Street Smart Chicago

Home for the Holiday: A Jew’s First Christmas

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »

By Rachel Helene Swift

“[Christmas is] the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” —Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol”

Jeremy was twelve years old when his father left. There was another woman—a family friend—and an ultimatum, and finally a bitter divorce. The wounds remained raw, and the kids didn’t talk to their father much. But every year, on the evening of December 24, he arrived on Jeremy’s mother’s doorstep in time for Christmas dinner.

“You’ll like him,” Jeremy assured me as his beat-up Corolla rumbled incongruously along the tree-lined streets of Stamford, Connecticut. “He’s very charming. He’s even more charming when he’s drunk.”

I was twenty years old, and this was the eve of my very first Christmas. My parents, practicing Jews, took us kids into the city to see the lights every year, but that was the extent of my yuletide experience. I felt curious, like an anthropologist entering a strange country; nervous, like I feared that the natives would see me as a fraud.

Outside the window, colored lights wound between the bare branches of evenly spaced maple trees, and baubled evergreens winked through the windows of sprawling, well-maintained houses. On the sidewalk, a woman slouched into her heavy coat, clutching a plastic bag as her small dog squatted. Tiny flecks of snow drifted in the air, melting to nothing as they touched the ground. Read the rest of this entry »

All That Glitters: My Father’s Obsession with Designer Christmas Ornaments

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »

About the time I entered high school in my home city of Minneapolis, my father began a new Christmas ritual that actualized his love for over-the-top decorating, for things that sparkle and glow when he began collecting glass-blown, hand-decorated, designer Christmas ornaments. What seemed like an innocent holiday hobby quickly spiraled into a year-round obsession and a compendium of nearly 750 ornaments.

I don’t think I’ll ever want to know how much money went into those things. It wasn’t just the ornaments. In warmer months he traveled to Portland, Racine and Chicago for exclusive purchasing events with other collectors (mostly rich housewives or, like my father, gay men, and some het couples). I’d come home from soccer and find taped-up cardboard packages on our back steps. Over the following week, several glitter-coated Santas would sit indulgently splayed over a cloth placemat on the dining room table as my father meditated on which to keep and which to return. More and more, the A-frame walls of the attic were lined with stacks of long, airtight Tupperware bins keeping my father’s treasures safe until November. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: The Road to Zero Homicides

Checkerboard City, Essays & Commentary, Green, News etc. No Comments »

Mural at Drake and Bloomingdale in West Logan Square/Photo:John Greenfield

By John Greenfield

Each morning I scan the dailies for sad stories of local pedestrian, bike and transit deaths to adapt for “Fatality Tracker” posts on my transportation blog, Grid Chicago, in order to raise awareness of the need for safer streets. And almost every time I look at the papers I also see tragic news about the latest murders, averaging more than one killing per day.

This year the Chicago Department of Transportation (CDOT) put out two planning documents with the stated goal of eliminating all traffic deaths and crashes within the next ten years. I applaud this bold approach, and I can’t help but wonder out loud if “Zero in Ten” could be successfully applied to our city’s homicide epidemic as well.

Released in May, the Chicago Forward Action Agenda is a roadmap for creating a safer, more efficient and more sustainable transportation network for people traveling on foot, bicyclists, transit riders and motorists. The Chicago Pedestrian plan, published in September, lays out more specifics on improving conditions for walking. Read the rest of this entry »

Fall Forward: The Guide to the New Season 2012

Essays & Commentary No Comments »

Steve James, Chicago-based director of “Hoop Dreams” and “The Interrupters,” takes on Big Football with “Head Games”

Ah, fall.

The season of cool breezes and kaleidoscopic leaves. Of football fandom—watching young men ruin their brains for life—and campus strolls, where you can watch our youth rack up a lifetime of student-loan debt in exchange for the most uncertain employment outlook for college grads in a generation.

Misery, thy name is autumn.

At least we have the arts, which seize the season with new vigor every September, and where depression, dysfunction and an overall dismal disposition is not a state of mind: it’s material. Read the rest of this entry »

Love Hurts: An Unconventional Romance

Essays & Commentary, Love & Sex 1 Comment »

By Lawrence L’Amour and Cinnamon Smidge

“Sex and Violence go together like Bacon and Eggs.” –David Cronenberg

Lawrence
Nothing terrifies people more than male sexuality, especially violent male sexuality. “Fuck off,” I whisper to my own fear and shame as I push open the door to a privately owned downtown loft. It’s midnight on a Saturday four years ago. The place is packed. Smells like wet hair and fresh leather. Cigarette fog. Long dark halls and even darker corners. Shadows move, sniffing each other. Slags and slag hags, both male and female, people decked out in leather fashion, gay and straight mingling. Then, as today, this party is the go-to party for deviants. Women stuffed into rubber dresses, leather vests hanging off men’s bare chests. Racks strewn with whips, floggers, cuffs, gags and blunt striking tools line the walls. I unhook a short wood bat, feeling its heft in my fist, and imagine slamming a partner in the stomach and thighs with it. I pass sex furniture made of wood, well-secured mounts in the walls. BYO alcohol is allowed (recently limited), and people are swilling it down, shuffling past, beers and the occasional highball glass in hand.

