Thursday, February 28, 2008

Our house is demanding bottled water and only red m&ms

If you're bored today, check out Apartment Therapy, where our humble house makes its debut. Let me warn those of you who plan to visit: it'll never be this spotless again. Steel yourselves for the dust bunnies and canine wear-and-tear. Better yet, pop in soon and enjoy its ephemeral glory.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Make art! Make art!

More than the Henry Bacon memorial column in the center of town, more than the MegaMall at the heart of a contentious land-grab debate, and more than any of the off-the-beaten-path restaurants that get high marks in the foodie press, this, to me, is the most important landmark in my neighborhood.

Not only do gentlemen in sport jackets check your bags at the ticket counter, but the women's bathroom is still a lounge, with divans in the seating area and tiny round lights around the mirrors. Never mind that the floors are sticky and the springs coming up through the seats, and that virtually every movie I've seen there has had its soundtrack punctuated by the snores of a down-on-his-luck patron, ducking in for a two-hour nap. Every show, at every time, is just three dollars. And a large popcorn? Two dollars and change.

They have four separate screens these days. It's a pretty safe bet Vin Diesel, Miley Cyrus, or some other action star or tween sensation is starring in three of the four. But every so often a movie pops up that's probably been on your list for a while. We caught Michael Clayton there last weekend, and now that the Oscars are over, a slew of those contenders are likely to appear minutes before they head to DVD (a good thing, because we missed most of them).

Probably the marquee highlight of the year was when the theater showed "Once" for all of a week. I'm not usually an Academy Award watcher, but we hunkered down last night for the three-hour show. I dare you to forget a teary Glen Hansard shouting, "Make art! Make art!" or Jon Stewart bringing back Markéta Irglová to finish her speech. Make art, indeed. Then bring it to the Logan Theater for the coins you'd find in your pocket.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Block Club

So what do you do when 2008 starts with a triple-homicide a block away? If you're me, and you don't sleep much anyway, and you're trying to find that sense of purpose your job routinely denies you, and you're a borderline masochist, you apparently start a block club.

So far I'd say this experience has been about equal parts satisfaction and frustration. Our inaugural meeting was standing-room-only: 26 people from all walks of life crammed into far too small a room, discussing our biggest concerns, worst fears, and lofty hopes for collaborative improvement. Rats, gangs, graffiti, speeding traffic, vandalism, cracked sidewalks, block parties, after-school activities, affordable housing, neighborhood clean-ups, and the lack of organic milk at our local grocery store--we ran the gamut.

The second meeting was quite a bit smaller. At the request of the group, I'd invited three speakers (one a detective for the CPD and two others from the local Ceasefire gang prevention program). It was a strange little meeting. The Ceasefire folks were inspirational, explaining how their organization was founded by an epidemiologist. They approach the gang problem as if it's an epidemic, working to contain the spread of violence and inoculate from within. They hire ex-gang members as outreach workers, do extensive background checks, and have their people working the streets from about midnight to 4am. The express intention is to make connections with current gang members, doing what they can to encourage breaks from the shooting. The workers provide resources, training, and support for affiliates who want to escape the culture once and for all. While Ceasefire partners with police, they recommend police involvement only as a last resort. As the executive director suggested, "Next time you see someone loitering on the sidewalk, why not bring them a cup of coffee instead of dialing 911?" Sometimes the simplest connection is the most profound and effective.

The detective fell somewhere counterclockwise to Ceasefire. Nobody could ever say she hasn't paid her dues--grew up in one of the worst housing projects in Chicago's history before joining the force. She's been doing detective work, primarily on the south side, for at least thirty years, and she's seen things that would surely keep the rest of us awake at night. But she relied more on platitudes and dramatic gestures than on concrete, achievable strategies. She brought along a full bag of props and proceeded to show us how gang members hide drugs in belt buckles, doll diapers, and wigs. But when someone asked if it might be useful for us as a group to spend more time outside this summer, as a way to reclaim and occupy our community, she simply didn't understand the question. Instead she suggested running our sprinklers over people and cars we didn't want near our houses. At one point, with a flourish of her hand, she said, "You say you want to know what's going on. Well you can't know what's going on, because we don't know what's going on." Didn't exactly inspire confidence in the police. Still, as John likes to say, whatever her quirks, she comes by them honestly.

