hobart logo
Streetwise photo

Streetwise: that was my nickname at Chicago’s Best Worst Drag Show. Arben, the show’s host, chanted it when he introduced me each week, imitating the homeless men who hawked the newspaper on street corners throughout the city.

“Streetwise, streetwise.”

The nickname didn’t bother me. I embraced it. It was like a badge of honor. I was the weirdest girl in the line-up, and that’s saying a lot. The show was at 2 a.m. every Monday at Jackhammer in Rogers Park, the northernmost neighborhood of the city. It attracted an eclectic bunch. The girls who signed up to perform and compete ranged from up-and-coming superstars to honest-to-goodness bums off the street, like me. The first week I went, I did an unfortunate interpretive dance to a song by the underground Iranian-Dutch electronic pop musician Sevdaliza. Everyone hated it. I thrashed around the stage like a dying fish. The other drag queens made faces at me and giggled. “What is she on, and where can I get some?” Arben said when I’d finished. My second number was cut from the show. It was disappointing, of course. But I was undeterred.

I’ll show them, I told myself on the 5 a.m. bus back to Pilsen. I’ll keep coming back every week until I win.

Meanwhile, my enemies in Little Village were mobilizing against me. The day after I got out of the psych ward, all of Antifa showed up at my door. They were kicking me out of the squat, they said. Delilah was the ringleader. All the Antifa boys stood behind her looking tough while she rattled off a litany of complaints. Nobody felt safe around me, she said. I’d threatened people. I invited random homeless people into the squat. I was unstable, psychotic. I’d accused Kenya of attacking me, but Kenya and Joy both denied it. I was a racist for even suggesting it, since Kenya was black – or as Joy liked to say, “a princess of color.”

“She choked me out and spit in my face,” I said.

“That. Didn’t. Happen!” Delilah replied.

“I still have the bruises,” I said, pointing at my neck.

“Bitch, you got to go,” Delilah said. She looked like a mean little circle.

Delilah and all the Antifa people said I had to leave right then. I wasn’t even allowed to pack my things. An Antifa representative would pack for me and bring me my items at a later date. Of course, that never happened. I never saw any of my stuff again. None of the makeup or the clothes. They even kept my birth certificate. A few weeks after my expulsion from the squat, Kenya was headlining a drag show at Berlin. In the photo on the poster she was wearing one of my dresses. It was unmistakable. Pale pink. The one with all the straps. Everywhere I looked I saw those posters. They were up in all the clubs and plastered across social media. The image of her wearing my dress is emblazoned in my memory. I’m still trying to figure out how to forgive her.

Dealing with a psychotic person is not easy. I’m not saying it is. Antifa did the best they could. But their best was still pretty lousy. They drugged me, they tricked me. They basically tried to kidnap me. When all that didn’t work, they called the police. Calling the cops was probably the correct thing to do from the beginning, but it was rich coming from them. It was certainly more humane than their first plan, which entailed holding me down and shoving Klonopin down my throat. I still remember Kenya choking me out. I can feel the spit hitting my face to this day. On the other hand, I was hallucinating pretty hard at the time. I thought she and Joy were both demons. I could see their lizard faces, could hear their witch-like cackling. So what actually happened? I couldn’t say. We all have our own versions of things. Stories we tell ourselves to make sense of implausible or challenging events. I don’t know what truly happened. I’d be lying if I said I did.

I do know one thing, though. It sucked getting kicked out. I didn’t have anywhere else to go. I had no money and no belongings. I slept in Harrison Park for a while, behind the Museum of Mexican Art. It wasn’t so bad. I liked being against the Earth. I felt cradled and supported by the grass and the dirt. Nurtured by the starry sky.

After a few nights of park living, a miracle happened. My friend Amelia told me about another squat, one where no one else was living. It was on Twenty-First Street in Pilsen, right next door to Showboat, the converted storefront where my friends Pete and David lived. The new squat was a two-story house with a split foundation, which caused the floor to be crooked. If you dropped something round, it would roll into the other room. The squat was sparsely furnished. There was no AC, no gas, no lights. But for a brief time, it was my home. It was mine and mine alone. Not an anarchist in sight.

The second time I went to Jackhammer I decided to sing live: “Ride” by Lana Del Rey, my all-time favorite song. I was nervous and hyper. At certain points I got too excited, and screamed the lyrics instead of singing. It wasn’t a great performance. I didn’t win a prize. But I did make eight dollars in tips. Enough for the bus back down to Pilsen, and an early morning coffee and pastry besides. One of the people who tipped me looked familiar. I realized it was Nico, the drag queen I’d argued with at Berlin when visiting Chicago with Krystal the previous winter. “Bitch, you’re a drag queen,” Nico had said to me then. Now it was true. Well, sort of. I was really more like a disgraced former countess than a queen. I was doing the bare minimum. I didn’t know how to do drag makeup. I just painted wings on my eyes like I always did, but slightly bigger. I didn’t have a wig, so I just teased out my hair. I even performed barefoot, so as not to be seen onstage wearing sneakers. You can see why they called me Streetwise.

