Street Smart 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

Goodbye, Updike: Bidding adieu to one of America’s great novelists

Lit No Comments »

31730_updike_johnIn an era of specialists, he stood alone as America’s last great man of letters. In addition to his nearly two-dozen novels, story collections and a shelf-full of poetry, he wrote on American presidents, the cosmos, science and gadgets. In an era of identity politics, he refused the limitations of skin. Fifty years after he published his debut novel, John Updike—America’s most gifted twentieth-century observer of the currents of this country—is gone.

It is hard to describe the vacuum his departure creates. He sprung into the world fully formed, publishing his first poem in The New Yorker when he was just a senior at Harvard University, following up with a torrent of “Talk of the Town” pieces, and then the glorious string of short stories remembering—and creating in readers’ imaginations—the imaginary Pennsylvania town he called Olinger.

The knock on him—as it was with contemporaries Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow and Philip Roth, only one of whom remains today—was that he was a solipsist. But in the pages of his early collections, “The Same Door,” “The Music School” and, especially, “Pigeon Feathers,” Updike proved what miraculous things were possible from the close study of what one knew best.

From his perch in Massachusetts, where he moved in the late 1950s to escape the artistic mercantilism of New York, Updike breathed life into one of America’s most enduring fictional characters: Rabbit Angstrom. Through the eyes of this unapologetically provincial car salesman, Updike tracked the upward and outward thrust of post-war American life.

Taken as a whole, the five books Updike wrote about Rabbit won him every major literary prize available to an American writer. More importantly, they dignified the din and often unlovely consequences of this country’s robust capitalism: The seepage of greed into a man’s personal life; the corrosion of small-town life before big time dreams; the cushioning of empathy created by plentitude.

So often is Updike identified with Rabbit that during his lifetime he was confused to be a living embodiment of his character’s values. The truth couldn’t be further from the case. Although his fame as a literary writer was enormous, Updike remained a self-professed amateur. He happily reviewed books by writers from around the world, including those of Americans many decades younger than him, well into his middle seventies.

I had the good fortune to interview him six times. He was frighteningly articulate, unimpressed with himself, solicitous even in the face of the most prying questions. He possessed a twinkle in his eye, as if this miraculous zeppelin of work he launched weekly into the pages of magazines and yearly onto the shelves of bookstores was an act of mischief.

The truth was he knew how much was at stake in the act of writing—that what we dream in the pages of books conditions our appetite for the world. He gave it back to us, sentence by beautiful sentence. And unlike so many givers, he seemed to make it seem easy, as if the act of doing so was its own reward. That—more than the decades of sex which parades across his pages—explained the shine in his eye, so sadly dimmed forever now. (John Freeman)

Review: Miles From Nowhere

Lit No Comments »

words_pic“It is the peculiar lowness of poverty that you discover first,” George Orwell
observed in “Down and Out in Paris and London,” the book he wrote after he
decided to see what poverty was like from the inside. “The shifts that it puts
you to, the complicated meanness, the crust-wiping.”

Orwell’s litany, however, is just the beginning of what Joon, the banged-up
teenage orphan who narrates Nami Mun’s startling debut novel, “Miles From
Nowhere,” encounters in her life on the streets.

Joon squats in burned-out buildings, sleeps on the subway, is sexually assaulted
on an abandoned city block and cadges wisdom from street poets. She works door
to door, fishes newspapers from the trash and sells them to commuters. She
doesn’t eat for days.

The story of how Joon survives all and more has the beaten-metal feel of
autobiography hammered into fiction in the best way. Told in a flat,
matter-of-fact tone, the book leapfrogs across Joon’s early teen years, jaggedly
illuminating a life lived close to the ground, a life in which numbness is a
virtue.

Perhaps that is because the worst thing that can be imagined for a child happens
to Joon at the start of the book. Her father abandons the family after a series
of affairs, and her mother slides into madness as a result. Faced with a choice
between a broken home and no home at all, Joon chooses the later.

And so she winds up at a shelter falling under the sway of a tough, morally
compelling young woman who goes by the name Knowledge. She leads Joon out onto
the streets, where they stay for the next few years—their paths crossing and
doubling back on each other as they slide into prostitution, drug use and drug
pedaling.