The irony of a group of mostly white folks--who only skeletally understand gang culture and its attendant symbols--coming together to strategize how to reduce crime in our neighborhood, wasn't lost on any of us. But we persevere, buoyed by just getting to know each other, or learning there are folks behind the scenes working on everyone's behalf, including those kids who might rather just be playing basketball--if only there was a godforsaken hoop nearby.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

My Sweetheart of the Camcorder

I'm departing from a fairly relentless focus on home and neighborhood to deliver a love letter to an artist I discovered yesterday. I'd gone down to Hyde Park for a Henry Darger exhibit--which was amazing, if smaller than I'd hoped--and stumbled into a room with a video installation by Israeli artist Guy Ben-Ner. Ben-Ner, curbed by limited means, converted his small apartment into film sets and his children into collaborating players. Whether he's reinterpreting Moby Dick or Truffaut's L'enfant Sauvage, there's an incredibly precocious and self-effacing quality to his work. He's been likened to Buster Keaton, which is certainly an apt comparison (and one he references often).

I guess I can justify this post by saying that Ben-Ner, too, seems to be negotiating what it means to be home--although while I'm constantly working toward fixing and stabilizing my space, trying to turn it into a reliable haven and highly functioning machine, he's disrupting and reinventing his, defamiliarizing it, dressing it up in a new and disarming costume. I can barely even stand to vaccuum my house, much less turn it into a whaling ship.

Anyway, I've been trawling the internet today with all the giddiness of a high school girl, driving repeatedly past the house of her latest crush. If you're more internet savvy than I am and can find a full-length version of Stealing Beauty or The Wild Boy, you can thank me later. Just be sure to send me the link.

Friday, February 15, 2008

When Inez Gets Introspective

Am I pretty enough?

Will it ever stop snowing?

Will my walk be paved with Funyons or Flamin' Hot Cheetos?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Renaissance Plumber

Our plumber--who paid his first visit to the house this morning--is a self-proclaimed libertarian with hair like David Carradine. He knows everything about Chicago plumbing history and sketched out this drawing of our system.

Between the lines is a theory that sits nicely with me: simple folk remedies should hold us steady for a while. A little water down the basement drain and catch basin, and we'll be fine for the short term. As he put it, "I'm only here to tell you the truth. My family's been in this business since the 1800s, but you don't have to believe me." Then, after a pause, "We're really not looking for work."

He explained that what we might eventually want to do is exactly what's depicted on this drawing. This sketch, no joke, is a feat of engineering. It shows an intricate before-and-after plan, whereby our kitchen stack would be rerouted from the catch basin to the soil stack, where everything would feed into the city plumbing system instead of the small reservoir under our back stairs. I know, I know, tedious stuff. But it actually made perfect sense to John, which only proves the secret language of the handy.

Our plumber answered no question simply. He explained the art and science of pipes and drainage, because it was important, to him, that we understood the mechanics. He was worried about our hot-water-heater, suggesting we light a match near one of the metal hinges next time someone is taking a shower, just to see whether gas is escaping. Then quick as he'd come in, he was out the door.

"Wait," I said. "What do we owe you for the visit?"

"Nothing, nothing," he said, and our storm door slammed behind him as he bounded down the stairs in his giant, unlaced rubber boots.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Watering Hole

Last night I met up with some friends at my favorite bar in the city, which happily for me is just 6 blocks from the house. The place is a study in contradictions. It's been covered by Chicago Magazine, Time Out Chicago, and the New York Times, but it's also near the epicenter of Spanish Cobras territory. It has a working vintage photo booth and a gorgeous old shuffleboard table, but until very recently, the alley out back was an open-air drug market, and more than once gunshots have resounded over the lounge music, followed by the wail of sirens.

