Smile Politely

On the benefits of being a townie…

A week ago, Memorial Day, I ran into a friend who had moved away after living here for years. They loved it here. A job took them away; a familiar tune. But where they moved didn’t suit them either, despite the great job, and they were off to a new location. The main reason they were leaving the new place? They didn’t like the people much, and had a hard time relating.

After all, they said, living here, you realize that there are so many wonderful people around C-U, and so many fantastic events to attend, but where they’d been living, it was without much culture, because the city was full of a bunch of people who just had never left home.

And that’s where they lost me. Because, well, I’ve never left home, and there are reasons.

This past weekend was one of them. Saturday, to be specific.

I woke up to a dreary, but relatively dry, day. The night before, it was like a monsoon for a few minutes there, so the earth was well soaked, and the air was thick. But the next storm system the following day didn’t hit us. Good thing, because I got to go to both Stubble Fest and the Homer Soda Fest all in one day. And well, they were simply tremendous.

Stubble Fest was simply in honor of local band Sonny Stubble’s last show ever. And true to form, they made their swan song a great event. It took place at La Casa, which is in Urbana, on a very large piece of land right smack dab in the middle of a neighborhood. I’ve partied there before, honestly. Back in high school, and then again in college, and now, as an adult. It’s a tremendous lot.

Full disclosure: I only went for an hour at the beginning of the day, and I never made it back, for reasons I will get into below, but having looked at the pictures of the show today on the social medias, I can state for certain that I wish that I had.

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Charlie Harris lives at La Casa. I’ve been lucky to know him for many years now, and while the bands that he plays in doesn’t really appeal to my musical tastes, his spirit is everything you want in an individual who has moved here, and chose to stay. He seems to take every day in stride, and all the while, makes the most of what he has in front of him. Always performing, always helping out, always the first to say something nice. He’s one of my favorites in this city. He’s the kind of fella that makes me glad I still live here, that I chose to stay.

And it was because of him, I got to meet Dustin Kelly, who has been studying Autumn Berries for the last seven years, and has seen it fit to start producing different kinds of jams, and fruit leather from them. They grow wild, and he harvests them, jars it up, and has begun to have a solid presence in town and even further with the new start-up. I bought a jar and a couple packs of the leather. It’s goddamned delicious. You can buy it at the Market.

He, too, came here from out West and decided to stay. Another person that makes me think to myself, I’m glad I stayed around.

We spoke for a while, had a beer, and talked a little about what he was planning to do with the product, and well, that will likely become an SP story soon enough. That’s how it works around here.

At that point, I headed off to Homer, Ill. That’s a town just twenty or so miles away, to the east of Urbana, and it’s also the site of the Homer Soda Company. These folks literally just distribute all different sorts of bottled soda from all parts of the country. They mainly sell small batch, craft sodas, but they distribute bottled macro-brands as well. Even Mountain Dew, if you can believe it?

This was the first year of the festival, and admittedly, we totally blew it at Smile Politely in terms of previewing it at all, outside of having posted a SPlog. That’s how it works around here. Sometimes, we miss things. Won’t you come write for us, too?

Anyhow, I showed up a little earlier than I had planned because earlier in the week, I got to meet Sandra McClure of Central Lean Meats by way of the internet, who asked me if I’d like to be a judge in their Inaugural Central Lean Brick Street BBQ Cook-Off.

Damn right I accepted.

So, here I was, out on the streets of Homer, and met up with some of my best friends in the world, all folks who live in Champaign or Urbana. I ran into a dozen more, including Josh Lucas, who grew up in Homer. He’s about to open a new coffee shop in Urbana as part of Cafeteria & Company called Flying Machine Coffee. As it happens, he was also to be a judge of the BBQ contest, along with the new Mayor of Homer, a new friend now, named Ray Cunningham. Josh and I have known each other for years, and here he is, after having been a barista for over a decade, both here and in Chicago, taking destiny into his own hands, and giving Urbana what it so desperately needs: an independent coffee shop, right in the heart of Downtown. Will the lawyers and judges and convicted and acquitted do the right thing and buy local? I think so, yes. I am hopeful, anyhow.  

As a quick aside, the owner of Cafeteria & Company is Matt Cho. We went to Yankee Ridge Elementary together in the mid-80s, and even to a couple of each other’s birthday parties. He’s a fella I am still glad to have around. He’s staking a lot on the redevelopment of Downtown Urbana, and well, you know, that’s just courageous and smart, all at the same time.

Back to the BBQ. Well, it was fantastic. There were a couple of clear winners, and a couple of tough calls. In the end, I ate a lot of awesome food and saw trophies go to a couple of very elated groups of people who obviously know their shit when it comes to smoking meat. I thank them for that because, well, smoked meat is the best. And I liked judging it.

Throughout the day, I sampled about twenty different sodas and ended up bringing home a full twelve of them to enjoy as special treats, here and there, throughout the Summer. Fact is, soda pop is terrible for you, as in, the worst thing on earth perhaps — which is precisely the reason why you should drink it every so often, because, well, it’s the best thing on earth.

From what I can gather, the festival was a success and it will hopefully be around for years to come.

This was just one day in Champaign County. It wasn’t monumental or bombastic. It’s not the sort of thing that the Chicago Reader or Trib will likely come down and do a full feature on. But it’s unique to where we live, and it’s worthy of commendation.

I plopped my bloated ass down on the couch around 7 p.m. and never got up again. The BBQ and the soda pop had taken its toll. And I missed the rest of Stubble Fest. But I went to bed knowing that it was happening, and that Charlie and his world were doin’ it the right way, on his own terms, and doin’ it because he loves this place.

I love this place. Sometimes, it’s just good to get a reminder. And I suppose that being who I am, I just wanted to share that with you all, if you are still reading.

That’s all I’ve got. Just feeling really fulfilled. Nothing more, really. Nothing less.

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