Believe me man, this
is how them playas
do it in the Chi
And plus we got
flirters in the Chi
R. Kelly - "I'm a Flirt"
The south side of Chicago is where great music happens, period. Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and Etta James recorded there. House Music was invented there. Most importantly, "Stepper's Parties" take place there.
I grew up on the north side of Chicago, which might have something to do with the fact that I am not that great of a dancer. My cousins all live on the south side of Chicago and are the best dancers I know of.
Weddings are always obscenely large, extravagant, family affairs where my relatives dance all night. The DJ is deliberated before the girl even gets a ring. Even my eighty five year old Great Aunt gets out of her wheelchair to do the Electric Slide. I might not wear a floor length chinchilla that has fallen off a truck, but I would give up my college education to be able to dance as well as they do. Every time I try and join them on the dance floor at a baptism or graduation, I quickly lose the beat and I hear them whisper to themselves "It's not her fault she grew up on the north side."
Well, I have decided that, before I turn forty, this is all going to change. I am going to throw a traditional, south side of Chicago "Stepper's Party" for my birthday. I love "Stepper's Parties" because I like the idea that you can be eight or eighty and still participate. That it is an innocent affair, not overtly sexual at all. A man and woman get dressed in their best finery and come together on the dance floor, getting to know one another better. I actually find this to be a very sweet endeavor, and romantic, and I guess I still have an ounce or two of romanticism left in me, even though I am turning forty.
Now all I have to do is get R.Kelly, the singer of the song Step In the Name of Love, the King of the South Side of Chicago and a notorious statutory rapist to host it; should be no problem.
It's relatively easy getting to R.Kelly's house on the south side of Chicago. He lives on a block wedged between President Obama and Minister Louis Farrakhan, so it's on a tourist map. I also talked my way onto a Junior High School bus, which makes stops at R. Kelly's Kenwood compound, regularly.
I jump off the bus with a bag of hot "Ribs N' Bibs" BBQ in one hand, everyone knows its the best BBQ on the south side, and a way I can pay tribute to Mr. Kelly's south side roots. I walk up to the gate to find it unlocked and push it open, walking into the house easily. With secret service and the Muslim Brotherhood watching the block with semi automatic weapons, R. Kelly can skimp on security.
I make my way through the rooms of the old mansion to find a room with a stage, spotlight, and throne for Mr. Kelly. These R and B stars really like to feel like a King don't they? I can hear Step in the Name of Love in the distance. There is a steppers party going on and I am going to dance! As soon as I walk into the ballroom the music stops and R. Kelly looks at me sternly and asks "Who the hell Are you?"
"Hi R!" I say loudly.
R. Kelly just looks at me puzzled.
"You don't mind if I call you R, do you? I'm just a really big fan. I have completely forgotten all about the Golden Shower incident a few years back, by the way. I believe it wasn't you in the video."
"It wasn't me" R. Kelly confirms.
"Listen, R., I brought you some Ribs N' Bibs and was wondering if, in return, you could throw me an old fashioned South Side Steppers party, for my fortieth birthday. It's the only way I can earn the respect of my cousins, who all live on the South Side and think I'm an uptight...dork."
"I don't do white girl steppers parties! It's a black thing, got it"
"Listen, you and I, well, we have a connection. We take great risks with our art, sometimes to the point of, well, humiliating ourselves. When you wrote In the Closet I just thought, man, I get it, if nobody else does."
"You do, you get In the Closet?"
"Um, hello! Like lived it!"
"I appreciate your appreciation for black music, black culture, but a stepper's party is strictly a black thing, I can't participate."
"But I dream about this party - you and Ne-Yo are there, and you have written a stepper's song just for me!"
"Somebody talking about me?" says a soothing voice from behind a curtain.
"Ne-Yo. No way! I love your many hats. You are so dapper!" I say
"Come Closer" Ne-Yo says.
"What do you want?" Ne-Yo asks.
"A Stepper’s party for my fortieth birthday. Please!"
"I don't think that's such a big deal, I love Chicago girls."
"Thank you so much. You have no idea how happy I am to hear this." I answer.
"Fine," R. Kelly agrees.
