chicago seen through cheesehead glasses

Soundtrack in my head: Bonnie Dobson, “Rainy Windows”

I moved to Madison 3 ½ years ago after spending 30 of my years in the Chicago area. Since moving up north I’ve been to my parent’s house in the Chicago suburb of La Grange a number of times, as well as the Schaumburg/Elgin area where the nearest Mahikari center to me is. But since January 2003, I’ve rarely ventured into the city itself, much less the Ravenswood neighborhood where I spent my last six years in the city.

When I lived in Chicago, I logged many miles on the Kennedy Expressway, which is the stretch of Interstate 90 between O’Hare Airport and downtown Chicago. I could drive as well as any Chicagoan—passing on the right at stoplights, weaving across four lanes at once to avoid getting diverted to Milwaukee, etc. But when I ventured onto the Kennedy for the first time after six months of living among relatively polite Madisonians, I found myself gripping the steering wheel saying to myself, “These…people…are…crazy…these…people…are…crazy!” Funny what civilized behavior does to you.

So I didn’t know what to expect when my sister and her boyfriend drove me to their new apartment in the Ravenswood Manor neighborhood, just a few blocks from my last apartment in Chicago. Would I forget I ever left? Or would I be like a Wisconsin deer staring into headlights on the Dan Ryan Expressway?

At first, I thought it would be the former. My sister drove me up Lake Shore Drive, and got off at Lawrence Avenue, which is where I got off to get to my last apartment in Chicago. I looked around and thought to myself, this is familiar, this is familiar, and I began to feel like I was transported back to 2001. There weren’t too many changes in the neighborhoods along Lawrence Avenue, except a new Border’s Bookstore at Broadway.

But when my sister turned into the alleyway behind her new apartment building, it seemed rather strange—it seemed like the garages in the alley and the buildings behind them were packed together so tightly that it made me a bit nervous. maybe slightly claustrophobic. Which is funny because about seven years ago some friends from Kansas visited me in Chicago, and they had the same reaction to my neighborhood. We had to move some things from my father’s house to her third-floor apartment, which meant climbing some twisty, narrow stairs, and I was a little paranoid that I might plunge forty feet to the cement below. My room here in my co-op house is also a third floor, but in most Chicago apartments, third floor really means fourth floor. I found myself very winded after climbing those stairs. My allergies had gone somewhat haywire while helping my father preparing for moving—the cat hair in the place ganged up with moving dust to assault my immune system. So maybe I was reacting to that, or maybe it was increased pollution in the area, or both. I do know that after moving to Madison, the number of migraines I’ve gotten has dropped significantly, perhaps due to a difference in the air quality.

I think that Madison on the whole has nicer and more interesting single-family homes than the Chicago area does, but for apartments, nothing beats a nice 1920s vintage brownstone. Such buildings are almost non-existent in Madison, but they’re everywhere in Chicago. I lived in several. The one my sister and her boyfriend have is very nice, and laid out similarly to one I used to live in. A sunroom off the living room, then a long hallway flanked by bedrooms and the bathroom, and then opening up to a dining room, a kitchen, and an enclosed back porch that people tend to store things in. Hardwood floors, beautiful bathroom tile, free radiator heat. For about two seconds, I thought, okay, I’m dropping everything and moving back to Chicago.

The next day, I decided to do some exploring of the old city. I walked down Lawrence Avenue, then took a bus to Uptown to exchange a gift at the Border’s Bookstore and visit the place out of morbid curiosity. For most of my life, I’d known Uptown to be an interesting but somewhat scary place–where I’d see great music at the Riviera or Green Mill, and then walk quickly back to the el stop and avoid eye contact with strangers. Despite the Border’s (and a rumored Starbucks nearby?) the neighborhood had not changed much. It still had its share of litter blowing down the. And when I boarded the Red Line at Wilson Avenue, there was—yup, just like I remembered—the stale urine smell permeating the walls of the station.

