Dry ice smoked in bowls by the sink. A sound like a telephone off the hook filled the air. A few dozen people sat around on an assortment of ripped-up chairs and a lazy old couch, nodding their heads appreciatively at what turned out to be music. “You think these guys rehearsed?” a guy in a white tank top and mini fauxhawk asked me.
He was sitting on a windowsill at Nihilist, an old loft space with a new name located on the fourth floor of a giant South Loop warehouse-looking building and occupied for many years by a circle of slightly older noise aficionados. (M.V. Carbon from Metalux, Kurt Kiesel from Absorb, Camilla Ha from Magic Ist Kuntmaster, and Julia Gilman from Insect Deli have all cycled through.) Every once in a while Nihilist throws a party or puts on a show; last Wednesday’s was the first event in several months.
Tank Top Guy was referring to Panicsville’s Andy Ortmann, a current resident, and Mark Solotroff, who’s in Bloodyminded. Both of their bands are devoted to electronic music, but tonight they ditched the synths to duel on guitars. I learned something that night: if you play a whole bunch of notes at once you get not a din but a monotone, in the same way that all the colors mixed together makes not a rainbow but black. Occasionally something would fall loose and a wood-chipper grind or light-saber slash would emerge from the drone.
I was excited to see Hazmat, an Ypsilanti native who hadn’t performed in town in several years. He set up a huge pile of equipment, most of it homemade: a hunk of plastic with a headset sticking out of it looked like a bomb from a late-night made-for-TV movie. There were contraptions made from toy parts, electric tape, exposed circuit boards, and wires galore.
He started off with a loop of a recorded voice coming through a karaoke machine. The only words I could make out were “motherfucker” and “George Foreman,” but dude sounded pissed off. Hazmat talked back to the voice, repeating its words or responding to them. “You wouldn’t say that to my face,” he said.
Hazmat’s act was aimlessly chaotic: a Hitchcockian stab interrupted a wave of sound, and the voice was still going. He passed the microphone through his legs like a basketball, then mumbled confusedly. It was very weird and immensely entertaining, at least for the small crowd paying attention.
A few folks in the corner splashed and spit beer everywhere. Like most people who’d gathered that night, they were there to see Vigilante, a local three-piece whose Darth Vader-Magma shit somehow avoids all the faggy flutters and flourishes one associates with prog rock. Their opening song consisted mostly of one note blasted over and over like an infectious Goliath stomp. The woman next to me was rocking out so hard she was whipping her hair into my eyeballs.
Front man Jeremy Fisher wore a hooded sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off (now what’s the point of that?) and a little flashlight around his neck, and his dirty white shorts kept falling down. He kicked his shoes into the audience, straddled an amp, and screamed into the flashlight, which lit up his cheeks like a campfire storyteller’s. Then he bowled into the front row, sending it into the second row, which is where I was. I ended up with a bruised and swollen lip–a great look to have to explain to my mom and my sister the next day, when we road-tripped to my great-grandmother’s house.
Kuncetta Di Marco–we call her Grandma Kay–is a shrunken but intensely vibrant 92-year-old Italian woman, a former seamstress who can get down the stairs without a cane, helps out five days a week in a preschool classroom, and volunteers at the local hospital. She lives alone in a one-bedroom town house in an Iowa retirement community, the warm but garishly ornate decor of which has been the same since before I was born. (Her all-pink bathroom features shelving lined with swatches of neon shag carpet, enormous cut-glass decanters of mouthwash and bubble bath, and matching canisters of pink cotton balls.) She’s still kickin’ pretty hard, but we wanted to learn how to make gnocchi while we had the chance.
Basically, she told us, you just boil potatoes, mash ’em up, throw in some Romano cheese and olive oil and flour, and knead the mixture into dough. You grab a small blob and roll it into skinny worms, cut them into half-inch pieces, then score them with a fork, or, in Grandma Kay’s case, an old metal tool she used for crinkle cutting. She showed us how to use our thumbs to roll a tiny chunk of dough evenly over the crinkler. She made it look easy. When we tried it the dough stuck to our fingers and then came off in uneven clumps: imagine trying to scrape a wad of gum off the bottom of your shoe–in a perfectly straight line. Onto a unicorn’s eyelash. It took us an embarrassing hour to get the hang of it.
We muddled through and were done by 1:30 in the afternoon, leaving us a few hours to kill before dinner. We flipped through an album of gorgeous black-and-white pictures while my grandma explained who the people in the photos were. The dark-haired, smiling woman wearing a man’s suit she’d cut into almost an exact double of one Yves Saint Laurent showed last fall? That was Grandma Kay. While all her friends were in frumpy housedresses, she wore elegant black frocks, many of which she made herself. She also made elaborate evening gowns, plus matching capes, handbags, shoes, and–the coup de grace–hangers from the same material.
Her running commentary was pretty morbid. The skinny man in the maroon-and-yellow striped getup? That was her husband, who, she reminded us, is dead now. “He was always a great dresser,” she said. The kids splashing around outside in an old washbasin, the ones my mom used to play with? They’re dead too. The lad dressed up in a white Communion dress holding a doll in a matching outfit? That was her son, who was the same size as his cousin, for whom my grandmother used to make dresses, and he was serving as a fit model. And now he’s dead.
Later we went to the cemetery where Grandma Kay’s parents, twin sister, husband, two sons, granddaughter, and several other relatives are buried. She pulled weeds from the iron planter she’d had made for the black marble headstone bearing the Di Marco name. “I have to take this out,” she said, brushing off the planter. “No one’s going to be around to take care of this after I go.”
Back at home we made a meal of salad, corn on the cob, and the gnocchi. Grandma put out some deviled eggs and the delicate anisette waffle cookies she’d baked for us the night before. I expected to take a bite of the pasta and rediscover some part of me buried beneath two generations of non-Italian genes, but . . . nothing. The gnocchi was bland, almost tasteless. Grandma Kay lost all sense of smell and taste when she fell down and broke her nose a couple years ago. I ate seconds anyway.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry, Liz Armstrong.