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Love & Sex: Pounded

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By Marla Seidell

I must confess that I despise Valentine’s Day with all my heart. Like Christmas and Halloween—crack for children, and a major nuisance for adults. As a child I adored the giving and receiving of valentines. There was a balance between the sexes. Even though the cards from the cute boys contained no special messages, just their scrawl of a signature, they filled me with happiness. But come adulthood my feelings about this holiday have gone from dismay to jaded, owing to an extremely large pound cake I made for a guy in 1998.

I was living in Washington, DC at the time, fresh out of college and living in a group house with eight other housemates. I was dating a Polish fellow named Micha, or something like that. Short, sexy and dirty blond, Micha was straight from Poland, a graduate student at American University. We met at a party at my house, where due to my Puerto Rican roommate’s efforts we were all doing the merengue. We met on the dance floor and he whisked me off my feet. He wore a button-down shirt that exposed a bit of chest hair. Soon after the party he called me, and voila—we started dating, or something like it. I didn’t see him very often—mostly we went to parties in large groups, where in between mingling we met on the dance floor. After three weeks of this tentative tango he invited me over for Valentine’s Day dinner. I was as excited as the little girl receiving a card from the cute guy. He liked me!

In anticipation of the big night, I decided to bake. My roommate baked heart-shaped cookies for his date, and cooked her dinner. Being overly ambitious I decided on a pound cake. I even bought a new Bundt-cake pan. I used a Molly Katzen recipe that called for four sticks of butter. At some point between the butter and enormous pan I realized I was in over my head. Yet I was determined to see the outcome, which turned out to be a heavy and enormous cake. I had grown up eating the small rectangular Sara Lee version, so I had no idea the real deal was a bowling ball. I packed my small child of a cake into a plastic bag and heaved it in a cab to take over to Micha’s house.

When I arrived, Micha greeted me at the door with an oddly perfunctory kiss, and I handed him the monstrous cake, which he placed on the counter. When he moved I could see we weren’t alone—his roommate, a tall blond guy from Atlanta with a slow Southern drawl, was seated at the table set for dinner, smiling at me. “You midwestern girls, wow, baking a pound cake from scratch,” he said, while Micha didn’t say two words about it. Hopes for an intimate tête-à-tête dashed, I took my seat at the table. The meal was nothing special—fake pierogis made with tortillas and mashed potatoes and a salad. We skipped desert and prepared to go out on the town. While his roommate was getting spruced up in his room, Micha delivered the preview to a breakup. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said. What had I done? The enormous cake was pressuring him, that was what! I should have made simple, heart-shaped cookies like everyone else!

I remember tears, and then the three of us going out to some club with Micha’s rich European friends. When the night was over Micha and I shared a bus ride home. I got out at Garfield Avenue and he stayed on, peering at me from the window of the bus. I stood on the corner, watching the bus lurch into the darkness. I never saw the guy or my cake plate again.

Love & Sex: That Thursday Night at McGees

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Photo by Evan Sears

Photo by Evan Sears

By Nicole Briese

With Valentine’s Day fast approaching, I am doing what any normal single girl does—wondering why I, of all people, am dateless—unable to celebrate a holiday made for hopeless romantics just like me. I consider myself to be a fairly decent catch—I have all my teeth, no hair sprouting in places it shouldn’t, relatively intelligent…so what’s the problem? Then I remember “That Thursday Night At McGees”—the night that clued me into the fact that may be the problem. Not so much me.

I went to McGees on a Thursday night with a coworker—two single ladies out on the town. We were minding our business, sipping our $1 Bud Lights when Bachelor #1 approached. We felt his presence before we saw him—a tall dark shadow fell over our table. We looked up… and to our dismay, saw what can only be described as an, ahem, interesting stranger. With hair that had never seen a brush a day of its existence, a long brown coat with a fur collar and crooked teeth, he was no Brad Pitt, to say the least. But it was what came out of his mouth that was really appalling. Turning to my friend, he uttered the words he clearly thought every woman wanted to hear: “Shorty, what’s your numberrrrr?” She managed to politely decline his enticing request for her digits before falling into a complete fit of laughter. Seeing he had been rejected, he backtracked and asked for her name. “Hope,” she replied through giggles. Fed up with her lack of seriousness, he turned his attention to me. “Joy,” I said. Realizing that he wasn’t making much progress here, he left, searching for a new victim to romance.

