There were two things happening at Le Passage: free Ketel drinks between 11 p.m. and midnight, and DJ Timbuck2 spinning a Thursday night special called “Back in the Day Cafe.” Timbuck2, government name Timothy Jones, saved our lives every Thursday night. We could leave behind our 9-to-5 routines, our business suits, and the language of our downtown Loop jobs and descend underground, where everyone was fluent in Chicago house and the music sounded better with whomever was lucky enough to be dancing with you.
In December 2015, Jones died of cancer. He was only 34. I didn’t know him personally. I remember that he used his turntables like an alchemist and he could melt time by simply playing a specific sequence of hip-hop, reggae, and house that I recognized as peak Chicago blackness. Hearing about his death jolted me, as the death of a similarly aged peer tends to do. But it also reminded me of the life that took shape during those years, in my early twenties, at the exhilarating yet frightening intersection between youth and true adulthood, and how much of it played out with a DJ in the backdrop, spinning and moving us inexorably toward different versions of ourselves.
Chicago house music has a beating heart and lungs breathing gospel-based soul fire, and four walls big enough to hold your cousins (and play cousins). Like the children of Frankie Knuckles before us, we worshipped it and followed the DJs who spun it from club to club: Slick’s Lounge, which was a stone’s throw from the Cabrini-Green housing projects; Funky Buddha Lounge in West Town, unrecognizable during the day; Dragon Room on the Near North Side where we always seemed to find great parking under the el train; Monday nights’ “Boom Boom Room” at Green Dolphin Street off of Clybourn Avenue; and if you weren’t ready to sleep yet, Betty’s Blue Star Lounge near Bucktown—or what was Bucktown after the real-estate agents started inventing new neighborhood borders—where you could vogue with the bartenders and go-go dancers fresh off their shifts, and then walk across the street to the Hollywood Grill for something greasy to sop up the Long Island Iced Teas.
Writing a nightlife column for a magazine in Milwaukee, where I lived, I started going to Chicago nightclubs a few years before I actually moved there. There were lots of lines in that era, lots of time spent waiting. I remember cultivating a nearly infinitesimal patience outside of a club on Chicago Avenue called Red Line, named for the subway line that runs between Evanston to the north and 95th Street to the south. Once inside, my godsister and I would wait in line to check our coats; then an interminable wait at the bar to catch a bartender’s eye and get that first drink—something strong to avoid having to return. Then we waited for just the right moment, when a guy would approach and ask us to dance at the exact time the DJ started spinning something that propelled us both to the floor.
The memories of these places curl out of my mouth and evaporate in the air like the cigarettes I used to smoke outside of them. I remember that Funky Buddha Lounge was the only club where I could dance completely by myself and not feel self-conscious. It was also the only spot where I never had to wait in line or pay a cover due to a couple of service-industry friends. And on August 25, 2009, it was the only place I wanted to be, had to be.
I got the news that Michael Jackson was dead as I was ascending from the subway stop after work. I sent a text to one of my Le Passage homegirls. Buddha tonight? They might play some Michael. I want to pay my respects. She picked me up later that night, playing “Man in the Mirror,” oddly enough. Inside, everyone was talking about MJ and waiting for the house music set to end. I cannot remember what song the DJ started his homage with, but I do remember that somehow I ended up on the platform closest to the DJ booth, performing Michael’s patented spins and high-leg kicks with joyful abandon. For so many years, the DJs had brought us closer to Michael, who never really inhabited this planet in the same way we did. In that moment, I understood the life in his spirited yells and how they contrasted with our impending mortality. We all have to go, but in the meantime, live your life off the wall.
In 1984, husband and wife duo Cecil and Linda Womack—the latter is the daughter of Chicago R&B royalty Sam Cooke—wrote a song that is part of most standard house music sets, called “Baby I’m Scared of You.” The song is relatively mid-tempo, but the bass line works up to a soul-clapping frenzy toward the end. My favorite part of the song is after the break, where everything speeds up and the song becomes a call-and-response between the couple.
You ain’t no Houdini (Lawd, I know I ain’t) I can’t understand it baby
I need a man (I’m available) Mean everything he say Don’t need a boy, full of games and tricks every day
Something about that back and forth gets everyone jubilee free. I have seen grown men rip their shirts open during that part of the song, like Clark Kent transforming into Superman, and coy women belt out “I need a man!” with Holy Ghost abandon.
What did I learn about being a woman, about freedom and consent, about danger and fear, about independence or feminism, about sex and sexuality, while the bass was pumping and the lights were low? The DJ provides a soundtrack to a very specific type of education. We were constantly performing odd, utterly meaningless calculations: What happens when you drink this much, while wearing this much? If a man is this tall and weighs this much, what happens if you change your mind later about anything? What is the most you could lose or gain at any given point in the evening? Somehow, I managed to evade the worst outcomes during that time. There were some minor wounds, nothing fatal. Every night I made it home to sleep safely in my own bed was a roll of cosmic dice. But at the time, I knew what it meant to be scared in the way that Linda Womack sang about someone who could hurt you or love you as easily as a coin toss. So many of us met across a dance floor and tried to turn that chemistry into something bigger than one song, only to find heartbreak or beyond on the other side.
There are no more clubs. There are late nights and early mornings but instead of alcohol or boys or music, there are diapers and spelling tests and little people yelling about what they do or do not want to eat while I try to steal some time to complete a mundane task, like washing my hair. My cleavage, which I used to proudly display like semiprecious jewels, disappeared when my breasts turned into food production facilities. It is not bad. Just very different. I’ve spun into a new, 33 RPM version of myself.
My day job as an archivist means I’m constantly cataloging and describing the past, but when I return to Chicago all I seem to have left are gaps, or what we professionally call “archival silences.” Le Passage long ago ceased “Back in the Day Cafe.” Buddha closed. Sonotheque closed. Green Dolphin Street closed. Betty’s changed its name and brand to something bland. And Timbuck2 is gone forever. If the buildings still exist, previous histories are being meticulously erased. There are new names, new owners, new kids who don’t recognize the opening bars of Mike Dunn and Mr. 69’s “Phreaky MF.” And new neighbors who feel some type of way about enforcing noise ordinances. Even those who remain have trouble remembering where we were and what we did. Most texts from Chicago friends asking me if I remember a certain location where we celebrated a birthday or ran into an unwelcome ex are answered with a “No” and a sad-face emoji. The truth is we’re all eventually left with the faded memories of our youth, as ephemeral as a doorman’s hand stamp.
I do remember bodies, or outlines of bodies, juking against each other, and fists or arms pumping to whatever Tim was spinning. Every so often, I would glance over at him in the DJ booth. He was a slender guy. His arms worked furiously on the turntables to give us the best of what he had, and we repaid him in kind with our sweat dripping down bodies and walls as proof of life. His head would be cocked into the headphones held together by his neck and shoulders, while his fingers anointed the turntables and they became something otherworldly.
Timothy Jones kept us all moving the same way the songs in his set moved—steady, but building up to an explosion. A change of matter from solid to sublimation. We all moved and changed. When I think of what it means to be an adult, or to be grown up, I think all it means is that you create a life full of meaning for yourself and for others. I think if I can live and write half as passionately as the DJ spun, then maybe I’ll be close to creating a meaningful life. If I can just keep spinning, just keep moving.