Saturday, January 29, 2011

Noodle Season

With gentrification rising on the east side of the neighborhood, going out to dinner often feels like a visit to the daycare center. When I was young, my parents rarely went out for a meal with kids in tow. They called a local teenager to babysit. My sister and I fondly remember Melody, who taught us how to make rock candy and once took us to a high-school basketball game . . . and less-so Pam, our Pentecostal neighbor who warned us against the hidden messages in "Put the Lime in the Coconut".

Sitters? Not so much anymore. Families go out to dinner together. This can be a wonderful ritual: Children learning how to enjoy new foods and quietly integrate themselves into the fabric of public life. More often than not, though, at least among the families that have come to populate our neighborhood's east side, public space has become a kind of rugrat free-for-all. Recently, some tiny roving fingers ended up in my bone-marrow starter at a gastropub (I know, I know. I get what I deserve for ordering a bone-marrow starter at a gatropub). The parents apologized . . . sort of. But you could tell they also thought it was pretty adorable and were put off by the idea of someone who might disagree.

Now don't get my wrong. I have nothing against children. Some of my favorite people in the world were once children.

Heck, some of my favorite people in the world, even as they approach 40, are still having children, which is pretty darn cool. Still, I sometimes feel restaurants would do folks a favor by posting a "Children at Play" sign in their window. It would be easier to make an informed decision. Eat here or move on to a quieter place down the street.

Nowhere is this more true than our neighborhood Italian restaurant. Kids love pasta, after all. They love eating pasta and playing with their pasta. Sometimes they love playing with their neighbor's pasta. As a result, we don't go out for pasta so much anymore.

But from scarcity grows creativity, and one thing we've learned is that we also love eating pasta. And playing with pasta.

So we've started a new Sunday tradition: We make our own. There's been a learning curve, sure, and I've thrown away more than my fair share of failed gloppy dough. But when it works, move over Lydia Bastianich. (Just kidding, Lydia. I would never presume. You're welcome to my house for dinner anytime).

When we're eating a bowl of hand-cut fettucini, our clothes still dusted with flour, it's pretty easy to sacrifice white paper and crayons on the tables. The dog doesn't seem to mind the table-scraps either.

Saturday, January 22, 2011


This is a relatively new neighbor on the block. It's an offshoot of the original shop by the same name, which is in an old fire station around the corner. This second satellite space spills out onto our block, just a short distance from a line of two-flats and single-family homes.

Now, anyone who knows me could probably predict how I'd feel about an auto-oriented business moving onto the street. More car traffic, more fumes, more honking horns and pedestrian hazards -- not the loves of my life. But after the shop moved in, they planted some trees and generally spruced up the place. I made my peace.

That was before the cars started parking on the sidewalk overnight. Before a couple of fights broke out. Before the guy with a big sign around his torso reading "Rims!" started standing in the middle of busy Fullerton Avenue, making for challenging traffic patterns at the entrance to our street. Before the long hours of noisy repair work -- far longer than those posted on their signs -- and the piles and piles of stacked tires that became breeding grounds for rats and mosquitos.

I'd had enough, so I reached out to my block group to see if anyone had similar concerns. Lo and behold, over a dozen households wrote me back, and I realized we had critical mass for some collective action. I contact our alderman, and perhaps because it's election season, he responded pretty immediately. Police officers paid two separate visits within the next 24 hours demanding compliance.

A funny thing happened, though, on the way to civic engagement. My conscience started to bother me.

I saw those guys working long hours in the cold and realized how tough it is to find a decent job in this economy. I heard from a couple of neighbors who'd had good experiences with the shop, mentioning how nice it was to have a nearby go-to if they got up in the morning and their cars wouldn't start.

I know quality of life is quality of life, but I started to feel some nagging guilt as I saw those piles of tires disappear, the parked cars disappearing from the sidewalk, and the hours changed on their sign to better reflect when they were actually doing work.

So last weekend, with John at my side, and aided by some neighbors with impressive baking skills, I headed over to RV with a thank-you note and bag of sweets, just to acknowledge the steps they've taken to improve the place. There were only a couple of guys there and a bit of a language barrier, but when they realized those treats were a gift for the shop, one broke into a smile and issued a hearty "Happy new year!" as he took a bite of a toffee-chip cookie.

