At Home in the Underground: Departures and Returns

In my early 20s I was a butchy dyke, an Ani-listening, bad poetry writing, worse guitar playing kid from the suburbs.  I had lots of company, as far as being a kid from the suburbs went.  On the other fronts, not so much: I didn’t know a single gay kid, let alone a trans one.  In every other way I was average.  I read my shitty poetry at the open mic night once a month at the local Boarders, surrounded by strip malls and Applebees-type restaurants.  I played my guitar on the front porch with my friends at my Grandmother’s house.  I made mix tapes from my dual cassette player and read Rolling Stone during my breaks at work as the manager of a local chain music store.  It was the late 90’s and I was spending upwards of two hours a day in my bedroom writing.  Without an editor or writing community, I believed the work I was doing to be of global import.  And that was true in a sense: the world needs shitty poets because good poets are born out of them.  The world did not need my shitty poetry.

After an ill-conceived affair with my best friend’s girl and a string of, let’s call them, “missed connections” between myself and some of my “straight” female friends, I had just gotten my first honest to god, interested in me, girlfriend.  It was during this time in my life, the time when one says things they don’t mean and does thing they don’t want to do because one is still very immature, and is equal measures that immaturity and bravado, that my friend Shawn told me about an open mic he heard of in the city.*

An open mic in Chicago?  I was ecstatic.  Next weekend we were parking down the street from the Burkhart Underground, an institution on Halsted for Chicago’s “Angelheaded Hipsters.”



Image by Simon Johnson

Outside: Image by Simon Johnson

Before the Underground, I had just gotten out of my sing-songy, strict iambic pentameter, end rhyme, unrequited love poetry phase and had recently entered the world of angry, political, spoken word poetry.  These poems were just as awful as the unrequited love ones, but they centered mainly on being gay and self-righteous.  Let me take the time here to publicly thank Shawn for coming to EVERY SINGLE, UNDOUBTEDLY MISERABLE open mic I have ever performed in, AND for telling me the bold-faced lie that I was good.  It’s that kind of abject and harmless truth skewering that bolsters multi-decade friendships.

bye 2

Fred across the street:


Inside: 1

Inside: 2

Inside: 2

I was intimidated and intrigued: Burkhart’s place was a commercial space on Halsted Street, in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood, an area equal parts recently-graduated frat boy, flamboyant drag queen, J Crew urban yuppie, and gay bar go-go dancer.  Once we walked through the looking glass, on the other side of the picture window was a home for some of Chicago’s marginalized artists: Burkhart opened his home every Thursday night for any performer or audience to be welcomed through his door.  A suggested four dollar donation would get you entry, coffee from his kitchen upstairs, and a seat for the show.  That first night there I did a shaky rendition of my best piece, something exuberant and naive, and to my surprise, Fred emerged from the back and cheered for me when it was over.  Fred was many things to many people, but no one can argue he was a champion for all kids who needed someone to believe in them.


My (old) name at the bottom: a flyer for the Underground, June 2002.

The Underground had an open floor plan with some scattered tables and chairs and the walls were covered in art: photography, drawings, paintings, some by Burkhart, some from the myriad people who wandered in and out of his life.  Burkhart was a fastidious photographer: his subjects ranged from the BDSM scene to white supremacists.  There’s an old story about the time Fred spent many months with the KKK, photographing them, and when finally one member approached him and asked, “[s]o brother, when you gonna join us?” Fred replied, “I’ll sooner join the Girl Scouts than you clowns.”  The subsequent beating they gave Burkhart nearly killed him.  Fred was brutally honest.  Fred was kind and likable.  Fred was an artist and a patron of the arts.  He was a lover, of the aesthetic and, surely, of more than one of his nude subjects.

"Burkhart and unidentified female object" Image by Fred Burkhart.

“Burkhart and unidentified female object” Image by Fred Burkhart.

