Street Smart Chicago

Rebel Rebel: My dad owns The Alley. So what?

Lakeview, Wrigleyville Add comments

By Alexis Thomascover

My first job was as proprietor of a lemonade stand at the corner of Belmont and Clark, an intersection of smut, littered with empty PBR cans, Dunkin’ Donuts-stained napkins and transsexuals in ripped fishnet pantyhose. It was the epicenter of the counter-cultural lifestyle. If you lived in Chicago, dyed your hair blue and believed punk rock could save the world, you’ve probably spent some time at Belmont and Clark.

My dad owns The Alley, an alternative-lifestyles store that sells everything from neon-colored sex toys, leather jackets, pins, one-hitters, spiked collars and bondage gear to Doc Martens.

Saturday mornings, dad and I packed Dixie cups and pitchers of Crystal Light lemonade into the back of his Cadillac hearse. The hearse was decked out in Alley decals and for ten years was his main ride. He drove it throughout Chicago neighborhoods promoting his store and lifestyle.

I’d sit on the corner as dad watched the foot traffic of Cubs fans, punks and everyone in between. But no one bought lemonade from me. Instead, their eyes crossed and noses wrinkled as they looked at me like an orphan misplaced by her parents before a show at The Vic and a whiskey sour at L&L Tavern.

Kids with mohawks and leather jackets sat next to my lemonade stand with their jelly donuts and cigarettes. Skinheads, oi punks, riot grrrls, ’77 punks and metalheads crowded into tight circles and broke into the kind of fights that were all fists and snot and blood.

Just as I was about to give up on my lemonade stand, my dad yelled over the walkie-talkies in the store, “You all better go out there and buy some lemonade from Alexis when you’re on break!”

The Alley rescued my business from bankruptcy as every employee handed over a dollar for my lemonade. By the end of the day I had made ten dollars.

The Belmont and Clark I knew at 8 years old got lost in the rubble of punk rock’s Armageddon. And before punk could revive itself, gentrification filled its void. Today, the Belmont and Clark I knew is an abandoned history.

Almost everyone in Chicago has had some kind of problem with my dad. He’s fired a generation of anarchists and yelled at just about everyone else from the top of lungs conditioned from all the Black Sabbath concerts he attended.

Many people in Chicago blame The Alley for the commercialization of punk. To them, the hundreds of band shirts and fifty-dollar black skinny jeans The Alley sold destroyed punk in the same way MTV demolished it when it streamed angst and anarchy into American living rooms.

But before the concept of The Alley had even crossed my father’s mind, punk had already been commodified and packaged like Hostess Twinkies for years. The Alley didn’t sell out. Punk rock did.

The eighties threw punk rock on emaciated models while society swallowed safety pins and plaid miniskirts like multi-vitamins. By the late nineties corporate chain stores picked up on the buzz and sold the look that defined Belmont and Clark. Punk became accessible and lost its identity.

When someone found out I was Mark Thomas’ daughter they weren’t afraid to tell me how much they hated him for selling punk. Because of this, my first form of rebellion was denying The Alley’s existence.

The way I dealt with my father’s reputation was lying. I’d tell people he was a security guard, a shoe salesman, or that he managed a factory that made office furniture.

By high school, I became a professional liar. I hid The Alley even though it was only a ten-minute bus ride from Lane Tech College Prep. To the 4,000 other students, I was just an average 15-year-old with pink hair.

My best friend Jessica had no idea my dad owned The Alley. She had spent so much time at my house she practically lived there. She’s seen my dad in his pajamas with a newspaper spread out on the kitchen table next to a bowl of oatmeal. To her, my dad was as normal as her dad.

My façade lasted only a few years. In my junior year, The Reader plastered my father’s face on the front page. He was staging a battle with the organizers of the Sheffield Street summer festival because he felt it was unethical to charge people to enter public property.

I ran around Chicago and stuffed all the copies I found into my worn-out backpack. But Jessica still found a copy at the Western Blue Line stop.

“Oh. My. God. Oh my god. I didn’t know your dad owns The Alley!” Jessica squirmed as Rogers Park traffic floated through her window and into the phone line. “I mean, why didn’t you tell me your dad owns The Alley?”

After the article came out everything changed for me. I couldn’t pretend The Alley didn’t exist anymore. The punks at school treated me like I was a poser because they considered The Alley to be a store for, well, posers. To them shopping at The Alley was no different then shopping at a corporatized mall-punk store like Hot Topic.

If people didn’t accuse me of being a poser they would usually say one of three things:

1. “Could you like, get me a discount, on like, some Sex Pistols stuff?”