"You know R., I think when one enters the gates of heaven they hear your song Happy People. It always cheers me up when I am blue. And Bump and Grind you make a very good argument with that one. I don't see nothin' wrong with a little Bump and Grind, either"
"Thanks for your support" R. Kelly answers, "My fee is two million dollars."
"Two million dollars! Um, can we work out a payment plan?"
"No." R. Kelly screams loudly.
R. Kelly starts to walk off the stage, annoyed. That guy's got an attitude problem, for sure.
"Well, I guess it was just a pipe dream, the "steppers party." I'll just curl up in bed with a bottle of bourbon and a bong. Happy fortieth to me!" I say, starting to head out the door.
"How about we have a little private stepper's party right now?" Ne-Yo asks.
Ne-Yo is such a girl-lover, a gentleman, just like his videos.
All of a sudden DJ Casper's Cha Cha Slide starts to play aloud.
Ne-Yo and I are going to step together? Yes!
To The Left
Take It back now y'all
Slide to the Right
Slide to the Left
R. Kelly comes out from behind the stage curtain, and he's even more pissed.
"Fine, I can't resist this song. Damn you, Ne-Yo"
I am doing the Cha Cha Slide with Ne-Yo and R. Kelly? Would anyone believe me? Please don't let me mess up my moves! I practice in front of a mirror every night.
"Clap, Clap, Clap, Clap Your Hands" I hear from behind the curtain. It is a black man with a greased up six pack, it's... D'Angelo. His stint with Jenny Craig has paid off - he lost all that weight and is cut once again. He joins us in our stepper's line.
Criss Cross! Criss Cross!
Cha Cha Real Smooth
Everybody clap your hands!
I am clapping my hands in unison with Ne-Yo, R. Kelly and D'Angelo. You just can't stay seated at a steppers party, can’t help yourself, when the Cha-Cha Slide comes on.
Wow. The song ends. That was amazing. Better than having my own steppers party. No one will ever believe this night.
"If you come back to my dressing room, I can give you some signed CDs. CDs are outdated, I can't seem to give them away." Ne-Yo says.
D'Angelo walks off, first.
"Need more baby oil" he says, and leaves the room.
R. Kelly storms off, too, with the big bag of ribs. "I guess I can eat," R. Kelly says.
"What's wrong with him?" I ask Ne-Yo.
"It's been almost twelve hours." Ne-Yo says
"Since what?" I ask
"Since he had a teenager."
"Oh, maybe I shouldn't be privy to this."
"He's like a vampire. If he doesn't get sated he gets hungry and mean. Thank god you brought dinner." Ne-Yo says.
Ne-Yo walks me into his dressing room down a dark hall. I am surprised when he opens the door. There are a multitude of hats hanging on the walls, his trademark, and a flat screen t.v. and a book shelf filled with dvds.
“Is that, is that Todd Rundgren I hear?” I ask
“Saw The Light, yeah? I have it on vinyl.”
Ne-Yo likes Todd Rundgren?
“This is one of those songs you could write an entire movie around.”
“Are you a writer?”
“Yes. A bad one.”
I walk up to the wall next to the hats and see Ne-Yo’s multiple gold and platinum records.
Ne-Yo takes another vinyl album out, Sonic Youth's Daydream Nation to play while I browse the walls. I hear Sonic Youth’s Teenage Riot begin. I get goosebumps.
“What the hell, Ne-Yo. Lost Youth? I mean...Sonic Youth? And this song, did somebody call you before I arrived?”
“I just have eclectic taste is all.” Ne-Yo says shrugging his shoulders.
“I was at this concert nearly twenty years ago. I hear this…I want to cry is all. Ten years of cold diffidence and now all of a sudden I am the world’s biggest cry baby.”
“Don’t be ashamed of crying.” Ne-Yo comforts and give me a tissue.
"I'm really just crying over their divorce; Thurston and Kim" I plea.
"I know, sad, huh?" Ne-Yo shakes his head.
“I thought, was convinced, actually, that every single piece of me that I loved about myself was gone. Gone forever. Then I come here, you put on this song. And it’s like I feel like I could do almost anything. I start to love myself again, love the world around me, the possibility of things, of dreams coming true.”
“Never give up on your dreams” Ne-Yo tells me.