I’d read on the bus that the CTA had added a new el train line. The Pink Line joined the other venerable colors of Red, Purple, Yellow, Brown, Blue, Green and Orange. It actually wasn’t new—it was actually the south branch of the Blue Line that goes through some of the roughest neighborhoods on Chicago’s west side before ending in the suburb of Cicero. I thought pink was a rather funny color to choose for that line and wondered whether the color choice was part of some sinister plot to perform some psy-ops social engineering experiments on the good citizens of those neighborhoods. In any case, I boarded the line because it would take me where I wanted to go—18th Street in the Pilsen neighborhood. It was an interesting ride because it cut west along the Green Line (the old Lake Street el tracks, which I took many times from my hometown of Oak Park down to the Loop and back) and then cut south along a set of previous seldom-used tracks that linked the Green Line with the Blue Line and then went under some hospital buildings. I’d seen those tracks for years and had wondered what it would be like to ride on them.

I’d always been drawn to Pilsen for reasons I could never quite explain. I never lived there but had harbored fantasies of doing so. It’s a mostly Mexican neighborhood that has had some gentrification in recent years. A number of artists have been attracted to the neighborhood. I walked east down 18th Street from the el station down to Halsted Street, and it appears to have changed little, though I did notice that the Nuevo Leon Restaurant, which serves inexpensive but delicious Mexican food, appears to have gotten a remarkably colorful facelift.

Then I walked north on Halsted towards the University of Illinois at Chicago and was taken aback by the changes there in the Maxwell Street neighborhood. Maxwell Street is so famous as port of entry for immigrants and a market for cheap stuff that even Madison has its own “Maxwell Street Days” with the shops of our State Street (not to be confused with the Chicago street by the same name.) I knew that there had been a lot of controversy over the redevelopment of the Maxwell Street area, but I was not prepared for what I would see between 16th Street and Roosevelt Road—the largest alien landing I’d witnessed since the mother ship Ikea descended on Schaumburg. Except rather than introducing us to Swedish meatballs and interesting albeit awkward-sounding names like Klunsa, Traktor, Jerker, and Lycklig, I instead found “University Village—Chicago’s newest neighborhood” with names like Whole Foods, Starbucks, Jamba Juice and Cold Stone Creamery. I saw rows and rows of identical modern red-brick two-story apartment and condo buildings that looked marginally nicer than college dormitories, going for miles up and down streets that were renamed University Lane and College Court. I looked around me and I thought “hmm…could be Chicago, could be a tourist trap in New Jersey, or it could be Naperville in the throes of a New Urbanism kick.”

Us Chicago natives are weaned from an early age to become architecture snobs, with aesthetic critiques of the playground equipment not uncommon by the age of five–so my words should be taken with some grains of salt. But the bottom line is that I was saddened to see the old Maxwell Street neighborhood go. Certainly it needed sprucing up and cleaning up, but I think it could have done without losing the essence of what the neighborhood was about. What had landed here was something completely different. The city fathers still seem to feel that in order to make a neighborhood nicer and more attractive to some people, it is necessary to push other people–the ones who live and work there–out of the way. That’s one reason I left Chicago.

Overall, I felt nostalgic about my old home but didn’t miss it one bit. Walking down Lawrence Avenue, and many other streets in the city, it seemed like everything was covered with a thin film of grime—something I’d noticed but never really paid attention to when I lived there. I think the air was noticeably sootier. And the smell of urine permeated many corners of the city. I couldn’t sit in the station house of the Metra station near Western & Grand Avenue because of the smell of urine.

While I remember the rush-hour traffic jams on Chicago’s expressways, I’d forgotten how difficult it was to get from point A to B even on the main streets of the city. As my father drove me downtown from La Grange, we got caught in Taste of Chicago traffic, and I was late for the hourly Metra train to the Western suburbs because I made the mistake of taking literally the bus schedules, and even the ten-minute cushion I allowed for was not enough due to a construction backup at Western and Belmont Avenue that took forever to get through. I’ve become spoiled by the 10-25 minute commutes here in Madison.

