“Welcome to what’s happening,” says a man at the door of a Pilsen four-flat. He’s a greeter at the annual Third of July Fire Dance, and as partygoers enter he puts a purple glow tube around their necks (or heads or wrists or thighs) and hands them a tarot card. “You’ll need this for later,” he says mysteriously.
“What’s it for?” asks a new arrival.
“You’ll find out.”
“Are you the host?”
“No,” says the greeter. “I’m a friend of the host.”
“Is the host here?”
“He’s trying not to be.” The host–whose day job as a civil trial lawyer necessitates he not be identified–is apparently off cavorting in some unspecified location.
Just off to the right and through a doorway hung with colorful plastic strips, a handful of people are milling about in the main party room, which looks like the site of a high-speed collision between some massive Day of the Dead shrine and the contents of Marilyn Manson’s brain. Plastic crows hang from the blades of a ceiling fan, plastic skulls lie on shelves, and pairs of dolls are crudely arranged in the missionary position. There are pentagrams and crucifixes. There’s a photo of the original Manson–Charles. And there are dozens of plastic and ceramic penises.
“The dicks are a shrine for a now-deceased friend of mine who was an outrageous philanderer,” says the host, who can now be seen working the room. He says he keeps this stuff up year-round. On the second floor, small pockets of people are smoking dope and handing out acid wrapped in Post-it notes. Here the decor is considerably more restrained: shelves are lined with books instead of body parts.
No one’s exactly sure when the Pilsen fire dance started, and since it’s well attended by merry pranksters like the Ever-So-Secret Order of the Lamprey and members of the performance group Love Chaos, the reports differ depending on whom you ask. The host says it all began as a much smaller shindig in Pilsen back in the late 80s. Jim, one of the supposed originators of the fire dance, says the party first started in Beverly eight or nine years ago. And now, he says, “it’s really more of a performance than a party.”
Around nine o’clock, everyone is ushered out of the building and invited to head toward the railroad overpass at Canal and 16th to watch the Grant Park fireworks. Attendees start strolling northeast through the streets of Pilsen, then under the Dan Ryan viaduct. Over the course of the several-block walk the group gets scattered, but the glowing purple necklaces pay off: those who’ve strayed now have a means of regrouping.
Up on the bridge neighborhood families, teenagers, and lawn-chair brigades have gathered for the show. But it turns out to be a fairly poor perch: the sight lines are obstructed by a buzz-killing residential high-rise about a mile away. “I wonder if those apartments have bleacher seats,” somebody says.
“Don’t look at the fireworks show,” advises one dumbstruck reveler. “Look at the windows of the buildings behind us and you can see the show reflected in the windows.”
“Wait till you see [the host’s] show,” someone else adds. “That’s a great show too.” Once the city’s blowout has ended, everyone starts heading to where Clinton dead-ends at 16th, the traditional location of the private fireworks extravaganza. When they get to the spot, a cop car is sitting there. “The man is always fucking with us,” somebody says.
“Where’s [the host]?” somebody asks.
No one knows, and everyone starts heading further west. At 16th and Ruble the host finally catches up and points the group back in the direction they’ve come from. Inspired by all the neither-here-nor-there indecision, a genial man starts singing the Dolly Parton-Kenny Rogers duet “Islands in the Stream.” A more impatient woman stands in the middle of the street and boisterously declares that she’ll be the goddamned fireworks show. “Boom!” she yells.
Like a slightly edgy traffic cop, the host keeps moving the group further east, back to last year’s spot, and by this time the police have left. He distributes strips of paper with the following words typed out: IF I FORGET THEE, O BOUTROS, MAY MY RING CLEAVE, AND MY BREATH WITHER.
“For the finale we’re going to say this three times in unison,” he explains.
“Who’s Boutros?” asks one of the spectators.
“I heard it’s his dead cat,” somebody replies.
After the host’s half-hour display of pyrotechnics, the group heads back to party central. The host, “a former Boy Scout,” starts stacking wood in a pit in the backyard and giving instructions to an assistant who’s armed with two hoses: one that sprays water, the other lighter fluid.
