The Elbow Grease Needs to Be Distributed

By Don Hall

When I came to, I was lying on my back on the dirty concrete, my tongue a bit swollen and tasting like I had swallowed a fistful of pennies. My fingertips were blackened and I was seriously thirsty.

I had just seriously electrified myself for the second time, the first only knocking me back a few steps, but this time, it knocked me off my feet and I lay unconscious for a few minutes. I got up to try again.

From 2007 to 2017 I was the Director of Events for WBEZ, and for many of those years was a one-person staff. Later on, I had an assistant but he was so unaccustomed to working that the day following his first event, he called in sick to ice his ankles. 

On this specific day, I was executing the pre-production set up for the third annual Winter Block Party for Chicago’s Hip Hop Arts, a sprawling, all-inclusive day and night of art, breakdancing, films, spoken word and poetry, DJ battles and an evening showdown between the creators of both house music and hip hop as moderated by YCA’s Kevin Coval.

The art was housed in the Chicago Urban Arts Society space. Everything else was to be performed in the abandoned warehouse space adjacent to the gallery. It was January and cold—like eight degrees below zero—so the night before I had a smart car sized heater (the kind they use at construction sites) delivered as well as 400 folding chairs, a movie screen, lights and sound equipment, and two full-sized DJ coffins.

That morning at 5 a.m., I headed over to set everything up. Too early for volunteers, I put together the 32-foot movie screen, the chairs, the lights and sound, and at 7:30 a.m. I was both sweating and freezing at the same time.

And then I noticed the problem.

The big metal door that I was supposed to run extension cords through to power up all this stuff (including the big heater) had been welded shut. I had no electricity. I called the owners of the gallery and they had no solutions.

And then I noticed a solution.

An old breaker box, the front bent off its hinges, was on the wall. I pulled the handle and heard the hum—there was power in there if I could only move the fuses around just so to get a current running through the outlets below. Strip a few wires, twist them together, turn the juice back on; how hard could it be?

After shocking myself twice, you’ve probably guessed that among my skills as an events producer, electrician is not among them. But several thousand WBEZ and Vocalo fans were coming at noon, many of them kids, so failure was simply not an option. And so I got up, dusted off my pants and tried for a third time.

Yes, I electrified myself a third time, the sparks almost catching my beard on fire, but I got it working. There was power. And films and sound and turntables. And heat.

By the time volunteers showed up, I was practically dead on my feet. By the time the public arrived, I had a glazed determination in my eyes. At 8 p.m., when the evening program started, I was lying on the floor in the coat room, knowing I had to strike everything at 10:30 or so.

It was the hardest day of my decade of public radio but, no matter how exhausted I was, as I sat in the corner of the room all day, making sure the artists had what they needed and watching thousands of freezing kids and parents and poets and MCs enjoy the day, something inside told me that it was all worth the effort. I realized that everyone was invested—artists, teachers, filmmakers, poets, the inestimable WBEZ and Vocalo volunteers—everyone had come together to celebrate art. My piece was one of many and by the time I had packed away the chairs and the sound, I knew it had been worth a bit of electrical mayhem.

That is, until I got home around 2 a.m. the next morning, took off my shoes and saw that my feet were as black as charcoal. I then questioned whether or not I was getting paid enough. And as much as my ankles desperately needed some icing, I went in the next day same as usual.

I’m reminded of this story as I look out into the digital world, filled with wannabe iconoclasts and bands of sycophants in tow, trying to bark and scream change into existence. I realize that it is almost never the effort of one person or organization that actually builds the cathedral of change but the collective efforts of many, in tandem toward a larger goal.