I’ve lived in Chicago over 20 years and have only been to the Taste of Chicago once. It was in 1991 or ’92 and I was a student at the School of the Art Institute then so I didn’t know any better. I remember having to buy tickets for the privilege of procuring several varieties of meat-on-a-stick. The tickets didn’t go that far either. I had to keep going back for more to cobble together something resembling a meal and by then my wallet was empty. There was also the matter of having to elbow past throngs of other sunburned eaters that didn’t leave the best taste in my mouth. I’ve never been tempted to return.
Over the years, I—along with most other right-thinking Chicagoans—have girded myself for the siege of downtown that is the Taste. I can’t recall anyone I know who has voluntarily attended unless they had out-of-town guests they didn’t like very much. Some music lovers have been lured by the occasional A-lister that the city hires to enhance the mastication process, but the prospect of running the gauntlet of food booths, port-o-potties and dazed humanity is too much for most of us.
For most of the 30-plus years of its existence the music at the Taste was free but more recently, faced with dwindling attendence and revenues, the city has started to charge admission. So, in addition to overpaying for something you could get not on a stick and at half the charge the rest of the year, you now have to pay to see Kenny Rogers or Stevie Wonder or Spyro Gyra. None of this aids the digestive process.
For many of us who have worked downtown over the years, the Taste has always been more hardship than celebration. In the 9 years that I drove a cab here, these weeks in July were always a time to avoid downtown if at all possible. Between the road closures and the punch-drunk, overfed-to-bursting pedestrians, the area becomes a tense, sunbaked parking lot. Try explaining to a businessman why our path to O’Hare is blocked by a herd of slow-moving grazers. Most are less than understanding and will seek alternate means of transport the next time.
So if I don’t go to the Taste and no one I know goes to the Taste, who are all these people that throng to it every year? Tourists, suburbanites, who knows? It’s a baffling phenomenon. But then again, I don’t know anyone who voluntarily goes to Navy Pier either, and that’s supposedly Chicago’s most popular attraction, so what do I know? Both Navy Pier and the Taste are designed to celebrate Chicago but instead present the kind of cookie-cutter consumer sprawl visitors can find in any of their local malls. I suppose it’s lucrative for local restaurants to provide a dumbed-down version of their regular menu at double the usual price for the rubes but that won’t make my heart burst with civic pride. Perhaps the city would consider combining the Pier and the Taste into one unholy destination festival for visitors to gorge at. At least if it was quarantined at the Pier, the rest of the Loop wouldn’t have to suffer the effects of its occupation.
I wouldn’t have even bothered thinking about the Taste—I’ve been successful in ignoring its very existence the last few summers—but for a more recent tradition. Along Lake Shore Drive, from the Field Museum to the soon-to-be-opened Maggie Daley Park, leaning on every tenth street light or so, an anti-abortion activist is stationed holding over-sized graphic posters. Some of these activists are young children, holding on to pictures of viscera. That’s some way their parents have them spending their summer vacation! This yearly display is just past the fencing that keeps people off the Taste of Chicago’s grounds. I don’t know whether those pictures sway Taste visitors’ political or religious beliefs but I will say that if you’re driving past and squint, some of the pictures look a bit like barbecue. But even they couldn’t tempt me to go back to the Taste.
I’ve been an artist and writer for going on 25 years but until recently I had always depended on unrelated and often menial day-jobs to pay most of my bills. I was a cab driver for 12 years, a Thai restaurant delivery driver for 3 years, and every other type of service industry bottom-wrung employee in between. My thinking was always that mindless labor would free me to do my real work without the pressure of making a living at it.
After my book came out in 2011, I began to reassess my job strategy. I was over 40 and no longer had the energy to put in 60-80 a week somewhere, then come home and paint or write. I started taking on freelance writing and illustrating gigs, put in a few hours a week at a coffee shop, but otherwise have tried to pay the bills with art.
It hasn’t been easy but I don’t regret taking the leap into complete self-employment. Recently, I’ve started applying for grants. Various public and private organizations offer money to creative types to keep them going. It’s a laborious and confusing process but I’m learning as I go. My most recent lesson came Friday late afternoon. An email from the Illinois Arts Council informed me that I was disqualified for their fellowship because I didn’t meet the one-year residency requirement. They came to this conclusion because my driver’s license—which they requested—was issued October 2013.
I asked if I could send them another piece of proof to clear up their misconception—I’ve lived in Chicago almost 25 years—but their decision was final. There was no way to appeal. Their attitude was completely baffling to me. I suppose tossing out qualified applicants over technicalities winnows down their workload but it’s no way to treat people that are trying to survive by their talents.
To blow off some steam, I found the Illinois Arts Council’s Twitter account and screamed at it for a day or so. They never responded but I did hear from a half dozen other artists and writers rejected on similarly insignificant bureaucratic grounds. Maybe we’ll form a support group to lick our wounds. It’s hard enough to get by on art in this society in any way, shape, or form without our purported helpers tripping us up.
My new book, Where To? A Hack Memoir, went to press today. You can pre-order your copy here.
I’m not much for music outside. To me, rock bands are best in dark bars with cheap drinks readily available, but I made an exception yesterday.
Protomartyr’s singer, Joe Casey, looks like a guy who got overserved at happy hour after a lousy shift substitute teaching and has some things to get off his chest. This is one of the best bands I’ve seen in the last few years. They’re sort of like The Fall for lack of a better comparison, but they have their very own brand of exasperation.
Both bands were well-worth braving streetfest bullshit for.
Here are all three commercials I made for Where To? A Hack Memoir (Curbside Splendor, September 2014)
I made one last book commercial (this time with music by Bill Mackay).
I illustrated “The Death of a Detroit Cabbie” by Timothy Dugdale for Belt magazine.