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.

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