An Ode to Bob Part 2: The new apartment

Bob and I ended up on a block next to Wicker Park. You’ve probably heard of it. Every big city has a Wicker Park. In NYC, it’s Greenwich Village. In San Francisco, it’s the Mission. It basically amounts to any neighborhood that started as a ghetto, before artists and bohemians moved in, followed by hipsters, and the final wave of metrosexuals, wine connasouers, and general gentrification. Before I ever thought I could ever be an agent of gentrification- when I was still a twenty-something who shopped at thrift stores for ironic  T-shirts and not because I needed to save money for diapers, here’s what I wrote:


I was on my way to the fish store the other day, being as I had to pick up some snails for a classroom project (or rather a snail: they’re hermaphroditic, and need only a single individual to spark a population of thousands. I really only needed to buy one and just wait) It turns out that snail reproduction is actually a big orgy, where they all pile up on each other and, well, do it. Gender is defined by where you are in the pile: bottom/middle, female, top/outside, male. It occurs to me that while we consider invertebrates ‘simple’ animals, they probably have a more extensive knowledge of sexual politics than we do.


Ahem. Anyway, perched next to the fish store was a dog salon with perfectly rounded corner windows that extended almost half the circumference around the store, offering a panoramic view into the life and times of a pet grooming business. It reminded me of the new yuppies on the block that I had recently moved into (the block, not the yuppies), the local champions of gentrification.[1] Unlike the Latino population that lives in the area, the folks with hordes of roaming children and porch parties every Sunday, these people do not live on the street. At least not in the same literal way that their neighbors do. As a replacement though, they have allowed the neighborhood the privilege of viewing them as they live inside their new condos and townhouses. I’m not sure which architect thought of this, but all the new buildings on the street are almost entirely glass windows in front, both first, second, and third floors. We can watch them prepare dinner, yell at the kids, do the newest tai-bo-yoga-wholefoods-holististic-herbal-naturaopathic-aromatherapy exercise routine, and generally perform all the mundane activities of everyday living in the limelight of their track-lighting illumination systems by IKEA. I don’t know why they thought anyone would be interested, but apparently they figured they would exchange the intensity of their 15 minutes of fame in order to spread it out over several decades. If I’m watching them watch a virtual reality program on TV, and the virtual reality people are watching TV as well, what degree of separation is that?

            This was all roaming through my head as I was dawdling on the sidewalk. Perhaps the fact that the dog that was receiving a blow-dry from a complicated apparatus on the left wing of the grooming salon- in full view- inspired this soliloquy. I just can’t imagine how this became a reasonable way of making a living, and the fact that there is probably a yellow pages category devoted entirely to dog grooming and pet manicures.


“So what are you doing this weekend, Chuck?”


“Well, I was thinking of taking the dog and a pair of clippers and shaving off his fur in such a way that he looked like a complete twit.”


“No Kidding! You ever done something like that before?”


“Can’t say I have.”


“You should look into the place where the wife takes our dog. The last time I tried to sheer the poodle, well, he looked kinda dumb, but he didn’t have that red-hot-face-flushing kind of embarrassing hair-doo like only a professional can provide, you know what I’m saying? Took him to this upscale little place, and I won’t say I wasn’t skeptical. It’s true, it’s a little pricey, but I have to say the dog looked like a total asshole.”


“You don’t say? I’ll have to give it a try.”


So. This was our new neighborhood. Sort of.


The ‘Sort of’ ends up being much more significant than I imagined, and the reason is this: Yes, the neighborhood was undergoing gentrification, but it wasn’t at all gentrified. When we signed the lease on our tiny apartment on our tiny block, the landlord glanced across the street, shifted nervously on the balls of his feet, and said:


“You should avoid those guys. They’re trouble.”


‘What kind of trouble’ I thought. I must have said it out loud.


“They deal arms. And drugs. I distrust them.”


Distrust? Arms? Like Reaganomics? What the fuck was going on here?

[1] Although, I should note I have a steady paycheck, and while teachers –REASONABLY- like to complain about the salary, we really aren’t all that bad off. I will probably soon be one of the local champions of gentrification.


Published in: on July 24, 2011 at 9:26 PM  Comments (1)  

An Ode to Bob Part 1: The Co-op

I’ve never felt like a proper Californian, and I don’t know that I ever will. I moved here in my early 30’s, a bit too late in life to shake my upbringing. I do have some credentials now- our daughter was born on up at Parnassus, overlooking the Golden Gate, both park and bridge, but the fact of the matter is, I’m a born and bred Midwesterner.


