Friday, December 24, 2004

A Different Kind Of White Christmas

It's a little after ten a.m. here in Bridgeport this morning. As I look out the window at the deep freeze outside (2 degrees fahrenheit, wind chill -20 below) The street and parked cars are covered with a different white: the blanched look of heavy salt spread to melt last week's minimal snow and hard permafrost. It looks almost post-nuclear, occasionally broken by the sight of solitary figures loading their cars for trips to the relatives. After all, Christmas will happen regardless of the weather.

I met up with friends last night for the Music Box's Christmas sing-along (we opted for White Christmas because we're all a bit older and we had a pregnant one in tow). The song-along has taken on a life of its own. With all the sleigh bells and audience participation it can be more annoying at times than going to a Rocky Horror Picture Show screening. One of us snuck in a bottle of wine and I had my trusty flask filled with tequila for warmth, so we needed no concessions.

Michelle e-mailed me yesterday to pick my brain about Pilsen and Bridgeport. It seems that she's having a rough go apartment hunting on the North Side and read some too-good-to-be-true deals in Pilsen. I gave her some detailed pointers about the neighborhoods and suggested she seek second and third opinions- I have old friends who have recently moved in down here who might be able to corroborate my opinions.

It seems that I rarely write about what life is like in Bridgeport and why I like living down here. I guess this is as good a time as any. The finishing touches of my adolescence took place on the Northwest side of the city, across the street from Hermosa Park and what was then known as the Mary Ann bakery (now the S. Rosen bakery). I was a stones throw from Belmont-Cragin, Logan Square, and the West Side. My friends and I would hang out at the park, on each others' front porch stoops, or in our basements fruitlessly trying to copy early Metallica riffs. When we were bored we could just hop on the Fullerton bus and head to the Brickyard Mall or travel further to Harlem-Irving Plaza and hang outside Rolling Stones Records if Lance Poulsen had the keys to his brother's Celica. It was quiet and working middle-class. And to my teenaged mind, it was so far away from everything I wanted to experience.

My first apartment in Chicago as an adult was a studio apartment north of Wrigley Field. Somehow I managed to make a deep circle of frineds that I still have today and graduate from studio apartment to roomates to couch-hopping; my career path moving from retail to marketing to sales to unemployed. Gentrification was taking hold and I was a dot-com casualty long before the term became de rigueur. I had crashed at an aunt's for about a month when I wore out my welcome there. It was the Fourth of July 1999 and I had one final option. I called up my friend Sue and said that I needed a place to crash. She didn't say a word, told me to come down.

So I strapped my army duffel bag on my back, strapped my other belongings to my bicycle, and made the one-hour trip from West Rogers Park to Bridgeport. When I got down here I assured Sue that it would be a temporary arrangement. The next night Sue took me bar-hopping around the neighborhood. We first stopped at the now defunct Black Orchid sports bar on 31st. There was only one television tuned to a White Sox game, no draft beer, and two video poker games that paid out winnings at the bar. From there we went to the Redwood Lounge on Wallace and finally stopped at Puffer's on Halsted. From the moment I walked in and Al the bartender said, "You've just entered the best joint of its kind on this side of the street in this neighborhood", I decided to give Bridgeport the benefit of the doubt.

Looking back I think we both knew that temporary arrangement was bullshit. It turned into a four-year relationship as roommates. I've fallen in love with this neighborhood many times over. From Polo Cafe and Catering on South Morgan to Punky's Pizza on 26th; from Freddie's Pizza and Pancho Pistolas on 31st to Gio's Cafe and Deli on 28th and Lowe, the Bridgeport Coffee House on 31st and Morgan and the Zhou Brothers complex on South Morgan, Bridgeport has secrets that I've pried open and more to be revealed. The sights and sounds change with the seasons: summer means the distant sound of fireworks from Sox Park every time the Good Guys hit a home run; spring is ushered in by paddy green lights on bannisters and front yard as far as the eye can see, the South Side Irish showing their pride; Sundays in autumn the air is lightly perfumed with the wafting odor of breakfast from Stages restaurant on 31st; winter means a walk down to the Ramova Grill for a bowl of the best chili in the neighborhood.

