Monday, June 4, 2012

Hanging Up the Neighborhood Shingle

Some of you know I just returned from a nearly 5-week haitus to Portugal. The intention, if I'm really honest with myself, was to find some clarity after a frustrating year of feeling stuck or stymied in almost every area of my life. The trip delivered on its purpose, though some of the more revelatory aspects gave me as much anxiety as they did perspective.

I realized I have a good bit of toxicity in my life (work in particular, but also some of the basic rhythms of urban living in a community that - while incredibly textured and rewarding in so many ways -- can also be bereft of kindness and peace). I'm not altogether happy with the relationships in my life and think there may be some heavy lifting to be done in those areas. As I face what promises to be a difficult phase of my aging process, it seems all the more urgent to solidify a team of supporters -- people who I generally get, and who seem to get me back. People who can forgive my frailties and may even be up to the task of helping me through them, with the promise I'd have their backs in a heartbeat. Not sure I can say that with complete certainty this is true in my immediate circles, despite the fact that every single person I know is truly wonderful, admirable, and rich in so many ways. I'm just not sure I have that one person who's there to cheer me on when I need it, to bear some of the weight when it gets too heavy for me. It's probably less a case of them not being there than of me not knowing how to ask for those things.

In the meantime, I'm utterly exhausted by the sound of my own voice and fantasize about some imposed monkish ascetism: Just a reprieve from the chatter for a good long stretch. So I vacillate between a need for community and a yearning for solitude, which doesn't make me so easy to be around. And that's really the biggest revelation. The work to be done begins at home, and I've got a heap of it to do.

I suppose I'm aching for change. I loved the new scenery in Portugal, but even at nearly 5 weeks, it wasn't enough. There was more I wanted to see, more here at home that I wanted to escape for a little while longer. I could've easily doubled the time, easily stretched it into more cities and towns, perhaps a baby toe dipped into Spain, or Morocco, which I didn't even realize until looking at the map was just a hair's breadth away from home base.

Simpler than that, though, I want a new job, maybe even something that feels like a career. I've spun my wheels at jobs that don't yield much for me the last 15 years or so. Just places to hang my hat for a while until I figure out what I want to do when I grow up. But somewhere along the lines, without my even noticing,15 years managed to pass, and I became a woman in the triteness of mid-life, but still without a sense of direction. I need that compass, but I need a second compass to find it.

And heck, if you'll indulge a brief lapse into vanity, I need some new clothes that don't have stains and rips I hide with layers because I'm too tired and turned off to shop. And I need a new haircut. That should really be the simplest thing, but I just found out the one salon I trust isn't taking new clients because of increased demand. Which is really sort of hilarious. I decide after 15 years of DIY haircuts that I'm willing to pay the money to sit in that conspicuous chair and trust someone else with a pair of scissors, and their "Gone Fishing" sign is out.

But one thing I've decided (at least one thing within my control) is that it's time to pull the plug on this blog. The entries have reached a certain monotony: Hey, look, someone planted some flowers. Someone is rehabbing a house. A new gallery just went in to the east. Blah blah blah. When my favorite martial arts studio on the corner recently became a Boost Mobile, I knew it was time to call it quits. It's a rotten story, one too painful and tiresome to tell.

So this will be my last entry on Neighborhood Watch. I hate to close on a depressing note, but I think this is actually a form of great liberation for me. It's time to take the albatross from around the neck. This was an incredibly rewarding place to spend time these last few years, but now that it's taken its course, it's an opportunity to move on to something new. I'm not really sure what that new thing will be (I wouldn't mind starting with that haircut), but it does give me an igniting jolt of energy to know I may be slightly more open to it with the return of a bit of psychic space.

Thanks to those who spent time with me here on this blog these past few years, those who commented in writing or in person, and those who didn't comment at all, but still occasionally checked in. Reading is a great gift to someone who writes, even someone who occasionally writes clumsily.

