Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Driving the devil off of Whipple Street...

Back in the days before we set up shop in the quaint, tree-lined community where we now reside, John and I (and, for a time, the newborn-to-toddler version of our child) lived in a neighborhood called Humboldt Park, its stark opposite, on the near west side of Chicago. We came to live in Humboldt Park when the apartment we had been living in started to get on our nerves for reasons that are no longer burnished upon my memory, the landlord of the new apartment we quite nearly signed a lease on decided, apparently on a whim, to go condo (surprise!), and we had approximately two weeks in Chicago’s frosty early December in which to find a new residence for our bed, John’s art supplies and my big pile of books. I remember I was sitting on the couch on my day off, little cartoon swirls of desperation zipping around my head, when the classified ad for our future apartment leaped out at me from the Chicago Reader. (This was before the Internet, a time that seems deceptively naive and sepia-toned today, like a Victorian-era film reel.) The ad described a huge, turn-of-the-century (I believe the descriptive word was “vintage”) apartment with incredible craftsmanship near a park. The rent was on the low end of reasonable. ”You’ll have to see it to believe it,” the ad teased. My head dizzy with anticipation and my blood surging with the kind of competitive spirit unique to urban dwellers circling in on an apartment, I drew a cartoon heart around it with my red Flair pen, jumped up and ran to the phone, tripping over our dog and burbling out apologies. The realtor answered on the first ring and we set up an appointment to meet that night at the building.

I immediately called John and breathlessly told him of this possible bonanza. He, while hopeful, asked for the address, being much more pragmatic than I am in such matters. It hadn’t even occurred to me to factor its location into my enthusiasm. While we had some sentimental attachment to our neighborhood – it was, in fact, where we’d fallen off our barstools and in love –it was well on its way toward an all-points-bulletin yuppie invasion, something that John and I had a role in creating, too, no doubt, but couldn’t abide much more. I was tired of all the insufferable art majors (having once been one myself, I know of whence I speak) brooding in what had been my favorite café, the pervasive bar culture, and the countless Urge Overkill-esque bands practicing in seemingly every other living room were working my nerves. Plus every block seemed to have it’s own crackhead or schizophrenic: on Crystal, ours would literally pull out a plastic lawn chair each evening and shriek at pigeons and pedestrians and passing clouds with her caterwauling voice deep into the night. Long after we’d gone to bed, she would keep me awake, screaming a seemingly endless stream of invective – her superpower appeared to be that she did not require breath - with her terrifying voice ricocheting against the houses like a skittering bowling pin. Come to think of it, maybe this was why we were annoyed with our apartment. Was it really so outlandish to consider something new, at least a fresh crackhead with a less familiar bag of tricks?

We had been planning to stay in the neighborhood but the new address was west of it by a couple of miles. I was unbothered by this. When John said, “You know that’s in Humboldt Park, right?” though, that did make me blanch a little. Humboldt Park was notorious in Chicago for gangs, especially at that time. I also had the misfortune of having ridden my bike once through its fabled park, designed by the famous landscape architect Jens Jenson but then in a serious state of decay, on an ill-considered summer afternoon jaunt. It was a white-knuckle ride, dodging whiskey bottles and syringes the whole way, not to mention all the glassy-eyed men who shouted offers at me from the path, apparently under the impression that I was one of those newfangled bicycling prostitutes. By the time I got home, just a ten-minute bike ride away but seemingly in a whole different galaxy, the crazy lady of Crystal was dragging out her lawn chair and she may as well have been Santa Claus, I was so giddy to see her again. She called me a whore and accused me of stealing her mail, but still…

Okay, I told John, so I would avoid the park. Every neighborhood has its little “thing,” right? A no man’s land you will go out of your way to avoid, whether it’s that block littered with all the hipster bars or a sprawling, turn-of-the-century park littered with drug paraphernalia? It was not so hard to avoid once one understood the parameters. The gangs? Well, I said, we’d just have to decide where to put our allegiance. My money was on the Maniac Latin Disciples for obvious reasons.

