I have been in Chicago since January 3rd and since I was scheduled to be here until the end of the month, I came into the Windy City committed to 'CALL JOY FORTH' as much as possible. Being away from home (NYC/NJ) and my boo (in Denver), I could feel the blues coming on. This time, however, I didn't give them the chance to settle in with the ABUNDANCE of LOVE and HOSPITALITY that has always been available to me, but in my quick trips here, I've not always taken the time to benefit from them. This time, I was clear that I needed a little help from my friends... to get through. Kinda' like the lyric in Effie's breakthrough song from "Dreamgirls" "I AM CHANGING": "... I'm trying to find a way to understand. But I need you. I need you. I need a hand...; I need a friend to help me start all over again...". And my cup continues to runneth over on this trip - starting and continuing with my good friend Carl (not to be confused with my 'platonic boo' from New York City Carl Nelson). This Carl, who I call "My Chicago Carl" manages the Jessi Dean hair boutique in Chicago. He and the owner/stylist extraordinaire Jessi have become good friends since we all hung out at GLAMOURAMA last Fall 2006 when Beyonce performed and presented her latest "House of Dereon" gear. Since that time, we all - a time or two - have hung out and enjoyed each other's company. On this leg, Carl has been nothing short of a MIRACLE - picking me up to take me to great dinners at places like "Bella", a Gold Coast lounge and restaurant that boasts sophisticated atmposphere with upscale comfort food like crab cakes and luxe burgers that you can wash down with unique martini concoctions. www.bellalounge.com/ Carl and my other dear friend, Itika ("Ti-Ti"), who too has shown up as one of my main Chicago connections, took me here and we had a really good time that set the tone for my time here. We shared vulnerably about the loves in our lives and who we were going to choose to be to keep our respective loves alive. And with cocktails and good food, there's nothing better than great conversation.
In addition to dining out a lot, Carl also took me to 'da club', my first time venturing out to see how the 'kids' in Chicago party. We went to "The Generator" on one night and danced to the best that r&b & pop have had to offer in the last twenty years. It was chockful of sexy gay men and a few gay women and a sprinkling of others. "Don't ask... and I won't tell!". SMILE! Prior to this evening, Carl and I had spent a long day of errands. He took me to the Westside of Chicago ("Half Time" Barber) to get my haircut by his friend Joseph. That - for the record - was the best haircut I've ever had. "Pooney" - Joseph's nickname - was so thorough and attentive to my bald cut. It would seem simple enough to the naked eye, but my hair grows in many directions and tress-by-tress, he made sure that I was clean --- hair and face. It took so many years off of me, the young Korean lady who later that day would do my mani-and-pedi wondered if I was a model. Then, she asked if I was in fashion as my style was so unique. Then, CLUTCH THE PEARLS, she asked my age. Before I could answer, she guessed "26? 27...?". I thought how sweet as my hair and face were - because of my 'cut from the hood' - smooth as a 'baby's bum'. But I had to surprise her with the news that I am 36. She could not believe it. Of course, I was on top of the world after that exchange (given I was recently NOT carded for a cocktail while my friend Ern, who is older than me, as was my boyfriend Anthony, who legitimately is in his '20s). Now, suddenly, with the right amount of zen and Pooney's touch, all was right with the world again and my "black" was no longer "whack" and refusing to "crack". On this night, I was considering seeing "DREAMGIRLS" with Carl, his mom, and his aunt... but the show I could do with them was sold out. Instead, they went to a later show and I had dinner plans elsewhere (Maggione). Afterwards, however, Carl came to pick me up to go to "The Generator". Carl was so great as I was tired by the time 'club time' came, but he agreed to come and get me before I got too tired. As soon as I got in his car, he told me he had something to lift my energy. He pushed the play button on his vehicle's CD to reveal the sound of my favorite Diana tune "The Boss". Of course, I was immediately lifted up and taken higher. It - and other Ross tunes from the greatest hits package he was playing - carried me to the North side of town on Lake Shore Drive where he lives. When we went into his place so he could quickly shower and change for our night out, he generously opened a bottle of Moet (Nectar Imperial) for me to hydrate on. 3/4 of the bottle and 30 minutes later, Carl was transformed and ready for our night at 'da club'. During this window of time, he had Miss Janet Jackson's "20 Y.O." ("So Excited" and "With U") piping through the elegant space with beautiful art and a gorgeous, cylindrical staircase that leads up to the bedroom.