Less than two minutes later, Bachelor #2 approached. His appearance was not so faulty—he looked like what I like to call a “granola guy,” ya know, the type that Paul Rudd played in “Clueless.” He paused, and we leaned in to hear what he might have to say. “So,” he began. “I’m kind of retarded. I get really drunk, and ask strangers for cigarettes.” Believing he was seriously just fiending for a puff, we told him we were not smokers, and therefore had no cigarettes for him to bum. Then his friend approached. “I’m sorry,” he began. “My older brother is kind of retarded. He likes to get drunk and ask beautiful women for cigarettes.” At this point, it became painfully obvious that this was a set-up—they had clearly huddled together, decided that one would approach, and the other would swoop in two minutes behind. Wait just a minute, I thought. You actually planned this encounter, put thought and effort into it, and the best opener you could come up with was, “Hi, I’m kind of retarded” between the two of you?

I couldn’t help but begin to think I’d been enlisted for an unsuspecting role on “The Pick-Up Artist.’” You know, that show on VH1 where a douchebag in fur, eyeliner and goggles by the name of Mystery “coaches” socially inept men on how to pick up women using the lamest lines imaginable. Enter Bachelor #3. We couldn’t help but laugh the second he approached—we, like most young women, have had our fair share of bad come-ons, but three in a row? Were we the only females in the bar? What the hell was going on?

This guy looked fairly normal, and didn’t say anything wrong—but he was so nervous, he could barely get through his question. “Uh, so,” he began. “Um, my, uh, friends and I were, um, sort of wondering…oh shoot, um….why, uh, you guys, might, ya know, um, be here, sort of um, you know, not really talking to any guys?” Not wanting to be bitchy, we listened patiently, if only for his nervousness—we don’t consider ourselves the type to be nervous about by any means, and dude was literally sweating bullets over here. “We’re actually just coworkers out enjoying each other’s company,” my friend said politely. “Oh. OK!” he said before practically running back to his friends. He was clearly relieved to have completed his mission—he needed stay no longer.

When I was tapped on the shoulder again a moment later, we couldn’t help but roll our eyes. “Excuse me,” said Bachelor #4. “I just want to know what that guy said to you girls?” He paused before continuing. “I just want to know what NOT to say, because I just watched you shoot down three guys in a row, and I don’t want to be the fourth.” Needing to share the strangeness that had just occurred, we humored him. We told our stories, shared some drinks, and eventually parted ways. He took a liking to my friend, and with no real spark between his friend and me, I was left, quite happily, alone.

I suppose I could continue to mope about my Valentine’s Day singledom—perhaps I am, plain and simple, too damn picky. But if that night at McGees is any indicator of what my options look like, I can quite honestly say that I, for one, will happily celebrate Valentine’s Day this year a single woman—at least until Mystery comes up with some better material!

Love & Sex: On the Strip

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By Garin Pirnia

Last winter, my friend Auriane was looking for a means to support herself. Eschewing an office job, she decided to pursue a career in stripping. It made sense because Auriane is tall and buxom with long, flowing hair. And she can dance. One weeknight, she dragged me to the gentlemen’s club VIP’s. We walked into the lobby where she received an application to fill out. As she was filling it out, some guy with a foreign accent sauntered up to her and offered her money, but we couldn’t decipher for what. Auriane thought he was asking her to go to the mall. After he stumbled away, she asked the woman at the front desk what he said. “Oh, he wanted to know if you’d kick him in the balls for money.” “Oh! I totally would’ve done that!” Auriane exclaimed.

We sat in the lounge area and drank overpriced drinks while we waited for the manager to come out. The place wasn’t very crowded. I was astonished at how acrobatic those strippers were. I secretly wished I could tackle a pole like that. I wondered what it must be like to have men (and women) constantly ogling you. I also wondered if the strippers got to pick their own music. Honestly, I didn’t want my friend to succumb to stripperdom, but I tried to be supportive. The manager finally came out and interviewed her. He comped our exorbitant drinks and told her he’d call her. I was relieved to go home.

Auriane finally came to her senses and embarked on the more clothed occupation of bartending. During this time, I joked to a guy friend that I was considering stripping. He launched into an angry tirade telling me that stripping was immoral, that I should continue to write and that I should move home before ever stripping. I was surprised at his sternness.

A couple of days later, we hung out at his place. He didn’t quite believe I was kidding about becoming a stripper. He half-jokingly kept saying I should give him a “private show.” I guess a “private show” was acceptable to him, but not stripping in front of strangers. The next thing I knew, we were in his room. He sat in a chair and demanded that I strip. I still didn’t know if he was serious or not, but I called his bluff—I removed my top. He became nervous and said he didn’t want to make me do something that I didn’t want to do. Even though he apologized, he was somewhat titillated. Suddenly, I understood the allure of stripping: all that control! There’s nothing quite like turning a guy into putty with a flash of your body while watching his eyes fixate on you. We heard his roommate rummaging around in the other room, so the strip tease abruptly ended. But during those brief moments, everything became lucid.