This is a sadly familiar story. But Mun’s prose has so much casual energy and
such a rough edge that Joon’s tale feels incredibly fresh. Many of the images
are disturbing, almost otherworldly.

For instance, Joon works for a night at a brothel, where she sits behind a booth
with a big plastic number around her neck. “Inside Club Orchid all the girls
were chickens,” Joon describes, as if they were trussed up with numbers waiting
for hungry customers.

After a brief, battered life of experiences like this, one can see why a
teenager might alight on such a metaphor. And yet, after this tale, she will not
be forgotten. (John Freeman)

Miles from Nowhere
By Nami Mun
Riverhead, $21.95, 288 pages

411: Walk the Walk

City Life, Lit No Comments »

The next time you’re looking to walk off a cheeseburger, consider a new route this time. With miles of roadway navigating the city’s most magnificent, historical and peculiar sites, there is no reason to trudge the same path over and over. Lucky for the lost, former Chicago resident and travel writer Ryan Ver Berkmoes compiled “Walking Chicago: 31 Tours of the Windy City’s Classic Bars, Scandalous Sites, Historic Architecture, Dynamic Neighborhoods, and Famous Lakeshore.” Each chapter highlights a new excursion, incorporating detailed maps, photographs, mileage and public transportation information to and from the course. “I started out with a huge map of the city,” Ver Berkmoes says. Next, he compiled news articles and historical data regarding the city’s most distinguished sites. “I also wanted it to be geographically balanced. I have just as many routes north of Madison Avenue as I do south of it,” he adds. “Walking in Chicago, you realize just what a dynamic place it is. Every block yields a new surprise, discovery or quirk.”

Fall Forward preview: Beat It, Columbia College does Kerouac

Lit, Museums, South Loop No Comments »

When Jack Kerouac began the marathon writing session that produced “On the Road,” he connected twelve-foot-long hunks of paper end to end so he could feed a continuous stream of paper into his typewriter. What emerged was one of the great works of the countercultural Beat Generation of the 1950s. This October, the original manuscript comes to Columbia College’s Book and Paper Arts Center, where it will serve as the centerpiece of two months of programming. “And the Beats Go On” will include film screenings, performances, exhibitions and a symposium October 10-11 on the Beat Generation.

The symposium’s main organizer is Tony Trigilio, a professor in Columbia’s English Department and an executive board member of the Beat Studies Association, an international scholarly organization. “We wanted to have a conference for scholars who work in the field,” he explains. “That was right when I found out that the Kerouac scroll was going to be here at Columbia.” For many reasons, now seems like a perfect time to look back at the Beats. In the past ten years, according to Trigilio, “There’s been a convergence of new ideas on the Beats, new ways of looking at the Beats.” The stereotype of the Beat writer, what Trigilio calls “the guy in the beret with the bongo drums,” is being challenged by modern scholars. “I didn’t say the woman in the beret,” Trigilio points out. “For years people just assumed that the Beats were all men.” Now poets like Joanne Kyger and Diane Diprima —both of whom will give readings at the symposium—are getting their due. Panels on diversity will also include questions about race, according to Trigilio: “What was going on in beat communities with writers who were people of color, what were they doing, what were their artistic relationships like?” And of course, one entire panel will be devoted to the book at the center of it all. “‘On the Road’ really was able to marry popularity and experimental writing in a way that you don’t usually get in the arts,” says Trigilio. Perhaps that’s why, fifty years later, we’re still talking about it. (Sam Feldman)

“And the Beat Go On,” October 10-11, Columbia College’s Book and Paper Arts Center

411: City Within a City

City Life, Lit, Loop, News etc. No Comments »

Big Building, Big Issues
Three years ago, when photographer and software engineer Steven Dahlman moved to Chicago, he knew where he wanted to live: Marina City. “I was just mesmerized by the building,” he recalls. Since then the twin beehives have provided him with more than just shelter. The iconic complex is the subject of his upcoming book, “City Within a City,” as well as of his Web site, marinacityonline.com. About a year ago, Dahlman’s friend and fellow Marina City resident Michael Michalak got involved in the site, which has become an independent voice often at odds with the Marina Towers Condominium Association. Sources of conflict have included the possible historic landmarking of the buildings, control of intellectual property rights and the choice of commercial tenants for the lower floors. “If it wasn’t for them, I probably wouldn’t have a Web site,” Dahlman laughs. “I didn’t want to be reporting lost kitties. Thanks to the homeowners association I have a lot to write about.”