Then, on the following night, Carl and I went to see a 'drag show' at a spot on the ---- watch your back ---- South side. The spot: "TASTE". The drink of the night (since Kir Royale's were not in stock): White Zinfandel. The highlight: The three drag queens who performed Beyonce's "Listen" from "DREAMGIRLS" after I wondered act after act how much more of the bump-and-grind ilk of tune we were going to have to listen to before someone payed homage to what I consider the hottest ticket and soundtrack in town, "DREAMGIRLS". I could have used some variety from that score, but received with open arms (and a few of my own high-pitched yelps) the redundant playback of the character Deena's breakthrough song. On this night, Carl took me to a wonderful hot dog stand where I got the 'pork chop' sandwich of life. It was just what the doctor ordered.
One night, I gave Carl and Itika a break and hung out with my friend Steve. He, another friend of his, and I met at Vongs Thai Kitchen (www.vongsthaikitchen.com) and got the chance to catch up. Steve is a Pulitzer-prize nominated journalist who I know from the National Association of Black Journalists. It's always great to catch up with him and break bread. Another of my hang-out buddies when I'm here in Chicago is my best friend from Morehouse Eddie. He and I have been close since our days in college and continue to share a bond that sometimes holds closer than even our own blood brothers. For the many years, I've been coming to Chicago, he's been the only person with whom I'd have social time. Of late, he's been very busy with work, marriage, fraternity, alumni chapter, and a number of other community commitments. To that end, I don't see him as much. Still, when we can, we hit the town and have great dinners and sharings. One thing we've done in the past is our 'Listening Experience', where we come together annually with other friends to share our love of music based on categories and criteria that he and fellow Morehouse brother Daryl design. On the evenings, each person brings their selects based on the four-to-five criteria; we eat and pop open lots of bottles of wine; and we introduce and play music all night long. In the course of this sharing, we all learn not only what our music tastes are, but we - on some level - learn more about the soul and spirit of who we are. It's an AWESOME fellowship. So much so, when we get together with folks from the group, it's like a family reunion. So when Eddie told me that one of our hangs on this leg of my Chicago trip was going to be with "Listening Experience" member Nyasha, I knew it was going to be a good time. Eddie wanted us to go see "Dreamgirls" because he hadn't. Nor had Nyasha. Of course, it was poised to be the "13TH SCREENING" for me, but I was down. Too, he wanted to share it with me. So, we did and it was as blissful the 13th time as it had been the first twelve. Afterwards, Eddie, Nyasha, and I went to "Sushi Samba" (www.sushisamba.com ))for light bites and mojitos. As always when we have a rare moment with Nyasha, it is an authentic, loving, and heartfelt time... with lots of laughs, tears, and MUSIC!!!!
Eddie would also be in the mix for an unprecedented weekend (this past) when my "Amazing Grace" Nichole came to Chicago from New York to help keep my home-sickness at bay. She and I are very close and hadn't had the chance to see each other since a couple of weeks before Christmas, given our respective travels to family in other places, work, etc. She made the decision to come and see me. In that, all my 'friends' here in Chicago - including my Carl, Itika, Jakki ("Ki-Ki"), and Eddie - were excited to meet her. We had a lovely WELCOME TO CHICAGO meal at "Rumba" ( www.rumba351.com ), a Latin fusion cuisine experience with a LIVE Latin jazz band to boot. Carl came to this meal to meet Nichole and they would become fast friends. After dinner, we had a "slumber party" in my bed at my corporate apartment, catching up on everything under the sun. We both slept well on this night - knowing we were back together and sufficiently updated on each other's lives. The next morning, Nichole and I had a lovely one-on-one breakfast at "Wishbone"(www.wishbonechicago.com/), some of the best cheese grits, salmon cakes, and coffee you can eat in Chi-town. We even had a "Mr. Funky" after our breakfast (a little liquid lunch to spice up the afternoon). That drink, served in a wine glass, consisted of champagne, Peach schnapps, and cranberry juice. Nice! Afterwards, we walked over to "Jessi Dean" to see Miss Jessi and the gang. Also, we were there to meet Carl as to repeat our now-weekly ritual of haircuts/manis/pedis (Nichole was down for joining our ritual). While at "Jessi Dean", Nichole got a touch-up to her down-the-back locks a la Jessi. And I entertained the "tress troops" with a special "listening party" featuring selections from my DIANA's new cd "I Love You" (Manhattan-EMI). I'm happy to report that the ladies LOVED hearing new DIANA. They were really getting into the music and my enthusiasm for it. I think I just sold 25 copies of the CD as all in attendance said they were not only going out on Tuesday, January 16th (release date) to buy a copy, but that they wanted to make sure mothers, fathers, husbands, and children alike were in on the great new collection of classic and contemporary love songs, according to MISS ROSS. All of that left me with a SMILE on my face!