But what I love most about Bridgeport is it's unapologetically urban in a time when urban planning has become synonymous with homogeny. I live ten minutes by foot to Chinatown and five minutes from Pilsen by bike. I can be downtown via the Orange Line in ten minutes. When a trip to the suburbs for me would be a bike ride up Halsted to Lincoln Park, I wonder how much longer this Chicago that I now call home can last. Bridgeport is an ever-evolving beast: aware of its past, sometimes regrettably, but always striving for a better future while honoring the good time that were.

Marry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all. See you next year.

Thursday, December 23, 2004

More Brass Bra Cold

I've spent the past three days applying weatherstrip to the widows that need them in my apartment. I can qualify both the kitchen and pantry a success: the pantry has gone from "icebox cold" to "tepid" while the kitchen is now toasty. But my office (where I'm typing this now) is a larger challenge.

I have one giant window in the room. Due to all the years of repainting of wood trim and general neglect I'm finding it impossible to cover all the areas where cold air is seeping through. Literally every time I plug one leak another pops up. I'm about ready to throw in the towel and cover the whole window- sill trim, and pane- in a giant sheet of plastic that further keeps light out of the room.

The main motivation is the gas bill, of course. Now that I live in a larger apartment I don't want to be paying $200 for gas bills during the winter- a realistic proposition considering that I have my own hot water tank, forced air, and two fireplaces. I'm just not a fan of the plastic over the windows. If there's a balmy day in February where I can open the windows, I want to be able to do that. With weatherstrip I can.

Life would be so much easier if I had radiator heat.

Friday, December 17, 2004

Shooting For a Shade of Red on My Nose Somewhere Between Rudolph and W.C. Fields

I'm gearing up for this weekend's HotHouse Holiday Market. Wonderful gift ideas from forty-five vendors will be available for your purchasing pleasure. Get away from the Magnificent Mile and the malls and come over. I guarantee you'll find something for every hard-to-buy-for person on your gift lists. I'll be at the bar both days helping you to artificially enforce that holiday cheer with my unique mixing talents. We'll have sammitches for the famished, cool yule tunes from the junkie's tracks, and I'll be whipping up a giant pot of steaming hot glögg for your imbibing. We'll send you on your way into the night with a nose red enough to roast chestnuts.

11 a.m.- 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Hope to see you.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Walking In A Winter Wonderland

So I rang in the second day of Christmas, not with two turtle doves and a partridge in a pear tree, but with a steaming hot mug of glüwhein underneath the Picasso in Daley Plaza. Or, as white people casually call it, "glögg."

It was a picture perfect day downtown. The sun was beginning to set over the buildings;the weather was mild with a light breeze; the evening rush hour just started to heat up. I walked around the Christkindlmarket shops, taking in the sights and smells. Lightly emboldened by the rush of hot mulled wine I allowed a slight smile to creep across my face and the spirit of the season to roll over me.

Then I hopped on the Red Line and was crudely thrown back to reality.

I'm a Chicagoan, born and raised. I'll die a Chicagoan. I've ridden the subway for as long as I could have cogent memory. As someone who frequents the subway I understand that there are certain risks involved with riding the trains. Specifically, that odds are more than fair I'll step on a car with that delicate potpourri of hospital-grade sanitizer and stale urine. But the car I stepped in this afternoon was simply foul.

Words cannot accurately describe the smell of fresh pee on a homeless man passed out standing in middle of a subway car. My eyes were literally stinging from the smell. There were passengers who wanted to complain but were afraid that the smell would settle on their tongues. I only had four stops before transferring to the more satisfying olfactory confines of the Orange Line, but wasn't sure I could make it to the Roosevelt Road station.