I also just realized I disabled the old email account that lets me get comments on this blog, which is actually sort of fitting. I can offer a few final words of gratitude without any added punctuation. So let me now finally say two simple things: Thank you, and Onward.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The People in the Neighborhood, Vol. 23

You may not recognize the guy on the right, but you've probably seen his work. Shawn, alongside his partner Jen (business and romantic) and a couple of key staff members, designs plush ninjas, mustaches, even adorable clumps of poo under the "Shawnimals" label. He's also had a tortured couple of months following the brutal attack of his dog Remmy by two loose pitbulls near our neighborhood square.

Things were touch-and-go for Remmy in the beginning. But now, after a few operations, a skin graft (another is scheduled to save her most damaged leg), and several weeks of bandaging, Remmy's prognosis looks very, very good. She's eating again, walking independently up and down the stairs, and cheerfully approaching passersby for a pat on the head (something I can personally attest to).

Yesterday we went to a benefit for Remmy's care -- the cost of surgery and related therapy is now approaching $15,000 -- at our favorite neighborhood watering hole. It was a true community effort: Local cooks whipping up soups, sandwiches, and boozy snow cones for the "Snackdown" theme of the hour, neighborhood artists contributing raffle items, a local DJ donating his time and bar offering up its space. I suppose it takes a village to heal a dog, and we were happy to find ourselves in that villagy envelope, especially when we won the raffle item we'd had our eye on (a print we have zero wall space for, but what the heck).

This was like a good old-fashioned rent party, all assembled by the guy above left, an organic, free-range bacon purveyor who tracked Shawn down on Facebook after hearing of the attack.

Shawnimals is about to launch their Remmy Ninja in their sweet pup's honor, and I'm proud to own prototype #1, hand-sewn by Jen as the clock ticked so John could make it the centerpiece of my birthday present.

Get well soon, Remmy. Hope to see you on four furry legs in short order.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Tony's puts a pin in my heart (again)

There's a new bag boy at my grocery store. I'm not gonna lie: He looks a lot more like the roughnecks that hang out on our corner than a kid who just got his first job at the A & P. A scowling aloofness. Random scars from a history of stitches. Sometimes a band-aid at his temple or neck.

Here we go, I thought, the first time he stood at the end of my line. Tony's' core mission doesn't always jive with canvas bags -- affordable goods and local hiring are purpose enough -- so I tend to expect a learning curve, especially with a new guy. Eggs on the bottom of the bag. Milk carton sheathed in double plastic before it goes into the canvas.

But not with this kid.

He's bagged my groceries three times now, and he's strategic about it -- heavy items packed together in one bag, fragile bread and tomatoes in another. He approaches my hand-pulled grocery cart like a game of Tetris. No wasted space, no chance of spillage. And he's gentle. He cradles my bananas in his palm, then places them tenderly into the cart. I'm always sure to thank him -- not too cloyingly -- just a quick, "Hey thanks a lot." And he always wishes me a good day, like he genuinely cares that I don't step in a puddle or lose my keys on the walk home.

Yesterday, as I unpacked the week's haul, I discovered a dented box of water crackers. A tactical misstep along the way, I guess. But how could you begrudge this kid a handful of broken crackers? He clearly needs a break, and that's a molecule of kindness I could offer.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

How to get to . . .

It's not uncommon to liken one's neighborhood to towns of pop culture gone by. How many talk of growing up in Maybury or fearing they may one day move to Stepford?

I shared a revelation recently with John: Our neighborhood is Sesame Street. All quaintness aside, I remember that show being my first encounter with urban living -- people of varied cultural backgrounds, working as police officers or teachers, chatting with each other on front stoops as they keep watch over their blocks. Litter comes grumpily alive and giant oddballs share their simple wisdoms.

And I realized that sometimes I watch my neighborhood as if it's a television show. I hope I don't put it under glass, but there's a palpable thrill in taking up a fixed perch somewhere and watching what unfolds over the span of half an hour.