“Goes to prove the power of music, the power of Art; it moves people, transports. Seems to be a theme on my blog”
"You have a blog?" Ne-Yo asks
"Oh God, doesn't everybody?" I answer.
Ne-Yo smiles and shakes his head, drinking a bottled water.
“I could still stay out all night, watch the sun rise and have it within me to actually...give...” I begin.
Time to get it
Before you let it
Get to you
“Ne-Yo, you’re smart, gorgeous, talented, have an appreciation for a wide range of tastes, deep. If I were only twenty years younger…” I say.
“Ten” Ne-Yo says, trying to make me feel better.
I notice a framed symbol in a corner wall above the stereo.
“The Trystero Symbol, from…”
“Thomas Pynchon’s book The Crying of Lot 49”
“Yeah, I like old fashioned mail” Ne-Yo says
“Snail mail they call it now. Me, too.” I say starting to smile.
"Does he influence your work?" Ne-Yo asks.
"Absolutely. I cram cultural references into all of my writing just like Pynchon. But he's a genius and I am...unpublished. A fan."
We just stand silently, listening to the record player.
Looking for a ride to your secret location
Where the kids are setting up a free-spirit nation for you
A tear moves down my cheek, I stare at the floor. Ne-Yo puts his hand out for me to hold, but I don't move, collecting myself.
"Beautiful," I say, quietly "to me, at least. The angst of young love always is"
“When you hear this song, is there someone you want to kiss?” Ne-Yo asks, softly.
I am silent and look down at Ne-Yo's shoes, Wing-Tips.
"How could you not want to kiss or be kissed with this song on? Thurston and Kim demand it of you." I finally answer back, after one salty swallow, still looking at the floor.
"There's nothing like a first kiss with someone, is there?" Ne-Yo states softly.
"Yeah..." I say, shaking my head in agreement.
“Kiss me” Ne-Yo says.
“I know I’m in a fantasy here, but you are way too young for me. And I don't want to be pegged a Gold Digger. It’s better if we are just friends.”
“The friends speech? Oh, I see” Ne-Yo says, joking that he is hurt.
“Wait, this is so weird Ne-Yo, I have NEVER given anyone the friends speech in my ENTIRE life. This is the very first time. I’ve heard it, but I’ve never had the chance to say it back. YES! I can cross this off my list of things to do before I turn 40. Oh, thank you Ne-Yo. Thank you!”
I kiss Ne-Yo on the cheek, grateful for this little piece of happiness.
The credits to "Inside the Actors Studio" pop up on the t.v. screen. There is a movie poster for Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway on the wall.
"I love that movie; just because I love the chemistry between Steve McQueen and Ali McGraw. She was married to the most powerful Producer in Hollywood, Robert Evans, had just had his baby a few months before starting to shoot this film. She arrives on set, meets Steve, and that afternoon they're knocking boots in his trailer. Now that's chemistry, the power to just give someone a look, and change the direction of their life entirely. Steve was able to do that, with her, with Ali," I go on, "there's nothing more attractive than a man with a powerful gaze. A look thats says so much, without...without having to say anything at all."
"I am a follower of Sam Peckinpah as well," Ne-Yo adds "I get mad when people call him a misogynist."
"Me, too" I say.
"When Steve McQueen hits Ali McGraw in the garbage dump in The Getaway it is completely appropriate in terms of their characters, they're gun toting robbers, and she prostitutes herself to get Steve out of prison...when he hits her..."
"She kind of likes it," I say.
"They have no one else to be with or love, but one another." Ne-Yo adds.
"Exactly" I agree, "Although the jury's still out on Straw Dogs"
"Sometimes I get lonely here when I stay and record at R.'s. He's just a big baby, a child; we lack a true connection" Ne-Yo says.
Ne-Yo starts to sign and put CD's into a bag for me. I walk over to the DVD case. I can't believe the breadth of Ne-Yo's taste: Fellini, DeSica, Coppola, Scorsese; my favorite Italian filmmakers.
"What do you think about Wes Anderson?" Ne-Yo asks.
"Well, he lost me after Royal Tenenbaums, but redeemed himself with..." I start
"Fantastic Mr. Fox" Ne-Yo answers for me.
"Yes," I say.
