Wednesday, January 30, 2008

That's not what we meant by tackling the drug problem!

Back in November, the eponymous Paul Davis Pharmacy closed after 49 years in business at the same corner, directly at the end of our block. It was a symbolic departure: an olde world pharmacy trying to survive new-world urban machinations. It was tough not to see the old corner pharmacy as an anachronism, but a welcome one.
Paul continued to work under this sign until the day they closed, when all the existing prescriptions--and Paul along with them--transferred to the new CVS about a quarter-mile away.

The CVS doesn't have a whole wall of old make-up on a circa-1972 Maybelline backboard, though. It doesn't have a handful of Dr. Scholl's inserts hanging on a Danish-modern display, specifically designed for this purpose. And it doesn't have the faded greeting cards and calendars, the dusty jars of face cream, or the AM radio headphones that long-time employee Gert found in basement storage about a month before they closed. Of course it has Paul, but he won't be able to chit-chat like he used to, ruminating over an upstart alderman candidate's chances to beat the machine incumbent . . . or whether it's mannerly to put out old chairs and milk crates to reserve parking spots dug out from winter snow.

But wait! Is that a whiff of optimism on the air? Holy dig-me-out-of-despair, Batman. Turns out a friend who's an attorney (one of the good guys, who represents whistle-blowers and other underdogs) decided to buy the space. He's gutting it as we speak, making sure the old shelving units get properly salvaged and finding good homes for the display pieces. Repurposing.

To our house came a heavy oak store counter, with a deep drawer for supplies and cavity for storage underneath. The entire top rotates! At the moment this goliath is in the basement, doubling as an art storage cabinet and a surface for folding laundry. Mundane jobs for such a weighty artifact. But it's going to use and that seems fitting.

The pharmacist on the corner will soon become the barrister on the corner. We're mercifully saved from another check-cashing center or cell-phone provider. And though we'll have to look elsewhere for antacids and lip balm, at least we won't need to travel far for that living will we've been meaning to get down on paper.

Monday, January 28, 2008


Obama's wasn't the only landslide victory this weekend.

On Saturday we headed to Cicero for the season opener of Chicago women's roller derby. A new neighbor on our block (who's both a derby girl and a sociology PhD) plays for the Manic Attackers , so we went to cheer her on. Alas, the Attackers were trounced by Hell's Belles.

In a second match, the Double Crossers made mincemeat out of the Fury, despite valiant efforts by players like Anne Putation and Hausa Pain. This isn't powderpuff football, my friends. One player was actually paralyzed from the neck down during a freak accident at a 2007 match. She was a special guest at this past Saturday's game -- pretty moving stuff. Her medical bills promise to top $700,000 this year. Although an atypical poster child for universal healthcare, she's every bit the reminder how overdue it is.

Friday, January 25, 2008


I like to think my grandmother would have enjoyed this neighborhood. It's filled with strong working people like herself (she brought in about $100 a week as a cashier in a
high-school cafeteria). And she would have liked the houses around here, which were generally built to last. Ours has lasted over 100 years, and we're banking that the updates we've made will ensure its survival long beyond our residency, which we'd welcome until we're as old as my grandmother.

She came to visit us once, although she doesn't remember it. Her memory is one of those tricky things that stores the most miniscule details of the past, but can't seem to recall what she told us five minutes ago. So she tells us again. This is how I've learned that she eats dinner every night at 4:30, and she has a driving penchant for bingo. And did I mention that her dinner is generally at 4:30, and she really enjoys playing bingo?

I like to imagine her living in this house at my age. My tool-and-die maker grandfather would come home for dinner--maybe a lasagna or Shake & Bake pork chops--and they'd sit together with the kids around the dining room table. My grandparents would have taken the upstairs bedroom that faces the street, which is where my grandmother would have developed the insomnia that still plagues her today (and which she passed down to my father, and he to me).

My father and his brother Jack would have shared the bedroom off the kitchen, for easy access to the refrigerator. Tom, the funny one, the heartthrob (who died unexpectedly from an infection picked up in the hospital during chemo last year) would be in the front bedroom next to the living room. And Barbara, my grandmother's pride and joy, would have secured the room at the top of the stairs, closest to her parents, who wanted to keep an eye on her -- their youngest, their girl.

My grandparents would have struck up a friendship with Mildred down the street, who's lived on this block almost 50 years and has seen the neighborhood tumble over on itself countless times. They would have sent the kids to the public elementary school two blocks north, and watchful Aloysious would have told them all to pick up their litter and be good to their parents. The kids would have listened.

My grandmother would have relished the joys of the neighborhood: the block parties, the children at play, the twinkling Christmas lights that seem to stay up until April. And she would have cringed at the violence: at seeing boys and girls she'd known as babies suddenly take a turn, getting enticed into gang culture and all the tumult that comes with it. She would have been something of the neighborhood conscience, loving the area for what it was, but sometimes resenting it for what it could be, but wasn't.

I saw my grandmother last weekend in Florida. Her quote of the week? . . . "That Giuliani. He's just such an asshole."

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Home Sweet Home

I'm just back to Chicago after 6 days in Florida for my cousin's wedding. She's gorgeous and apple-cheeked, and she and her sweetie live in Ft. Lauderdale, a stone's throw from the neighborhood where both her older sister and brother are raising their respective families. The reception was held at the groom's family's yacht club, which is literally a docking site for the members' giant boats--all starboard and swabbing, the whole nine yards. Photos of local ship captains hang behind the bar, so your eyes just trail from one to another as you're waiting for your gin & tonic. Except for the occasional mustache, I dare you to tell them apart.

