Sunday, January 24, 2010

RIP, fish tacos

This week, one of our favorite local businesses called it a day. No ceremony, no announcements. Just paper plastered over the windows and the menus and reviews removed from the door.

It's one more reminder that times are tough, especially over here to the west. There's no meaningful foot traffic along that stretch, and the surrounding commercial district seems to be on life support. The place never really had a chance.

Still, we're grieving a little. In the beginning, the place held such promise. A new Mexican restaurant with stellar molés and a focus on seafood put our little neighborhood on the map. I remember one night waiting 90 minutes for a table. It was packed in there, and the staff was sorely unprepared to handle the crowd. We finally gave up and went to a taqueria down the street. But we cheered their success and looked forward to our next visit. And our next. And our next.

We came to know the staff by name, and they occasionally brought us a free appetizer or honey-soaked order of flan. In summers, we'd seek refuge on their back patio (they had a speedboat cut in half lengthwise and used it as a planter). We took our families there when they visited, met friends for margaritas, even did occasional community organizing over their renowned fish tacos and homemade salsas and tortillas. A local food forum hailed them a Great Neighborhood Restaurant, and the framed award hung on the wall amidst brightly painted canvases of grouper and red snapper.

Most importantly, they were good people. They knew who they were and where they were situated. Every staff member was a native Spanish speaker. They had many dishes on the menu affordable to working families. Their crowd was diverse and they worked to preserve that.

Their departure comes on the heels of a major economic-development boom 6 blocks to the east. January brought us a new gastropub. In February a microbrewery will open its doors. March brings the promise of Neapolitan pizza and by May a creperie & French bakery. These aren't unwelcome developments, to be truthful, but I can't help feeling like the line between the haves and have nots is getting starker in this neighborhood. You could draw it right down the map, right down Kimball Avenue or Central Park. The ink wouldn't fade for another ten years.

I fear more closures may be coming over here. Evidence seems to be pointing that way. So we brace ourselves for the ghost-town effect. Boarded-up buildings and weird, fly-by-night businesses that come and go every month. More opportunity for open-air drug dealing and other forms of troublemaking. Not enough watchful eyes to keep the bedlam tempered.

Meanwhile, six blocks to the east, people will wait in their finery for a table at one of these storied new places. The gastropub already clocks a two-hour wait. Their charcuterie is reportedly outstanding, and they'll be opening a boutique hotel on their second floor this spring. The new microbrewery was featured in an article on interior design, and they're not even open yet.

I suppose we'll continue to straddle these worlds: appreciators of a well-mixed cocktail one day, an oily bowl of pozole the next. But what we'll miss is a place that showed us something reassuring: that it was possible to bring these worlds together now and then.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The ankle bone's connected to the shin bone.

There used to be a guy in Lawrence, Kansas, where I lived for six years, who walked 12 miles to and from town every day. Not for work -- he actually didn't have a job -- but just because the road was there and he was going to use it. People called him Walking Man. They also called him crazy, but I think his act was majestically sane.

When he died unexpectedly one evening, Walking Man was memorialized on a temporary mural downtown: serene look on his face, long and winding road ahead of him. He knew what many diehard pedestrians know: The world slows down a bit when you're walking. Your head clears. You become aware of your senses, your muscles, your very center of gravity in ways you otherwise tend to overlook.

I remembered this pretty keenly during a recent snowstorm, which kept me from my usual bike commute, and made a hike to and from the train (for just two stops, no less) seem kind of silly. I only work a couple miles from home, and the prospect of a long walk through new snow was downright irresistible.

I bundled myself up and took to the sidewalk. I walked for nearly an hour, deliberately varying my route from the usual arterials. I don't own an iPod or even an old Walkman, and I wouldn't have wanted the distraction anyway. The point of a walk, at least for me, is to take in the world around you. Swallow it up. Choke it down if you have to. But be palpably, openly in it.

That particular day, I took in rogue art, men at work, a waft of baked goods fresh from the oven, the rising tide of foreclosure, signs of budding economic development, and some neighbors' stubborn refusal to say good-bye to the holidays.

That night, I did the whole thing over again. Same world, different lighting. But the earth was just as sturdy underfoot, and my boots rose to the challenge.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Weapon in Any Other Hands

One recent morning walking Inez, I came across my favorite example of graffiti. Ever.

If there's such a thing as tagging fatigue (and let me tell you, there is), here it is in technicolor. This guy is fed up and worn out, so sick of being a target -- as corner houses often are in this neighborhood -- that he's claimed the tools of his enemy and used their own tactics against them. This is such wonderful touché moment that I like to think of it as holding a mirror up to the taggers and reflecting them back at half their natural size.

In reality, most people walking past this house have probably branded its owner a fool: If you deface your own property, the gangbangers have won.

But I disagree. I think it's a masterstroke. It talks back to ruthlessness. It sings as it screams. If Ionesco were around, he'd write a play about it.

This guy is mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore, and he's putting the vandals on notice. I hope for everyone's sake they're paying attention. I certainly am.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010


My single new year's resolution is to detach a bit from the stresses of work: fret less, protect more of my personal time, and keep my emotions in check.


I'm not even back a week yet and already behind the eight ball: Meetings too plentiful, personalities too strong, and self-doubt starting to creep back to the surface. Do I really have this in me? Can I handle another year of constant confrontation? Are my bouts of indifference just burn-out, or evidence of a shrinking heart? And when, by chance, is my next day off?

Survival Strategy #1: Put my mind back in the blissful New Year's reprieve spent with friends in rural Wisconsin, a place understood as much by what it is as what it isn't. Here's a brief inventory of how I rang in 2010:

- Taking a morning jog in single-digit temps. Horse-drawn carriages outnumbered cars by at least 3 to 1.

- Watching Amish kids sled with abandon down a hill, the boys in blue-buttoned top coats, the girls in billowing skirts.

- No television, no internet. Just wood to build a fire, which burned for the duration and left its smoky perfume on our hats and scarves.

- Breakfasts of fresh-baked popovers, biscuits, and blueberry buckle.

- Petting the farm dog. Petting the injured horse. Petting the sheep. Petting the donkeys. Petting the black, woolen pig once we roused him from his pile of hay.

- New Year's Day sunset over fields of winter corn.

- Remarkable peace. Stunning quiet.

Next week marks my one-year anniversary on this job. In some ways, the hill gets steeper and thornier the closer I get to the top. Let's hope the way down is as fast, as breathless, and maybe, just glancingly, as jubilant as those kids on their sleds.