Am I crazy, or do Ne-Yo and I have a mental connection here? He's not just a talented singer and dancer, but...cinephile?
"Coppola?" I say "My mentor?"
"I liked her last film Somewhere"
"Me, too. I loved the visuals. Critics seem to forget that films are essentially..."
"Moving pictures" Ne-Yo finshes.
"Right again" I say, smiling.
"Lost In Translation..." Ne-Yo starts
"You know she like wrote that movie for me, don't you; the loneliest girl in America? I am both Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson in that movie. How did Sofia manage that?" I ask.
"Did you see Soderbergh's Che?" Ne-Yo asks back.
"No, I keep pushing it down in my cue on Netflix. What a vanity piece. I hope one day I am a famous enough filmmaker to be able to waste four hours of someone's time watching a Communist."
"The Girlfriend Experience wasn't too bad" Ne-yo confesses.
"Not in agreement there; Sasha Grey, well, I think she's too skinny to be a porn star. Not that I ever watch...pornography” I argue.
Sure, keep telling yourself that.
“...but I prefer ladies with some bounce?" I finish.
"Me, too, always" Ne-Yo tells me.
Do we like agree on everything, Ne-Yo and I?
"I like you," Ne-Yo tells me, smiling.
"I like you, too, Ne-Yo. You know, I don't have a job. Maybe I could come over during the day and watch movies with you. I'm a writer and we could start our own film criticism blog and everything..."
"I'm leaving tomorrow to begin my tour, Sorry" Ne-Yo says.
"It’s okay. It’s hard to find a best friend at forty," I tell him.
"Hey, you like our music don't you?"
"Love it!" I say
"Let me do something nice for you before you leave tonight, let me put on a concert - a private one" Ne-Yo tells me.
"You want to stay a little longer?" Ne-Yo offers.
Ne-Yo pops open a bottle of Cristal and pours me a glass of champagne.
We walk back into the studio and he sits me down in a single fold out chair on the dance floor, facing the stage.
"Hey, Mitch, stage lights." Ne-Yo orders and walks behind the stage.
I had heard Ne-Yo was a gentleman, a big romantic. He sure knows how to charm the ladies.
I am sitting in a chair in the middle of an empty dance floor staring at R. Kelly's stage. A private concert, now this is good.
"D'Angelo - You're up first"
D'Angelo - OMFG OMFG! D'Angelo is going to sing in front of me! AHHHH!
"Give the white girl what she came for" Ne-Yo laughs.
The music starts and I hear D'Angelo start to walk on stage. It's the greatest song ever written for a man to sing to a woman about to get naked, period: Untitled or, How Does It Feel?
Girl Its Only You
Have It Your Way
Holy shit - D'Angelo is walking off the stage and up to me. Do these people not know I have a heart murmur and almost forty years of severe sexual repression?
Said if you get a feeling
Feeling that I'm feeling
Won't You Come Closer, to me Baby
You've Already Got me Right Where you want me, baby
I just want to be your man
"this song, it just, well, it makes me..."
D'Angelo just winks and keeps singing. He can tell how uncomfortable I am, how I don't like being watched here on the empty, dark dance floor. I am hyperventilating now, I really need to get to a keyboard...quick...
"I'm having a James Spader, Sex, Lies and Videotape kind of moment. I really need to get to a computer" I try and tell D'Angelo.
D'Angelo just smiles at me and keeps singing.
How Does It Feel
How Does It Feel
I wish Ne-Yo was here, only he could get my Steven Soderbergh reference.
I'm dizzy, having heart palpitations...my thighs are shaking and lifting off the chair....
There is no song that can ever measure up to this one....like...ever...It's D'Angelo's homage to Prince...holy shit...I'm not wearing any panties...what was I thinking????? Goddam Jeggings and their pantylines...
Baby close the door
Listen Girl I have something I wanna show you
I wish you'd open up cause
I wanna take the walls down with you
"I can't take anymore. You people are trying to kill me!"
I get up out of the chair, screaming, D'Angelo crooning beautifully and try and run out into what I think is the backyard but, instead, straight into clear glass doors and fall backwards, unconscious.
I wake up twenty minutes later, strapped onto a gurney being rushed into an ambulance.
