Sunday, July 26, 2009

Lost and Found

Yesterday I got in a terrible fight with my neighborhood. We stopped speaking to each other. It was all because of this:

That cavity on the left used to house a small tile stepping stone, handmade by youth at archiTreasures, one of my favorite organizations in the city (and one I have the privilege of working with on my job).

I felt livid, and sad, and betrayed.

It's a small thing, sure. It's not like someone stole my dog or my bike or -- like our wonderful neighbors up the street Tina and Chris -- their beautiful vintage tandem. But honestly, what is someone going to do with a single handmade path stone anyway, other than throw it through a car window or simply smash it to bits?

After all I've done for you, Neighborhood, I thought. I've defended you against your detractors. I've tilled your soil. I've cleaned up your messes. I've called in your broken streetlights and your vandalized garages. I've supported your businesses, even the weird ones. And this is how you reciprocate? Thanks, but with friends like that . . .

But lo and behold, on my way home from a jog this morning, what should I find half under an iron fence about 4 houses north of us, but this?

I've decided not to ask any questions or force a protracted heart-to-heart. Your overture is accepted, humbly and gratefully. Perhaps most important, the romance is back, and at least this small thing is right with the world.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I wasn't even going to bother with Pitchfork until I happened into a free ticket yesterday and thought, 'Why not?'

I spent four hours wandering around Union Park, a typically calm patch of green space adjacent to a building where I worked 10 years ago and spent many a lunch hour in relative solitude. Not so this weekend. The place was teeming with kids looking for their marathon indie rock fix. And beer. Lots of beer. Me, not so much. I was hoping for just a little something that might make my ears perk up with attention. But there was such a continuity from band to band -- a kind of been-there/done-that quality that left me feeling hollow. The real action had apparently come the night before, when a quadruple bill that included Tortoise, Yo La Tengo, Jesus Lizard, and Built to Spill was billed anecdotally as the "old-timers' show." But the old timer in me had worked that night and was happily at home under the covers by 10.

The whole thing got me thinking about a festival we attended last Saturday -- one close enough to home that we could decide to break down our yard sale at 2, squirrel all the unsold merchandise and display tables away in the basement, and still make it to the festival site by 3.

The Tour de Fat (sponsored by Fat Tire beer) rolls into various towns throughout the summer and celebrates bicycle culture. While I'm not generally a fan of branded events, this one has a good mission and ended up raising over $20,000 for a local nonprofit that teaches disadvantaged kids to ride and fix bikes.

The festival also has a certain bacchanalian quality. When we arrived, a guy was being paraded through the crowd in a makeshift carriage hoisted on the shoulders of four men. Why? Because he'd agreed to trade in his car for a brand new bike, which was lowered down to him on pulleys from the top of the glittering stage.

From there, the amazing punk rock marching band Mucca Pazza stole the show. The entire thing was over by 4pm, and in my single hour, I had more lived experience than I did in four full hours at Pitchfork. I think it's because this particular festival was actually about something, and that's what this particular old-timer is looking for in a cultural occasion these days.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Be careful what you wish for

See this record? It's by a band called Bitter Tears, and it was pressed by a label that also put out The Coctails, Archer Prewitt, Tall Dwarfs, and others. Their entire operation just moved around the corner from our house.

You have to believe me when I tell you: This is unprecedented.

That same block features a currency exchange, a parking lot, a taqueria, a shuttered banquet hall, and several vacant storefronts in a row.

But these new neighbors have decided to plunk a record label in the heart of what even the most objective would call a wasteland. Not only will they expand their successful warehouse and distribution business, but they also plan to open a full-service record store that specializes in music that you (if you were me) would actually like to listen to. My sweetie had a tour of their warehouse this week, and when I asked him what kind of stuff they carried, he said, "Basically my entire record collection." He may have swooned.

So this is all good news, right?

A viable, longstanding business willing to take a chance on this corridor can only be a welcome development. And heck, who doesn't want a great record store right around the corner? Right? Right?

So why do I have such misgivings?