However, I have since retired from going to strip clubs and giving private shows.

Making Progress

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Wanting to provide a Valentine’s Day alternative for their overlapping clients, the neighboring establishments of non-profit fair trade store Greenheart and Yoga Now have teamed up to host the Chocolate and Yoga Valentine’s Progressive. Starting with a raw, vegan, fair-trade-chocolate-truffle tasting and ending with a detoxifying ninety-minute yoga class, the Progressive “provides something you haven’t done every other Valentine’s Day,” says Talia Hagerty, outreach coordinator for Greenheart. While the Progressive does involve exercise and healthy treats, it is not something to be immediately dismissed. Organic free trade wine will be provided and participation doesn’t demand a complete alteration of world-view. “I wouldn’t say that we were out to oppose the consumerism of Valentine’s Day, but that we are out to promote responsible consumerism every day,” Hagerty says. “You don’t have to be a total left-wing environment hippie to enjoy this event.”

Your Own Piece of Peace

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Consideration of Valentine’s Day conjures up a cavalcade of cliched images. Couples dining by candlelight, heart-shaped boxes of candy, bouquets of red roses. Federico Newson, former Chicago resident and community organizer, is tired of such associations. Viewing Valentine’s Day as an opportunity to focus other aspects of love, like peace, Hewson started The Valentine’s Peace Project (TVPP), an international participation campaign which encourages the exchange of peace messages among strangers. TVPP involves printing a peace message (or writing your own) from the TVPP Web site (valentinepeaceproject.org), rolling it into a scroll, wrapping it around a flower and giving it to a stranger. “I like to think of it as a peace valentine,” explains Nancy Andria, TVPP’s Chicago coordinator. Participation, however, doesn’t have to be so exact. Any focus on peace is encouraged. “Anyone interested in participating can visit our Web site for ideas on creating their own event.” Hewson and Andria both hope that small, locally focused action will create big change. “War gets too much attention,” says Andria. “We’d like to get people to start thinking about peace.”

Slap Happy: Film Row Cinema plays the dating game

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moxie1The credits roll. The lights come up. The curtains close. The projector in the rear of the room shudders to a halt and quiets itself. At the exact same time, the audience applauds.

Seated in Columbia College’s Film Row Cinema, the audience has finished viewing P.T. Anderson’s “Punch-Drunk Love” tonight, followed by Cinema Slapdown: Extreme Dating Edition. Here, two contestants will stand at separate podiums and answer questions asked by a potential datee, seated behind a curtain where only the audience can see him or her.

The first round is for gay men. Columbia faculty member and event host Ron Falzone introduces the contestants to the audience, though without giving any names for an effective single-blind. The Datee takes his seat, then asks questions one by one and reacts to their responses behind the curtain, knowing the audience will see his every reaction.

Question number one: “If we started dating and your sister or brother didn’t like me, what would you do?”

The audience responds with a very audible “Ooooh,” then quiets to wait for the response. “Well,” he begins, “I like my sister very much, but who I’m dating is who I’m dating. I respect her opinion, but at the end of the day I’m the one who has to go to bed with you.”

Applause from the audience, and we can see that The Datee is laughing behind the curtain, though covering his mouth to avoid being heard. The applause simmers down in anticipation of Contestant Two’s answer.

“I don’t really value my family’s opinion,” he says. He speaks with a little less panache than Contestant One, and the audience can see that The Datee already doesn’t like him as much. The game continues with questions to the contestants about their opinions on the film and its possible relevance to their lives, and the audience remains relatively quiet throughout all of it.

In the end, Contestant One is chosen. No surprise. Falzone asks The Datee to come out from behind the curtain and formally introduce himself to the contestants. Finally they have names and faces, to go with the voices they’ve heard, and there are smiles all around.

Round two is for two straight contestants and a female datee, while round three is reserved for three gay women. Quirky answers like “Dollar menu at Wendy’s—whatever she wants!” as an idea for a first date and “If we went to the theater on a date and you asked to see ‘Marley & Me,’ I would walk out on you” are thrown left and right as the audience boos and awws to each answer. Every time an answer goes over a minute, though, Falzone blows his whistle like a referee.

At the end of the night the contestants seem satisfied. They win prizes and gift certificates to spend on their upcoming dates, each excited that Valentine’s Day is just around the corner. (Micah McCrary)

Guy Talk: Turns Out, Five Guys Got Nothing on Wendy

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fiveburgerBy Michael Nagrant

How many guys does it take to make a great burger? Based on my recent experience at Five Guys in Oak Park, it’s definitely more than five. Of course, quantity probably doesn’t matter, as McDonald’s Corporation employs hundreds of thousands of people and they’ve yet to get it right.