I should note that I’m the only one in my family able to stake a claim on this, although the privilege is dubious. My parents are immigrants, on both sides of the British Raj, dad from Calcutta, and mom from the Cotswold’s in England. Even my brother was born in London. Me though, I’m Midwest from the get go, and I’m having trouble adapting to these West coast ways, particularly the whole ‘find a job’ ‘pay the rent’ and ‘raise a child’ ones.


I grew up in Michigan, but most recently was living in Chicago. It’s on Lake Michigan, and only a few miles from the MI boarder, and the weather is equally as foul, so it’s all the same to me. I suppose it feels like home because it is where my adult life was born- my first real job as a teacher, two long-term girlfriends that I believed would end in marriage- and didn’t- and all the other merit badges of adulthood. It was during my first year of teaching, when I met Bob.


Now, Bob is hands-down one of the most interesting people I’ve ever met. He’s of Nigerian descent- his parents are also immigrants- but he, like me, grew up in Midwest suburbia. He, like me, doesn’t look the part- he has very long fingers, and not an ounce of body fat. He has a physique like a marathon runner, and if you look closely, you’d see that he is covered head-to-toe in tattoos, although his skin is so dark it is not immediately obvious. He has his nose pierced and had, throughout the time that I’ve known him, dreadlocks, a shorn-to- skin scalp, and a Mohawk. He manages to look both polished and thuggish at the same time. He also has cadence to his speech that is animated, enthusiastic, and decidedly un-urban. He has a Masters degree in psychology, believes it is possible that extra-terrestrial reptilian overlords have infiltrated the government, spent some time drinking his own urine for ‘therapeutic effects’ and has worked restraining behaviorally disruptive kids, counseled Vietnam veterans, and moonlighted as an uncertified massage therapist. He is, in short, a hodge-podge of contradictions. He was also my roommate for most of the time I lived in Chicago.


We met at a housing co-op in Hyde Park, a tony part of town boasting of a world class University, the mansion of Louis Farrakhan and the parks that hosted the 1893 Worlds Fair; where Cracker Jack, the Tesla Coil, the Ferris Wheel and the tune from ‘there’s a place in France, where the naked ladies dance” were all introduced to the world. It is also bordered on three sides by some of the poorest ghettos on Chicago’s south side. It is an island of academic and cultural idealism, and the riff raff regularly infiltrates its borders to remind the residents what ‘multiculturalism’ really means.


The co-op consisted of two apartment blocks side by side. We all had ‘units’- apartments really- but we still acted as a functioning cooperative with all-house meetings, shared meals and chores, and common space. The co-op didn’t last. It, as an entity, was trying to expand the amount of space and the number of residents by planning to convert each unit’s living room into an extra bedroom.


“How will (we) pay for this?” we asked.


“Well, (we) thought we’d use security deposits for the initial funding-“


“WAIT, what?!? Who decided this? And where will (we) live while construction was being done?”



The treasurer was an authentic flower child named Star who was dodging student loans from the 70’s. Whether or not this had anything to do with the budget being slim and unaccounted shortfalls- who can say for sure. All (we) knew was that (we) were pissed, and the most vocal opponent was Bob.


“Goddam it!” he shouted off our back stairwell. “ I’m having an anti-commune party! Who’s with me?”


Chicago buildings are blockish deals, crammed together like rows of dominos. The need for recreational space was solved- no doubt by savvy urban planners- by adding wooden stairwells and covered porches on the outsides of buildings. Since all units in a building need access to the porches ‘o’ fun, each level is connected by a zigzag staircase, the result being that in most residences, you can creep up and down the stairs and watch your neighbors have sex, cook dinner, clean the cat box, whatever, as long as you are discreet and the stairs don’t creek. During daylight hours, it also lends to a sense of community among residents- you all have to use the same stairs threading through your patios, and so you are forced to socialize.


In the housing co-op, the effect was multiplied. We all knew each other anyway, and had no reserves about just shouting to each other from whatever level we were at. It became an unofficial ‘relax’ zone, a place where you could say whatever you wanted without worrying about ‘group dynamics’ or ‘consensus’ or ‘meeting protocol’.


“Who wants a fucking beer?” Bob shouted to both sets of stairwells. “They’re free, here at the anti-fucking-commune party!”


I should note that Bob doesn’t drink all that much- the line between super-fun tipsy guy and puking in the gutter is very thin for him- but when he does, it’s always great fun.


“Yessir, beers are free here at the anti- commune!” He gathered a crowd of 20+ dissidents, no short order for a commune of 50.


(We) had our evening, bitched and moaned, and called it an evening after a pleasant skinny-dip in Lake Michigan. Still, the next morning, someone still had our security deposit, and things weren’t looking good. It was time to start the apartment search.

Published in: on July 22, 2011 at 9:59 PM  Leave a Comment