Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Feeling Like I've Been to Cuba...

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

Via Chicago and the Lower East Side

Turning left a couple of blocks before Katz's Famous Delicatessen, I begged an apparently Indian or Pakistani cabbie to pull up, so that there would be room for me to park in front of a nail salon run, perhaps, by Dominicans, who gave me quarters for dollars, so I could pay the Munimeter before eating at the Turkish Kebab House II prior to my final destination, Bluestockings, a radical, feminist bookstore, where two Cuban writers were reading from their new books. I knew of one of them from my near-decade in Chicago: Achy Obejas.

Had the reading by Achy taken place at Women & Children First in Chicago, and had I still lived there, I would have been heading to the Swedish-Arabic-Lesbian neighborhood...but it hadn't and I hadn't, so I didn't. Rather, I raced to the Lower East Side from Armonk. How different my life was from when I first met Achy!

In the late-80s, she was doing an article, I think, for one of the papers, on the International Mr. Leather contest. Achy listened in to my "10% Show" interview of International Ms. Leather that we were filming before conducting, I imagine, one of her own. ("The 10% Show" was all about showcasing the various facets of gay and lesbian culture, but not bi and trans culture as intentionally back then.)

The International Mr. Leather convention remains a huge, annual event in Chicago, and as I've written here before, International Ms. Leather said that she loved being part of the Leather Community because her mother was German and had been in World II -- and she made a parenthetical remark about her mother's "regalia" from the War. Afterwards, Achy came over to me and said she was pleased that toward the end of the interview, I had said to International Ms. Leather, "Can we talk a bit more about your mother?"

Gumming Up the Works of My Routine-Machine

There was no time to go to the reading tonight, but the Time & Learning course I'm taking this semester is making me extra-conscious of how I spend my time, and of my time as something to go (relatively) wild with now and then, so that I'm not just a routine-machine.

Walking into the shop, which turned out to be a volunteer-run collective, I thought: You should have opted to hear Achy at the 92nd Street Y tomorrow night instead; clearly, that's where the grownups will be -- actually, I had a work conflict.

Was I really going to have to sit in a plastic, grocery-store chair in an overheated, little storefront-room, surrounded by bare-plywood shelves of books and magazines and 'zines that might have gripped me 20 years ago, but which now seemed outre/fringe-y and in some cases, offensive? Looking at T-shirts on the wall emblazoned with statements like, "I had an abortion," or featuring a hand-drawn bicycle, with the statement under it, "Put the joy between your legs!" I had to admit to myself that I was not going to feel at home in my business-suit and dress-coat. Why hadn't I come in disguise?

In 1988, hadn't I helped crew for "The 10% Show's" segment on the Queer 'zine Convention, wearing an olive, Chicago Boy Scouts, long-sleeved, button-down shirt that I'd found in a thrift shop? Back then, that wasn't a disguise, though; it was simply me in my early-20s....

One of the last open seats was next to a woman with super-fast fingers who was busy, tapping on her Blackberry. I felt shy to sit down among strangers, but steeled myself. In talking with her, I got what I came for.

First, we marveled at the rack that stood at eye-level across from us. "'zines!" she exclaimed, "with real staples and paper. I'm so sick of blogs."

I smiled.

What had inspired her to attend the reading? I asked.

"I grew up in Chicago and used to read her column in the paper."

"I lived in Chicago for a long while myself, and knew Achy's writing from then, too."

"What took you to Chicago?" she asked.

"I was escaping," I said, "-- couldn't imagine going back home after coming out as a lesbian; my family was understanding, but I didn't want to run into classmates from the Jewish day school I had attended. So I just stayed out there and took an internship at a magazine that folded within a year of its launch, 'Inside Chicago.'"

"I remember it."


She nodded and then said, "I was doing the same thing, only I came from Chicago to [school here], so I could come out where no one knew me, and 20 years later, I'm still here." Her family turned out to be accepting and she was Jewish as well, and simply opted to stay in this part of the country.

We smiled at each other. "I've found a kindred spirit," I said. We learned that both of us had found out about the reading through Facebook. This was a first for me: attending a cultural event that I had learned about in Facebook, and then meeting someone new who I'd want to "friend" on Facebook when I got home.

"You're a writer?" I asked.

"I write," she responded, and then, "How about you? Did you stay with magazine writing?"

"No, but I'm a blogger."

"Who do you blog for?" she asked, smiling sheepishly, I think, due to her earlier reference to blogs, and then the MC came to the mike and began the program.

I responded to her on paper, with tongue in cheek, "~20 people a day love it [the blog]. I work for IBM in Leadership Development. You?"

She wrote back, "I'm a freelance writer, but recently took a full-time job as [an editor at a giant, popular magazine]."

Through their readings, both of the authors took us to Cuba within the past 15 years, and I was happy to be able to ask Achy two questions -- about her hope for social change through her writing, and whether her parents were now proud of her, since she had authored a book years ago called *We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like That?*

Toward the end of the Q&A, I wrote my audience-neighbor a note: "I'm Sarah Siegel. May I 'friend' you on Facebook? (Just friends. I saw your ring, like mine.)"

She smiled and nodded.

After clapping and promising to be in touch with my new friend, I excused myself and re-introduced myself to Achy, reminding her of the International Ms. Leather interview; she chuckled, whether or not with any recollection, and was generous in signing the book I'd purchased.

Seeing Achy, I knew I'd have a nostalgic pang of, "Those were the days," i.e., the days of "The 10% Show," but it also paid to live in the present, I was reminded; twenty years ago, my new Facebook friend was a freshman in college and I had recently graduated, and probably, neither of us were sure of ourselves in the ways we are now, plus, it would have taken me longer to get home after the reading back then, relying as I was then on public transportation, or on my real-life version of the bicycle in that bold T-shirt.

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