Friday, April 17, 2015

The Distance You Can Travel

The Chicago skyline, as viewed from Rainbow Beach, March 2015.

Good Morning from the wunnerful Bridgeport area, where I smell like an impulsive trip to Lem's BBQ after an evening of storytelling in Morgan Park. I was one of five invited to kick off a new live lit series called "The Frunchroom" organized by the Beverly Area Arts Alliance and my good friend Scott Smith and the place was packed! Congrats, y'all! 

I've been largely quiet the past month after being fired from Chicagoist, looking for jobs I feel would be great fits for my skills and taking the unexpected free time to decompress and gather my bearings. (And I'll definitely write about that in the near future.)

What's surprised me most is how ... mature I've been handling the fallout. It hasn't been all wine and roses, but it isn't the end of the world and, as Scott's wife (and my kid sister from Joliet) Erin told me over lunch last week, "this is only temporary." 

I've spent much of the time rediscovering the things I loved before I decided to spend most of my day with my fingers hovering over a laptop keyboard. Bicycling is one of those things. So is writing for my own pleasure and sanity. Writing is like breathing to me: I need to do it. (You'll also notice I've started cleaning up the layout here. Look for more changes moving forward as I return to this as an outlet.)

Following is the piece I read at The Frunchroom last night, which combines those two passions. I hope you like it.


“This may be a stupid question, dressed the way you are,” the gentleman prefaced, “but you don’t happen to smoke?”

Clad in spandex, stretching my legs to slow the buildup of lactic acid in my quads and stay loose for the final 9½ miles of trail between Rainbow Beach and the Bridgeport apartment I shared with my friend Sue, I looked up, eyed the gentleman for a hot second, stood and reached for the pack of cognac-dipped Al Capone Sweets in my camelback. I offered and he accepted a cigarillo, pulled another out for myself and lighted both. We sighed in tandem exhaling the first deep drag.

We sat on the bench where I leaned my made in Taiwan Schwinn Mesa GS 24-speed mountain bike against, smoked in silence and stared at the downtown skyline 12 miles away. It was a cool June afternoon 15 years ago as a misty haze rose from Lake Michigan. The skyline blended seamlessly with Navy Pier to my right and the South Shore Cultural Center to my left to form a Kodak moment one won’t find in the downtown tourist shops.

“May I ask you another question,” the gentleman inquired. I allowed that he could.

“Why in the hell are you here?” I gave him the Cliff’s Notes: I was training for a weeklong, 500-mile bike ride from Minneapolis to Chicago to raise funds for AIDS research and this was the final stop on a 50-mile ride from Bridgeport to Munster, Indiana—home to Three Floyds brewpub and that I was working off all the beer I drank there and the cheeseburgers I ate after at Schoop’s in Whiting. “The view of the skyline from here seems more … complete than seeing it from the North Side,” I said.

The man took another drag from his smoke and nodded his head in agreement. He said he was eight when his mother first brought him to Rainbow Beach for the 1960 “wade in” that integrated the South Side lakefront, back when U.S. Steel’s South Works plant was the foundation for a comfortable, but segregated, working middle class. “I had no idea we were doing anything heavy that day,” the gentleman said. “I just thought we were going to the beach.”

He flicked the butt of his cigarillo in the sand. “Soon as U.S. Steel began scaling back production in the ‘70s, most of the white families moved away. So I guess they let us have the beach, anyway.” The South Works campus was consigned to ghosts for eight years by the time I discovered it on my rides to Indiana.

This was only one thing I learned about living “Out South” training for that ride. During my training, I became intimately acquainted with the southern reaches of the boulevard system, the parks they connected and the people going about their business. What I quickly discovered was the South Side of Chicago was more complex than the “if it bleeds, it leads” flotsam of the nightly newscasts.

On a hot summer day the south lakefront’s beaches pulsated with activity. My senses were overwhelmed by the sound of the waves rolling ashore; the smell of seasoned meats dripping juices over charcoal burning in rusty Park District grills; the sights of families playing in the shallow water and snorkelers exploring the wreck of the Silver Spray off 47th Street Beach; the laughs of older black men playing chess and teens engaging in timeless awkward couplings.

Car stereos and porches from Pill Hill to West Lawn sent Herb Kent’s smoky tenor into the ether as he read live ad copy between 30-minute blocks of dusties on V-103. If I wanted, I could buy a killer pair of cowboy boots and a macaw that swore in Spanish at the Mega Mall near the Pulaski Orange Line station. Block clubs in Englewood, Chatham and Auburn Gresham, highlighted by well-manicured lawns fought the good fight against gangs, poverty and Chicago’s hyper-segregation. Bare bones storefront houses of worship were packed with parishioners steps from half-empty Catholic churches weighted down by their pompous, gaudy iconography. I soaked in the beautiful architecture on Longwood Drive and learned to be alert biking through Dan Ryan Woods because one never knew when a loose dog would emerge from the forest preserve. Street murals exploded with energy from the walls of Pilsen and Victory Gardens stood out among the desolation of Bronzeville’s vacant lots.