"What's going on?" I ask the paramedic.
"You hit your head and were out cold, they called us"
"What? You don't understand. I don't have any panties on right now. You need to get me some underwear, quick. If my Sicilian godfather finds out I left a black man's house without panties on, CORRECTION, if my godfather finds out I left a black mans house period, he will TNT this whole block. We're talking a Chernobyl version of Spike Lee's Jungle Fever"
"Lots of girls leave R. Kelly's house without panties on" the EMT tells me.
"No, it wasn't like that. I'm way too old for those guys and I'm really innocent, no..Ne-Yo and I are just friends. We have a connection"
"Sure" he looks at the other EMT laughing.
"Get me off this thing!" I scream
I undo the straps and jump off the gurney and onto the sidewalk.
"I just wanted a stepper's party! Yes, I'm white. But so was Teena Marie and she was the Ivory Queen of Soul. I bet she had lots of them!" I yell.
"Well, Lady Tee was the first white woman to perform on Soul Train!" the EMT yells back before hopping into the ambulance.
The paramedics drive off. I am safe to walk at least this block in Kenwood with the President’s snipers overhead, but other than that I have no idea how to get myself back to the north side safely.
A pretty young girl in pigtails and school uniform bikes up to R. Kelly's and locks up her bike. I feel like I should intervene.
"Hey, you are way too young to be going in that house, please, let me ride on your handle bars to the train stop and then you can go home."
"I'm twenty-five years old, not fifteen" she tells me.
"Wait, you are. What skincare line do you use, you look amazing?" I say
"I'm a Med student at University of Chicago and have this gig every week to pay my way through school."
"Wait, the elusive grad student who prostitutes herself to pay the bills. I thought you were an urban myth!"
"The pay is great and R. Kelly doesn't ask me for much. We usually just play Connect Four or Tidily Winks."
This girl probably has more money in the bank than I do, right now.
"Come in the house with me, I'll call you a taxi. It might take two hours, though. Racists." the high-end call girl/med student shakes her head.
"I know this is a strange request, but do you know if there is any clean underwear in this house?" I ask.
"Women's or Mens" she asks
"Women's" I answer
She gives me a strange look.
"No, no, nothing like that has taken place - my God – it’s just these pants I'm wearing forced me to leave the house Commando"
"Upstairs in the green bedroom, first drawer of the dresser. It’s where I keep my stash, for work; occupational hazard."
"Thank you, thank you!" I tell her.
I go upstairs to the green room and close the door behind me. I open the drawer to find economy bags of Hannah Montana, Disney Princess and Hello Kitty panties, size twelve.
What a sick puppy, you are R.Kelly, I tell myself. With no other choice, I eenie meenie miney moe with my finger and land on the Hello Kitty bag. The panties are kind of tight and definitely give me a line in these pants, but it’s better than nothing.
I walk into Ne-Yo's dressing room and he is on the couch watching Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, in honor of my drawers.
"Hey, you okay? You're back" Ne-Yo asks, concerned.
"Someone just called me a cab. Said it would take two hours"
"Then join me and watch" Ne-Yo asks
"It’s a masterpiece" I say
"You’re right about that" Ne-Yo concurs.
"I'm a pretty spiritual person. I believe in ghosts. When Teenage Riot played tonight...well...I thought I saw one,” I say.
"I believe in a collective unconscious. I am a follower of Carl Jung."
Ne-Yo adds, this friggin’ guy...
"Sometimes I think if I have a dream about someone, even thousands of miles away, they might have a dream about me at the very same time. Or vice versa. Does that sound crazy?" I ask.
"No, not at all." Ne-Yo agrees.
"I think maybe I just want to believe that." I say back.
"Not a bad wish. Like having a Stepper's party"
"I'm pretty sure the comedienne Lucille Ball and I exchanged dreams at one point." I finish.
I smile and eat some of Ne-Yo’s delicious popcorn.
R. Kelly and the high-end Call Girl come into Ne-Yo's dressing room and join us. R. Kelly likes animated films. R. Kelly grabs and places one of Ne-Yo's hats on each of our heads. Just a big softee, this R.Kelly. He offers us all a piece of Hubba Bubba gum and we embark on a bubble blowing contest. The Call Girl wins.