We met the realtor the night I saw the ad. As we pulled up to the house, a proud and stately brownstone, she was standing by the front steps. I remember that the realtor had blonde hair and that she was very friendly but not much more about her. The building was a three-flat, massive but with just three apartments running the whole length, one in the basement, one on the first floor and one on the second floor, which was the one that was unoccupied. As we walked up the steps, I was already bewitched. I’ve always loved old buildings, and this one was perfectly Addams Family-esque. As we started up the stairs, I fantasized straightening my hair, putting on a black dress and tossing withering bon mots at my personal Gomez. (Indeed, a couple of years later, we would adopt a tradition of “haunting” this particular stairway for the neighborhood children, the street smart, prematurely hardened little guys who couldn’t help clutching one another with a thrilling little apprehension and squealing with delight at the unexpected embellishments in our Stairway To Hell.) By the time we took the little turn up the steps and I saw the dark-stained oak door with the brass lion’s head knocker, exactly like the one that stuck with me all those years from the old black-and-white Alastair Sims version of A Christmas Carol, I was definitely a goner. As someone who loves old movies as much as romantically spooky old buildings, I was intoxicated from the start. I might have even signed the lease on the apartment sight unseen just based on that stairwell. Once the realtor opened the door to the apartment, though, it was clear that the stairs were just a teaser.

John and I stared, unabashedly astonished and gasping, as we happened upon one incredible feature after the next: the high ceilings, the sweeping balcony, the opulent built-in dining room cabinet, the colossal claw-foot bathtub, and, most impressive, the intricate parquet floors with geometric patterns that belonged to a patient, diligent craftsmanship of a different time. (In fact, John would spend a lot of time painstakingly gluing those many little pieces back together when his foot would sink through a soft spot while roughhousing with the dogs. While the floor was beautiful, it was just a very fragile and thin platform, all rotted out underneath. We didn’t know this at the time, and, frankly, we wouldn’t have cared.)

I started packing when we got home that night and we signed the lease the next day. While we were going over the paperwork, the realtor happily prattled on about the house. The landlord lived with his family in Minneapolis. The last tenant in that apartment was a dentist who broke his lease and suddenly moved out – she was fuzzy on the details, but there was some sort of disagreement with the tenants on the first floor that had turned ugly. The tenant on the first floor with whom he had his disagreement was kicked out after gluing toothpicks in the dentist’s locks. The house was peaceful now, with a “really cool girl named Vanessa” in the basement, a “musician dude named Mono” on the first floor, and a property manager named Bob, a friend of the landlord, maintaining the building.

We moved on an ominously overcast, rainy December morning – to me, ever the doom-and-gloom enthusiast back then, it was perfectly invigorating - with just a couple friends and a random guy who offered his moving services on the street. The move itself was unremarkable and relatively easy, other than that little turn in the steps, and we immediately settled in. That night, I took my first bath in the deep claw-foot tub, filled up to my chin in luxurious, scented water, and I savored the peacefulness of the quiet, blue-tiled bathroom as the faucet dripped every so often and echoed. There were no amplified guitars shrieking from every direction, no drunken hipsters stumbling down the block, no crazy ladies wailing at the moon. Yes, I heard the occasional sharp popping sound from outside – firecrackers in the winter? I wondered – but still, it felt serene and right to be there. I was grown up. Those self-conscious wannabes back in the old neighborhood could have their drink specials and open mics, I smirked to myself. I had something real.

There are so many stories to tell about our time in Humboldt Park, so many that this will be a regular feature of my little blog here. Though I’m not sure how to spin it from the feminist or vegan angle, it was certainly formative to me, and through living there, this or that conviction became deepened, was transformed, abandoned. At the very least, there are some incredible stories and characters. It will be five years in July that we left that neighborhood for one with a good school district and enough proud little Boston terriers to warm each and every lap. When we left Humboldt Park, we were certainly ready but it still hadn’t worn out its welcome. For someone who loves collecting and telling stories, it was the perfect place to reside. Once or twice a month, my brother would call and demand fresh stories from Humboldt Park: people John encountered on dog walks, random and hilarious conversations I’d overheard, the latest vehicular mishaps along the boulevard. I was happy to supply these stories, committing them to my internal file as they occurred. And now I'll share them here.

All the good stories originated with the house itself, of course.

