Tuesday, March 30, 2010


This morning as I walked the dog, I came across one of my neighbors, who's something of a wild card, emptying the garbage from her car right into the grassy parkway in front of her house. Her hotheaded son was yelling at her to stop, and she responded, "Why should I? Everybody else throws their trash in my yard."

Ummm . . . never mind.

It's worth noting that John spent a couple of hours picking up litter from the block on Sunday. Two weeks before that, our 9- and 7-year-old neighbors Rose and Celia did the honors. And the next big wind is guaranteed to transfer that trash straight into someone else's yard.

But what did I do, after all my vainglorious rants over litter? Absolutely nothing. My fear of being a bad neighbor to one person (ok, she *is* sort of a scary person) made me a lousy neighbor to the rest of the block.

So I appeal to you. Help me be armed for next time (there will undoubtedly be a next time). What would you have done in my shoes? A heads-up penny and discarded Cheeto's bag for your thoughts.

(In the role of the woman's car litter, which I was too skittish to photograph, is an understudy pile of trash, conveniently spied in our front yard this morning).

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A new compass

Last week put a bit of a quiver in my reality. We found out that the owners of the house where we pick up our summer CSA share are moving. To Portland!

And when the family goes, so goes our vegetable box. With a neighborhood as vast as ours, this could mean a pick-up site far, far away, certainly farther than I could manage on foot.

Box pick-up has become very ritualized for me. I build a slight detour into my Saturday morning jog so I can pop over, grab the box, exchange some niceties with other shareholders over zucchini or kale, and walk the three short blocks back home. This appeals to my sense of efficiency, as well as my commitment to using the car (which is actually John's company car, and not something I ever really think of as my own) only by necessity.

Of course there's a simple solution. We could offer to be the drop site ourselves. We'd save $100 on our annual subscription and end up with all the extra vegetables left behind from week to week.

Easy, right? Not so fast.

There are lots of reasons not to pull this particular trigger. The farm drops off the boxes at 4am, and I worry about my insomnia, knowing that truck's arrival is looming, bound to wake the neighbors. Then there's the security risk--having to leave our gate unlocked every Friday night. You never know who might roam through or what their intentions might be. And of course there's the dog. What if we let her out midday and she scares someone's kid? What if she leaves a parcel of her own near the boxes?

But can I tell you a secret? My biggest worry, woeful as I am to admit it, is other people judging the place we call home. There are a lot of folks who consider this the wrong side of the tracks. We're on the west side: More multicultural, more working class. The houses are more modest, the yards more wooly, and the litter more abundant. You're a lot more likely to come across a broken bottle or condom wrapper than you would a couple blocks east of here.

On hot days there's a rank odor from the underground sewer system. A rat's been known to scurry across our yard. Cars idle on our street, often blasting rap music that shakes the pots and pans in the cabinets.

And I realize that my house and block are like so many things in my life: flawed, imperfect, easily misunderstood. A lot like Inez, our beloved pitbull--gentlest creature in the world, but one who strikes fear at a superficial glance.

"She's a good girl!!" I want to yell as she lunges at an unexpected dog behind a fence. But it's of no consequence. There will be those who walk by with an understanding nod. There will be those who avoid looking at us.

John and I recently went to a training demo sponsored by the Humane Society. They're working to redirect the bad intentions of dog fighters, teaching them and their animals how to respect each other. We watched the session for over an hour, mesmerized as those dogs would sit on command, frozen in place with a meaty treat on the floor just two feet away. There was incredible pride and love in those guys as the dogs responded to their commands.

As we were leaving, I told the training director that I'd love to bring my own dog sometime, but she's just too aggressive.

The woman urged us to bring her along. "You should have seen these dogs when they came in. Every one of them wanted to kill another dog, and most of them probably had. Besides," she said, "sometimes it's nice to be around other people who understand."

Exactly, I thought.

Bring on the empathy and community. I'll take my chances on drop-site roulette. Heck, maybe this'll be the summer I finally outfit my bike with a trailer.

