Sunday, April 26, 2009

Art is Everywhere

If you live in Chicago, you know that yesterday heralded one of our favorite rites of spring: an early batch of April thunderstorms. It was the perfect night to stay in and do nothing. And we might have, if not for having made reservations at a puppet show, of all things, to be held in a residential three-flat not far from our house.

On arrival, we were greeted by some friendly hipsters taking donations in an old metal lunchbox. We popped in our $10 and waited for the show.

Part I was something called "The Matchbox Circus." A woman stood in front of a video monitor that projected the image of her hand moving the various 'performers' across a tabletop stage, the whole thing crafted from matchboxes, wooden matches, and occasional magnets. Projected on the wall, the pieces were larger than life; up close they were no bigger than a fingernail. There was 'the Brave Bunny,' who both got shot from a cannon and leapt into the arms of a fire-breathing dragon. Or Bill the Unscary Pirate, who balanced his seven flying chairs precariously on a thimble.

From there it was up to the attic, where we were treated to a gorgeous story, both visually and thematically -- even more affecting because of the expressions on the faces of the handcrafted paper-mache puppets. The set took up the entire attic and the puppeteers wandered through the crowd to tiny crevices under the eaves or around the brick pillar of the interior chimney. There was also narration, live music, and shadow work, all to tell the story of a man, Alef, who sells his soul to the Devil to avoid being a fool, then has the cavity of his soul filled by the enduring love of his wife, stubborn and soulless herself, but devoted and adoring.

The basis for the story is an old Jewish folk tale, adapted by writer Jonathan Keats in The Book of the Unknown: Tales of theThirty-Six.

So essentially Kate, the puppetmaster, reinterpreted Keats' story, which was itself a reinterpretation of a Jewish parable. But the most interesting reinterpretation, at least for me, was that of an unfinished attic and all that is inherently possible there.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Closing the Loop

Ever since my friend Kevin's pooch suffered an injury from broken glass, I've been noticing all the discarded bottles up and down our sidewalks. Not that you can miss them. Tastes seem to run toward Michelob, Heineken, and Corona, with an occasional Stella Artois thrown in for good measure. Sometimes you find them broken to bits, sometimes as a full
pack of empties still in their cardboard containers.

And the whole thing begs the question: what ever happened to good old-fashioned deposit laws?! Ok, I know what happened to them: the Keep America Beautiful campaign, which shifted the responsibility for litter from manufacturers to the humble individual. That, and a little Capitalist invention called the plastics industry, which successfully shifted bottling norms in one hideous, unsustainable paradigm shift. Not for beer, fair enough, but with the ascension of plastic for beverage packaging, bottle refunds went the way of the dodo bird.

But seriously, isn't it time to bring them back? Can't we learn a little something from our neighbors in Maine, Oregon, and Iowa (how I love thee, Iowa), which never let go of the practice and are the better for it?

The funny thing is: you almost never see discarded cans around here. Why? Because there's still money to made from aluminum cans. There's an entire subculture of scavengers who stake out territories and go through the trash, just to find that uniquely precious metal. We have our favorite of the gleaners--a stooped older woman who literally wears a babushka--and we pre-sort and flatten our cans so she doesn't need to bother with the dumpsters.

Clean sidewalks, recycled materials, money in the pockets of those who need it, reduced canine injury. A perfect prescription for 'the greenest city in America.'

And yet, here we are . . .

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Good Deeds

Those of you in my Facebook circle got a teaser along these lines the other day, but I figured the story deserved a little more flesh on its bones.

The other day John was working on the gutters around our garage, when he heard our 90-year-old neighbor Mildred yelling, "Stop him! Stop him!" John noticed a suspicious guy running away and immediately jumped off the ladder and went after him, spilling a trail of gadgets from his toolbelt. He found the guy huddled in a breezeway, raised the only tool still on him -- a hammer -- and demanded the wallet back. The guy pleaded and apologized, then handed over the wallet, at which point John made him turn his pockets inside out and give back any cash he'd taken. There was just a single dollar bill, but John got that back too. It didn't take the guy long to realize John wasn't going to really use that hammer, so he pushed past and ran off, and as far as we know he hasn't been caught.

By the time I caught wind of any of this, John was on Mildred's porch comforting her. The police showed up within minutes and took a report. Apparently the guy had come to Mildred's door, identified himself through the door as "her neighbor Bill," and because Mildred doesn't see well and happens to have a neighbor named Bill, she opened the door. That's when things went off the rails. The guy demanded money for his 'sick wife,' and when Mildred offered him $20 if he would just leave -- she's charitable to the bone -- he pushed her out of the way, grabbed her wallet, and took off running.

The police were kind and attentive, not to mention responsive (two marked cars and one unmarked, and officers that stuck around for over an hour in case the guy came back for more), and they promised stepped-up patrols for the next few days. Another neighbor and I took Mildred into the house and stayed until she felt a little calmer. She'd been cooking dinner before this whole episode happened, and while the chicken baking in the oven was fine, I don't think I've ever seen anything sadder than that square, white enamel saucepan, stained with carbon residue from burned asparagus.

Fortunately Mildred has her wallet back and not a single ID was taken. But this is a woman now afraid to open her door, and who had to sleep with her lights on last night, and is slightly less inclined to trust a stranger than she was yesterday morning. And that's a theft much worse than money.

But I also realize that this incident carries an entire universe in it. I guess it's stories like these that are the reason I started this blog in the first place. They contain everything I both hate and love about living where I do, and they start to get at what it feels like to be part of a neighborhood with a profound sense of place and unmatched sense of community.