Yesterday I wasn't so much stationary as slow-moving, leisurely riding my bike home from work after an uncharacteristically good day, looking ahead to getting home to celebrate John's birthday but also wanting to take my time and enjoy the last grip of chill before warm air settles in for good.

There's a low-slung brick building on my route that houses two separate businesses: A brand new pie shop that's had its grand opening delayed by red tape, and a longstanding dry cleaning & alterations shop, with plants so huge and viney I imagine they're holding up the ceiling.

First scene: Two quick seconds of the pie shop -- A 3-speed bicycle in front whose basket, at last, holds a red "Open" sign and people gather in lines for a slice of Shaker lemon or banana cream.

Second scene: Two equally quick seconds of a mid-life Asian man, tailoring a pair of dress pants in the front window of the dry cleaner, surrounded by the hulking arms of decades-old philodendron.

I've been replaying this scene in my mind since yesterday. Possibly more than any other 5-second increment before, it tells the story of our neighborhood. Old vs. new, conventional vs. cutting-edge, utilitarian vs. decadent, cluttered vs. minimalist cool. But these worlds, while distinct, are also largely indebted to each other (a pie shop borrowing from homespun traditions, a dry cleaner benefitting from added foot traffic), and they manage to co-exist peaceably.

That tiny scene was so expertly spliced together that you couldn't even see the seam anymore. This is the kind of neighborhood I prefer to call home, where my own internal contradictions are written across the built environment, appearing not as juxtapositions at all, but as stories at their midpoints with many chapters yet to be read.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sweat Well Spent

This is our beautifully restored Logan Theater, which celebrated its grand reopening yesterday after several months of excavation and rehab, not to mention coughing, discovery, and worry on the part of its reanimator -- a guy who's part real-estate mogul, part pain in the ass (we first met 10 years ago, after a very public fight over affordable housing), but still manages his charms.

Along the way, he found old murals -- each one painstakingly restored and brought back to its original glory -- and the stunning Tiffany-style glasswork over the box office. You have to fall in love with a building to take that kind of care.

You also have to fall in love with a neighborhood, even one you consider too dicey to raise your own kids in. But you make your investments -- he's preserved hundreds of local rental units and even helped fund the prairie garden near the square -- and you help affect positive change.

As a theater two miles or so to the north faces its own demise -- a megachurch has set its sights on the building -- I'm grateful for the inner madness that would compel a developer to see importance in this building. Thanks to his investment (and make no mistake, his equity was more than just sweat), we won't be a community that gets swindled out of that history. We'll be a community that hails its rescue.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Mind and Body Conspire to Give My Lost Hour Back

I woke up in a panic this morning: House to clean, leaky faucet in the kitchen, food to cook before it turns. And it was a full hour later than it would've been yesterday after my standard six hours of sleep. Not enough. Never enough. Curse you, extra hour of daylight. I'm not ready for you.

So I went about the house, changing the clocks. I balanced my checkbook, put away last night's dinner dishes, called my mother, did a few stretches, brought in the paper, and headed out the door for my morning run.

I started on a full-on sprint. Gotta get this done before the day is half over. But after a couple of blocks, it dawned on me exactly how beautiful it was outside. Sun shining overhead with just a few wispy clouds across all that blue. Crocuses coming up at Jeannie's house. A guy ahead of me walking with his toddler and the gentlest pit bull I've ever seen. A local brunch restaurant setting up for outdoor seating (it's March 11th!). People gathering for breakfast, church, bike rides, or walks. A guy in a knit hat carrying his pod of a baby in his arms. Dogs chasing rope toys on the boulevard.

Without realizing it, my pace had settled down to a steady cadence. The air smelled of muslin. Birds chased each other through the trees. A neighbor painted his porch.