Actually, the number of folks it takes to make a great burger probably isn’t as philosophical a question as how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Roll pop. There’s no doubt in my mind the best fast-food burger available in Chicago these days can be found at Marc Burger in the food court at Macy’s on State, and that burger was invented by one man, chef Marcus Samuelsson (C-House).

So what’s wrong with the Five Guys patty? It all starts with cooks who use spatulas and grill presses to smash the life out of the beef. Once grilled, these well-done juiceless pucks look like Wile E. Coyote after one too many anvils to the head. While struggling under the weight of the press, the patties never really get griddled, but instead steam in their own juices.
You also wonder why a place that cooks patties to order makes their burgers well done, but at Five Guys, it’s not really a secret. Their corporate Web site answer is “By cooking all of our burgers juicy and well done we are able to achieve two goals: Insure a consistent product [and] Meet or exceed health code standards for ground beef.”

Translation: we don’t trust our training programs or our grill cooks to do a good job, so instead, we’ve decided that cooking the living moo out everything we serve is the only way to succeed.

I’d give them slack on this point, but the high-volume Marc Burger grill manned by everyday hairnetted joes somehow manages to turn out perfect, juicy medium-pink beauties one burger at a time and have so for a while.

Lest you think this is the sound of one man typing, one of my good friends, a non-food-writing burger aficionado, suggested that the Wendy’s double is better than the Five Guys burger. I was skeptical, but as I reflected on it, he’s right. The Wendy’s burger (also fresh, never frozen beef just like Five Guys) sports discernible grill marks, good seasoning and a flame-broiled taste. The dense grayish mass at Five Guys tasted as if it hadn’t come within ten feet of a saltshaker.

Even the squishy sesame-seed bun here, which disintegrates under a dollop of mayo and gooey cheese, isn’t much more inspiring than the patties. If I’ve learned anything eating hundreds of burgers in my lifetime, the greatest buns are usually of the potato variety and are best when toasted and topped with a touch of butter, as at local chain Culvers.

The skin-on fries at Five Guys are decent (though much better ones are available at Hot Doug’s or Susie’s in Irving Park), but at $2.59 for a “regular” portion they’re kind of pricey. Five Guys would be better off cutting the portion size and the price in half.
This all being said, the real central question of Five Guys is not how many folks it takes to make a great burger, but rather, how can so many well-respected news outlets can be so hoodwinked into loving it?

Where some burger joints might hang framed prints of scary clowns or fat purple blobs, Five Guys has culled over twenty years of good reviews and posted mini-billboard-style excerpted quotes from the Atlantic City Weekly to the New York Daily News. On one wall, you’ll find a decade or so of successive reprints of the Zagat guide fawning over Five Guys.

It could be that all of these signs work as a form of mind control, but I suspect Five Guys’ success is actually a function of cheap nostalgia and relatively sad competition. Up against the garbage served by mega chains, save Wendy’s, the flawed Five Guys burger is much better.

More than anything though, Five Guys is also capitalizing on the East Coast’s and Midwest’s yearning for the glorious burgers of West Coast chain In-N-Out. Absent their gooey animal-style patties, we settle for second best.

One thing Five Guys has going for it is crispy bacon and oozy cheese and a menu of condiments (any and all free with your burger purchase) that makes the salad bar selection at Whole Foods jealous (golden-fried onions are best). But this is just lipstick (on a cow?). And as we learned last November, when you put lipstick on something, all you end up with is a rifle-toting civil-liberty-revoking hockey mom who can see Russia from her backyard.

Five Guys is located at 1115 Lake Street, Oak Park, and at 2140 North Clybourn in Chicago.

Hang Loose: Loose Leaf Tea Loft loves its books

Lincoln Square, Literary Venues No Comments »

img_3809Nailed firmly to almost turquoise walls are box-shelves made of unfinished wood that hold pots, moleskin journals and books ranging from Sartre to “House of Leaves.” A tranquil mood is set by slow music playing overhead, where far from bright lights shine from up above. The place: the Loose Leaf Tea Loft.

The Loft is set up by Michelle Wu and Conor Pewarski, Harvard and Yale graduates who, on a brave whim, decided to set up the tea joint in Irving Park after a post-graduation return to Chicago. “We decided to open a tea shop in July 2008, drove all our things in a U-Haul from Boston to Chicago, found a few spaces on Craigslist, and fell in love with this corner immediately,” Wu says. “Then, with help from family and friends, we repainted the entire space and collected wine crates for the wall display. We tasted hundreds of teas to pick our thirty-six for the menu. We filed for restaurant licenses and business permits from the city.”

