Saturday, May 29, 2010

Yard Sale Study in Contrast

Case I.

Funky sweater found folded on blanket on the ground. Buyer asks seller how much. "Umm, I don't know. $5?"

A little more than buyer wants to gamble. Buyer puts sweater carefully back on blanket.

"$3?" returns seller.

"Ok, sure. I could do $3."

Seller goes silent for a moment, then snaps, "It's from Anthropologie, you know."

Buyer almost puts sweater back on principle, thinking "No, not exactly. It's technically from your front yard, on top of a blanket." Buyer mulls, then hands seller $3, hoping the sweater fits. Buyer says thanks and good-bye. Seller says nothing.


Case II (just down the street from Case I).

Collection of random flatware in a cardboard box. Buyer finds four matching soup spoons. Buyer likes soup.

Buyer approaches seller, who turns out to be someone buyer vaguely knows, and also Time Out Chicago's 2010 Bartender of the Year. Buyer has consumed many of his delicious cocktails over the years. Buyer says hello to Bartender of the Year and asks how much. Bartender of the Year replies, apologetically, "I don't know. Maybe a dollor for the four?"

Buyer gleefully hands Bartender of the Year a crisp dollar bill. Buyer is happy. Seller is friendly. Seller volunteers no information as to the commercial source of the spoons. Buyer longs for soup season.

Both items are now safe and sound at home -- new aquisitions to spruce up the place and its owner. Buyer admittedly loves both, but will always love the soup spoons a little bit more.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Better than Birds

Our next-door neighbors just installed a swingset in their side yard, so this morning, while hastily downing my coffee and cereal, I got an unexpected serenade through the open window: a medley of songs including "Chicago" and a couple others I didn't recognize, probably from the Montessori school the girls attend. They didn't know I could hear them, so they really belted it out there, swingset creaking with each rotation.

Can I just say there's nothing better, at the end of hard week, than two unfettered girls, swinging and singing to open the day . . .

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

What would Umberto Eco have to say?

Here's a random sampling of signs on my block . . .

We recently learned that burglars tend to avoid blocks with signs like this in the windows. Then again, what does it say about a block with multiple signs like this in the windows? No matter. This is actually our front window, so we've made our peace with the implications. (Please ignore the peeling paint on the trim. It's not negligence. It's character) :-).

Probably the most common genre in the neighborhood. Sometimes it's there because it's true (I'm talking to you, Spot). Sometimes it's acting as a crime deterrent. And sometimes -- because of City ordinances that have been flirted with over pitbulls and other designated breeds -- it's to take preventative steps to avoid fines or harsher penalties.

This banner's been up since last summer. Either the supply of rental units far exceeds the local demand, or there's something terribly wrong with this place. Either way, after you get used to seeing something for this long, you almost stop noticing it, which makes me wonder if they've even had a call since last September.

This just appeared in the basement window three houses north of us. While I don't appreciate the commanding tone, I'm sort of charmed by the concept of Senor Jesus Christ, which makes him seem like a regular guy -- you know, the kind who mows his lawn from time to time, has a parakeet for a pet, and tips his hat when he passes.

This sign has clearly been here for longer than I have, but this morning was the first I'd ever noticed it. This particular building has been burglarized twice in the last month.

There are plenty of security-company signs on the block, but this is the sweetest and cleverest. To be honest, I don't know whether this is an actual security company or a variation on the Beware-of-Dog theme. But maybe that's the idea. Keep the thieves guessing, and they'll move on. For what it's worth, this house is directly next door to the building mentioned above.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

A Mother's Day Salute to Someone Who's Earned It

This is a day to honor our mothers, and while I celebrate my own mother and one living grandmother (who at 90 continues to cheer on the Mets and win big at bridge), my indefatigable sister Jennifer and sister-in-law Colin, my friends with children they've produced and children they've lovingly adopted, and those who may be childless but still unparalleled nurturers, I also want to make special mention of a woman from this block.

In 1971, Lillian Braun was the first woman hired to give drivers' tests for the State of Illinois. She retired last year at 85, and almost every morning, she walks down the 13 steps in front of the drab three-flat where she lives, gets in her car, and drives away. It's unclear where she goes, only that she goes -- undeterred by age, and always dressed pertly with her auburn hair done and make-up just so.