On Saturday night, we met my friend Keith and his wife Button at an Italian restaurant in Wicker Park. Keith asked if I would join he and Miss Button for their inaugural screening of "DREAMGIRLS". My friend Jakki told him I was hooked on the film and that they should go with me because it will enhance their enjoyment of it. Now, looking to the 14th screening of it ahead of me, I felt this healthy obsession was turning into a chore. But the chance to hang out with Keith and Button, his sister Keisha, who he has long wanted me to meet, her friend Darnell, and my posse Nichole and Carl meant that "DREAMGIRLS" NUMBER 14 was going to be a 'funky-James-Thunder-Early" good time!!!! And no surprise! It was. Keith was gracious in paying for dinner and the tickets. I insisted on sweetening his palm for being so generous!!! Since we saw a late night movie, we were pretty much ready to call it a night, but not before taking a picture in front of the "DREAMGIRLS" sign and singing our favorite songs from the soundtrack. Keith has a great voice. And so do I. SMILE!
Sunday was a busy day for us. Carl picked us up for brunch. His dear friend Bionce Foxx, on-air personality for WGCI/107.5 FM (#1 for hip hop and R&B) joined us. Also Johnny Wright, hairstylist extraordinaire hooked up with us. We went back to WISHBONE because Nichole loved it so much and the recommended spot THE BONGO ROOM was closed. With this new roster of characters, we began a day of laughter that would not give. Bionce and Johnny were two of the warmest and kindest spirits to compliment Carl's, Nichole's, and my weekend chemistry. So, it was on!!! Itika ("Ti-Ti") called for us to join her at her friend Tiffany Nicole's loft which houses THE GARMEN ROOM: A MODERN APPROACH TO VINTAGE (www.thegarmentroom.com ). Here, we combed through racks and racks of vintage couture - from GUCCI to YVES ST. LAURENT. This young lady, TIFFANY, proved she has an "eye" for clothes. (I'm certain fashionista Tracee Ellis Ross and her mom would eat this collection of drag up!!!!!). She also has a hospitable essence as she served wine and special cocktails as we shopped. My Nichole ended up buying a couple of "steals" - one vintage dress that fit her like butter... for $20. And I wanted to make sure that my "classic" Amazing Grace Nichole and my "new" Amazing Grace Itika fit like hand and glove as well. And THANK GOD! They did. You know how those divas can be sometimes with their BIG WILLIEs!!!! SMILE! NOT TOO MUCH, but fortunately, there was enough of me to go around and enough of them to enjoy each other. Even MY JAKKI who wasn't able to spend as much time with NICHOLE loved her and vice versa. That too made me happy!
The evening's plans would bring all the energies which have supported my time here in Chicago TOGETHER, which means that it was either going to be a DREAM or a NIGHTMARE. Fortunately, it was very much a DREAM! We all met at J. Alexander's (www.jalexanders.com/) and enjoyed its HOUSTON's-like menu. But most importantly, my EDDIE got to meet my NICHOLE for the first time (after all these years of them knowing each other's significance to me). My new BFF CARL got to meet EDDIE and it turns out they went to the same high school (around the same time): A. WHITNEY YOUNG. Our new Chicago buddies Johnny Wright and Bionce Foxx were in the mix along with my local "Amazing Graces" Jakki and Itika. We had the BEST TIME... After we closed J. ALEXANDER's down, we all did a three-party-hop from a jazz set at "SONO-TECH" to a mixer on North Lincoln to "Sippin' Sundays", a networking event where we danced until those house lights came up. A little late night breakfast skillet at TEMPO would cap off an awesome day and a great weekend. NICHOLE and I had a light lunch today at GRAND LUX (www.grandluxcafe.com) overlooking Michigan Avenue. We reflected and corroborated how healing and helpful this weekend of connection was for us both and how thankful we are to have each other to lean on. From there, I put her in a cab that would lead her through the snow flurries to the airport. Hopefully she won't be too delayed because it's coming down out there.
Already, I've gotten word that I may have an assignment in Los Angeles this week. I'm game as maybe it will lead me to some warmer temperatures and allow me to catch up with some of my West Coast folks. Meanwhile, Itika is planning to come over to the corporate apartment tonight (Chili in hand...) to watch the Golden Globes with me. GO JENNIFER HUDSON! GO!!!!!!