After about three and a half months from conception to their actual opening, Wu and Pewarski have established a space with a relaxing atmosphere with character to boot. “Our general mission is to promote health and happiness through balance and community,” Pewarski says. “Tea is the perfect way to do that, because a key ingredient is time—time for the leaves to steep, time for conversation. We also wanted to create an intimate space that the community feels free to use for their own artistic, social and intellectual gatherings—poetry readings, musical performances, open mic nights, writing workshops, game nights. We love it when someone comes to us with an idea for an event that they’d like to host at the shop.”

With hopes of attracting delightful crowds, Wu and Pewarski have added to the Loft all the necessary tools for a nurturing atmosphere. “Hoping to create an atmosphere of reading, writing and conversation, we decided to sell notebooks along with tea and put all our favorite books up on the wall for decoration and use. That gave us the name of the shop: Loose Leaf Tea Loft, for loose leaf tea and loose leaf paper. Then with our favorite books in the wine crates, it just made sense to connect the teas with our sources of inspiration,” Wu says. And the teas’ names are no joke, either. “Each tea is named after a different literary character that has some trait or connection with the tea, and almost all the characters come from a book in the shop. For instance, Jack Kerouac’s character in ‘On the Road’ gave us our Sal’s Paradise tea, sharp ginger with tangy orange freshness. Miss Scarlett’s Sweetest is a white tea with playful peaches and spunky tangerine, reminiscent of Georgia and southern society in ‘Gone with the Wind.’ And of course, our Barack’s AudaciTea promises to ‘change the way you think of oolong with the flavor of hopeful hazelnut.’”  (Micah McCrary)

EDITOR’S NOTE: Loose Leaft Tea Lost is closed as of July 2009, and will soon reopen as Latte on Lincoln.

Loose Leaf Tea Loft, 4229 N. Lincoln, looseleaftealoft.com

Precise Warmth: A weekend’s awe of thaw

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The sun comes out, the prairie warms and suddenly things have names again. Winter is denial, spring is nomenclature. Richard Ford says a novelist’s unit of thought is the sentence, not paragraphs or pages. A sentence with precise word choices, a sentence aware of what a thing, a world of things, is called. To observe is to name.

Chicago in winter is cold. Cold, cold Chicago. A summery snap like this weekend’s? Balmy with words. Images that pop with language. In buttery late-afternoon light, reflections key across each other and everyone’s eyes and skin seem lively, alert. In any direction you look, random, aimlessly, with or against the gentle, almost-not-there breeze, motion, flicker and flesh spend in the air. Dogs’ bright eyes as they pass, the quest for sniff. T-shirts in perfect crease on average shoulders. Hardly anyone, anything looks away. Contact compulsive, convulsive. I see you see me. A streetful of winter’s cigarette filters. The pianissimo of women’s walk, look down and above the throat line of ballet-soft flats, the genteel ripple of metatarsals against pale skin.

Someone you know smiles, turns, departs: nape barbered boyish. On Milwaukee, street glacier gone, in setting sun, rust’s advance on a long-abandoned bicycle’s chainring. City alive with decay as well. Alive with passage, alive, warm, hopeful. (Ray Pride)

Chicago Hype Exchange: Charting the capricious contours of celebrity

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This Week’s Biggest Gainers

1 Jennifer Hudson
In what’s been a series of big weeks, the Chicago-bred singer won a Grammy for Best R&B album.

2 Barack Obama

The president received positive reviews for his first primetime press conference.

3 Kanye West
Took home some Grammy gold of his own in the Best Rap/Sung Collaboration category, for his work on Estelle’s “American Boy.”

4 Bears Fans
Experienced some relief after it was announced ticket prices for the 2009-2010 season will not be raised. Nor will expectations.

5 Abraham Lincoln
Honest Abe turned 200 this week, amidst vast tributes and life retrospectives.

This Week’s Biggest Losers

1 James “Little Jimmy” Marcello

The “Family Secrets” mobster was sentenced to life in prison.

2 Father John Regan
The former priest at St. Walter’s Parish in Roselle was charged with pocketing more than $100,000 of parishioners donations.

3 Juan Quintero
The 25-year-old man was arrested for impersonating a policeman—replica handgun and all—in the Lincoln Square neighborhood.

4 Bill Ayers
State Senator Larry Bomke proposed legislation in an effort to force the UIC professor’s dismissal.

5 Robert Walston
The former teamster president was indicted for cocaine-trafficking.