Maybe this is one of those rare stories with a happy ending and slew of winners: The neighbors, who have fewer public health and safety risks to contend with (not to mention less of an eyesore); the alderman, who clearly collected a few votes with his quick response and effective action; and the shop itself, who -- aside from having Allison's cookies or Melanie's cornmeal cheese muffins to snack on -- may actually see a spike in business from nearby neighbors, who now see the shop as an ally.

It's hard for me to know if taking steps to resolve problems like this -- when there are real human beings at the other end of those problems -- is time and effort well spent, or a little too Mrs. Kravitz-y for my conscience to withstand.

One thing I do know is rather than being smug when things go your way, it's best to take the few steps toward acknowleding the people who've met you in the middle. Nope, I don't have much in common with the guys at RV, but I feel like something deeply human has passed between us.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Making Hay

You may have heard about one of our farmers market vendors in the media last week. They were implicated in the recent salmonella scare that was traced to the Jimmy Johns sandwich chain.

According to the news, the 50-odd people who got sick had all eaten at Jimmy Johns. And every one of those sandwiches had alfalfa sprouts sourced from an independent farm in Champaign, also a mainstay of our Sunday market.

Only problem is, it was a rush to judgment. There wasn't a single trace of evidence pointing to the farm or their sprouts as the culprits. I know that when it comes to public health, there's a need for explanations, and you're always better adding up 2 & 2. I certainly understand why the alerts were issued. But I figured this was the end of the little alfalfa sprout farm as we knew it. It seemed a catastrophic fate for an independent farm that seemed to have its heart and methods in the right place.

But what the? This Sunday was the first market since before the holidays, and there they were, the sprouts folks, selling radish sprouts and microgreens like nothing had happened in between. There was my friend Dana Joy working their booth, and I could barely even manage a hello for the brisk business they were doing.

I wanted to throw my support their way as well, so I bought a container of spring mix and had some on a sandwich at lunch and again on a salad at dinner.

And then, a revelation: I'd sure come a long way since my decade or so of hypochondria, when I was afraid of the world and all its hazards, especially those that might be lurking in my body. Back in those days, I never would've risked eating something on a watch list. And if I did by mistake, I'd be checking medical dictionaries and making doctor's appointments, positive my days were numbered. The very word "positive" struck terror in my heart. I couldn't even use it in a sentence.

I can't begin to tally my hours spent on medical hotlines. I could probably add up my MRIs -- it's in the double digits -- just to rule out my worst fears of MS or brain tumors, things I suppose could have been possible, in the same way it's possible a tree might fall on your house in a storm, or your hair might turn white overnight.

But along the way, something happened, and even as the world got scarier, I somehow got less scared of the world.

I'm glad to be a point in my life where the reasoned approach trumps the panicked approach. I'm glad I can eat alfalfa sprouts, take a sip from a friend's glass, have a lightheaded day, find a swollen gland, read about radon, order sushi on a Monday, kiss a colleague hello, clean a skinned knee, swim in a public pool, all without fear of dire consequences.

My immune system and temperament are both the better for it. So are my lunch hours.

Friday, January 7, 2011

These are the people in my neighborhood (Volume #1862)

Long, long ago, I told you about one of the outstanding neighbors on my block -- a PhD in social science who now works crunching numbers and performing statistical analysis. Did I mention she's also a former jammer for one of the local roller derby teams? And a bang-up gardener and general neighborhood tidier?

She took it upon herself to spread some kindness this past Wednesday, January 5, which a popular women's magazine has dubbed the most stressful day of the year (being a woman and not entirely popular, I'd probably rank April 14 or December 23 a little ahead of it, but I can appreciate the sentiment). Basically, she planted little affirmational love notes randomly throughout the city. Read more here (scroll down to the entry for January 5). I envy the lucky souls who happened upon the right places at exactly the right moments and learned their shirts were fantastic.

Rather than make a list of new year's resolutions I'm sure to break, I just want to take a moment to appreciate all the amazing people I know within walking distance -- "intelligent, attractive beacons of light," one and all.