There was Bob, the twitchy, accident prone, malevolent but pathetically ineffectual troll who managed the property, which he interpreted to mean that he would do the least possible whenever he couldn’t avoid ducking all responsibility. There was Vanessa, the basement dweller, a blonde, eternally grinning but deceptively multifaceted Deadhead with the beloved VW bus she covered with swirly paintings like bandages on every last scratch. And there was Mono for a short time, a hip-hop fan who was fond of late night parties but otherwise mellow. When John mentioned to him that there were feral cats living in his car in the garage, he just sort of grimaced and shrugged. These were the people in the house we started with, but it went through many incarnations of new residents as such buildings do. When I think back to our early days in Humboldt Park, this is the house I remember. Those were the halcyon days.

Outside of our house, there was the schizophrenic Polish cleaning lady who would apparently silence the voices in her head long enough for work and then wander the streets on her way home, shrieking animatedly and unintelligibly at anyone who happened to be on her path. There was Cowboy Bob and his bird-like, squawking wife, holdovers from when the neighborhood attracted Appalachian factory workers in the 1950s and 1960s, and their very shell-shocked, in-need-of-a-doggy-Valium-and-country-sojourn tan shepherd mix. There was the man John befriended he called Squeaky, another transplanted Appalachian with the barest whistle of a voice (lung cancer, we came to learn, robbed him of his vocal chords, which made my husband feel terribly guilty about the nickname he’d affixed to him) who told John the story of his life shortly before he moved to live with his daughter in Tennessee. There was the friendly Puerto Rican guy who lived in the building on the corner, recently released from prison, crashing at his sister’s place and eternally in need of a break. There was the world’s most jovial crossing guard, who presided over the corner at Armitage and Humboldt Boulevard with smiles and laughter every school day. There was the guy who sang from his apartment window each and every time he saw John walking our two hound dogs, imitating Elvis’ baritone as he warbled “Hound Dog” as though John hadn’t heard him do this hundreds of times. There was the guy who lived in the halfway – halfway from and to where, I wondered – house down the street, who was fixated on our basset hound and the TV show, The Dukes of Hazzard, recapping various episodes without punctuation as apparently Buster resembled one of the stars. There was the neighborhood prostitute who propositioned John one early winter morning as he was walking with two dogs and a plastic newspaper bag of their waste. There were the countless other prostitutes, the bangers, the children who would bring us stray animals, the people who would argue loudly on their fire escapes, the shopkeepers, the nervous new building owners, the families who had lived in the same house for generations, the white dudes from Lincoln Park looking for heroin. There are so many stories to tell.

Today I’m going to tell a little story I was reminded of the other day, when my son and I were bicycling down Augusta and we heard someone yelling into a megaphone. “What’s going on?’ my son wondered and I started laughing. Hearing that voice shouting into the megaphone, I was transported in an instant to a late summer afternoon in Humboldt Park.

That day, John and I were returning from somewhere and as soon as we pulled into our alley, we could hear someone shouting into a megaphone and a chorus of other voices, also rising above the usual din of garbled ice cream truck recordings, elote vendors and car alarms. Ever in search of an interesting story, we followed the voices to Whipple.

Chicago is unique in that neighborhoods can and will change abruptly from block to block. One block is well maintained and placid, children are playing in the front yards, and on the next block, inexplicably and suddenly, everything changes. It’s like you went through some sort of invisible transformer machine that changed everything in a split-second. In that split-second, garbage streams and blows out onto the street, liquor bottles line the gutters, windows are covered with spray paint-tagged plywood, the cars are up on cinderblocks for weeks at a time, the residents are either strung out or very, very wary. Interestingly, this usually just remains contained on this block, with little spillover. The 1900 block of north Whipple, exactly one block west of us, was this block, what I referred to as “ no man’s land” and where John had once been asked by a kid on a bicycle if he knew in which house he could buy “some rock.” Whipple, a word with positive associations to me because it was the same as the name of that adorable man in those commercials when I was a child who implored that grocery shoppers please not squeeze the Charmin, was to be avoided at all costs.

John and I turned the corner onto Whipple and there was a small group of people clustered together, maybe fifteen to twenty, under a tree. A man in a suit was standing in the middle, and his was the voice on the megaphone. John and I stood a little outside the group, taking it in, when someone passed us flyers in Spanish.