"He's in a much better mood now" I whisper to the high-end Call Girl, who sits on the love seat reading a giant book about orthopedics.
R. Kelly gets scared by the film Spirited Away during the scene where the parents turn into gluttonous pigs. He covers his eyes.
Ne-Yo gets my attention and whispers into my ear "I told you he was a big baby."
“I can totally relate to the whole over active imagination thing in Spirited Away” I whisper. “My parents gave me a lot of time alone to fantasize growing up –at the racetrack, the pool room, sitting in the car, for hours…”
“Yes, you do have a big imagination.” Ne-Yo says, laughing, punching me in the shoulder.
"Since it's obvious there is a definite Japanese theme here tonight, I might as well tell you my first kiss - ever - was with a boy half Japanese. It happened the night before the Live Aid concert, summer of '85."
"What's Live Aid?" Ne-Yo asks
"See, I knew you were too young for me." I finish, annoyed.
R. Kelly takes his hands off of his eyes and offers me some Jelly Belly’s.
“President Ree-gan’s favorite” he tells us.
“It’s not pronounced like King Lear’s daughter Regan, it’s pronounced Ray-gan.”
R. Kelly looks confused.
“Maybe if you stopped being such a know-it-all, you would have more friends” Ne-Yo whispers to me.
“I’m really not a know-it-all. Can't finish crosswords and I’m lousy at standardized tests” I whisper back.
Two hours pass and, finally, my cab arrives. The driver is going to hear about this racial profiling on the long drive home, for sure.
R.Kelly, Ne-Yo and The Call Girl all stand in the doorway to say goodbye. D'Angelo took his motorcycle to "Da Club" already.
"Thanks, Guys, that was fun" I say, missing my new friends already.
"Here you go" the Call Girl says, handing me a card. "I'm going into plastic surgery" she tells me.
I roll my eyes at her.
“Email me if you’re at Tisch this summer,” Ne-Yo, my buddy, tells me, “I’ll get you ticks to our show at the Garden.”
“And if there’s time, a quick flick at the Angelika?” I smile back.
"Like Dan and Blair on Gossip Girl?" Ne-Yo asks.
"Even Sonic Youth was on Gossip Girl!" I yell.
"Whoever bumps into James Lipton on the streets of New York first pays?"
"Agreed." I smile back.
I walk down the driveway to the curb and my cab. I hear R.Kelly start to sing from behind me. It’s the beginning of his song Step in The Name of Love:
Said I know
That Its somebody's birthday
"Me! It's going to be my birthday soon!" I say giving a wave.
I close the cab door and it screeches off. I take Ne-Yo's hat off. That sucker's going on Ebay in the morning.
I throw a fifty up front to the cabbie.
“Just drive” I say. Not a car to be seen on the highway this time of night.
I immediately grab my IPOD out of my purse and in a mad rush play Sonic Youth again. I’ve been waiting all night for this moment, a moment alone, with my imagination… in the Daydream Nation...
My heart starts to race again with the guitar, the drums, I unbutton my blouse, roll down the window...I want to scream...
Teenage Riot in a public station
Gonna fight and tear it up in a hypernation for you
I dig my nails into my jegging clad thighs. Wish the car could go faster, my IPOD, louder.
The street lamps on Lakeshore Drive that we pass by quickly, blur, finally, and then I am transported…
It better work out
I hope it works out my way
A Pool Hustler's Daughter grows up in subterranean America. She dreams big, hustles daily and loves her Daddy. With empathy, fascination and grace she navigates and inhabits every tier of society; sees beauty and hope and magic in all things; respects and lives by the "mitzvah."
A Pool Hustler's Daughter calculates the trifecta payout at the racetrack, hides money on three parts of her body, has an arsenal of "Uncles," and keeps a baseball bat by the front door. She values friendship, loyalty and experiences over "things." Like her father, she seeks to learn "The secrets of the universe" and believes "Life ain't on the square." She applauds the self-made and those who learn to "overcome" their circumstances. Her door is always open for a sofa to sleep on, a hot meal, or an eager listener for a life story.
"Tell me, the dream , again..." "Well, it's night, and New York is particularly quiet. It's not necessarily late at...