I'll tell you why, but don't spread it around. My cred in certain circles may be on the line.

What I love about my neighborhood, and what I've always loved about this place, is the way different populations so gracefully and intentionally intersect. As long as John and I have been here, and certainly long before that, young and old, Latino and white, working people and artistic dabblers, have formed an easy cohabitation.

You see it in the restaurants, the grocery stores, or just in conversations among neighbors. John can get a veggie tamale at the same place I get my carnitas torta. Our supermarket carries lard and chicharrones in one aisle, organic milk in another. Native Spanish speakers try out their English while native English speakers muddle through their Spanish. For most of us, including the Latino families who have every right to feel encroached upon, there's a premium placed on that interchange.

But this record distributor, I have to say, is a very different animal. The other night we attended a zoning meeting at their building, and the owners seem like nice folks. Amazingly nice. And they're doing such a good and important thing for the area. Truth be told, we'll probably lose our retirement savings to this place and have a damn fine time doing it. We'll probably know the proprieters by name in no time. We may even have them over for an occasional margarita on our porch.

But this is the first sign I've seen, at least in our neck of the woods, of a new business destined to be monochromatic. And while I can of course name at least a dozen people I'll bump into browsing those bins at the shop, I can also name a dozen that I won't.

Without a doubt, there's still much to put this in the win column, and I'm sure I'll be singing the place's praises and doing my part to keep them afloat. But deep down, something will always nag at me, and I'll probably feel better and cleaner about the money I'm spending across the street at Tony's Certisaver Supermarket, even if it's on fancy, elitist, organic half and half.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

If you unbuild it, they will come.

Imagine my glee a few weeks ago to see actual masonry work happening under the vinyl facade of this nondescript building.

A restored brick
I let myself dream. Historical integrity. Aesthetic charm. Care and feeding of a long-neglected block.

The disappointment set in a couple days later, when the
expected ta-da led to this:

The whole repair job had been structural. Surgical. With no real regard for the building's potential.

I guess I'm judging the book by its cover. But when you see the contrast between shell and body, clothing and skin, it's tough not to carry some longing.

So here's my noisy plea to the world: tear up those carpets, people. Strip off the siding. Wipe away the make-up and show what's underneath.

Friday, July 3, 2009

How to become my friend for life

1) After I've boarded the Belmont bus heading west, damp and wilted from a nighttime rainstorm, say, "Has anyone ever told you you look like Julie Christie?"

2) When I turn to rebuff you with, "Nope. Never heard that one before," smile and say, "I'm not trying to pick you up" with such straightforward conviction that I instantly believe you.

3) Say, "Not Julie Christie across the board, just in McCabe & Mrs. Miller," which I admit I haven't seen. Tell me it's great. That I should see it.

4) When I mention my favorite Julie Christie movie (Don't Look Now), scratch your head at first until I start filling in details and we both in unison say, 'That little girl in the red raincoat!'

5) Tell me you're a playwright. You've been working at it a long time, first in Los Angeles and now in Chicago. Ask what I do for a living.

6) When I tell you I work in affordable housing, smile and say that's good work, and that you've lived in supportive housing for years.

7) Start filling in details of your own life, including the fact that you have a history of drug abuse, mostly heroin and cocaine. Tell me you used dirty needles and now have HIV and are dealing with all that baggage. Tell me all of this with such composure and gentle intelligence that I have to question all my old assumptions -- ones I didn't even realize I had -- about addiction.

8) Tell me about your play, that it's a monologue about these very experiences that ran in a little storefront theater for a few weeks in April, and you're hoping to put it up somewhere else soon.

9) After I congratulate you on the play and ask how long you've been clean, completely disarm me and say, "I'm not clean."

10) Talk about the frailties of American recovery programs. Agree that there's too much Jesus and not enough self-determination.

11) When my stop comes up (long before yours does; you're still heading west), look me warmly in the eye and wish me well. Have a firm handshake. Use my name when you say good-bye, even though I've shamefully forgotten yours.

12) Get stuck in my head for the next few weeks. Remind me there's more than one way to be a good person.