Thax Douglas wants me to meet him in front of a diner that doesn't exist anymore. The place where Sparky's Restaurant once stood is now chunks of concrete and rebar sitting jaggedly on the ground like smashed eggshells, framed by a seedy building labeled MSI Detective Services and a sleepy coffeehouse on the corner of Ashland and School.
He had called me up at work, polite and slightly shy, to confirm our meeting. I had seen him at an underground rock show a few weeks earlier, reading a poem before a gang of scruffy hipsters clambered onto the stage. He hung around for a few minutes after he finished, loitering at the edge of the crowd, like a boxer waiting for a punch he knows is coming. We traded e-mails as I ducked out of the club, leaving him to lurk on the fringes of someone else's audience.
The sun was just beginning to set when I saw Thax ambling down the street. A large man in a city known for the rotundity of its residents, he is nonetheless an instantly recognizable figure. Clothed in a battered overcoat and rumpled shirt, his balding pate covered by a scruffy quasi-feline hat, Thax comes across as a low-rent Santa Claus-cum-gay uncle. He pats my arm paternally and apologizes profusely for the confusion regarding the restaurant. He could have sworn it was there the last time he was in this neighborhood. We settle for Plan B and head to Clarke's Diner for coffee and conversation.
By this point in the evening, Clarke's is packed. High school kids in riotous makeup sit in the corner smoking ill-gotten cigarettes and trading burned CDs. A wispy, doe-eyed waiter flirts with a table full of blond, fashionably attired male mannequins. Thax and I order coffee and dinner. He nervously enunciates each sentence and reminds the waitress on three separate occasions that he would "really like some whipped cream on [his] pancakes." His eyes dart around the room while we talk; his fingers beat a steady tattoo on the lip of his coffee cup.
Thax has a long history with the Chicago underground scene. He's been here for 16 years, watching the comings and goings of the local music scene. We talk about old, dank clubs now mythicized in the minds of young musicians. Thax used to read for the early-'90s indie bands at the late Lounge Ax and the Fireside Bowl, both long lost to the rising rents of gentrification. He's seen the rise and fall of many a scenester, drugs and marriage taking their toll on the young and artistic. He attended local guitar hero Jeff Tweedy's wedding (though more as a guest of the bride than the groom) at the Lounge Ax. The ceremony was quick and they all ate pizza afterwards.
A small, bespectacled girl slips into the booth behind us. She peers over the back of my head and gives a small shout. She points and asks, "Do you do poetry?" The last word comes out slowly.
"Yes," says Thax as he nods his head.
"I saw you at the Andrew Bird show last night," she continues. "I was dying."
Thax nods his head again, beaming underneath the great expanse of beard. He gently thanks her and they make small talk about Andrew Bird. Thax apparently knows him, or so he claims.
"His parents are from the area," he explains, outlining the intricate connection that binds him to the city's movers-and-shakers as our dinners arrive. Thax's meal is a single blueberry pancake the size of a flattened bowling ball. I marvel at the size of itit handily dwarfs my half-pound hamburger. Conversation shifts to art and making a living at it. Thax begins to perk up.
Making a living is hard, he says. Thax lives essentially off of the kindness of others. Rumor has it that he sells his blood to pay his rent. He writes in cheap notebooks and owns little of what could be considered "possessions." He patronizes libraries extensively. Thax believes in living the bohemian dream, and thus has very little respect for those who contribute to the "cookie-cutter mediocrity" of the artsa phrase he tends to use most often when talking about academic poets and university writers. In other words, those who sell out.
Our conversation is interrupted by the confused ranting of a panhandler who has found his way into Clarke's. He wanders from table to table asking for a dime as the waitresses try to shoo him out. "Why set your sights so low?" Thax asks sardonically, shaking his head.
More and more often these days, Thax dreams of picking up and moving to another city. He plans to leave his current abode because of trouble with his roommate. He believes that Seattle or New York will be kinder to him. "More people care about art in New York or Seattle," Thax asserts. He half-secretly hopes for an anonymous patron to take him under his wing and give him free reign in a new citya cleaner city, a hipper city.
Thax has little love for the young poets in this dirty, uncool city. "I've gotten a little more selfish over the years," he explains ruefully. It's hard for him to help those that don't give him a hand themselves, he'll tell you. These young poets have money, jobs, and connections. Thax only has his name and hard-won (if tenuous) reputation.
It is getting late. Thax looks anxiously out the window at the Bottom Lounge. A line is forming for another all-ages show. Thax likes the Bottom Lounge. They always let him in for free, even though he's unsure which band he'll actually get to read for. We shake hands and say goodbye, promising to meet up sometime in the coming weeks at another show.
Then, with a speed surprising for a man of his size, Thax Douglas is out the door, looking for fame and fortune and an audience of his own.