Updated: Jun 19, 2020
I hurried through a side door from the alley into the rapidly filling performance space. Inside, the compact, cozy, cavern-like room swelled with heat radiating from the young virile bodies packed in tightly. The temperature had reached over ninety-five degrees earlier that day and the setting sun hadn't offered much relief to the sweltering garage.
The stagnant Summer air carried a buzzing energy that had an intoxicating effect on the crowd that sat chatting waiting for the show to begin.
Couches lined the walls stuffed with millennials dressed in unwashed trendy clothing. Without enough seats, some of the smaller birds perched on the arms and backs of sofas. As the room filled to its max, people began to sit Indian-style in front of the couches. I was one of the last to enter the space and squeezed in next to a few people passing a joint. They offered it to me and I took a long drag as I surveyed the room.
At my feet, thick cords wound like rope across the hard concrete floor, crisscrossing in a dizzying black web, leading to the microphone and speakers on a platform on the far side of the room. Strands of white lights had been hung with ingenuity to frame the makeshift stage supported with hooks, bookcases, paintings, and in a few cases, plants. At the ground level, black-lights had been nestled into each corner giving the room a bluish otherworldly glow.
Under the lighting, the large white embroidered flowers that lined the bottom of my strapless top seemed to jump off their jet black background. I paired the White House Black Market top with garnet short-shorts and black strappy sandals and finished the look with four-inch-long pewter chain earrings. I was dressed to soak up one of the last nights of Summer before the promised tundra-like Winter arrived.
A sharp crackle sounded from the microphone getting the attention of the room before a strong voice rang out,"Before I begin, I just want to give a big shout out to Leah whose birthday is today! I love you girl, you inspire me, and I can't wait to hear you play later!"
The room gave a quick round of applause before breaking out into a rousing rendition of the timeless party classic, Happy Birthday to You. When the song ended, everyone quieted down and the woman brought the microphone to the center of the stage.
She was well over six feet tall and had on an electric blue wig cropped into a harsh bob with squarely cut bangs that wouldn't have looked out of place on a Japanese pop star. A faded jean overall dress covered her red striped tank top in a way that suggested Waldo could have been her cousin. The jean dress stopped just above the knee and her incredibly long legs were bare, smooth, and pale as the moon.
Slung over her shoulder was the thick strap of a traditional acoustic guitar that was covered in stickers so long ago many of them were now peeling and cracking in places. In all her look said, "I challenge you to find a label that can fit me."
As she began to strum a fast rhythm, I thought of a Charlie Daniels Band song. Her fingers increased the tempo as she wailed a strong pitch to cut through the frenzy longing to give the devil his due.
Her first song’s lyrics poured out the anguish and torture of her life before her transformation. I could feel every hit that little boy had taken, suffer every punch as he went through a violent and cruel puberty, and endure every slap as she came to embrace her identity, all in the course of a three-minute song. I was far from the only member of the crowd moved. Her story of rejection was one we all could mirror although none of us had experienced the cruelty she had.
"This next song...it's a little sad...well, yeah, I'm just going to play it..." She cut off as I contemplated what that meant after the last song.
She poured out notes of heartbreak that sprang from the deepest wells of her soul. The words told the tale of the tragic loss of young life. The passing of a precious loved one picked before they had a chance to bloom.
My mind couldn’t help but travel to the loss of my own friend earlier in the week. I had been casually scrolling through Facebook and I saw the terrible, unbelievable news. John Kim was dead at 23.
He was a man I shared many nightcaps with in college while discussing politics with eager contention. A fraternity brother of Sigma Alpha Epsilon and a kind and well-respected man of the people whose loss of life was a loss for all.
On the post, I saw there wasn't any information about what happened to him so I immediately called his best friend Sean. From Sean, I learned John Kim’s body was discovered in the retention pond next to his house three hundred feet from where a cab had dropped him off after a drunken outing the night before. For the life of me, I can't fathom how he came to be in that lake, but it appears foul-play is not suspected.
With the loss of my friend weighing on my mind, I would have thought that a melancholy song would be the last thing I wanted to hear, but the calculated notes offered me sweet relief. I felt embraced by the camaraderie of the human spirit and let the strength of the music bear the weight of my emotion.
After the song finished a guy who had been chatting me up earlier in the evening came in and asked me how I was enjoying the show. He poked, "Hey didn’t you say you were a writer? What are you going to write about this?"
Looking down at me with a smirk on his face, he glanced mockingly over at our eccentric entertainer.
"I don’t know what you mean by that." I retorted.
But the truth was, I did know what he meant. For so long, transgender people have been seen as some sort of spectacle to be sensationalized in the media. But I felt protective of the raw honest music I had experienced and looked at him with a face full of distaste wondering how someone so shallow ended up at this party.
"Oh you know what I mean, right?" he asked in an attempt to steer the conversation back into a safe zone.
"This right here. This is why I came to Chicago. In Tampa, you could perform in drag, sure, but it would have to be for a designated event and planned well in advance. It was like everyone needed some sort of warning to prepare themselves. It feels like I'm living in an alternate reality twenty years in the future where gender bullshit is as irrelevant to an audience as the singer's favorite ice cream flavor."
As I finished speaking the performer returned from assessing her setlist, "Alright, some of you know that I got engaged this week." She paused for a round of applause. I assessed the large rock gracing her left-hand ring finger. He had good taste, whoever he was.
She continued, "Thank you, thank you, but you know as good as things are now, I can't ever forget the words said to me or block out the pain completely. So if you feel like that sometimes too, then this next song is for you. It gets better!"
And she dove into songs sung with a teen angst worthy of My Chemical Romance before finishing her set to thunderous applause.