When I got home I figured it must be close to lunch time by now, but I hadn't even eaten breakfast yet. Nice while it lasted, I thought, but back to the grind. But there in the house, all the clocks I'd just changed said the same thing: 10:20. Still morning. Plenty of time.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gifts from the Dead

This ceramic tea set is compliments of Florence, who spent her final years in the care of two friends of ours -- Mike and Diane -- a few blocks south of us. Florence died in her home last month in the company of her hospice nurse.

We never actually met Florence, but we'd heard all the stories, especially her endless flirtations with Mike and objections to his wife Diane, whom Florence felt was interfering with their love.

Florence had no immediate family, and the one identified relative -- a niece -- has expressed little interest in Florence's spartan 'estate.' So Mike and Diane have been working to sift through years of accumulated detritus, separating trash from treasure, trying to find homes for things that may have some remaining utility.

So it is that we ended up stewards of this midcentury, mint-condition tea set. It now joins a few other odds and ends -- cream pitchers, a gravy boat, and an old pharmacy counter -- that have come to our house from those who have moved on or passed on. We're happy to carry on these legacies. We'll be responsible to their memories.

We went into Florence's house for the first time a couple weeks back. It smelled of must and urine. Silk unmentionables hung next to house dresses in her closet. Entire walls in the living and dining rooms were covered with mirrored squares (some had come loose from the wall), which must have made Florence feel elegant. I'm not sure how a place can feel dingy and hallowed at exactly the same time, but that's the only way to describe it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Arbor Day

Just taking a moment to appreciate this tree. It's grown from sapling to colossus in the time we've been in this house, providing shade and privacy, not to mention a trysting spot for birds.

We recently learned we may lose our poplar. Its roots have grown over the City's water shut-off valve, so according to the Water Department, there are two potential outcomes:

1) cut out that segment of the root and heroically save the three (the choice of the Department of Forestry, and also our own)

2) the tree has to go

Some nearby families have opted out of trees altogether (despite a program that used to plant them in the parkways for free) or cut them down for fear of molested foundations. Though I'm firmly in the pro-tree camp, I understand this. You work hard to buy a house. You don't want unbridled nature to take it away from you.

Still, we've had our share of loss this last year, and we'd like to hang on to our leafy companion. We're hoping that nature and the built environment will find a way to tolerate each other.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Signs of life in unexpected places

In warmer months, the girls next door like to play under our porch. They call it the "squirrel house." There's a tiny path beside our front steps the girls can navigate without crouching, then a hidden space beneath the porch floor, full of cobwebs and rogue supermarket circulars -- but also a rarefied hideout for two kids who never lost their knack for creative play.

As someone with an irrational fear of harming people, I've always secretly worried over this. What if they can't get out one day? What if the porch collapses? (I mean jeez, look at that crack in our foundation!)

But on this unseasonably mild February morning, I braved the space myself to try to clear out some debris, and what I found was this scene: A hand-constructed table with a tiny mammalian friend in a flower pot. It's probably been there since June. I cleared out the litter but left the table set.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Would gladly spend my dollars here

We passed this seemingly shuttered plumbing shop last night on our way to dinner. In case you can't read the poster, it reads, "WORKING towards a
clog-free nation."

Living in Chicago these days, under a mayor
punch-drunk on privatization and working his damndest to dismantle the unions, it's easy to miss the days where even the humblest workers identified with
Soviet-style labor images.

I also have to love a shop that proudly displays toilets in its front window, especially as an upscale tequila bar opens just 1 block west, and fashionable folks walk by on their way to a caipirinha.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Strange signs from above

There can be a fine line between tragedy and comedy, like the curious case of this yellow rope (?) discovered on an early-morning jog last weekend.

It's just not the kind of thing you'd expect to find hanging from a third-story window. Except at Alcatraz or in German fairy tales.

Was this flight route or a practical joke? A party marker or a fire escape? Was Professor Plum in the library with the candlestick, or a bunch of artists in the studio with too much time on their hands? Was Christo coming for dinner?