Now if you know me, you know I'm not much of a car person. And I'll admit the thought of an 86-year-old woman behind the wheel, particularly a woman I once saw take a spill on the sidewalk, doesn't fill me with rapture. But I also understand that for Lillian, the automobile is the ultimate sign of independence. It provided her a job and a livelihood, and now, in her ninth decade of life, it provides her continued mobility. After administering license tests for 38 years, she's earned the right to jangle those keys.

John and I walked by her house yesterday, and there she was in the doorway, smiling earnestly despite the rain. "Happy Mother's Day!" she shouted across the lawn. Happy Mother's Day to you, Lillian. I saw you driving off again this morning before the rest of the block was even awake. Hope you're headed someplace special, or at least enjoying the road.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Close Your Eyes

Last night I dreamed that I was riding my bike due west of our house, on a block that in real life is pretty volatile. Gang activity, drug dealing, a handful of foreclosures. Not an easy place to be.

In my dream, the street was filled with fly-by-night businesses. A cell phone store here. A tire repair there. A liquor store, an electronics shop, a handful of t-shirt places, clearly fronts for something else. But as I turned the corner I caught a glimpse of something called the L*M*N Bakery.

Nah, I thought. Impossible. But it nagged at me. So I walked my bike back to the same little stretch. Along the way I passed a record store specializing in vinyl records, with a bunch of rare finds in the window. Well, well, well, I thought. Where did you come from?

Back on the original block, so bustling with business I was amazed to have missed it in the first place, was an open-air fish market. The proprieters wore chefs' hats and played it like barkers, calling to the crowd and proudly holding up whole salmon and flounder shiny with seawater.

"How long have you been open?" I asked. "Since about noon," one of them said. "No . . . I mean how long have you been here in this location?" "Going on about three months," he said, then turned his head to make another sale.

Behind the fish market was a maze of other stalls, a huge food market, stretching back as far as the alley, and who knows how far beyond that.

This is the kind of dream that's probably better to have than to wake up to, the kind that makes you want to slide back into sleep. Of course I've had this very dream about my house dozens of times: the extra room you didn't know was there, snaking back to reveal something miraculous, maybe a room full of books, a beautiful antique carpet, a wine cellar, a perfect reading room.

But to have this kind of dream about my neighborhood says a lot about my sense of situatedness here. Home writ large, for me, is the neighborhood. And though it's sad to wake up and realize that no such market exists, and the little bakery selling lemon cupcakes and cardamom cookies is the stuff of my subconscious . . .

. . . [I interrupt this entry with breaking news. As I was trying to figure out that last sentence, I took a breather to read some email. There in my inbox was a forward from John, reporting that a new independent record store will open May 29 just three blocks away, adjacent to the very street I dreamed about. I swear on my mother this is how it happened] . . .

I still love the tamale carts and straw brooms and Lucha Libre masks and chiles rellenos and Negro Modelo and pinatas and karate classes, and even the communion dresses and silk flowers and awkwardly posed family portraits available just a couple of blocks away. But I admit it'll be nice to have somewhere nearby to buy John a birthday present. And if a decent bowl of soup or macaroon weren't far behind, you wouldn't find me complaining.

Of course some would say this is the slippery slope. The good macaroon means the wrestling mask and pinata will disappear altogether, or at least migrate west to Hermosa. But I think of a neighborhood like Astoria, Queens, and I know it can be done. I like the odds of my neighborhood following that example.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Morning Serenade

These little guys are nesting in our next-door neighbor's porch. They crooned at me for hours while I did some backyard gardening yesterday.

I imagine our neighbor won't be too thrilled to discover them there. Then again, he might take it as a sign. This is the same neighbor, after all, who thinks his father -- who lived in the house until he passed away ten years ago -- is haunting him through the weeds that have popped up since his death. He also believes his house was built in the 1700s (which predates the Chicago street grid by about 100 years).

He's a decent guy and an excellent neighbor. And it's no bad thing to have an occasional Paul Bunyan story migrate from his yard. I probably prefer this to the inherited weeds, which also aren't so bad. The roots come up easy and some of those stragglers sprout pretty purple flowers in July.

And if any of this leads to those pigeons sticking around for a while, well, then I think I just saw his father's spirit blowing a dandelion into the air.