I hate that it's not uncommon to see police cars in front of a local house, for example. But I love the rare quickness and dedication of this particular response.

I hate that my neighbors have to fear scams like this on a daily basis, but love that at least one common criminal got the message that we don't put up with this kind of nonsense, and at least the braver among us will fight back.

I hate that Mildred was angry with herself for being "so stupid" and shaken enough to feel she needed a good strong cup of tea or coffee to get through it, but love that after a pause she said, "Or maybe a shot. I've never done a shot in my life but maybe that's what I need right now. Or better yet, a margarita," then invited everyone, including the police, in for a good stiff drink (which we all declined, though it was tempting).

I hate that John's dropped tools would have probably been stolen in a heartbeat, but that Caesar -- our boombox loving, foul-mouthed, young tough of a neighbor -- took the time to pick up every last one, then collapse our ladder and put the entire haul behind our closed gate while John was tending to Mildred.

I hate that John's the kind of guy who would put himself at risk for a wallet with just a few dollars in it, but I love (and I mean really love) that John's the kind of guy who would put himself at risk for that particular wallet with those few dollars in it.

This morning Mildred woke up to the remains of an egg that had been thrown at her door, so the worst of humanity hasn't gone far. At this rate it could be an awfully long summer. But when it all starts to seem like too much to bear, at least there are margaritas to be had at Mildred's house.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


Next time someone calls renters or twenty-somethings a bunch of lazy nogoodniks, I submit to them Exhibit A.

These particular lazy nogoodnik twenty-something renters got sick of looking at an empty, unkempt lot near their building and decided to do something about it. They contacted the owner to get permission, and after he gave an indifferent "I don't care, do whatever you want," the Hamlin Garden was born.

It's not much to look at now, but between twenty-something grist and some transplanted perennials from neighbors, it should be a spectacle later this summer.

Monday, April 6, 2009

In Case There's Any Doubt About the Need for Affordable Housing

The agency I work for opened its Section 8 waiting list last week. In five short days, we had over 5100 people through the doors for applications. They waited hours in lines that stretched a full city block, some days in icy rain, others in wind, and for a lucky few, blue skies and warm sun.

You could count our current number of Section 8 vacancies on your hands and feet, so the odds of getting housing this round are, well, you can do the math. Sure, more vacancies will open over time, but it's a sorry state of affairs out there for those in need of an affordable place to live.

Here's a smattering of things I observed in my three days working the line:

-Good cheer: people were amazingly congenial considering their long waits and limited odds
-Hundreds of adorable kids and just a handful of crying babies
-Four women named Unique, one named Sparkle, and one named Chakakahn
-Three men who could produce no photo IDs other than inmate-identification cards
-License photos that told of happier, more stable times
-Countless people about to change their addresses because their current residences (mostly multi-unit rentals) had been foreclosed upon
-Women who could provide only PO boxes because they live in domestic-abuse shelters and are prohibited from giving a street address
-A photographer covering the story for the Chicago Reporter, who said he expected to be in line next year, considering the current state of the journalism profession
-A surprising number of applicants who looked just like me
-An occasional drunk
-An occasional crossing guard
-An occasional applicant in medical scrubs
-Many with crutches or canes who refused the offer of a chair
-Desperation, mettle, and hope

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Small Things are the Big Things

There's a scene -- by no means unique to our neighborhood -- that plays itself out every morning as I walk Inez. Our route takes us past the local elementary school, a nice early-20th century building with colorful murals, but also a bunch of tagged playground equipment that sits in the middle of a concrete slab.

Each morning, a handful of school busses pull up to the side of the building to pick up the students, overwhelmingly white, who will be spirited off to magnet schools as their Latino and black neighbors walk through the doors of the local elementary. I mean absolutely no judgement here (except against the funding formulas for urban public schools). Much as I like to think John and I would have the courage to send our kids to the neighborhood school, I have a feeling we'd be escorting them to one of those busses every morning, relieved they had access to current textbooks and a smaller daily dose of potential violence. I'm grateful we've never had to make this decision. I recognize what it means to have the luxury of that choice.

Anyway . . .

One of those busses has been a thorn in my side much of the winter. Caravan #49 has always, always, always parked itself so it was jutting way into the crosswalk, forcing anyone trying to get across -- from schoolchildren to various commuters to myself and Inez -- to walk around the nose of the bus and into the street, blinded to oncoming traffic.

One day we missed getting hit by barely an inch, and I'd had enough. I motioned to the driver to open his window and asked if that was his designated parking spot. 'No,' he said, 'I'm just picking up the kids.' 'Right,' I said, 'but is this your assigned space? The bus is in the crosswalk and it's dangerous to get around it.' 'I'm leaving in a minute,' he said. 'I have to pick up the kids.' 'I understand,' I said, 'but we can't see the cars around the bus. Is there anyway to pull back a little?' 'The kids are taking the bus,' he said.


Then Daylight Savings hit, and I shifted Inez's walking time to avoid the morning darkness. Caravan #49 was out of my life for a while.

Dawn hits a little earlier now, so I'm back to our old schedule. This past Monday, just up ahead, there was Caravan #49. Not in the crosswalk, but pulled back nicely with the hazard lights on, and the driver sweeping the last of the snow from the bus's entrance. I walked by and made it a point to wave, and he waved back warmly, with a smile of recognition.

There are the connections you have with people you know, and of course they're welcome and coveted ones. But there's something deeply human about the connections you have with perfect strangers, especially those that start on the brink of disaster. Thank you, Caravan #49, for reminding me of the power of a simple exchange, distilled by kindness.