The addition of a wiry young guy sprinting past me, shirtless, his parka pulled by bare hands tight at his chest, and vaguely chuckling as he ran toward the train, did nothing to snuff out the mystery. All I know is, next time I went past, the long yellow rope was gone, as was, no doubt, its reason for being there.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Dear Mr. Pennycuff

Our neighborhood lost a dear friend and activist this week. John wasn't your average revolutionary: He created change through decency and an open heart. He'd been a member of ActUp back in the 80s, and he and his partner Robert were long-time advocates for marriage equity. We were lucky enough to be invited to the local reception following their first wedding in San Francisco (California eventually nullifed their license, so they went back and married all over again once the law allowed).

The Chicago Tribune had followed them to cover their experience, but what we remember even more than those media snippets were John and Robert beaming among the family and friends, journalists, and elected officials who gathered to cheer them on. It was in this good company that they enjoyed their first dance --John towering over Robert, but leaning down so that even physically, they were equals.

I remember John on rototiller duty when a group of us gathered to put in a rogue community garden at our local train entrance, a derelict patch of land more likely to see empty malt-liquor bottles than the perennials blooming there today. He took the toughest job with a smile on his face. It's what he did, always.

He and Robert often told stories about a kooky neighborhood corner store, Ziggy's, where you can order a Polish sausage or jalapeno poppers but also buy a gallon of milk (best to check the expiration date). John and Robert were frequent customers, as were some bratty junior-high kids who would toss homophobic slurs in their direction. So Robert and John took on a campaign to help Ziggy understand the importance of a welcoming, tolerant environment. This is how an old-school, German greasy-spoon owner became an unlikely advocate for gay rights, at least in his tiny corner of the world.

John went on to work for the local Chamber of Commerce and later the alderman's office. He became the face of the farmers market, where he sat at the welcome table every Sunday. It wasn't uncommon to see him walking back and forth from the market back to his apartment above the rotisserie-chicken place -- maybe they'd forgotten pens or needed some extra change. John was almost always on foot, walking with that familiar gate, baseball hat forever on his head, torso hunched forward like a guy who was never entirely comfortable with his size. Very recently, he and Robert got bicycles, and they'd be seen taking their inseparable rides through town, in awe of the rapid change in the neighborhood, eager to keep it honest.

We went to John's visitation yesterday. It broke me up. John and I weren't terribly close, but we'd known each other for a very long time, and it was easy to adore him. He was keen with eye contact and quick with a hug. He and Robert raised money annually for a local playlot, though they had no children and as far as we knew, no plans for them. The photo above is from one of those fundraisers.

Hundreds of snapshots of John dotted the funeral home last night: He and Robert with Mayor Daley, he and Robert with Rod Blagojevich, he and Robert with Rick Garcia, Deb Mell, and countless other gay activists, but mostly he and Robert -- with family, at parties, holding hands, much heavier than today, in Halloween costumes, at rallies, at science-fiction conventions, in kitchens, and quietly in love after decades together.

It was an open-casket wake, and John's body lay still and waxen, hands folded with his wedding ring prominent on his left hand. It was John, of course, but almost more a replica of John -- lifeless, nearly pretty -- in a way that made me wish it was all a lie, and there would be John, peering from behind a curtain, whispering to himself in disbelief, "They like me. They really like me."

We said our good-byes and held tight to Robert. It's hard to imagine him without John by his side, but he held strong, and he'll persevere.

Regret always comes with losing someone. We didn't have enough time. We didn't appreciate him enough. We should have chatted more at the market, told him how much we admired his work or valued his friendship. We should have sent him a Christmas card, as he and Robert sent us every year. Why didn't we buy more raffle tickets? Why didn't we have them over for dinner?

But in John's case it's a little bit different. It's not that we never realized how much we loved him. It's that we realize it harder now.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Getting Over

I was bypassed for a MacArthur Genius grant again this year, but I’ve been placed in the pool of candidates for their little-known Anti-Genius grant, set aside for those lacking in perspective, acting impetuously, or failing to anticipate the consequences of even their best intentions.