Hands in the Air: John Dillinger robbed banks for a living

Chicago History, Events, Lit No Comments »

Although recent inquiries may prove that J. Edgar Hoover was not a transvestite after all, he still doesn’t have anything on John Dillinger, whose following, either from sheer devotion or anticipation for the release of Michael Mann’s newest feature, couldn’t be stronger. As far as Mike Flores, a local playwright, is concerned, “J. Edgar Hoover was a prude,” and tonight, perhaps all of Lincoln Station will agree, for today marks the seventy-fourth anniversary of John Dillinger’s untimely, unarmed death alongside the Biograph Theater at the hands of a sloppy FBI job.
At least that’s how the latest installment of the story unfolds by the ones who love to tell it. For the past several years, the “John Dillinger Died For You Society,” fronted by Flores and folklorist/ghost-hunter Richard Crowe, has been keeping the Dillinger tradition alive. “I became a Dillinger fan when I found out his real story,” Flores remarks, and the joke is on the FBI. However, until the real story is revealed at the 10pm ceremony in front of the Biograph Theater, where Dillinger was reported to have viewed his final talkie, fans and locals alike gather at the bar. A man in a kilt downs the last from his flask while enthusiasts talk about anything ranging from their MySpace fan sites dedicated to Chicago’s very own Robin Hood or about their first-hand experience as an extra alongside Johnny Depp on the set of Mann’s upcoming movie.
But when 10pm rolls around, the crowd is escorted to the front of the bar where a bagpipe procession leads a true “rebel” jaywalk across the street to the notorious theater in front of which Flores delivers Dillinger’s story, which, to put it frankly, isn’t what will be appearing on the silver screen any time soon. “If the new Dillinger movie had told the truth, it would have made an incredible impression on people and also let people understand the control that J. Edgar Hoover had over the media,” Flores proclaims. “We have been bullshitted so long about the Depression Era and are living in a matrix reality created by J. Edgar Hoover.” Slightly too intoxicated, or possibly indifferent, to rally at this statement, the procession meanders to the adjacent alleyway for a rendition of “Amazing Grace” sung painstakingly slowly to bagpipe accompaniment just before Crowe provides an account of first-hand paranormal experiences at the death site. Recapturing the audience’s attention, a line of ladies clad in red—dressed in the true fashion of Dillinger’s culprit Anna Sage—form a straight line hoping to bag a $100 prize. When the winner, aided by her sideline companion, is chosen after having answered a trivia question correctly, she is praised with an uproar of applause and an honorary pouring of a can of Miller on the hero’s death site. “Johnny Boy, we’re doing this for you!” (Elise Biggers)

Pride 2008: Book of Record, Tracy Baim and the new “Out and Proud in Chicago”

Chicago History, Lit, Pride No Comments »

By Jeremy Gordon

Chicago’s gay community stays pretty busy in the month of June, but Tracy Baim, a born-and-raised Chicagoan and executive editor of the Windy City Times and “Out and Proud in Chicago,” an upcoming book that delves into the history of Chicago’s gay community, isn’t just looking forward like everyone at the parade, but back through time.
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Pride 2008: School of Thought, Retired Northwestern prof David Hull reminisces about a life in the community

Chicago History, Lit, Pride No Comments »

By Andy Seifert

When retired Northwestern professor David Hull sat down to write his memoirs with the aid of forty scrapbooks to help remind him of his past, he couldn’t stop remembering things that had been lodged in the back of his mind and forgotten for years. “I didn’t think it’d come to four volumes,” he says, before revealing the title of the first installment. “‘Where Were the Child Molesters When I Needed Them?’ What I really mean was, where was one gay person who could take me aside and tell me what the dangers are and what you can get away with and what to do when you got busted.” He pauses, and then simply says, “Nobody.”

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