Kenya was the one who told me about the Jackhammer show. We’d been to it a couple times together. The show served as an industry afterparty. If there had been a big event that evening, all the queens would wind up at Jackhammer afterwards. It was quite the scene. The club itself was a sprawling complex of devilish delights. It had a big front room with a nice open stage and a bar. A back room housed the DJ booth along with a second bar. During the show, they closed down the back bar and the girls used that area as a dressing room. We set up mirrors along the bar and did our hair and makeup together. The club’s piece de resistance was a cavernous underground lair known as the Hole. On the weekends when it was busy there might be hundreds of guys down there. There’d be guys lined up on their knees in the bathroom drinking each other’s piss. Sweaty guys in leather harnesses and nothing else, cruising and sucking and fucking. I never really felt comfortable in places like that. If I had been on more drugs, maybe I would have liked it. But as it was, it just felt awkward. Like a big meat market. I always felt undesirable in the Hole. Nobody ever seemed to want to have sex with me. I took it personally, though it was probably because I was too scared to make eye contact, let alone talk to anyone.

But Monday nights were different. The drag queens’ extravagant femininity counterbalanced the masculine sexual energy that permeated every corner of the club. Of course, people still hooked up. The show was a popular destination for “tranny chasers,” men who are specifically attracted to trans women. Even I, Queen Streetwise herself, managed to attract a miniature cult following in the three weeks I performed at the show. I had guys who bought me drinks, guys who gave me bumps of coke in the bathroom. One guy I met there even took me out to breakfast once.

By my third performance, the crowd was firmly on my side. I lip synced to “Violet” by Hole. I wore my black and white Courtney Love dress. I teased my hair out as big as it would go. I smeared red lipstick around my lips and extended my eyeliner all the way to my hairline. Ever since getting thrown out of the Antifa squat, I’d been carrying around a thick chain. I wore it around my neck like a necklace. The chain was easily detachable in case I needed to defend myself. During my performance I ripped it from my neck and used it to beat myself. I fell on my knees and crawled off the stage into the crowd, whipping my shoulders and back. It didn’t hurt. I could barely even feel it. “Go on,” I lip synced. “Take everything.” I channeled that song, honey. Courtney would have been proud. The moment that clinched my victory was when a guy in the audience decided to make it rain on me. I was on my knees in front of him. My mouth practically came unhinged as I madly lip synced the words. Suddenly the man was showering me with singles. They flew, one after the other, from the stack he held in his hand and fluttered to the floor all around me.

I probably made forty bucks in tips that night, plus the hundred from winning first prize. They determined the winner by applause-o-meter. It wasn’t even close. I snatched that victory. That was the night Miss Unity was born.

The night after my big win, Kenya showed up at the new squat. She brought Delilah and Johnny and a couple other lackeys I didn’t recognize. I was sleeping when they all showed up. It was midnight or later. They snuck in the rear door, through the backyard. They crept into my room and woke me up.

I don’t know what they were trying to do, what they hoped to achieve. I awoke to the sound of them screaming. All yelling at the same time. I could hear sounds but no words. I scrambled to my feet. First, I cowered in the corner, gasping for breath. I didn’t know what was happening. I thought they were going to kill me. My flight instinct took over. I wanted to run, but there was nowhere to go.

“I can’t breathe,” I said, clutching my throat.

“Bitch, yes you can,” someone said.

That’s when fight took over from flight.

I lunged at Kenya, swinging wildly. She lifted an arm to defend herself. I heard a snapping sound, and she cried out. For a full breath, nobody moved. Not one of us said a word.

Then Kenya broke the silence.

“Bitch!” she screamed. “You broke my nail!”

Somehow, I’d also broken whatever strange spell had made my former friends seek me out that night.

“Come on,” someone said. “Let’s get out of here.”

They all stormed out of the squat, knocking over furniture and smashing things on their way. Kenya was the last to leave. When she was halfway out the door, she looked back at me and smiled venomously.

“See you next week at Jackhammer, bitch,” she hissed. Then she slammed the door.

I didn’t see her the next week, though. I never saw any of them ever again. They all died when the Antifa squat on Cermak burned to the ground a week later. To this day, no one knows who started the blaze.

Just kidding.

They’re all still alive. But I won’t say that the thought of burning down their dirty little hovel never crossed my mind. The real reason I never saw them again was because my own squat was torn down by developers. The demo crew showed up a few days after my triumphant Jackhammer victory. I refused to leave at first. “Squatters Rights!” I yelled through the open window. You can guess how that turned out. After the police escorted me out, I slept in the park again a few nights. Then I left Chicago forever. I would have liked to have bested Kenya in a drag contest. It would have been a showdown for the ages. Maybe I’ll go back someday, just to see the look on her face when they call out my name as the winner.

Outside the Pink Line station in Pilsen at 18th Street, there’s a little plaza with a decorative garden. In the summer, a crop of vibrant rosebushes bloom, framed by a short brick wall. There are tomato plants there, too. My friend Steve told me an old woman put the plants there to help feed the homeless. In the summertime, thousands of cherry tomatoes grow: a free snack for any hungry traveler. The night I won Chicago’s Best Worst Drag Show, I took the bus back down to Pilsen as usual. Everybody else on the bus was sleeping. I think most of them probably lived on that bus. I looked from face to sleeping face. Some of the people had ratty blankets. Others had covered themselves with newspapers. I thought about how lucky I was to have a roof over my head and a crisp hundred dollar bill in my pocket. I disembarked the bus by the 18th Street station. The coffee shop in the plaza had just opened for the day. The barista wiped sleep from her eyes. I ordered a double espresso and paid with my hundred.

I walked outside and sat on the wall by the garden. I admired the tomatoes and the roses in the early morning light. I reached out my hand and plucked a single tomato from its vine. I sipped my espresso and closed my eyes, savoring the rich flavor. I raised the tomato to my lips and bit the tiny fruit in half. It was perfect. Ripe, succulent, and delicious. The juice ran down my chin. Tears sprang to my eyes. I was so happy right then, that all I could do was cry. So happy, because I’d never tasted anything so sweet.