Are We Still Fabulous?

May 17, 2016

“Oh you’ve got green eyes, oh you’ve got blue eyes, oh you’ve got gray eyes.”

— New Order, “Temptation” (1982)

IN THE EARLY 1980s, Medusa’s Juice Bar was a haven for the youth of the neighborhood, even if it wasn’t my neighborhood. It was in Lake View, just a few blocks west of the heat of Chicago’s Boystown club activity, on Sheffield and School, and it definitely had a queer vibe, even if it didn’t yet have the language. Big leather-clad bouncer with bleach-blond hair (and am I remembering right, handcuffs?), house and new wave music: Depeche Mode, Bowie, New Order, Yazoo, Ministry, Frankie Knuckles, a little Prince. Stuff you couldn’t hear on the radio. And Grace Jones, of course. The juice part I don’t remember because we could only afford water from the bathroom. It wasn’t like the teen house music club started by the same owner, Dave Shelton, on 161 West Harrison, which was black and very gay, with the windows steamed up every Friday and Saturday night until it was closed down for being too “wild.” What I remember was entering a sea of white, even if it was white cast in purple and blue and black lights. I remember dancing until I sweat, and the hot August Chicago air felt cool again when I stepped outside, until my feet, stuffed into vintage cowboy boots shaped like someone else’s feet, cried for mercy. It was fabulous, we were fabulous, if fabulous is to be worthy of the stuff of legend.

Traveling for an hour or more on the Red Line, south to north, we’d start preparing for the evening early with a trip to the Value Village on Kimball. Jorge taught us how to feel the fabrics between our fingers, checking the cotton content, readying our fingertips for linen and silk. Dara’s eyes were drawn to the sequins, and chiffon, which she’d cut and snip and resew to be way cooler than even Cyndi Lauper could do. I was always looking for a white linen tuxedo jacket, which I would wear shirtless of course, like Grace Jones, but I never found it. We’d all wear eyeliner. One weekend, I cut all of our hair into the same style, shaved along the left side. After we found our outfits we might go home again, dance and hang out and eat homemade burgers at Dara’s house. Her mother was a professional pool and poker player (it was rumored she put Dara through college that way), and was often not around. Or we’d walk down Belmont, linger in Wax Trax! and Second Hand Tunes, grab cheap hotdogs and fries at Devil Dawgs, avoiding the Dunkin’ Donuts by the El, which even then seemed a line of danger for us, the desperation of the kids too clear, and the men who waited for the kids desperate, too.

Medusa’s was a converted three-flat, and we’d sneak ourselves through a second-floor window via a rusty, rickety fire escape. This was both because we didn’t have the admission fee, and because we were only 14 and 15, and the admission age was 16. Sometimes, the bouncer would take pity on us, shake his finger but let us in. Sometimes we were caught and sent back outside, where we’d regroup and try again, or head to the Belden Deli, for coffee and Jell-O or fries or other things that you could get for five dollars or less. We danced together in a circle, keeping an eye out for each other, Jorge and Dara and I. Or we stole away, danced with others, danced like caged go-go girls, danced weaving through the crowd, allowing one another to get lost a little.

Green, blue, gray.

I could listen to this music, this white boy dance music, and reorder my body to its tight muscularity, become new. The funk of my own family, warm and messy and also watchful, was a different kind of sound: the deep feeling of soul — Al Green and Stevie and Whitney and Michael, cut by the no-nonsense of Mavis and Pops Staples. But this music let me think about sex and bodies and even death in a way that felt safer, because it was not-me. In my mind, this was the music of the white gay men I saw walking down Broadway, who captured my curiosity. It was about white men and some women, facing loneliness and their desires, and sometimes their deaths. “For fear your grace should fall / for fear tonight is all,” as Bowie said. I could borrow the music, try it on for a while as a mask. This music was both me and not me. This music was not my uncle David, who had disappeared and would return to us decades later, body ravaged and dying, his story cut off from us. His music might be Donny Hathaway or Curtis Mayfield or Luther or even Tupac. The music of black men lost. No one in the family would say that David died from AIDS. But in the tense silence, it was clear.

Brown eyes.

We were black and brown, from Hyde Park and Blue Island and Chatham, “good kids,” and our parents knew where we were, more or less. We were in honors classes in our high school, and on the math team and the swim team and the school newspaper and, yes, we loved boys and girls and boygirls. Our bodies matched our names and our voices, and so even though we were black and brown and boygirls, we snuck into the second floor of Medusa’s most of the time, the cool-off room where teens and grown people intertwined together, enjoying more than juice, and we were allowed to walk past them and to dance and shine and pose and become our fabulous selves there, and we thought that we were free.

And after that, we moved on. We created new chosen families and had our own children. I drive to work and scan the three-flat where Medusa’s once was, the real estate in this neighborhood still unaffordable to me, despite my hard-won degrees. And a few blocks to the east, I see young people like we were, brown and black, staging their fabulousness right there outside on the corners, because they’re not let into the bars or allowed to linger at the fancy vintage stores, their backpacks rousing suspicion and hostility. Their names and voices may or may not match their bodies, they may or may not have documentation. Those kids have come from my old neighborhood, or the other neighborhoods to the south and to the west. They may be homeless. They hone their fabulousness under the watchful eyes of the same queers who may have danced with me at Medusa’s, who are now the homeowners and the shopkeepers. Aware they are being watched, they laugh with their heads flung back, loud and full.



Francesca T. Royster is Professor and chair of English at DePaul University, where she teaches courses in Shakespeare Studies, Performance Studies, Critical Race theory, Gender and Queer Theory and African American Literature. She is the author of Becoming Cleopatra: The Shifting Image of an Icon and Sounding Like a No-No: Queer Sounds and Outrageous Acts in the Post-Soul Era, which won Honorable Mention in the Modern Language Association’s William Sanders Scarborough Prize for an Outstanding Scholarly Study of African American Literature or Culture.