Friday, October 31, 2008

Part of Something

Forgive the decidedly orange theme of the last few posts. I seem to be swept up in fall.

I'd actually been planning an entirely different post for today, but last night was so charmed that I wanted to get it down for posterity.

It started with an impromptu dinner at our favorite Mexican restaurant: a family-run place just around the corner, where the food is nothing spectacular, just good, hearty fare with a decent pinch of spice. We're regulars enough here that our favorite server (who's been there for years, and speaks very little English) always follows John's order for enchiladas Michoacanas vegetarianos with "and extra meat, yes?" Sometimes she'll sneak their premium tequila into our margaritas, no extra charge.

Last night the family was celebrating a birthday in the back of the restaurant. We caught up with the owner's son, Saúl, who now runs a successful dogsitting service (and always congratulates us on our orders; he's extremely proud of his mother's recipes). Periodically a hilarious toddler would approach our table, smile, and run away--just to do the whole routine over again a few seconds later.

On the way home we ran into a neighbor, one of the guys of the alley crew--a couple dozen men ranging from their early twenties to late sixties who hang out, play cards, and drink beer every summer night it's not raining too hard. When we first moved in these were challenging dynamics: They sized us up, we did the same, all of us trying to figure out if there were sufficient sympathies there to make for friendly relations. Over time, though, we've become--what to call it?--compatriots, maybe. It's true that there are probably no group dinners in our future. But sometimes we'll join the party for a while. They'll teach me a little Spanish or tease us about riding our bikes so often. And this guy we saw last night . . . he recently admitted he thought our biking was cool, and said if things ever got too loud back there, we should just ask him to keep it down and could consider it done. Last night he was walking his white pitbull Spot, who hates us, so we had a friendly and distant hello and went on our way, smiling and waving as he scolded Spot and just kept saying, "I'm sorry!"

We were home just a few minutes when the doorbell rang. There, with a plate of the cupcakes you see above, was sweet, 9-year-old Priscilla Borja from up the street. "Freshly baked!" she said as she made her offering.

These may seem like everyday acts or small experiences to some, but after a difficult couple of months in the neighborhood, there was something so deeply decent and human in each moment that the evening seemed weirdly bewitched. I think I was overdue for some reminders of the reasons I love where I live.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Don't try this at home . . .

So it was just a week ago that I enlisted your advice for my organic pumpkin.

Indecisive to the last, I thought I'd go for the best of both worlds . . . by simply carving half and cooking half.

I stewed for a while over whether the horizontal or vertical cut was the way to go, then settled on the vertical. I'd leave the base in tact for stability.

But guess what? The whole thing toppled over anyway! For a brief second I considered stabilizing it with an iron doorstop, and then I figured that's crazy talk. Let's make a big pot of soup.

Here you see the final product. Those of you who warned that a jack-o-lantern pumpkin doesn't make the best eating definitely had a point. I'll admit it took a lot of brown sugar, garam masala, coconut milk, wine, and salt to finally get this to something you might like to eat. But after simmering in the pot for a little while, the soup's a qualifed success (not to mention a voluminous one! There aren't enough plastic containers in the world).

So hats off to Brink for keeping me honest and waste-free. Of course we don't have a jack-o-lantern now, but given the surly teens and the fact that Halloween's on a Friday this year, I'm going to call that a stroke of good luck.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Autumn Dilemma

Ok friends, you've never led me astray before.

This lovely organic pumpkin was gifted to us by John's sister Colin. But we're torn . . .

In our shoes, would you 1) carve it or 2) cook it?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Community Policing

You know when something doesn't feel right? That's how it's been in the neighborhood lately. It's tough to describe, but I'm sure the economy's at least partially to blame. People are doubling and tripling up in residences, moving in family members who can't afford to stay where they are. The sardine effect can't be good for one's sanity, and I understand the need to blow off some steam on occasion.

Just not directly in front of my house, if you please.

Lately we've seen a slew of loitering teens on the block. A couple years ago these were nice little kids; now they're surly, hormonal adolescents with nothing to do but stir up trouble.

Last night, when I came home from work, four bricks were missing from my sad but earnest attempt to landscape the parkway. Where are they now? In the front seat of someone's car after going through a windshield? Waiting to be lobbed through a bay window? Needless to say, it doesn't sit well.

So I dutifully attend our community policing meetings once a month. That's Sergeant Mattson on the right. He's pretty much exactly what you'd ask for in an officer: smart, level-headed, reassuring, as quick to sympathize with victims of society as with victims of crime. He lacks the swagger of most police officials, which makes him aces in my book. Plus he's started calling me by name, and he's going to help me with our latest conundrum: a chronic car horn at 5am, Monday through Friday, from an SUV picking up one of our neighbors. After two straight months, it was time to call for back-up. Nice to have friends in high places, even if you're not keen on everything they represent.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

An Object Lesson for the New Economy

See this house?

As recently as two months ago, it had a hot-pink door, windows covered with plastic tarps, and fading wood shingles that looked like they might not survive another rain.

For the entire time we've lived around the corner, Marwen--the struggling architect and regular Joe who owns the place--has worked on renovations, little by little, until they took the shape you see here.

The house belonged to his girlfriend's parents, and it was only on condition of its completion that she agreed to move back in. They lived apart for seven years.

During that time, he took in a variety of immigrant handymen willing to work in exchange for free room and board, had a towering tree come down during a microburst and just miss the west wall, and cared for his pet rottweiler Storm, whom he eventually lost to old age (RIP, sweet Storm).

This was the house that no one ever thought we'd see finished. One neighbor used to cruelly joke that he should just tear it down already and call it a day.

But here's the thing: Marwen made improvements only as he could afford them. If he ran out of money, the place sat idle for a while. He didn't take out loans; he didn't run up credit cards. His second floor was full of buckets to catch leaks for longer than most of us would tolerate.

Now, after several coats of paint and a porch he had to replace twice, the place stands pretty regally on its corner. We've even heard the naysayers remark, "Wow, I never thought it would turn out so nice."

Kudos to you, Marwen, for showing that slow and steady can win the day.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Our Lady of the Underpass

About three years ago, after a particularly snowy winter, a salt stain appeared under the Interstate-94 ramp not far from our house. You may have heard about this--it made the national news--because the stain, to many who observed it, looked exactly like the Virgin Mary.

For months, devout believers flocked to the site with prayers and flowers. At one point the City, rattled by safety concerns, painted over the stain, but two intrepid workers from a nearby auto detail came by with a solvent and washed the paint away.

Nowadays, aside from the occasional visitor who pops by to light a candle or leave some artificial flowers (or in our case try to see the image up close for ourselves, at long last, and take a few photos for posterity), the site sits pretty much vacant. That'll be a different story at Christmas and Easter, when the predominantly Polish and Latino Catholics from the area come by to pay their respects.

I have to admit, were I the apparition of the Virgin, I'd choose a slightly more cheerful place to materialize than the grim Illinois interstate system. But that's just me. I have to say it's mighty nice to see such a colorful tableau against the backdrop of that underpass. It almost makes me want to drive more often.

Ok, I take that back.

But I have to hand it to the people responsible for reclaiming that space. Even the graffiti is a slight cut above.