Sunday, February 28, 2010

What I Do Instead of Church

My average Sunday morning goes about like this:

- Wake up early and go for a jog

- Give Inez a slightly longer walk than usual around the neighborhood

- Nod to morning kindred spirits, also out and about while the world is still sleeping

- A leisurely breakfast of coffee and warm bread

- Bike to the indoor farmer's market, where I might buy farm eggs, local cheese, shitake mushrooms, hearth-baked bread, organic sprouts, and a little something sweet . . . and if I'm lucky, quirky John Greenfield will be playing his guitar and singing about Illinois, or beets, or the pleasures of walking, or some sundry topic he's worked into a song

- Pop over to our new grocery co-op to supplement my market haul

- Come home and consider what to cook up for dinner.

I dare the faithful to convince me that any sermon or hymn brings as much meaning to them as these Sunday rituals bring to me. I raise my coffee mug to Sunday, grateful for the hours and the myriad ways to fill them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

The Plowman Cometh

As we face another round of significant snowfall, I tip my woolen hat to a stranger who's brought a very particular kindness to the neighborhood.

For a while, this mystery good samaritan was known only by what you see in the photo above. These are the tracks from his plow, which he's been taking out once or twice a day after accumulating snow to clear about 10 city blocks of city sidewalk.

The city of Chicago, like most municipalities, offers snow clearing from the roadways as part of your tax dollars. The sidewalks, though, are left to the residents. I'm not going to linger over this inequity, but it's always sort of stuck in my craw.

This is why the plowman's act is such an amazing gesture. The guy doesn't seem to want credit or even recognition, just to make things a little easier for his neighbors. And not just his immediate neighbors, mind you, but a fairly protracted radius around him.

For a long time I never saw the plowman himself, only the fruits of his labors. One night a few weeks ago, though, as I was settling into bed beneath my street-facing window, there he was. Low hum singing from his plow (which looks like a riding lawnmower), pleasant amber light revealing a path in front of him.

It was like spying a deer in the woods. Or a UFO. Or Santa Claus. Or Cher walking down the street (not the present-day botoxy Cher, but a circa-1972 Cher in a Bob Mackie costume). Or an arrowhead. Or a yeti. Or Boo Radley leaving a pocketwatch in a tree.

You get the idea.

In times marked more by fear and intimidation, where ugly intent seems more plentiful than its opposite, it's especially moving to see such acts of generosity hit so close to home. I've lifted more than a few snow shovels in recent years, so I feel this man's kindness in both heart and body.

Some neighbors have sleuthed out a few facts about our samaritan. He apparently lives a block west of us. He's a Vietnam vet who hangs an MIA/POW flag proudly in front of his house, which is little more than a shotgun shack. There's been a For Sale sign in front of it for at least four years. He's divorced. He drinks a bit. He's a vintage car enthusiast, and he often drives a restored 1908 Oldsmobile around the neighborhood in the summer.

In short, he's one of the growing cast of characters of this neighborhood, and arguably its latest folk hero.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hard times

It's been a while since I've talked about living in a neighborhood in crisis, but since crisis seems to have found us again, it's probably fair to reflect a little . . . even on this crisp, quiet morning, with prisms of sun streaming in through our dining room window, with families walking to nearby churches through glittery snow, and it hardly seems possible anything terrible could happen here.

There have been two shootings on our block since February 3rd. These aren't shootings under cover of night, in houses where there might have been a dispute over money, or love. These are open-air shootings, one just before 7pm and one in broad daylight at 3:00, just as the nearby elementary school was letting out. Both cases involved groups of teenagers, mostly boys, but reports of a girl or two in the mix. In both cases a car had just gone by, and in both cases after shots were fired, the kids jogged -- not ran, sprinted, or jumped into a speeding car, but jogged -- up the street, guns visible at their sides. Fortunately, in both cases, no one was physically hurt.

These are brazen acts. They're acts of bravado by people with no fear of being caught. My work has put me in contact with a many people who work in street intervention, and the signs point to these kids probably living in the area, protecting new or reclaimed turf against rival gangs or drug dealers.

Jobs are disappearing all over, and it's no surprise people will turn to the underground economy. With that comes all the standard peripheral impacts: Strangers coming through the neighborhood to buy. Police stretched even thinner than before. Kids with guns, marking their territory. Couple that with the State budget crisis, which has defunded successful programs like Ceasefire, and you've got a volcano on your hands.