2. “That’s where I bought my first pair of Doc Martens!”

3. “I heard your dad’s a real asshole.”

The third one would start a riot in my head. None of these people knew my father. He was a tough dad because he had experienced a life most people only read about. People thought they knew my dad was an asshole but they had no idea the real kind of asshole he could be. That’s the kind of information reserved for 16-year-old daughters in Doc Martens, not strangers who had a friend who had a brother whose girlfriend worked at The Alley for a month.

The only way I could be my own person instead of my father’s minion was by rebelling against him and his punk-rock establishment.

But rebelling against the rebellious isn’t easy. When Elvis shook his hips on the “Ed Sullivan Show” like he shook his hips in bed, he rebelled against conservative America. The 1960s rebelled against the squeaky clean 1950s. My father rebelled against his father’s Gary, Indiana ethics.

After Elvis’ hips, my father’s roach clips and the hundreds of mohawks and liberty spikes I’ve watched hang out at the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot, what was left for me to rebel against?

I thought rebelling was rolling joints on Lane Tech’s lawn and drinking enough vodka to feel like I was in an earthquake. To me, rebellion was ska shows at Fireside Bowl, Latino punk at the Ice Factory and noise bands at New World Resource Center when it was just a cough and sneeze away from the Fireside.

I rebelled by cutting, pasting, stapling and writing zines about Chicago, bad break-ups and music. While shows were the first form of rebellion I cared about, zines gave me my own world that wasn’t society’s mainstream, or my father’s. But more importantly, zines brought writing into my life, and that was something I could do that had no connection to my dad or The Alley.

Mosh pits and three-chord punk rock were nothing compared to the rebellion that boiled in my father at 17 years old when he stole four-thousand-dollars worth of savings bonds from his mother’s drawer to invest in candles, Burt Reynolds’ Cosmopolitan poster and roach clips—The Alley’s inventory. I knew I needed to push even farther than shows and zines. And I pushed until I got kicked out of the house during the second half of my senior year.

In the hallway my mom painted blue, that in the morning soaked up coffee grounds and scrambled eggs, my father and I were at war. And it was about to become nuclear.

“Why can’t you just trust me?” I screamed at my dad.

“Because I don’t have to!” he screamed. “Deal with it or move out!”

Mom stood in the corner biting her lip. She could not figure out what we were fighting over because we had gotten to the point where we would break into fights over the way each other would breathe. What stewed between my father and I made no sense. It was an unexplained fire neither of us wanted to put out.

Dad says I left on my own. I said I got kicked out. There had been so many fights that by the time I duct-taped my entire life into cardboard boxes it didn’t really matter. I was pissed at my dad and he was pissed at me. We needed to be as far away from each other as possible.

At 17 my father stopped talking to his parents and when I turned 18 I continued the Thomas tradition. I did what every Chicago kid who finds themselves homeless would do. I asked my aunt to let me crash at her place for a few weeks, got a job at a sandwich shop, fixed up my bicycle and planned to move in with my boyfriend of six months.

Two weeks before I graduated, Scott and I had circled one-bedroom apartments and studios in the classified ads. We had seen every shithole apartment in Humboldt Park, Pilsen and Logan Square. By the time my friends were buying prom dresses and high heels we were setting up our electric bill and found an apartment on Irving Park Road.

Scott’s mother bought us new plates for that place. As Scott and his best friend Mike moved a bookshelf, four broken chairs we found in an alley and Scott’s bed up the three flights of stairs, I cleaned those plates. They smelled like plastic, and they smelled like that until we moved out because neither one of us bothered to ever use them.

What Scott and I knew of each other was only six months deep. Our relationship didn’t have the time to grow before we decided to move in with each other. We hadn’t memorized the freckles on our backs and the scars on our knees. That ticked me off even more then getting kicked out of the house, because that’s exactly what my dad had said. We knew so little of each other that Scott didn’t even know who my dad was.

Scott knew my dad worked a lot but he didn’t have a clue what kind of work it was. When he’d ask, I would just say, “You know, my dad just does stuff.”

It was easy to hide my father from Scott because when I moved out of the house, I moved out of Belmont and Clark. I forgot how leather coats smelled and how florescent lights hit the tops of Doc Martens. I erased Belmont and Clark from my DNA.

By October, when the freshness of a first apartment faded and laundry mats became less romantic, Scott finally figured out the truth about my dad. But he didn’t react like everyone else. Instead, Scott said, “So what? It’s not that big of a deal.”

