Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Still Chewing

I mentioned during the last post that there was a reason I was thinking about the economy -- about how what people are willing to do for $5 tells a kind of story about their lives.

This isn't so much about 5 simple dollars. But it is about financial threshholds, and it's definitely about important stories.

The agency I work for is looking to construct a mixed-use building on a lot that's been vacant for 20+ years. I know the lot well. It's just a few blocks from us, on a nearly evacuated commercial corridor desperately in need of revitalization. The building is a gorgeous design in keeping with the aesthetic of the neighborhood. There's commercial space on the first floor and 36 units of residential on the upper three floors. More importantly, each and every unit will be affordable to families making just 50% of the area median income (roughly $20,000 - $44,000 a year).

I was at a meeting last Saturday where supporters testified in favor of this project. This woman talked about growing up in affordable housing, and how the stability it offered enabled her to go to college, where she just graduated with a political science degree. She hopes to start graduate school in the fall.

This man lives close to the lot and is eager for new neighbors. He, too, grew up in affordable housing and now has a home of his own where he's raising his family. He called himself a member of the 'silent majority' -- people who support the concept of housing for all, but may be too timid to stand up and be counted.

One by one, people rallied for the project. They told stories about their lives as single parents, or people who live with their children or elderly parents in tiny, one-bedroom Section 8 housing, because it's all they can afford. They talked about needing a stable place to call home, one with sufficient space for their families and decent transportation, grocery stores, and neighbors nearby.

But that didn't keep the detractors away. Most of them live more than a mile away: one in a mansion on our neighborhood's historic boulevard, another in a mansion near our local historic park. Still others are real estate or development professionals who consider affordable housing the wrong direction for the neighborhood. They're distributing handbills, raising the spectre of public funding and (gasp) Socialism, and they seem prepared to fight to the death.

And to see these two groups in a room together -- the working poor and the upper crust -- underlines how profoundly difficult it's going to be to strike an understanding around these issues.

I guess if I'm writing about this I should have some kind of point. But honestly, the whole thing leaves me a little speechless and paralyzed.

Part of me wants to laugh off the naysayers -- surely people will see them for what they are and shoot down their not-in-my-backyard objections -- but part of me realizes it's groups like this, empowered by both privilege and invective, who often have the last laugh.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

What Would You Do for $5?

Today I came across a coupon, just about to expire, for $5 off the total bill at my local grocery store. I meant to use it toward yesterday's shopping, but forgot completely until I found it this morning in a pile of unread mail.

Seeing as the store is so close to home, I was willing to gamble two blocks for the chance at five extra dollars in my wallet. I still had my receipt, I reasoned, so maybe they'd honor the redemption. (For what it's worth, John thought the chances were slim and wouldn't have made the trip).

The whole thing got me wondering, though: How much farther would it have to be before I said forget it? At what point would diminishing returns make the potential $5 gain less valuable than the time or energy it took to get me there? To be honest, if the store were a couple of blocks farther, or the weather unpleasant, I probably would have opted out. So if that's my tipping point, what kind of story does that tell about me? From financial circumstance to physical capacity to the competing demands on my time. And for what amount of money, and what level of guarantee, would I have made the longer trek? And what would it have taken to risk it all?

There's a fairly specific neighborhood battle that's got me thinking along these lines, and I hope to post about that in a later entry. For now, though, I'm $5 better off than I was an hour ago, but still preoccupied with that triangle around time, space, and money.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Nice and steady, like an egg at the end of a spoon

As I shoveled us out yet again this morning, I held tight to the promise of summer. Flip another couple pages of the calendar, I bargained, and we'll be there. Sweet corn on the grill and dinner on the deck. Perennials peeking out of the soil, no folding chairs or traffic cones marking dug-out parking spaces. Sun on bare skin, sand between the toes. Windows open. Right . . . there.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

I choo choo choose you (and there's a picture of a train)

Today, in honor of Valentine's Day, a story of two halves of a larger whole that wouldn't stay parted:

Last night, after a cycling odyssey that took me to three different venues in three different neighborhoods, I came home to discover I'd lost an earring.

Not just any earring, but one of my favorites. Part of a pair I bought myself just a few weeks ago as a reward for the new job. They were handmade right here in Chicago and weren't cheap. But more importantly, I loved them. I try not to covet material objects, but I'd made an exception for these.

And now, one half of the pair was gone. I checked the collar of my coat, shook out my scarf, searched the hood of my sweater, walked the basement in bare feet. Because of course it couldn't have gone far. But nothing. And suddenly this wasn't just a lost earring anymore; it was further evidence (especially after losing one of my favorite biking gloves the day before) that I just didn't have my shit together anymore.

John begged me just to let it go. "Come on," he said, "these things happen." But I felt hopelessly sad and strangely driven. So at 11:45, we bundled ourselves up, broke out the bikes, and made our way back to the bar. I brushed the snow away from the ground near the rack where my bike had been parked. Nothing. I headed inside and the sympathetic barkeep shined his flashlight all around his paying customers. Empty counter. Empty floor.