That's when I remembered that I was carrying my glögg mug. I placed my nose in the mug and deeply inhaled the remnants of that sweet wine all the way to my transfer train. My eyes still stung, but at least I wasn't teetering on blowing my lunch everywhere.

Friday, December 10, 2004

Home Sweet Homes

For the most part the move into my new apartment is complete. I have to head over to the old one today and haul out some miscellaneous detritus, do some cleaning, then sneak over to the landlady's place and drop the keys off in her mailbox. I cannot express how wonderful it feels to have any type of ambient light find its way into my living room again. That said ambient lihgt is coming through an ungodly large bay window is even more heartwarming.

I did the move myself, just like last year, with a mover's dolly and a head start on the sunrise. I transferred the heavy stuff first (couch, dresser, mattress/box spring, other furniture) and had that all in by noon. Then it was just a matter of moving what I could finish before sunset and pack up what needed to be moved today.

You don't realize what you accumulate until you start to sort through it for packing. sorting through papers in my office I was stunned at the sheer volume of press releases, interview notes, proposals for work, lost invoices, stamp booklets, and disk files that I thought were lost to goblins. It's at that moment that you also realize just how terrible a housekeeper you are. I've always made sure that my aprtment was clean for company, but at times yesterday I felt like I was walking through a dustbowl.

I've resigned myself to the knowledge that I'm goping to need a new cabinet for the office, an a/v cabinet for the stereo equipment, and a larger bookcase to accommodate the oblong books in my library. I'm sure that once I do this the apartment will start to feel a lot smaller than it actually is. But that's the nature of accumulation.

As I was finishing the heavy stuff yesterday my nosy Sicilian neighbor finally asked if I was moving. She's not a big fan of the old landlady and constantly lists her litany of misdeeds to me: she doesn't keep up her property, she bought a bad building and hasn't invested the money to improve it, she rents to "coloreds." The last one she spat out at me yesterday. I returned fire by asking her about the white trash couple that keeps half of Union Avenue awake in the middle of the night with their inane arguments over who drank the last Diet Rite soda and who was the father of the last baby they gave up for adoption.

She grabbed my hand with a strength that should not be found in an eighty-year-old woman and lead me to her apartment, where she pulled out an eviction notice she had sent to said couple. "When they leave you can have the apartment $425 a month," she said. Considering how, by moving back into my old building I'm saving $200 a month in rent, this felt as if the spoils of war were mine for the taking.

I respectfully declined her offer as I had already moved my shit and I don't want to have a nosy Sicilian for a landlady all up in my business. There's something inspiring about people wanting you to live in their building. My old landlady, current landlord, and the nosy Sicilian all said I was "good people." I don't know whether that's a testament to me actually being a good person or just having lived in Bridgeport so long now that i could be considered a native. but it's nice to feel wanted in any way.

So I need to get shaking so I can start unpacking. I have plans to see Chris Hyatt's film Eye of Cruelty this evening. Depending on how long the Q&A runs after the movie I also want to head to Logan square for some roller derby featuring the Windy City Rollers.

Saturday, December 04, 2004

Normally I'd Have Been In Bed By Midnight...

There's a cacophony of sirens blaring outside my apartment right now. Either the Fire Department is doing its Toys For Tots collection drive up Union Avenue or there's a block of houses on fire across the alley that I'm simply indifferent toward. Ah, the ticks and quirks of Bridgeport.

First I'd like to extend a wonderful and heartfelt thanks to everyone who made it to Gunther Murphy's for the show last night, and to the talent- The Like Young, Dead Horse Hill, Devin Davis and his band, Paul Carray, and Marvin Tate- for volunteering their services. The Reader listed the show (well, The Like Young and Dead Horse Hill) on the front page of the music section, but it seemed as if Devin Davis brought a cult with him. He certainly had some new converts by the time he finished his set, including yours truly. A big thanks to the management and staff at Gunther Murphy's for donating the music room for this event.

