amazing skill and ingenuity. You often remark to me afterward what a great band they are. You don’t have to tell me twice. I know. Come May, I’ll have been listening to them for 13 years.

I found out that Steve and Liam played a weekly set as a duo up at Pops Highwood on Tuesday nights for the better part of …several years?, and Tuesday nights were booked after me and Shawn and Ann Marie and Kelly found out. I traveled on a Greyhound bus 24 hours round trip, to see them play. I traveled the West Coast from San Diego to San Francisco one summer because I just couldn’t get enough. Yeah, I definitely groupied out.

But something else happened. We grew up together. They got married. They got divorced. Some of their band members moved away. The band struggled with the effects of mental illness, and so did I.  There were loves gained and loves lost. I was walking the same path with a different cast of characters.  I stopped drinking, and got spiritual again. They had children and they fell in love again. The band reorganized and gained new members. They recorded another album. I was worried; would I still like their music? Would I still think they were as wonderful as I did when I was younger and more naive and a little more crazy?

They changed and so did I, but their music remained great. I had nothing to worry about. When something is real, it doesn’t fade over space and time, it just is. Truth and love and music for me, mostly. And so here we are, all these years later, different and the same. I wanted you to hear them being themselves, but selfishly, I picked two songs that most resonate with me. They’re both from an acoustic album they did, called period. They’re songs that their drummer, Zack Kantor, wrote, and which they performed acoustic for the album, in much the same setting as you see here. .They had been playing the songs out the whole time I knew them in various shapes and forms, and they’re the songs that took root in my heart and my soul.  I’ve said a lot and could say much more. Here’s some Frisbie for the First Time at the First Time. Happy Second Anniversary everyone.

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5 thoughts on “First Time: First Digs

  1. Jocelyn, This is so good. This should be part of your memoir. Try not to give it all away for free on this blog.

  2. Jocelyn, here is a book recommendation. This I Know Notes on Unraveling the Heart by Susannah Conway
    This will help you write your own book and with your blog. http://www.susannahconway.com is the author’s web site.

  3. Not that the book is bad, but Smuss has needed a writing coach/editor for quite some time now. I really don’t think a self help type or discover yourself book is what she needs, although who knows she could read this thing and be consistently writing again. I’ll tell you what she needs, she needs deadlines with consequences. One glaring reality check for her should be this blog. Once it was thriving with people commenting back and forth, now I think the only people that check it out are old friends. Even bad bloggers get a ton of followers if they blog everyday. I said it once and I will say it again Twitter has done more harm to writing than anything else. everyone is looking for the one sentence quip now.

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