Read the rest of this entry »

Dime Stories: The Luck of the Irish

Dime Stories, Essays & Commentary 3 Comments »

By Tony Fitzpatrick

Almost every year in Chicago, it’s the same story on St. Patrick’s Day–a bunch of drunken, green-wearing slap-dicks spilling out of bars all over the city and projectile-vomiting foamy green puke on everything in sight.

There is an impression that the Irish are a bunch of happy-go-lucky dipshits with fake brogues and cheery dispositions. Let us dispense with this myth right now. There is no darker heart than that of the Irish, Boyo.

We gave the world Whitey Bulger, The Westies, Michael Collins and Vincent “Mad Dog” Coll, as well as Owney Madden and Legs Diamond–not a bunch to fuck around and try to ‘high-five’ with. They were all poor kids who had to beat, steal and kill their way to a small piece of the world, and they knew well that the “luck of the Irish” was a myth and the cruelest of jokes.

You don’t want the luck of the Irish. Poverty, famine and the oppression of the British Crown are some of the components of this “luck.” Still, from time to time, our boys managed to get their licks in. Read the rest of this entry »

Hope Dies Last: The Lasting Scars of Difficult Times

Essays & Commentary, Politics 1 Comment »

Illustration: Zeke Danielson

By Michael Workman

In America, there is no more terrifying a ghoul than the threat of sustained, cripplingly high unemployment. We hear about it all the time. Have maybe even decided just to tune it out or maybe the ubiquity of the bloodless discussion of it has just inured us to the subject. It’s just numbers, right? It’ll get better eventually. Figure it out. After all, it’s hard to get a sense of what’s happening from those chatterboxes in the news, those talking heads feeding us an endless tickertape of statistics, empty percentages; high here, low there. We treat it like the weather. Numbers. Never any stories. Why does it always have to be numbers? Maybe it’s too much, what’s happening. Too garish, what’s happening to them, how the poor behave. How low.

Ask yourself. What actually are the effects on a family slipping below the poverty line, of losing their home in a foreclosure, of a family unable to afford gas, utility bills, clothes? Its effects aren’t just felt for a month or two, or something you get past in a year. There’s a price. And it’s one paid almost entirely by the less fortunate. And that’s what defines our society: how we treat our less fortunate and what price they pay for other’s prosperity. And if we’re a privileged society, maybe all that means is that the privileged get to ignore the silent anguish of the poor. But the cost of it doesn’t go away, ever. It stays with us as a people, changes and defines us psychologically and emotionally, and sometimes we lose one. But surviving it doesn’t fucking make you stronger, it scars and mutilates. Read the rest of this entry »

13 Ways of Looking at Occupy Chicago: The Aesthetics of the Movement

City Life, Essays & Commentary, Loop, Media, Politics 3 Comments »

Photo: Erica Weitzel

By Monica Westin

1. “Grant Park: three years later” was the initial vision for this article—a snapshot of the stark difference in Chicago’s political and emotional temperature between the downtown celebration of Barack Obama’s election night in 2008 and the Grant Park arrests in mid-October of this year. But this comparison doesn’t begin to get at what’s interesting about Occupy. Because of what I will call its “aesthetics” as well as its size (at last count, more than seventy American cities have an Occupy protest, not counting the strength and scope of related protests abroad), the protest, or movement, depending on how you look at it, is very much that—an amorphous, sprawling political form that looks different from every angle and every subject position, like Wallace Stevens’ blackbird. That American mainstream media is unable to cover Occupy in any kind of coherent, proficient way is well-documented, but even as a single observer it was nearly impossible for me to take any kind of clearly articulated position about Occupy Chicago without immediately realizing I could make a strong case for an opposite view of the phenomenon (and usually I had heard someone do so in an interview). Read the rest of this entry »

Voices in the Emptiness: Michael Esposito listens carefully to the Electronic Voice Phenomenon

Essays & Commentary 1 Comment »

Photo: Heidi Harman

By Arvo Zylo

My first exposure to Electronic Voice Phenomena, or EVP, was late at night more than a decade ago, on Art Bell’s Coast to Coast AM radio talk show. People had been recording in an abandoned mental hospital, and all of a sudden a scary old lady said, “He broke my neck!” Later that night, listeners heard a broadcast over the airwaves of what sounded like a child drowning in a room where there was neither a child nor a body of water. Supposedly, these voices were issued from a world out of reach to the human ears, or maybe the “underworld,” but certainly not from a living person, or at least what we consider to be a living person. Read the rest of this entry »

Soul Searching: Legend Tripping in the Ghost Culture of Chicago

Elmhurst, Essays & Commentary, Holidays, Naperville No Comments »

Photo: Gil Castellanos

By Eric Lutz

I don’t believe in ghosts.

But, if I did, it would be because of a weekend trip to Galena I took a few years back, when about ten seconds of “The Lovecats” by The Cure emanated from a closed laptop in the middle of the night.

I was pretty freaked out at the time, certain we’d been visited by some hipster ghost with a penchant for eighties post-punk, and wound up driving around all night until day broke.

Nowadays, I’m inclined to think the only thing scary about that night was my carbon footprint.

Maybe it’s strong to say I don’t believe. More accurately, I just don’t think about it very much. Read the rest of this entry »