Crushed (but not surprised), I headed back out the revolving door into the cold. And there, unmolested, close enough to my foot that I almost stepped on it, going a quarter rotation with each turn of the door, its tiny-ness defying the very enormity of the universe that might have held it, was my earring.

Now I know true happiness is supposed to be reserved for things like babies being born or finding your soulmate. But I'm not sure there's anything quite as heady as having something you thought was gone for good suddenly and unexpectedly resurface.

So I submit (with apologies): A tiny Valentine to all, and to all a good find.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Leaving a proverbial breadcrumb trail

I've been trying to ignore it, but I'm feeling pretty dislocated lately. New job, new commute, new and sometimes painfully unfamiliar work culture. I have to prove myself to people I'm not really sure how to please. I have to keep my cynicism, and sometimes my entire personality, in check. I have to eat in front of strangers.

So I've been noticing more than usual the relief of being home, that inner calm that settles when you land in a place of certainty.

This morning it was the online movie listings for the local $3 theater. What the?, I thought: He's Just Not that Into You? Doubt? Revolutionary Road? Since when do a new release and two "artsy" movies end up at the Logan at the very same time? Sure enough, I made my way backwards and found I'd clicked the wrong link altogether. Ah, there it was: Twilight, Bedtime Stories, Benjamin Button, and Hotel for Dogs. The very craptacular sampler plate I've come to expect at my local theater. But when you get to those movies, they always start on time. There's never a preview and never an ad. And the popcorn's just $2 a bag. Just like that, the earth was back on its axis.

Tonight it was getting dinner ready and hearing three chimes of the doorbell in quick succession. 'That's Priscilla Borja's ring,' I thought. Sure enough, there she was, offering up Valentine cupcakes with her standard 10-year-old panache.

With the full knowledge that we Americans, more than many, get to take these things for granted, I'd like to thank my house, my neighborhood, the good people who live nearby, the children and dogs of those excellent people, the bicyles and the streetlights, and the very sidewalk I walk on, for being there when I get home.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

The trash bounty continues

Since yesterday's thaw, I've been marveling at the migratory patterns of garbage under snow. Seriously, where does it all come from? The grocery bags and candy wrappers I sort of get. But empty laundry detergent containers? Unopened containers of deli meat? Wouldn't we notice this rubbish and clean it up before the snowfall? A dollar to the most compelling theory.

This morning, though, as I walked Inez, I came across this guy -- frozen solid and flat in a pile of newly revealed leaves -- as if to say, It's not all bad. His next adventure will be in our washing machine, after which he'll be bequeathed to one of our tiny-handed friends. I'm thinking probably Celia, our next-door-neighbor, who's been inspired by the warm weather to construct a minature playhouse under our porch.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Well, well, well. Fancy meeting you here.

I just dumpster-dived (or whatever they're calling it now . . . 'freecycling?') these excellent throw pillows from the house across our alley. It's a house that's caused us more than a few headaches these last seven years, so I saw these as a kind of offering. One I very clearly accepted. And not to worry. Next stop: dry cleaner.

The tenants moved out a couple months back, much to our glee. If it wasn't their mangy, unfixed peek-a-poos getting let out the back door to do their business wherever they liked (they seemed to like our front yard an awful lot), it was the rogue fireworks pointed at our garage every 4th, or the screaming matches that prompted regular 911 calls, or -- my personal favorite -- the annual children's birthday party, which one year featured seven full hours of throbbing, NC-17 hip-hop music (rape lyrics anyone?), and the next a chin-up contest for the kids. Ahh, good clean birthday fun.

The house is empty now and there's some apparent work underway inside. I'm not sure what's in store for the old place, but I hope it may translate to the sidewalks being shoveled on occasion. That, alone, would be a welcome change of pace.

Sunday, February 1, 2009


I have a confession: I don't trust machines. Our relationships have always been dysfunctional. After years of misunderstanding, and all those failed attempts at intimacy, it's really best for me to keep my distance.

I owned a car for exactly 6 months (a rusty Honda Prelude I bought from a priest in 1988). We were a terrible mismatch, and when a mechanic agreed to buy it as a birthday gift for his son, I gleefully turned over the paperwork.

I don't have an iPod, a Blackberry, a Wii, a scanner, a shredder, or a digital converter box. I do have a cell phone, but my plan gives me exactly ten minutes a month, and I often forget my own phone number.

And that's why my attachment to this number borders on the pathological.

Some of you already know what this is. Some of you recognized her in a heartbeat. Some of you dread long periods away from home, because you'll have to get through nights without her. You know who you are: My fellow insomniacs, my kindred spirits of nighttime agitation.

For those who aren't familiar, this is a white noise machine. No babbling brooks, no croaking frogs, no gentle rain here, though . . . just the dull whir of constancy.

And when your bedroom window faces a road with screeching tires, thumping boom boxes, honking horns, car alarms, barking dogs, and the occasional street fight, there's no better place for an addled brain to land.