The only real public transportation is a westbound bus with a limited schedule, so it's local neighborhood folks that've worked to put this place on the map. That said, the non-indigenous still seem to make it to our hinterlands on occasion. And they only foster that sense of dichotomy I was talking about earlier. One night we met a cop who used to be a woodworker, a former punk musician who found Jesus and is now trying to launch a gospel career, and a 50-something gay porn star (We looked him up and he checks out. Word to the wise: don't enter 'gay porn' into a search engine unless you're prepared for what you're going to get. Of course some of you make that a daily regimen--you know who you are--and I grant you full rights to call me a prude).

At any rate, Alex, the bar-keep (that's him in the white shirt and suspenders) reads old vintage cocktail guides. He makes a mean claret sour, which I highly recommend.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Super Tuesday with Stanley

My neice has entrusted me with her precious charge, a full-color, paper cut-out Flat Stanley. For those who don't know, Flat Stanley is a character from a children's book from back when I was a kid (ok, quit looking that up). Anyway, this 2D guy got new legs in the early 90s, when a teacher got students to send Flat Stanleys all across the world so his adventures could be recorded.
This particular Flat Stanley has come to us in Chicago, which presents us with the challenge of making our lives a story -- of figuring out what could possibly be worthy of documentation.

So far we've taken him to the Mexican grocery store; to my sourdough lesson over the weekend; onto the el, where he was fortunate enough to get a seat; and most recently, to the voting booth for the Illinois primary, where some cajoling on my part got his photo taken with a blank ballot.

Can't say I was altogether thrilled with the election results, but I also can't say I was as informed as I'd hoped to be, especially with respect to the local races. This is a call to action for me between now and November, when I hope to vote with a stronger degree of both conviction and lucidity.

Next up for Stanley, though, is bicycling to the Polish district about a half-mile north, where I fully expect to come home with some kruschiki and homemade kielbasa, and maybe some Polish candy to send back as a souvenir.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Sourdough Clinic

Yet another stranglehold of gray weather today, so I'm thinking fondly of the baking lesson I got this weekend from our awesome neighbors a block north, who've been cultivating the same sourdough starter for the last several years. I came home with a small starter starter (repetition intended) of my own, and though I'll cop to some mild anxiety over having yet another thing in my house I need to keep alive, the taste of that amazing bread might be enough to bring out my inner nurturer.

If not, I guess I can turn to the sentiment left by one of our neighbors after last night's snowstorm. John looked out the window before coming to bed, and someone had done us the kindness of a late-night dig. He or she had also, however, carved "JESUS LUVS US" into the snow. I wish John had gotten a photo, but he was apparently too busy sweeping away the evidence.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Team Shovel, On Your Marks

Anyone else hear tiny tinkling bells? Last night the biggest winter storm of the year buried Chicago in about eight inches of dusty white. It's the kind of snow that sticks to your eyelids and rests before it melts.

We live in a city, like most, that uses public resources to clear the streets for drivers, but leaves sidewalks to the mercy of property owners. This is not an ideal system (especially for the injured or infirm, who can't be expected to manage the job). Nothing gets my ire up like buildings chock full of the able-bodied, who will dig out their own personal vehicles but leave the sidewalks to hope of a sunny day. It makes for some treacherous walking. I've surrendered my delusions of fashion for boots that would make a mother proud: fuzzy lining, thick soles, waterproof exterior.

We're fortunate, though, to live on a block where a covenant has emerged. No one shovels just their own walk anymore. You take care of your neighbors, and rest assured they'll take care of you back. What started with just one or two adjacent houses has turned into a regular charm bracelet: add as you go. Our territory now extends from Eugenio's house to the southern end of the block, where the sidewalk dips into the street. We'll catch every house, probably 700 feet across once we've cleared the last patch. A couple of hours later we might be in the living room, getting ready to walk Inez, and hear that telltale sound of metal to concrete: there's one of our neighbors, buried under parka and fleece, tackling the next round of snow.

There's something pretty majestic about getting up before dawn and heading out to shovel, yet again, after the snow has continued to fall through the night. And there are your morning comrades, sporadically working their shovels up and down the block: some in silence, some shouting greetings to each other in Spanish, and some, like our neighbor two houses down, just getting home after the night shift and taking care of business before heading to bed.