Once upon a time, about seven years ago, I boasted to a roomful of people that the day I left Chicago would be the day that it crumbled at my heels as I was fleeing the city. I was feeling self-righteous about the fact that so many people in the room chose to leave the city for the suburbs and the exurbs. Well, Chicago still occupies that corner of Lake Michigan, but I no longer do.

The soundtrack in my head that I listed on top of this posting is a haunting but beautiful song by Bonnie Dobson, another ex-Chicagoan. I was taping a segment of WFMT’s “Midnight Special,” a folk/eclectic radio show, which, on that day was featuring a lot of Chicago-themed music, including the famous Aliotta-Haynes-Jeremiah hit “Lake Shore Drive,” Steve Goodman’s “Lincoln Park Pirates,” and a comedy sketch which concocted funny accents for different Chicago street names. But I don’t think Chicago’s tourism bureau would highlight “Rainy Windows.”  It’s wistful, yet very clear as to why she would want to leave Chicago, and while she wrote it over thirty years before I ultimately left Chicago myself, my reasons for leaving were quite similar. “Chicago seen through rainy windows, you know why I had to go…”

stupid middle eastern wars

Soundtrack in my head: ESP & Substance, “Run the Gauntlet”

Oh the weird things that can happen when you’re on vacation and not minding the fort. People can do rather silly things, like start ridiculous wars in the Middle East.

But before I go into that, I wanted to put out another political alert. While most of us might be transfixed on the Middle East, the single most important vote on Internet Neutrality is coming up within the next few days. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) is introducing a telecommunications bill (S. 2686) to be voted on this week. Sadly, efforts to add provisions to the bill that would guarantee that the Internet would remain a neutral, unbiased medium protected from undue influence by the likes of AT&T and Comcast failed in committee. So whatever the benefits of the bill might be, the demise of Net Neutrality is a real threat and too high of a price to pay, and if the bill is not amended, it needs to be voted down. Click the orange tag in this website’s navigation bar, or check to find out where your Senators stand and what needs to be said to them. Do it ASAP. See the video at the bottom of this posting below for more information.

Now, back to the subject of senseless wars. So, I’ve out of town over the last week, first helping my parents in Chicago move to Albuquerque and later visiting friends in Minneapolis. On Thursday, I was in the lobby of a hotel where some other friends were staying and I was watching CNN on the television monitor there and I’m shocked to see footage of Israel bombing the Beirut airport and blowing up fuel tanks. Then I heard about Hezbollah rockets hitting Haifa, Israel, and I began to scratch my head wondering how things got to that point.

It’s against my nature to refer to anything as “stupid” but when it comes to senseless death and destruction anywhere, and particularly as it is now happening in the Middle East, I don’t see how we can call it anything but stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stoooooooopid.

As far as I’m concerned, both sides are to blame for the escalation in violence. Hezbollah, Hamas and their backers are to blame for cross-border attacks against. Israel and the decision to send rockets into a major city. Israel is to blame because of its continued treatment of the Palestinian people and its decision to respond to kidnappings with tanks and bombs.

What I find profoundly disturbing me are the people who are beating their chests and beating the drums for World War III. I have seen several politicians and pundits declare this as the beginning of World War III, declaring that Hezbollah/Hamas/Syria/Iran are out to establish global Islamofascism and that they must be stopped. Whatever one’s beliefs may be about Armageddon, it’s ludicrous to think that there’s any virtue in taking deliberate steps to bring it about.

But if one is looking for an example of the futility of war, the Middle East is Exhibit A. Grudges go back decades and even thousands of years. Efforts by all sides to impose their will by force on the other have, at best, only provided temporarily successful and often times not successful at all. Israel tried to throw Hezbollah out of Lebanon twenty years ago without success. Arab nations tried throw the Israelis out of Israel several times without success. Who in their right mind would believe that things are different now?