That was the first time I realized I made what other people considered a big deal into an even bigger deal by lying and avoiding the truth. For once I felt like a normal Chicago girl working a normal job and living with her normal boyfriend.

Instead of worrying what people thought, I lived my life. I paid rent, went to parties and got in fights with Scott because I always forgot to feed the cat.

And as much as I wanted to pretend my father didn’t exist, he still had my phone number.

“I’m your dad and I still love you.”

“Okay dad, but just so you know, I’m not moving back home.”

“Well who said you were even invited back?”

As angry as my parents were when I moved in with Scott we all got over it. Before I could blink I was back at The Alley and my parents’ house stealing cans of garbanzo beans and granola bars from the pantry.

My rebellion became a one-bedroom apartment with an endless supply of cockroaches, a cat named Che, a stove we never used and fights that went beyond slammed doors and Social Distortion lyrics. But it also became me not caring what everyone thought when they found out I was Mark Thomas’ daughter. I finally separated myself from my father’s bad reputation.

But I still could not admit to my father that moving in with Scott did not work out like we had planned, that I felt lost not just in that apartment, but also in my crappy job making sandwiches and low-fat smoothies.

I could never tell my father that all of my rebellion failed; because I couldn’t match up to his rebellion that he used to build a store that encompassed anti-establishment, anti-normalcy, anti-everything society considered safe.

When my lease was up I moved back into my parents’ house until I could find a new apartment. It had been almost a year and a half since I lived with my parents and when I left, all I had with me was some clothes and a boyfriend who loved me enough to move out of his dad’s house.

And I still didn’t have much, except for a few piercings my mother hadn’t seen.

“What the hell is that?” Mom grabbed the ring that hung out of my septum one morning. “How long have you had that?”

“Uh, like a year.” I said, my eyes red and hungover from the night before.

“Well you look like an asshole.” Mom walked toward the coffee maker and pulled the filter out. It felt good to be back home.

Back in my old bedroom, I became the daughter of The Alley again. I worked forty-hour-a-week shifts at the store, knew how to tackle a shoplifter and could identify every single Belmont and Clark regular. I became what everyone thought I would become: my father.

I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life but I knew I did not want to become my father. People expected me to run the store when my dad became too old for studded belt buckles and Sex Pistols shirts. And if my father taught me anything, it was to do the complete opposite of what was expected.

I understood the most rebellious thing I could do is not allow myself to become The Alley. Although The Alley was sewn into my skin, zines and writing gave me the opportunity to become more then just a product of my childhood. When I decided to go to college to become a teacher, I wasn’t just getting a degree, I was rebelling against my father’s establishment.

My father’s rebellion might have earned him one of the worst reputations in Chicago, but if he had never stolen four thousand dollars of savings bonds, lived out of his factory and spent years designing new styles of roach clips, he wouldn’t be the man he is today. I don’t think Chicago would be the city it is today without the influence of my father’s rebellion in Chicago’s alternative culture.

If I wasn’t my father’s daughter I would never know the real Chicago. I wouldn’t be able to listen to Naked Raygun and feel it in my liver and spleen. I wouldn’t have the permission to rebel.

I still work at The Alley. I still tag Sex Pistols shirts, ring up customers and ask “Have you seen or heard any advertisements for us?” And people still ask me if I am going to own The Alley when my dad retires. I always say, “Hell no—I don’t want to have anything to do with the damn place.” Belmont and Clark is in my heritage, it’s in my bones. But there is more to me then The Cramps records on my windowsill and my Dead Kennedy ethics.

4 Responses to “Rebel Rebel: My dad owns The Alley. So what?”

  1. Jeff McMahon Says:

    What I love about this story, beside the fact that it’s well written, is that while being about a father and daughter it also manages to be about a city and its people. And perhaps most vitally, it reveals the membrane between the one kind of relationship and the other.

  2. newZflash Says:

    What a beautiful story. Like the city, The Alley and the family share a common seed that I think is the reason why I’ve come to love Chicago…. Character. Real, Beautiful, Character. Props.

  3. hoodiecouture Says:

    That’s crazy, I always tell my friends who never hung up north or who aren’t from Chicago how much clark and Belmont has changed. My VERRRRY punk rock aunt used to always take me there as a treat when i was like 8, it was like the highlight of my life back then. Now it’s not the same at all…not the alley, but the neighborhood….

  4. anngeelala Says:

    This story is a story of hope to me, a mother of a rebellious 17 year old. The description you gave you and your father at that age is the description I give my daughter and I. I met your dad at the IPCPR trade show, promised him I would read this story, and I can tell you one thing is for sure…He is proud of you.

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