There's a part of me, in melancholy moments, that's started to wonder how long I can stay here. Can I continue to walk my dog, take my morning run, kiss my husband good-bye as he leaves for long trips or even just a bike ride out to see a friend? That same part of me is almost grateful for the crumbling real-estate market: Our house has lost over 25% of its value in the last two years, and that alone will keep many of us here who might have fantasies of simpler, more manageable places.

So we persevere. I take great comfort in seeing friends with kids, or our wonderful nonagenarian neighbor Mildred, sticking around. If they can do it, so can I. But here's the difference: When something similar happened a few years ago, we drew together to forge a solution. We put a block group in place. We went to our community policing meetings. We tended front-yard gardens and had neighborhood clean-ups and block parties and yard sales. But now we've done all those things, and the violence remains. It's worse, actually, because it's so bold and so present. It's the ghost you thought you extinguished, coming back to haunt you, stronger and harder to discern than before.

In my heart I believe things will get better around here. I also believe they may get worse before they do. If this is February, what's July going to feel like? I don't even have any pep talks for myself, because this increasingly seems a problem larger than all its possible solutions. And I worry about becoming someone I hate: Someone who retreats into the house rather than adding my eyes to the street; someone governed more by the heart than the head; someone who profiles.

I may have to make peace with those weaknesses (at least some of them). But I'm hopeful I won't lose my appetite for amazement.
Sweet neighborhood, I'm listening.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Jesus, Mary, and Joseph

It's February 9. Do you know where your nativity scene is?

Those magi might want to think about bringing swimsuits and sunscreen, as this wistful family may still be enjoying the outdoors come June.

In the realm of things suffering from neglect in this neighborhood, this scene is pretty benign. It's a victimless crime after all, which is more than I can say for recent events within a two-block radius. (Though I'll admit I won't miss the display once it's gone).

I noted a few weeks ago, during a walk to work on a snowy morning, people's general unwillingness to put the holidays away. I understand how our current economy -- which, despite analysis to the contrary, shows no signs of rebound around here -- makes people want to blanket themselves in reassuring symbols. I've been eating more than my fair share of soup these days, for example.

But in some ways, especially with the turn of the calendar page to February, this makes me feel people have just given up. Surrendered themselves to stasis. Why make the effort when it's just as easy to leave all the decorations out till next year? December will be here soon enough, and it's such a trial to head to the basement and haul all that paraphernalia outside again.

My cherished neighbors, I know times are tough, but we need to rally. Let's stop those supermarket circulars from collecting in our front yards. Let's curb our dogs. And of course we weren't the ones to leave those Heineken bottles in the grass, but isn't it better to pick them up than risk a crew of teenagers throwing them at each other?

And for the love of pete, let's clear away the Christmas decorations and embrace the steady march of time. It can be a great healer.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Last night, a local gathering brought together a wine shop owner, pie baker, trained chef, cake designer, two food bloggers, one wine blogger, one aspiring oenophile . . . and me. Which one of these things doesn't belong?

We came together in a cozy apartment for the first of our monthly women's wine tastings. Our mission? To taste old world and new world reds and whites to start to understand how flavor profiles are products of their geography, climate, and terrain.

Please don't ask me how flavor profiles are products of their geography, climate, and terrain.

At least not yet.

I'm clearly the fledgling taster in this group. I know little of wine production methods, and I'm probably more likely to pick a wine by its label than by what its label may be telling me. Varietals? Vintages? Fuggedaboutit. It's no surprise that my bottle was the dud of the group. (Remember the old Mystery Date game? Door #4 was my bottle: Bow tie, crooked glasses, severely parted hair. Truth be told, I always had a soft spot for Door #4).

But I'm determined to hang on with this group. It was because of Tracy, the wine-shop owner who put this plan together, that I bypassed touristy Napa and Sonoma for quieter, cozier Mendocino in May. And it's because of that trip that John and I were able to recognize an Anderson Valley wine a couple of months later, just by the nose and the very first sip. I can't help but feel like swirling and tasting and spitting with this particular group -- funny and forgiving, expert but unintimidating -- will help me to raise my personal bar.

I think I can, I think I can . . . tell the difference between a pinot noir and a grenache, decipher what people mean by 'minerally,' astringent,' or 'medium-bodied,' come to recognize the specific grape by its cryptic regional reference on the front (damn you, French bottles!), but most importantly, know what I like and why I like it, and stop wasting money on wine-shop roulette.

One woman at the table, who also considers herself a novice, said a sommelier once said to her, "Forget the fancy vocabularies. If the wine smells to you like the inside of your grandmother's purse, then it smells like the inside of your grandmother's purse." She fell in love immediately.