In the meantime, I'll consider how to climb up to my rooftop and yell out the world: "This is a good neighborhood!!" But I guess, in a way, I'm already doing it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Good-bye to friends and strangers

We've lost a number of good people recently in the neighborhood. Luminary Jan Metzger didn't call this place home, but she worked in a nearby community and made this neighborhood part of her living laboratory for alternative transportation. She inspired so many in her short sixty years, advocating for safe and welcoming environments for bicycles and pedestrians. It's great testimony to her character that she leaves so many behind to carry on her legacy. She made this city a more hospitable one, and she is deeply missed.

Tom Cunningham was a salty, opinionated, mensch of a guy with a striking likeness to Ernest Hemingway. He'd been born and raised in the neighborhood, in a house overlooking Kosciuszko Park -- Koz for short -- with its lovely if deteriorating fieldhouse still standing, and a line of seniors waiting in line every morning at 7 to claim a lane in the Olympic indoor swimming pool. It's because of Tom that Koz, once (and still occasionally) a haven for gangbangers and drug dealers, got a soft-surface playlot, native landscaping, and replacement tennis nets a few years back. He loved that park like it was one of his kids, and it's up to those of us remaining to use it, and use it well, in his memory.

Finally, my subway stop is a little quieter these days. For as long as I can remember (and we'll have been here nine years in August), the back vestibule of the station filled up with music. It didn't really matter day or night: There was Mick the busker, playing his pan flute for some pocket change or an occasional crumpled bill. Nicknamed the Pan Man by some, Mick looked pretty down on his luck -- stringy hair, dingy clothes, the kind of guy you guessed was probably living in a shelter somewhere, or harboring a Howard Hughes-like inheritance so he could just do his own thing for a while.

Funny thing was, I never much thought about Mick. He was always just there, and I'm guessing I'm not alone in having taken him for granted, or even being sporadically annoyed by the lilting constancy of those damn pan pipes. I never actually knew Mick's name until he died and people started filling in the gaps of his life. But now I feel his absence like a tiny hole in my throat. He leaves behind his silence. That silence has a shape.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

What a difference a day makes . . .

Today was one of those perfect glimpses of early spring: Bright sunshine, impossibly warm, everyone dressed in shirtsleeves and unseasonable cheer. Kids roller skating, adults cleaning debris from their yards, cyclists taking to the roads. There was even a Cubs game on tv.

In honor of this perfect day, I decided to reacquaint myself with an old crush: My neighborhood.

Sure, sure, I'm fond of the place. I guess that's no secret. But it's been a while since I've had that punch-drunk feeling of affection, and I'll admit to recent doubts here and there, wondering if the romance is dead. Maybe it's better for us to go our separate ways before the acrimony sets in. Could it be time for an amicable parting?

But today, a simple walk to the grocery store reminded me of the difference between love and infatuation: a difference you feel like a blow to the gut.

I want to thank my neighborhood for unfolding so generously on a simple two-block walk. Thanks to Erica for taking sweet pooch Isa on a roundabout route so we could chat for a few minutes. And to Willie for leaving the store just as I was arriving, risking melting ice cream and warming milk to properly catch up.

To Jeff, my friend from the fancy wine shop, for the unexpected bump-in near the meat aisle, where he confessed his shared love of my cherished Tony's Certisaver and bought a $3.50 shiraz after seeing three bottles in my cart.

To the guy in the middle of busy Fullerton Avenue, holding a sign pointing to the nearby tire shop that advertised "Rims . . . Cheap!" for saying "Isn't it a beautiful day?" seconds before I was about to curse him for blocking my path.

To Mildred, for remembering the last time we talked that John and I were headed to Wisconsin for New Year's, then telling me about recovering her old journals from decades of Scandinavian travel and reliving those vacations by reading them again.

To Ben and Perla, for buying the house nobody wanted, freeing a woman about to lose it to foreclosure, and hanging out on the front porch with their adorable toddlers just 3 weeks after a rash of shootings.

And finally to Zach, home on freshman-year spring break from St. John's, for telling me he hadn't been sure in the beginning, but he's decided to stick it out in New York, and actually hopes to do a study-abroad program to Rome, Madrid, and Paris junior year. I don't think I could've been prouder of this first-in-his-family-to-attend-college than if he'd been my very own kid.

Kudos to you, neighborhood, for setting my heart back on the right path. Now if you can just make it stick . . .