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.