So after paying the doorman, sound man, and bar tab, we still walked out with a good amount of money towards financing the first issue of Make. A hearty "big up" goes to Sarah Dodson for doing most of the heavy lifting and logistics. I was describing to her last night the total lack of nervousness I felt about doing this because it seemed like more of a team effort, unlike the "Speak Easy" series where I was corralling writers, music acts, finding the venue and doing p.r.

I wasn't feeling that way leading up to this. If anything I was feeling like I hadn't done my share to make this work, or had a feeling of being left out. I sat back and realized this was because I'm used to having the burden on my shoulders. That's why I think we have something special on our hands with Make. It's the result of two years of discussions and meetings with people who stayed with the concept after others dropped out because of disinterest or frustration with not seeing anything tangible for their time.

We've got a good droup of people involved here who are still learning to work together- people with different skill sets and approaches to literature with good ideas on how to make this work. It's democracy in action, essentially.

Besides, it's still nice to know that at 35 I can help throw a good party. I'm just not going to make it a habit- I like my sleep too much.

Friday, December 03, 2004

And Left... And Right... Lather, Rinse, Repeat...

So the HotHouse Operations Board (whom I like to refer to as the "junior " board) threw their first big fundraising shindig last night. The turnout wasn't all that was expected but still respectable. If I don't mic another rum punch again it'll be too soon.

Dance lessons were given by the ubiquitous Tina Mangos. Tina's been teaching dance around town for what seems like forever- at HotHouse; in the Fieldhouse in Jefferson Park; in Glenview; various Elks Lodges around the area. She has a unique approach to teaching dance that has evolved over the years, I assume. Currently her teaching style combines light niggling of students with unsolicited embarrassing stream-of-consciousness information, all delivered in an accent that brings back vivid memories of growing up on the Northwest Side of the city. It's a passive-aggressive pas de deux between Tina and her class. I liken it to an overprotective mother who won't let her son have his first dance with his new wife.

She was firing on all cylinders last night. Tina's lessons usually entail basic steps suitable for all the popular Latin Dance styles. This allows her students to have some familiarity with the music without wondering if they're dancing the wrong steps to the wrong music. They're already feeling self-conscious as it is without having to wonder if they're using cumbia steps to a cha-cha. Tina likes to lightly rib her students, but she demands total attention once the lesson begins. I've witnessed many occasions where she's called out someone for having a conversation while she's trying to teach a class. When she does, you smile, but you know she just chastised you.

Last night it started with a cell phone ringing while she was teaching some rumba steps. It was the familiar Nokia ring tone cutting loud and clear through the dance floor. Tina stopped in mid step and turned in the ddirection of the ring. "Is that a cell phone?" She asked metaphorically, then she pounced. "We have a brain surgeon in the house! Quck! Answer the phone! Your patient's hemorrhaging!!" the light sense of unease among the students was palpable, and Tina let out a nervous cackle to break the tension and let them know that she demanded their complete attention. "It's 'left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot, and turn.' It's like 'lather, rinse, repeat', okay?"

Later she lined up people for a merengue. "Now if you're from the Dominican Republic this dance can be called a punta," she snapped. The way she dropped the n and said the word with relish gave the impression that she was calling some of the female dance students whores. Again, more stares were shared between partners.

Then she volunteered after that particularly spirited merengue that she was "sweating like a pig." By this time our cocktail server for the evening had picked up on all of this. In short order the two of us were coming up with increasingly outlandish commentary, stuff like "these support hose are really slimming," or "I was told that these shoes would breathe and I wouldn't get yellow toenails."

Boss lady came over after the dance essons for a glass of water. She had been looking over at us during the lessons, wondering if we were making fun of her. "Pretty good workout," she said.

"It isn't a dance lesson until she starts insulting the class," I said. Her smile dropped almost immediately and she went back to the dance floor wondering if she would be the next target of Tina Magos' barbs.