Friday, October 8, 2010

Waking up in Chicago and Sharing the Blues

The other day as I watched a horse-drawn buggy roll down Rush Street, I realized that I felt less like the sightseer on top and more with like the workhorse below, burdened with a bridle and blinders. Chicago is a classy town, but in my daily routine, I often feel that I take it for granted. At 5:30 p.m. most Mondays, I follow the same worn path home as I sit alone among the mass of strangers on the CTA, bow my head into a book, and listen to the clickety clack of the track below. Last Monday, however, I took off my blinders and took a detour to HI-Chicago for their weekly excursion to the Kingston Mines.

As a first-time volunteer, and a lifelong wallflower, I was nervous about attending the outing; but lucky for me, it is hard to be an oddball among a hodgepodge of multinational backpackers. Everyone had their motives for coming, and like the rest of them, I wanted to experience a bit of culture. At the Kingston Mines, I watched as the doorman checked passports from Argentina, Australia, Britain, Canada, Brazil, Colombia, New Zealand, South Korea and Spain, in addition to a few licenses from California and North Carolina.

Chicago may be famous for joints like the Kingston Mines, but the blues belong to everyone. Around 9:00 P.M., J.W. Williams and the Chi-Town Hustlers took the north stage with Japanese blues musician, Shun Kikuta, on guitar. Chicago’s Daily Herald once referred to Kikuta as the “Ambassador of the Blues.” As such, about mid-way through the set he stepped off the stage and into the crowd on a goodwill mission to impress us with his finger-picking expertise. Meanwhile, as I stood at the bar, Fernando, an Argentinean hosteller, allowed me to practice my Spanish skills as he explained to me that he was on a rock n’ roll odyssey across the United States to gather material for his blog, “La Cueva del Rock and Blues.” The previous night he had been to Blue Chicago on Clark Street and he would soon be headed to New York City to see Roger Waters. We were also joined by Diego, Fabricio, and Xabi from Colombia, Brazil, and Spain, respectively. As Carl Weathersby and his band took the main stage, I took the opportunity to introduce my new friends to a taste of Kentucky bourbon, and we all enjoyed the music with a round of Knob Creek.

Shortly after midnight, many of the hostel guests seemed to blend in with the rest of the crowd, and Fernando and company suggested that we head across the street to B.L.U.E.S. to see Linsey “Hoochie Man” Alexander and his band. Like Shun Kikuta, the Hoochie Man lived up to his title. He likes to interact with his audience, and my skills as translator failed me, partly for a lack of vocabulary, and partly out of modesty. All in all, it was an excellent evening of Chicago blues, brought to us by yet another international musician-- the band featured an Italian bass player, incidentally named Fabrizio. Just after 2:00 am, as the lights came up and the bar shut down, I finally bid adieu to Fernando, Xabi, Diego, and the Fabricios. Before that night, we had all been strangers, but we all got the blues and we all had a wonderful time.

HI-Chicago’s motto is "to help all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hostelling," As a volunteer, I was there not out of a sense of giving, but one of sharing. At the end of the evening, I had acquired new friends, practiced my Spanish, and benefited from a rich cultural exchange. After only four hours of sleep, I awoke the next morning feeling oddly invigorated. On my commute to work, instead of plugging my ears and putting my blinders back on, I sat up and watched the city go by as if I were some kind of sightseer. I was proud to share my city with the people I met that night, and I am thankful to them for opening my eyes and helping me reawaken to a new Chicago.

-- K. Williamson

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