Nowhere To Go But Up
When getting out is all you have
By Debra Kahn
B-r-u-c-e! B-r-u-c-e! B-r-u-c-e!
Our chants echo through Philips Arena and he struts onto the stage as thousands of us jump up to our feet and the first chords of “Born To Run” begin.
In the day we sweat it out on the streets of a runaway American dream
At night we ride through mansions of glory in suicide machines
I close my eyes and my 61-year-old self is transported back to a time when his music pulsed through my everyday life. It was in 1977 and this 22-year-old began her community organizing job in the Uptown neighborhood of Chicago. I lived on a block run by the Simon City Royals, a gang of pretty Appalachian white boys.
Picture Uptown: a lakefront area ripe for renovation, rocked by the ongoing conflict between slumlords and developers. Patrolled by other gangs with names like Latin Kings and Harrison Gents. Home to a rich variety of immigrants and blue-collar folk. Everyone fighting for their survival: Native Americans, Mexican Americans, African Americans, immigrants from Vietnam, and even old-timers like a legendary writer you kids may not have heard of — Studs Terkel.
Now meet Kathie, Lindsay, and Deb, living together in a three-story brick walkup with sides that hugged the walls of the adjacent buildings. Mr. Classical Music lived next door. He’d set his morning alarm to the public radio station turned up to 11 and we would go to war, blasting the rock ‘n roll station at our shared wake up time. Apartments without curtains, living a Rear Window existence — we saw him and his boyfriend dancing in their underwear, and the two of them were privy to God knows what. Well, I know.
The apartment wasn’t pretty. Lindsay tried her hand at decorating, but she didn’t know much. The kitchen was a mess of thrift store pots and pans. You never knew whose boyfriend was coming, and whose was going, but the boys flowed in and out. Postcards taped to my walls made me dream of France and Thailand.
One or more chemicals fueled our monthly get-togethers as we’d dance all night to bands like Talking Heads, David Bowie, Bruce, and the Rolling Stones blasting from our rough stereo speakers. Sustenance provided by chips, salsa, beer, and mainly drugs. To the outsider this must have looked like a motley collection of dancers, artists, Colorado College hippies, and other assorted weirdos. To us, it was our community. Our home.
The party I’m taken back to — as I sway comfortably to Bruce in my $150 seat — was wild. Wild affair on a hot summer night. We drank Leinenkugel by the sloshing mug. MDA, LSD, and mushrooms got passed around. No one had time for pot. We’d spun Born To Run so many times that we could sing every high note in Clarence Clemons’s sax solos as we stomped our feet. Our downstairs neighbors started hurling onions through the open window to get our attention. We didn’t stop, but we slowed our dancing feet a bit.
The mood mellowed, but no one was sleepy. We began talking about Uptown, this wild fucking neighborhood we all lived in. The people we lived among: old, young, dangerous, desperate. I was loopy from the drugs, but with it enough to ramble on about my work in the community. But no one wanted to hear it, all they wanted to talk about was the graffiti that blanketed Uptown. Some of it was beautiful murals, but most was from gangs marking their territory, clearly branding the geography.
Our obsession with the graffiti turned to action. Around 4 am a group of six of us picked up a can of spray paint and wandered down the street. Nearby was a vacant lot where someday I would organize a massive cleanup and turn it into a community garden. But on that night as we walked onto the lot it was covered in garbage, broken glass, and dog shit.
We carefully walked onto the lot. In the center was a 12-foot-long blank panel of wood. A panel that ought to read: “Welcome to Uptown — a community that has nowhere to go but up!”
We all stood there gazing at the long blank canvas. But before we could agree on what to write, my friend Laurie removed the top off the can, stepped forward, and sprayed “Born To Run” on the sign in huge crooked red letters. It was the song that captured our ragtag group of twentysomethings roaming a neighborhood full of misfits and struggling souls. A place as different from our suburban upbringing as we could imagine. It was our anthem, and now we’d immortalized it.
The next day came way too soon, and I stumbled out of bed, averting my eyes to the party mess. I walked over to Siam Cafe, our local Vietnamese hole-in-the-wall. I sat down, ordered greens cooked in oyster sauce with spicy soy beans. Added a healthy dollop of fiery red pepper sauce and it cleared away the fog of the night before.
Later I walked up the haunting Wilson Avenue, where you never knew who or what you might encounter. Past the Wilson Avenue Bar with its massive swinging doors and wafting odor of stale beer and piss. I looked above at the three-story fire escape, filled with men. They were just sitting there quietly like a flock of pigeons. Sitting there on their perch, drunkenly smoking cigarettes and talking. Just clinging to rusted iron, gazing blankly at the street. Why were they even there?
Shuddering from that image, I walked on. Came upon the vacant lot from the night before. And there it was: “BORN TO RUN.” But now the light revealed more than broken glass and dog shit surrounding our work. Cigarette butts, a child’s tiny shoe, and heaps and heaps of trash. I wanted to clean it up, but what good would that do? The words we’d been proud of were so messy I could barely read them. Paint spray had caught in the wind and the letters bled together. I couldn’t help but wonder: Whose shoe is this? Uptown — neighborhood of abandoned lots, missing children, and lost souls.
Uptown was alive in a twisted sort of way; full of heart but tainted by madness and violence. “Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide,” Bruce sings on Born to Run.
The dark side of Uptown took its toll. By the time neighborhood kids were accurately predicting which building would be burned down in that weekend’s arson for profit scheme, I knew it was time for me to go.
See, I could leave. And that realization said everything. The children missing shoes, the young men preyed on by John Wayne Gacy, the drunks confined to their fire escape — all these lost souls, they had nowhere to run. I’m so grateful that I could, and did. And yet, as I stand dancing to Bruce nearly 40 years later, the Uptown of my 20s is still with me. It formed and informed who I am. It made me stronger.
Bruce jumps into the crowd and we lift him over our heads and back onto the stage and scream as loudly as possible, as if our lives depended on it:
Oh baby, this town rips the bones from your back
It’s a death trap
It’s a suicide rap
We gotta get out while we’re young
’Cause tramps like us
Baby, we were born to ru-u-un!
Bruce draws out the “ru-u-un” for fifteen seconds. Then he finishes the song with a flourish, and looking out at the crowd with a smile he yells, “Yes, girl, we were.”
He’s talking to me.
Originally published at popularium.com on November 3, 2016.