“It’s gonna need a good soak,” says the host. “But if someone drops a cigarette ash in there, it’ll all go up, so let’s wait a bit.” Then he goes upstairs, where the crowd has grown considerably, and begins asking who’s going to be fire dancing.
There are a few takers, and he points them toward the painting table in the main room, where they have the option of decorating their bodies with handprints, tribal swirls, or whatever else they can think of.
“So you’re putting on the war paint, huh?” an onlooker asks.
“It’s peace paint,” replies one of the body artists.
Though several of them have their shirts off, none seems committed to stripping completely. Perhaps sensing their hesitation the host goes off to his room and emerges naked. Some people head for the exits, others look on quizzically as a few of the volunteers decide to follow his example, and still others act totally nonchalant.
Over at the party entrance, a bespectacled, clean-cut twentysomething guy is hanging around introducing himself to incoming guests: “Some acid for you? As a gift? Would you like it?”
It’s mostly a parade of nos, but a woman in one group can’t pass up the generous offer. “Wow,” she says. “We’ve been looking for some. Where did you get it?”
In lieu of an answer the guy hands the woman and her friends tarot cards. “You’ll need them later,” he says. The group take their materials and walk into the main room. “What a strange party,” the woman says. “Acid and naked people.”
Someone asks the guy with the party favors how he knows the host.
“[He] taught me how to travel and how to be disengaged regarding money,” he says. “He talked to me about the possibility for finding beauty in humanity.”
In the backyard, people are gathering around the pit to await the show. Others find spots on the back stairs and porches, which seem to be creaking in all the wrong places.
Some techno music starts pumping, and two topless women wearing shiny black skintight shorts–one with pierced nipples, one without–get the fire going, which raises the backyard’s already sweltering temperature a few dozen degrees. The two women start dancing and rubbing their breasts up against each other and swallowing “fire fingers,” miniature torches attached to their hands with wire. At least one guy is highly impressed.
“Dude, I’m watching a fire dance,” he says into his cell phone. “Seriously, naked women with fire in Pilsen.”
“Turn off your cell phone!” someone yells angrily.
One of the fire-eaters takes a swig from a bottle of flammable liquid and spews it at her torch. Meanwhile the eight partygoers who’ve agreed to participate line up at one end of the blaze. Two of the women in line, topless and painted in polka dots and swirls, debate the dangers of running through the fire in nonretardant underwear. Apparently deciding the risk is too great, they shed the panties.
A fire-eater skillfully twirls two flaming cables so fast that they eventually flare out, and darkness descends over the yard. This is the cue for the main event. The attendant stokes up the blaze until the flames reach about five feet.
“Oh my god, are we going to go through that?” one fire dancer whispers to another. But there’s no turning back now. Spurred on by intense cheering, all of the dancers begin jumping through the flames. After a few passes they start to get more ambitious: they go through spread eagle and piggyback; they dive over and somersault on the other side.
“See, this is what the pagans do,” says a voice from the gallery.
Finally the host stands poised before the flames and instructs the attendant to “Torch it, baby.” The attendant squirts out a healthy dose of lighter fluid, and the host barrels through the flames. The crowd goes wild.
Moments later his performance is outdone when one of the dancers balances an empty beer bottle on her head and walks slow-motion, tightrope-style, across the fiery pit. It’s like a surreal, R-rated Miller Lite commercial until she stumbles near the end, the victim of a burned foot. The fire attendant springs into action and douses her leg for a good 15 seconds. Then she’s gingerly helped out of the performance area and up to one of the back decks, where she plunges her foot into a Styrofoam beer cooler.
Shortly after the fire show ends, police arrive out in front of the building. Word of this gets up to the revelers and a hide-the-stash mentality takes over. The host throws on a pair of shorts and runs out to talk with the cops. They tell him a “disgruntled neighbor” made a phone call. He apologizes, instructs everyone to head back inside, and makes a promise to quiet things down. The cops hit the road.
By now it’s nearly 12:30. The beer is gone, the dancers have put their clothes on, and guests are starting to filter out. There’s only one outstanding issue: the tarot cards.
“Sorry,” the host tells some departing guests. “You’re not staying late enough to find out what we use them for.”
But after some prodding he tells them that it was all a bluff, that the cards really don’t mean anything at all. The whole purpose, he says, was to play with their heads.