“We are gathered today to drive the devil off of Whipple Street,” the man shouted unnecessarily into the megaphone – as a seasoned activist, I wanted to tell him that while I understood the temptation, you just need to talk into one of those devises as it amplifies one’s voice sufficiently and if you shout, it distorts – and the group gathered around him cheered and prayed aloud in response.

“All you prostitutes and you drug dealers, all you junkies and you gang-bangers, you need to get off of Whipple Street,” he thundered to the crowd’s delight. “You need to go! Leave! Good, hard-working Christian families live here. We’re not asking you, we’re telling you. We are here to do God’s work, and we’re here to tell you to leave now.” The crowd cheered. “Now!” he screamed, punching an impassioned fist into the air, the megaphone emitting a piercing tone. The assembled shouted, “Yes!” and “Leave now!” The man with the megaphone repeated what he’d said in Spanish and then the crowd walked about twenty feet and repeated the same speech. And then again and again. Our curiosity satisfactorily sated, John and I walked home.

Going through the back yard, which was about a three times the size of an average Chicago lot, a relative country estate, we immediately noticed that our landlord was having a garden party. At this time of our residence, we had a new landlord, Christine, a tall, single woman in her forties with three dogs and a cat, who was a judge downtown, determining whether people could continue receiving disability compensation or not. The house on Humboldt Boulevard was the first home Christine owned, and through living there, she discovered that she had a love of gardening and a very green thumb. In the spring and summer, the yard was ripe-to-bursting with roses and peonies and bunches of tulips, not to mention all the flowering bushes, herbs and tomatoes our dog would pick off the vine. Christine took great pride in the yard and it was a far cry from the wide stretch of three-foot-high thistles and weeds it had been when we first moved in, the one Vanessa valiantly tried to single-handedly tackle with her little clippers. Christine finessed it into the sort of yard usually only found in the suburbs or the wealthiest neighborhoods of Chicago.

That day, though, as I said, Christine was having a garden party. The guests were sitting around in her nice lawn chairs and eating appetizers off little plates on their laps, sipping wine, as we walked through the back gate. Christine, while earthy and warm in a Waspish sort of way, had many lawyer friends from work who were clearly most at home in a very controlled, predictable setting. Going to a party in the city, especially in this part of the city, was a rare occurrence and a test of mettle in and of itself. Her guests were invariably well-dressed and made polite, restrained conversation. When I think of Christine’s parties, I think of people sitting in a circle and talking about their jobs, current events, movies they’d recently seen, all in a way that seemed very subdued, at least compared to my raucous friends. So they were sitting in a circle of lawn chairs, surrounded by Christine’s lush garden, having a conversation their taxes and it would be easy to imagine that they were on a country estate in Connecticut or wherever it is that people gather in gardens and have polite conversation. Except for that thundering voice on the megaphone calling out the various sinners on Whipple Street, that is.

“Well, when I got my property tax –“

“All you prostitutes and drug dealers! - ”

“ – bill, I did a double-take. I couldn’t believe it.”

“I know what you mean,” the woman in a lavender dress chimed in. “Me, too.”

“You need to go! Leave!…” the amplified voice shouted over everyone.

The conversation at the garden party hit a lull as the voice on the megaphone hit its stride again, something I suspected they had been through at least a few times by now. The guests looked at one another uncomfortably, sheepish smiles all around and they looked up as John and I passed.

“They’re driving the devil off of Whipple Street,” I said by way of explanation.

“What’s that?” Christine asked, her head cocked, canapés in a plate on her lap.

“There’s some sort of ministry, and they’re driving the devil off of Whipple Street,” I said, pointing west. “You know, like, so it’s less evil.”

“Oh!” Christine said, her eyes bright. She turned to her guests as if they were small, uncomprehending children. “They’re just driving the devil off of Whipple Street. That’s what you’re hearing.”

The guests listened to the voice again, railing against the prostitutes and gang-bangers, the assembled crowd a block away whooping and hollering, and they nodded in recognition, as if this suddenly made sense.

“Well,” the woman in the lavender dress said after taking a sip of wine, speaking aloud for the group, “that’s a good thing, I guess.”

The party continued and the conversation was slightly less stilted now that some sense had finally been made of that voice on the megaphone.