On the bulletin board at Myopic Books, amid the mess of flyers touting sublets or calling for bass players, a glittery purple hand-painted sign stands out. In florid lettering it advertises the services of a concern called Scapegoat Unlimited. “Do you need a scapegoat?” it asks. “We got ’em.” A phone number is written on paper tabs lining the border of the sign. About a dozen have been torn off.
Dial the number, 773-235-1242, and an answering machine usually picks up, delivering one of an assortment of sales pitches. “Hello and thank you for calling,” intones a narcotized female voice. “Are you upset because you ran over little Tommy’s dog in the driveway? Maybe you’re worried because you don’t know how to tell your husband you’re having another man’s baby. Or perhaps you’re just feeling guilty because you’ve been caught stealing chocolates from your coworker’s desk….We take the blame when you can’t handle it. We have all kinds of scapegoats for all kinds of situations and we’ve been in the business for 35 long years. So please leave a detailed message with your name and phone number and your current predicament and remember: guilt is the gift that keeps on giving. Thanks for calling. Have a nice day.”
Sometimes Katherine Chronis answers the phone ready to do business. Chronis, a 35-year-old writer, performer, and self-described “all-purpose monkey lady,” is serious about taking responsibility for her customers’ transgressions–for a price, of course. “If you spilled ink on someone’s clothing, I’d say, ‘I am so sorry. I didn’t mean to do it. It just happened.’ And then they’ll go, ‘Well, what are you? Stupid?’ And I’ll say, ‘Yes, I am so stupid. I am the stupidest.’ And if they say, ‘Hey! Stop saying you’re stupid!’ I’ll just say, ‘You’re right!’ You know, whatever they want.”
She aims to please, but of the 40-some calls she’s received, she’s yet to land a deal. “I quoted this one guy $250 for claiming that I locked him in a hotel room for a week and that’s why he missed Valentine’s Day,” says Chronis, who hung different signs in various spots around Wicker Park. “I was supposed to say that to his girlfriend and she could just bitch at me the whole time. He didn’t call me back.”
Most people who call are just curious. Others invent outlandish situations or adopt obvious personae. A stuffed shirt representing a nameless, corporate-sounding entity needed a scapegoat for a mishap involving some “nuclear containment units.” One prankster claimed to have called his boss a “bitch smack” and defecated in the punch bowl at an office party. A sputtering goon with an inconsistent and overblown Brooklyn accent called repeatedly demanding a “big fat fucking Jew. Or a nigger.”
Chronis suspects that she knows a few of these characters, but many are total strangers, and others don’t seem to understand the concept. There was the French guy–responding to a particularly desperate-sounding pitch–who was convinced she was suicidal and begged her to call him “just to see that you are all right.” Another fellow wanted to get rid of his girlfriend. “We don’t do that,” she told him. “We just take the blame.”
Even if Chronis can’t make it in the blame game, she plans to use recordings of the calls in a performance this Friday at Casa de las Americas gallery in the Flat Iron Building. It’s the latest installment in an autobiographical series she calls “The Evolution of My Image,” during which she says she’ll embrace her role as a scapegoat.
“I’ve had a hard time because my whole life I’ve been weird,” she says. “I’ve been loved, but certainly for being odd I’ve been singled out. It’s taken me a long time to accept it and not be freaked-out by it. While at the same time in my youth I cultivated it, I still had problems accepting what I had wrought. Now that I’ve accepted it, it’s getting much better.”
Chronis grew up in Uptown, the daughter of a maitre d’ and a beautician. The sense of alienation she suffered as an adolescent was compounded by the cultural disconnection she felt as a first-generation American. “I’ve had a lot of love from my family,” she says. “But I’m not how I’m supposed to be. My parents were immigrants from Greece. So that’s an old-world mentality. It’s very, very clannish. There’s no individualism.”
She left home at 16 and took on a bunch of waitressing jobs. “I used to walk around with a big bag of clothes for uniforms and try and figure out where I was supposed to go. I would make phone calls and say, ‘Was I supposed to come in today?’ One day I just snapped and called them all up and said ‘I quit.’ And then I had nothing to do but smoke reefer and read.”
In the late 80s a series of odd jobs–bartender, bicycling ice cream vendor, Jell-O wrestler–kept her afloat while she performed in clubs around town and nursed a growing heroin addiction. “I used to do this horrible old foulmouthed lady that I named Emily,” she says. “Basically anyone that said ‘You stink!’ I’d tear them up and that would be my act. I’d do it like an old person. I’d scream at the wall, ‘Shut up!’ like someone was there.” But as her habit worsened she performed less and less.
“I just stopped believing in myself,” she says. “The world is so against dreamers, except it loves them. I succumbed to all this rational talk–‘You can’t just dream some dream.’ I just didn’t know that I could be who I wanted to be. When I started to escape I loved it so much, I just kept doing it and I thought I was forming myself. It turned out I was right, but I didn’t realize it until years later after I got off. I’d drink four pots of coffee a day and sit around and try to figure out who did I want to be? It was one of the greatest things I could have ever done–kill myself and then bring myself back to life. Because it brought me a lot of confidence.”
Chronis, who had gotten married during this time, separated from her husband and kicked her eight-year habit. She’d been clean six months and was just beginning to feel normal again when a doctor diagnosed some growths around her uterus. “I went to the doctor because I was bleeding profusely and I knew something was really wrong,” she says. “My mind is just so tripped out sometimes I thought that Satan had fucked me and I was pregnant with his child. That was like the worst scenario I could come up with, so it must have been happening. I went to the doctor and he said, ‘Oh my God, you have got to immediately get rid of these growths!’ I said, “Listen, doctor, I don’t have insurance and I don’t have money. What do I do?’ And he told me to go get a job with insurance.” She thought she was going to die until several months later, when her father found a doctor who told her the growths were benign and performed the surgery for free.
After her recovery Chronis moved to New York City, where she says she “exploded,” performing for up to eight hours a day on the street, on subway platforms, and in housing projects and then in clubs at night. She stayed for three years but returned to Chicago last year to be with her mother, who had developed a brain tumor. After her mother’s death her mourning relatives got her thinking about scapegoats.
“I would go and try to be like the cheery one, which is very much like my mother was,” she says. “So I took on that role but I got a lot of shit for it. My aunts would call me up and say, ‘Why don’t you get a job with insurance? You’re a bum. The whole family is worried about you.’ You know, everyone is in pain, everyone misses mom, let’s just put it all on Katherine. And I also realized that it’s because I’m the only one that can handle it. So instinctively they knew, ‘Put it on her. She can handle it.’ So I got angry and just started exploring that theme more.
“I’d just hear people on the street. Anything going on in their lives, it’s someone else who is doing it. I hear that all the time. ‘My husband won’t let me. My wife. The government.’ Why are they controlling you? People need excuses for why they’re fucked-up. Great. So let me provide a service. ‘What do you need? Let me give it to you. You feel good now? You sleep good at night?'”
Chronis started advertising in November but recently the calls have tapered off because, she says, most of the signs have been stolen. At Friday’s performance she plans to screen a Scapegoat Unlimited infomercial, but she doesn’t yet know how she’ll use the recordings. “I work on a very chaotic and integral level,” she says. “I really don’t know how things specifically come out. They will be there but I’m just not sure how I’m going to present them.”
She tried to drum up business again this week by passing out flyers in the Loop, where she hopes people are more inclined to spend their dough on easy absolution. People “have to pay for their sins, right?” she says. “We are providing them an efficacious way of doing this. It is expedient. It is direct. It is palpable. It is clear. We make it neat and tidy for them.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.