I savored one of the best burgers in Chicago at Top Notch, scorched the roof of my mouth on molten mozzarella at Vito & Nick’s and Phil’s and had waitresses sass me for ordering a bagel at Ms. Biscuit—located next door to Mr. Biscuit’s Hand Car Wash and Auto Detail. Taquerias on the Southeast and Southwest Sides served tacos as good as those Rick Bayless would find in Mexico. I watched in shock as the sauce from rib tips at Lem’s BBQ made the paint job of Sue’s Mazda Protégé bubble, before finishing the meal without a care of the havoc it could wreak on my digestive system. I spent countless nights drunkenly shuffling between Woodlawn Tap, The Cove and Cyril’s House of Tiki in Hyde Park. 

The highs and lows of the South Side have long lied in wait for the curious. Except that I wasn’t, initially. Bridgeport was only supposed to be a temporary stay—a continuation of a pattern chasing bad jobs, cheap rents and prolonging accepting adult responsibility. What it represented was a Chicago I chafed against for years as a Northwest Side teen: boring; filled with neighbors who knew your name and much of your personal business; and located miles from nowhere in any direction. I was Achilles in a modern-day version of Zeno’s Paradox of time and distance and the Loop was the tortoise I could never surpass, no matter how many segments of distance I traveled.

I can’t pinpoint when that changed. Maybe it was Al, the bartender at Puffer’s on South Halsted who declared the place “the best joint of its kind on this side of the street in this neighborhood.” On Tuesdays, Al poured free shot after free shot of Echte Kroatzbeere (a German blackberry liqueur), shared verifiable tall tales of wasted nights at Puffer’s, programmed a jukebox like nobody’s business and—as a fellow bicyclist—would offer tips on where to pedal on the South Side.

Al’s advice was often spot-on. The more I biked the South Side, the more I opened myself to the possibility that maybe Bridgeport wasn’t so bad and Mike Royko only offered one take on the hood in Boss. The neighborhood wasn’t so remote, the neighbors not too nosy. Halsted Street’s bike lanes were an enticing lure to my wanderlust as I had most of my days free to be a bike riding Ben Hollis. My bicycle became an entry into a world teeming with people willing to tell their stories. And I was eager to listen and learn from them.

With time and distance come age, wisdom and reflection. As the years have passed and my pedal cadence has slowed, the skyline’s magnetic attraction has waned. I learned to ignore the tortoise and embraced the segments of distance I could complete. I’ve developed an insatiable appetite for exploring all points of Chicago with Bridgeport at the center. Sometimes I’ll stop and view the skyline from Rainbow Beach and I’m back to being a 7-year-old in Hermosa with a sky blue Schwinn Sting Ray five-speed Fastback—“the bike with the sports car look;” all of it made in Chicago at Schwinn’s plant a few blocks from home.

I would pedal west on Palmer Street to Central Avenue. There, just south of Hanson Stadium, was an overpass spanning Metra and freight rail tracks. I would climb that bridge’s small sidewalk on my Sting Ray, stop at its acme and stare in awe at the downtown skyline 12 miles east rising like a fortress of steel, concrete and glass, standing sentry over the outlying neighborhoods in an ozone haze.

These days as I bike the Lakefront I watch as cyclists dressed like me 15 years ago U-turn outside the South Shore Cultural Center and head back north. Do they know what’s inside or what waits for them a few miles south? How would they react to the architecture of sleeping giants like the New Regal Theater and the Nabisco plant on South Kedzie? Do they have the curiosity to bike 59th Street from the lakefront to Midway Airport to see the different Chicagos revealing themselves block by block? Will the South Side speak to them the way it still does to me?

When Michael Palin said, “One of the most important days of my life was when I learned to ride a bicycle” he was specifically referencing the ability to use a bicycle for exploration. I continue to discover little things about the city where I was born and raised, simply by saddling my Made in Taiwan Schwinn 24-speed Mesa GS. Ultimately, there is little difference between the North and South Sides. What affects a family in South Deering also affects a family in Dunning. Residents in Altgeld Gardens and Edison Park can feel equally removed from the city’s center, even as their social and economic realities are wildly disparate. Their problems are our problems; our successes should also be theirs.

We live in one neighborhood. It’s called Chicago.