Exhibit B is September 11th. The destruction of the World Trade Center demonstrated for the first time that military might is illusory–because all it took was about 50 people bearing a strong grudge to create significant disruption in the United States. American military might has the capacity of toppling foreign governments, but it has little capacity to beat feelings of anger and grudge into the ground as the situation in Iraq proves on a daily basis.

More than ever, events are proving that war and military force are becoming more and more obsolete as effective means of resolving issues and guaranteeing security. Maybe it’s a bit bold for me to say this, but I feel confident that the world will eventually learn this lesson. We will either the easy way or the hard way. Right now it looks like we’re learning it the hard way.

Below is that Net Neutrality video I was telling you about.


today begins the 40th year of the rest of my life (that does not mean i’m forty, though)

Soundtrack: The Polyphonic Spree, “Light and Day”

Whoa, put away the black balloons, the “Old Fart” t-shirts and mock gifts of Geritol and Depends. I’m only 39 today.  But it means that I’m starting my fortieth year, because when I was born thirty-nine years ago today, I was starting my first year, not my zeroeth year.

Actually I turn forty on 07/07/07, which is wild because I was also born on the seventh day of the seventh month of the seventh year of the seventh decade at 9:11 a.m. No joke. (That year was actually 1967, not 1977–remember that funny thing about the number zero again?) So yeah, I have a thing for sevens, but to the best of my knowledge I’m not mentioned in any prophecy (unlike my next-door neighbor, “Number 6”). If there’s a mark on my forehead, it’s probably a zit.

Time Magazine had an issue dated the day that I was born that had a special feature on “The Hippies,” complete with a psychedelic looking cover and lots of colorful photos inside of people with flowers in their hair. Some people might insist that this explains a few things about me.

Lots of interesting people were born in 1967.  There were a heck of a lot of musicians that represent a musical tour through the 90’s–starting with Kurt Cobain, Liz Phair, Billy Corgan and Dave Mathews, but also both Miki Berenyi and Emma Anderson of Lush, Harry Connick Jr., Sarah Cracknell of Saint Etienne, Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, Jeff Tweedy of Wilco, Scott Weiland of Stone Temple Pilots, and so many more it would take too long to list. Other 1967 celebs include Julia Roberts, Will Farrell, Jamie Foxx, and Pamela Anderson. As for July 7th birthdays, we include Ringo Starr, Michelle Kwan, Marc Chagall, Robert Heinlein, and Shelley Duvall. But not George W. Bush—that was yesterday (remember my neighbor “Number 6” again?).

I’ll probably find out more celeb birthdays when some of my housemates, friends and I go to the Nitty Gritty tonight.  If you live in Madison, you can’t say you’ve lived unless you’ve had a Nitty Gritty birthday.  For you non-Madisonians, Nitty Gritty is a bar near me that has marketed itself as the “birthday bar” for decades, and while I’ve considered the notion cheesy, it gets people in the door. They will announce people’s birthdays periodically and, well, announce people’s birthdays. Oh, and ring a bell. I think I get something for free, too, but I can’t remember what it is.

I’ve always had mixed feelings about getting attention on my birthday—I want it and then again I don’t. When someone says “Happy Birthday,” I cringe, and when they don’t, I’m like “Hey, hello, don’t you know I’m here?” What I like the best about birthdays is an excuse for getting together with friends, having a few drinks and having some fun. I’ll be having that tonight, so that makes me happy.

This will also be my last post for a little while, unless I find an Internet connection somewhere on the road. Tomorrow I am going down to Chicago to help my father with last-minute arrangements for my parents’ move to Albuquerque, then I’ll be going up to Minneapolis and Fargo to visit friends. Ta-ta for now.

net neutrality is 100% american–just ask the zuiikin gals

Soundtrack: Phish, “Bouncing Around the Room”

Folks, Internet freedom is hanging by a thread right now. It’s getting scarier out there. Watch the Zuiikin Gals below weigh in on Net Neutrality. (Okay maybe not really, but as you watch the video, imagine them giving Net Neutrality opponents a piece of their mind.) And then think to yourself. Would you be able to see things like this if AT&T or Comcast influenced what you would see on the Internet?