Different worlds, but so be it. Live and let live. I certainly had the pleasure of getting all dressed up and dancing with people I haven't seen in 10 years. And I got to escape an especially frigid Chicago winter for almost a week.

On day one I was feeling pretty smug. An arctic chill had settled over most of the rest of the country, but there I was in my swimsuit, catching a little sun and watching boats go by along the Intracoastal.

But by day three I was aching to see my breath again. There's just something not quite right about walking around bare-legged in January.

This got me thinking: vacations are great, but even sweeter is an appreciation for where you've put down roots. Sometimes it borders on breathlessness for me. This hasn't always been the case. Those flights back to Kansas during grad school always carried with them a healthy dose of dread. Where I'd traveled was always slightly better, for me, than what I was about to return to. Not so these days, and that makes me feel like one incredibly lucky duck.

So to Florida I say, bring on the seasons . . .

Trade in your palm trees for pines and barren maples.
Give up your freeways for bike lanes or subways.
Banish those year-round outdoor pools for water that's ice-capped
all winter long.

Holy bejeezus, it's good to be home.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lovely Inez

You know what they say: people end up looking like their dogs.

I don't totally agree, although my mother (with ancestry north of Warsaw) calls Inez an "old Polish girl." As for me and Inez, our dispositions are probably more similar than our looks: occasionally mistrusting our own kind, craving peace and quiet. Music is best at low volume . . . and for god's sake enough with the fireworks.

It's been almost three years since John opened the front door and found her there, just sitting, as if to say, "Here I am. What took you so long?"

In darker moments, when I find myself wondering if life might have been better had we moved just two blocks east, on the other side of the dividing line between relative harmony and persistent unrest, I realize: if not for this house with this porch on that particular night, someone else would have ended up with this sweet and complicated beast of my heart.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Waste Not

Our kitchen is big, but awkward: a walrus of kitchens. The sink is a good ten paces from the oven, and counter space is a series of squares about the size of cutting boards. We stack our coffee mugs and juice glasses to fit the cabinets. And our single window lets in limited light because of the way Chicago houses are sandwiched into their lots. We could hand a cup of sugar across the gangway if we had to. But we work with what we have.

This is fitting, because cooking, for me, has its roots in conservation. My maternal grandmother ran a French restaurant for decades. French chefs, for all their extravagance, are masters of thrift. They believe in using everything that can be used. The lowly garden snail is a culinary treasure.

My mother worked for a Head Start program in Cincinnati. I remember visiting those sites as a kid, watching as she hoisted giant bags of rice or rolled oats out of the trunk of our car and into the facility kitchens. She still talks about teaching a group of struggling women how to make a fruit salad out of a single apple, orange, and banana (a recipe that often made it to our table as well).

It's no surprise, then, that I lean toward what I call the "empty larder syndrome": having very little in the pantry, but concocting something lovely from what's there.

Last week it was an apple crisp, made from 11 mealy Braeburns that'd been sitting in our fruit bowl for several weeks. We combined it with a scoop of French vanilla ice cream, and I was in the ether.

This past weekend, as John slept off a nasty flu, I rummaged through our refrigerator and found 6 individual bags of bread ends. Nothing fancy: just garden-variety supermarket whole-wheat. I also had a box of frozen spinach squirreled away-- left behind when my folks moved from Chicago to Maine--and a container of mushrooms. Cracked a few eggs and broke out the hand mixer. Voila: the savory bread pudding we ate for Sunday dinner:

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Everything New is Old Again

So the new year started off with a bang, literally. At 5pm, January 1, 2008, the first murder of the year for Chicago was logged a block south of our house: a triple homicide, execution style, gang- and drug-related.

This kind of thing used to be pretty common around these parts, but life has calmed down considerably these last few years, and we've settled in to loving our house, adoring our neighborhood, and feeling grateful to be in a place that actually offers, well, a sense of place. We walk home late without thinking twice about it, and we laugh together in the morning when we realize we forgot to lock the door last night.

Now it's a different kind of comfort: an indoor comfort. It's a continued love of house, street, and neighbors, but a sense that we should hurry inside when we get home: not linger too long, keep an eye and ear on the street, and make sure--contrary to my inner Luddite--to have a charged cell phone on hand when heading home from the el after night classes. There's the protective stance we adopt when well-intentioned co-workers ask about these crimes, and wonder out loud how we can stand living where we do. Aren't we afraid?

To some extent, yes, we're a little bit afraid. It's the city, and these things happen, but they're happening awfully close to home these days. Bullets can miss targets. Neighbors' kids get tempted into gangs. And a pall is cast over our otherwise exceptional community. So we're saddened, too. Saddened to see and feel tragedy in our midst, saddened to discern what the police are really saying when they chuff, "Ma'am, no need to worry. This has nothing to do with you."

But we also persevere, cleaning up the litter, calling police when yet another nearby building gets tagged, and delighting in the fact that the local tamale vendors are still out there, in sub-freezing temperatures, and in spite of recent catastrophes, selling tamales verdes con pollos four for a dollar--made fresh in their kitchens throughout the previous night--a scarce two blocks from home.