Fred would stand in front, or peek his head around a load bearing post, or whistle from the top floor when I was reading something he thought particularly about.  After I was finished, he’d give me his notes.  Fred encouraged me to speak my voice, and would be quite curt when he thought what I was saying wasn’t authentic to my experience.  Fred Burkhart was my first editor.

My first night performing in the Underground was punctuated by rotating bouts of eagerness and nerves.  There was a sign-up sheet going around for performers; I nervously scribbled my name and gulped down the butterflies.  Shawn and I took a seat somewhere in the middle, and what we saw that night was no different than any other open mic in the midwest: covers of Cure songs, full bands lugging their own gear.  A few poets, mostly white, mostly young.  But the energy was different from what I felt in the suburbs.  I was surrounded by strangers in a house that wasn’t mine.  There were mysterious corners and tattoos and fishnets and eyeliner.  There were thin men reading Dostoyevsky and artists parked in the rear, painting.  In the backyard, there was a chessboard under a tree.  It was Oz.  I was the scarecrow.  I went to Burkhart with the hope of being made a poet.  During our friendship Burkhart taught me I was a poet all along.

I would return many Thursdays thereafter, and even worked my way into a resident poet position there, performing as the headliner more than once.  I was just learning, without knowing it had a title, blank verse.  I got bored with spoken word and started writing these weird Frank O’Hara-esque, New York School of poets pieces without having read any O’Hara or having any idea who the New York School poets were.  But my nights at the Underground became fewer when, in the fall, I left my day job and went to college in Iowa.  It was time for me to start studying some of this poetry stuff I purported to love.

I continued to email Fred, and he would correspond back.  He was the first person to treat me like a writer.  And without his encouragement I wouldn’t be the confident public speaker that I am today.  I have had many teachers in my life, and Fred was one of them.  For many people he was more than that, for me, he was just what I needed: he wasn’t a confidant, he wasn’t a relative, he was a guy who heard my shitty poems and said, I hear you.  Do better.  And at that time, it was all I needed to keep at it.  It wasn’t Fred that was going to make me a poet, it was practice.  Fred taught me that.


Just last week I walked down Halsted past the old Underground.  He moved his operation a few years back, while I was in Massachusetts at grad school, when his lot was purchased and renovated into condos.  As I walked down the street I ruminated on my time there, and thought about searching for him.  Three days later a mutual friend would tell me Fred Burkhart succumbed to the cancer that had plagued him for the last four years of his life.

There are beautiful tributes on his Facebook page, and scores of articles written in memory of him, that you can find here, and here, and his homepage is still up here.

I feel equal parts happy and sad.  I wish I could have told him about the impact he had on my life, but there are oodles of other artists and writers and photographers who told him everyday how important he was to the Chicago alternative arts scene.  He had his fans, his followers, his groupies, for over 40 years in Chicago: he undoubtedly knew his place in the scene.  On this earthly plane, I guess I am glad to have left Fred guessing about whatever happened to that kid with the poems.  He surely had a mystical/spiritual side, and if his consciousness is still out there, I’m glad for him to maybe catch me walking to the bus, pen between my fingers, and know I’m still at it.

Fred had his share of time with the Beat Generation poets, and you wouldn’t be out of line to think of to the oft-quoted Kerouac line from On The Road, you know, the bit about the mad ones:


But right now, ruminating on Burkhart, It occurs to me he was the shambler and the mad one, he was Jack and Neal, the observer and observed.

Borges wrote, “[t]ime is the substance I am made of. Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river; it is a tiger which destroys me, but I am the tiger; it is a fire which consumes me, but I am the fire.”  I think of all the little fires Fred set off in the hearts and minds of the lives he touched.  Yeah, Fred the consummate burner.  Burning, as in emerging out of and returning to dust.  Consummate, as in accomplishment and intercourse.  Yeah, Fred would have liked that.

In his element:


Be nice to yourselves, 
Your Pal Eli

*”The city” is meant here, in this post and forever on this blog, to mean Chicago.