See this little guy? He may remind you of someone you know . . . or knew. Gomez had a rough road to his 4th birthday: Found as a stray , starving, with that big sweet white head on top of a rib cage covered with skin. Covered in flecks of black tar. Being fed from time to time by a guy tossing him pans of unfinished burritos, but the rest of the time fending for himself.

At first I was taken with his story, and then of course with his appearance, so similar to Inez. I wanted to help. Ultimately I wanted to make him part of the family, so we took him in as a foster with the intention to adopt and began the process of falling in love with him.

In the three weeks we had him he went from a guy with his tail firmly between his legs to a guy who would wag furiously at the mere sight of us. From a guy who wouldn’t roll on his back to a guy who allowed us at least selective belly rubs. And from a guy who growled at the neighbors to one who at least tolerated the activity in the alley – the car repairs, the idling motorcycles – while he went about his inspections of the yard.

In those three weeks he also bit another dog, jumped the fence, bumped a burner and filled the house with gas, and ultimately sank his teeth into the sleeve of a teenage girl whose only sin was walking past us. And he did these things because he was a fragile and complicated beast, testing his boundaries, protecting the only territory he knew.

And as much as I understood all of that, pulling him off that teenage girl while he had his teeth clamped down on her sleeve, simply proved too much for me. What if he’d gotten her wrist (just millimeters from where he’d bitten down)? What if he’d drawn blood, or worse? What if it happened again? What if I failed the girl? What if I failed Gomez?

I tried to convince myself he was sending me warnings, like the haunted house an old boyfriend’s mother once told me about, where the family was eventually chased away by ghosts, only to have the house burn down a few weeks later. Had they stayed, they all would have perished.

But I guess I’m being romantic. In ways Gomez was sending me a warning – that it was too soon after losing Inez to take this on . . . that I wasn’t prepared to deal with surprises, especially those that brought risk along with them. Damn that Gomez, though, because he forgot to warn me about getting too attached.

So now we watch, in a world of Facebook, as he gets adjusted to his next home – thankfully a home he knew before, with a foster who loves him and feels more prepared now than before to consider adopting him. He’ll be undergoing a rigorous training program with an amazing woman, determined to make him a good canine citizen. And we watch this from the sidelines, so happy for him, but with the pain of that window between us – letting us see, but keeping us at a distance. It’s a distance I chose, but I wish I hadn’t had to.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

That's me in the window . . .

. . . eating dinner with John at our favorite restaurant during last night's snowstorm.

It's hard to believe sometimes that we've been in this neighborhood over 10 years, and that this particular eatery was largely the thing that got us here, after a memorable meal in 2001 that made us think, "This feels like home. Let's buy a house here."

In our subsequent decade of dinners, we've:

- Watched the restaurant expand to three times its original size
- Bought the painting that hung above us that very first meal
- Got initiated into local sourcing
- Witnessed two proposals
- Befriended our favorite server (whose wedding I would come to officiate)
- Eaten dinner there with the likes of Richard Russo, Eleanor Lipman, and Charles Baxter
- Enjoyed several complimentary gifts from the kitchen
- Learned to love cava
- Delighted in pairings like chocolate and sage
- Launched a friendship with one of John's rock & roll heroes and his stellar wife
- Spent far too much money (worth every dime)
- Grieved the loss of a talented barkeep
- Discovered the joys of counter seating
- Shared bites with strangers
- Talked politics, or music, or the events of the day, or not at all because we were taking things in

This place has a Proustian lock on my heart. And though you can't have dinner for two under $50 like you used to, and you no longer walk through the kitchen to get to the bathroom, this will still always be a come-as-you-are, neighborhood mainstay for us.

Given the humanely raised veal with black-eyed peas and cinnamon I had as course #3 last night, it looks they'll never lose their ability to knock my socks off with a hat trick.