Last week, the Senate Commerce Committee failed on an 11-11 tie to add any effective Net Neutrality provisions to the telecommunications bill under consideration in the Senate. One Republican joined ten Democrats in voting in favor of Net Neutrality, the remaining Republicans voted against it. Now Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is threatening a filibuster of the telecom bill unless effective Net Neutrality provisions are added to it. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK) who is trying to push the telecom bill through, says he doesn’t have the votes to override the filibuster.

I wish that our Constitution could protect us against the likes of AT&T, Bellsouth, Comcast and Verizon, who are organizing arguably the biggest private taking of a public resource—the Internet. They didn’t build the Internet—our government did with taxpayer support, and none of the above companies were contracted for it. In fact, according to Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) AT&T turned down the opportunity when the government approached them about it. These companies did not invent the web browser or email, but they still want to act as the Internet’s gatekeepers.

Add to it the fact that AT&T, Comcast and Verizon appear to have been complicit partners in the U.S. government’s effort to build a database of phone calls made by private citizens, and we really have a lot to worry about on this Fourth of July. Call your Senator and let him or her know where you stand on Net Neutrality.

working-class hero boots (an afternoon at the Farm and Fleet)

Soundtrack:  Bruce Springsteen “Born in the USA”

I first got into workboots when a temp job that had me driving a truck and working in a warehouse required me to get some steel-toed boots.  So they sent me down to the Farm and Fleet and I bought a pair of mid-rise boots. I found them remarkably comfortable, and I found the steel toes to be handy for kicking apart large boxes that we had to break down in the warehouse.

Then when I landed my current office job in with a corporate casual environment, I found out that these boots fit quite well in that environment, too, because they weren’t tennis shoes.   So they ended up being my “in-between shoes,” not something I’d wear to a wedding  unless it was one I went to many years ago in a  Chicago area  forest preserve pavillion, where we had to use gentle persuasion to get the homeless people hanging out there to leave) but not something I’d really wear with sweats either.  I feel like when I wear them, I can roll up my sleeves, raise my fist in the air, and sing “Born In the USA.” (Okay, maybe not, but I wonder how many Americans STILL don’t realize that this is a protest song?)

Last fall I got another pair from Payless Shoes.  They looked kind of like Doc Martens except that they had the industrial looking “Stanley” logo on them.  Well, either Stanley needs to keep his focus on tool-making, or Payless got some especially low-quality stock to sell, becuase they began to wear almost immediately and develop this rattle which made me feel self-concious when walking down the hallways at work.  I think they might have contributed to a gout flare-up I had recently, though it’s also possible that it might never be wise to ride a bicycle long distances in steel-toe boots.

So I went down to the Farm and Fleet again.  I really like the idea of purchasing footwear at a place where I could also get cattle ear tags if I wanted.  Seriously, I’m not making fun of them, it’s just that being a city kid most of my life, it’s a bit of a different world for me.  After living in melting-pot neighborhoods where fifty-plus languages were spoken at the local high school, this is something that for me is still new, perhaps even exotic.

Anyway, I got me a nice pair of “Work n Sport” boots without the steel toe.  They’re really comfy and I would have probably paid double for them at an ordinary shoe store.

I might not  wear them until mid-July.  Next week is Casual Week at work, and then I’m taking a week of vacation, during which I will go to Chicago to help my father with last minute arrangements for their move to Albuquerque, and then visit friends in Minnesota and North Dakota.  We usually have casual days every Friday at work, but between next week’s casual week and my vacation, it’s going to be Casual Day until at least July 17th.