| Chicago Reader

Threepeat paranoia: how the Bulls and the Chicago police ruined a perfectly delightful Sunday afternoon poetry reading 

Sometime after dusk on the 20th of June John Paxson launched the three that won the game that gave the Bulls their third straight championship, and the city rejoiced. Except for Jimmie Lee Buehler.

She doesn't want to sound snobbish--she's no fuddy-duddy. And it's not as though she wanted the Bulls to lose. It's just that the hype, hysteria, and fear of postgame rampages ruined her poetry reading. "It's fine that the Bulls win, but it should not interfere with life," she says. "Who will know about the Bulls in 50 years? Basketball won't last forever, but poetry lives."

To appreciate Buehler's point of view you have to understand that she's one of the last of a breed--cultured, well-read, and refined. She was born in the south, raised in New Orleans, and trained at a Baptist college for women in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she studied literature, wrote, and acted. She visited Chicago after World War II and decided to settle here because "the weather suited me. I didn't have an allergy here."

She married, had a child, earned a living as a secretary, and joined a church in Beverly, the southwest-side neighborhood where she still lives. She remained active in theater, all church or Park District productions, performing in Plaza Suite, The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch, and Thirst After Righteousness, a one-act comedy "poking fun at coffee hour at the church" that she wrote, produced, and directed. In May 1975 she won a part in Under Papa's Picture, which starred Eve Arden and ran for several months at the Drury Lane.

"When that play ended I decided, enough with theater," she says. "I did not put on makeup for two months. I was so glad not to have to smear my face anymore. I had had it with theater. It was too boring. Oh, I did do one student movie for Columbia College. I forget what it was called. It was about burying a dog, and the plot was that they could not get a rabbi to do the services for the dog. They cast me for the grandmother, and then they decided to make me the mother. I did not do well. I can't remember lines. Well, I knew my lines, but when you read them out of context it is hard. You need training. It's not like the theater."

After that she took courses in poetry writing and joined a book club that met at the local park. "We called it the Ridge Book of the Hour Club--it was a women's group. I started writing reviews of the books that were reviewed in the club in case the members had missed the meeting. So you did not have to read the books or, I guess, even attend the meetings."

Sometime in the early 1980s she also got involved with the Vanderpoel Memorial Art Gallery--actually a collection of more than 500 paintings that's divided between the Beverly Art Center (2153 W. 111th St.) and the Ridge Park field house (9625 S. Longwood)--which has a small but devoted following in Beverly. John H. Vanderpoel lived in Beverly at the turn of the century, when he was the director of the School of the Art Institute. His book The Human Figure remains a classic text, and after he died in 1911 his neighbors, students, and colleagues decided to create a museum in his name.

Buehler now serves on the gallery's board, along with her friends and neighbors Irene Testa and Ethel Wirtshafter. It was some of the paintings from the collection, along with what she calls "the spirit of Vanderpoel," that inspired Buehler to organize the poetry reading. Vanderpoel, it turns out, was on the jury that selected the paintings displayed at the World's Columbian Exposition in Hyde Park. And this being the exposition's centennial, Buehler thought it appropriate to honor the occasion with a poetry reading at the Ridge Park field house.

Meanwhile, almost unbeknownst to Buehler, the Bulls were heading for a sixth-game showdown with the Phoenix Suns in the National Basketball Association's championship finals. They might have won the series in four, but Michael Jordan missed a free throw in the second overtime of game three. The Bulls lost that game and split the next two, setting the stage for a confrontation in Phoenix on Father's Day--the same day Buehler planned to have her poetry reading.

She'd written and distributed press releases that ran in the Tribune and the Beverly Review. She'd booked the field house and solicited poems from poets all over the Chicago area. She'd also typed and framed two poems ("Amberly Bridge" and "The Empty Cradle") inspired by paintings that hang in the field house. She'd brought out her prize punch bowl (purchased in Plains, Georgia, from Jimmy Carter's uncle) and filled it with homemade punch. And she'd set out plates of homemade brownies and her silver champagne urn filled with flowers.

About 40 people--of all ages, races, and religions--attended. Louise Hullinger read her poem "Jennie Comes Clean," which tells of a woman hanging wash out on the line. "Then she hies to the attic, with girdles and slips / (And items she couldn't discuss) / She hangs them with care lest a male dare stare / Snatch a peek, sneak a look, raise a fuss. / Causing Jennie to blush." Betty Carr read her poem "The English Student," which describes a woman in her English class at Saint Xavier University "tipping her head / like an inquiring sparrow / so her Sassoon cut curves coyly across her face / just the way she intends. / She wants me to see how dear she is, / and change her essay grade. / Baby, / it's too bad you aren't a sparrow, / because you fly / so much better / than you write."

And William Haynes-Morrow, a 12-year-old, presented his ode to vidiots called "Potato." "He is--the vegetable of Life. / He thinks he gets the most out / of it, yet he only gets drops / and dribbles, from others whom / He aspires to be--and makes / excuses, for never trying / to become. . . . He is--the vegetable of Life, / produced and fueled by Pringles and Coke (and sometimes / Twinkies). / He is the trampled and downtrodden / of Society. / He is the eternal, everlasting / 'Almighty' couch potato."

"It was such a stirring setting, such a nice cool day," says Buehler. "The gallery never looked prettier, and we had such a sweet mix of people--poets young, old, male, female, black, white, gifted, goofy. Elsie Bruce was reading a poem about Harry Mark Petrakis, speculating about what would happen if everyone in a literature class took him up on his offer to stop by and visit. And then this Park District official came in and whispered in my ear that we must vacate the premises in 15 minutes. Well, it was only about 3:45, and we expected to read until 4, do a little socializing until 4:30, clean up and leave by 5. In fact, we were told that we could have the room until five. I asked why we had to leave, and he answered, 'The Bulls game.' I thought, 'The Bulls game?' I mean, I knew they were playing--how could you not know, for goodness sakes? But what do they have to do with us?

"It turns out that the police were frankly very fearful of impending violence, and they wanted to clear the park lest there be any trouble. I hardly think the poets pose a threat to the safety of the community--the group which had just read in unison 'And love shall be law supreme' would not be inclined to violence. But the police were quite concerned, one policewoman in particular, and they wanted the whole building vacated: the park, the pool--just clear the whole area. We did what they asked because, after all, rules are rules. They were all very nice about it, no one was hurt, and as far as I know there were no disturbances at Ridge Park.

"But I don't know. It just bothers me. Some of our guests never did get to try the brownies or drink the punch. We did not get to socialize, nor did we have the chance to read all of our poems. And for what? It's such a silly game. I think you will agree that they look so infantile in their shorts that are so baggy. Why do they wear such baggy shorts? It's so crazy. They just bounce the ball around and throw it at a ring. So what? There must be more than that in life. Certainly no one can say that is more interesting than poetry."

And what did Buehler do after her poetry reading was aborted? "Well, I didn't watch the game. I might have, but not after what the Bulls did to us. I can't remember what I did. I think I went out into my garden and started pulling strawberries. That's more important than basketball too."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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