How to read Roger’s Park

Dog and foot and book
You never know what anyone’s thinking anyway.

I’m never sure how to read Roger’s Park. Is this a hip corner or am I about to get mugged? A question which, after some attacks in Ravenswood Manor, I’m asking a lot lately.

Feeling overly cautious and foolish about it I walk a half-block to the train. In front of me is a cute black guy with pulled-up dreads. He walks into the station ahead of me and then immediately back out. Is he going to ask me to let him in with my card? Should I offer? But why am I assuming that’s why he came back out? Maybe he just forgot something. He ignores me and goes on his way. I go through the turnstile.

Up on the train platform another strikingly handsome black man stands under the heat lights. He smiles casually as I join him. He looks familiar, but I’m always wary when I think someone looks familiar, especially if they’re of a population I might offend. I have this fear the person will say, “Do we all look alike to you?” Populations I am afraid to offend in this way include black men, white men with beards, and white women with long, dark, straight hair. I also question myself when middle-aged white women with short hair look familiar, but I don’t worry about offending them. I’m one of them.

But also, I’m tired of being afraid to make a mistake. “I’m sure I know you,” I begin, and he says, “Yeah…,” and suddenly I remember. “We did that storytelling show!”

“Right, hi!” he says. “How are you?”

“Great!” I beam. “I just got a massage.”

“Nice!” We talk disjointedly as we get on the train and find seats. Both of us need to check our phones to see where we’re going and he does so straight off. I do so halfway because I kind of feel like I sort of know where I’m going. When he’s done mapping, he tells me about his event and I tell him about my event. “Cool,” he says. “Where was your massage?”

Centered Studios,” I say. “Mel was fantastic.”

“I live right by there!”

I really should be thinking about which stop I need to get off at but I ask, “Do you do yoga?”

“I do, but I need to do more of it,” he says.

At the risk of looking like I’m trying backhandedly sell him something I say, “Um, do you want a free yoga membership for Centered Studios?”

He looks at me a little blankly.

“I won it at a benefit auction thing,” I hastily add. “I used the massage part but I’m never going to make it back enough for the yoga.”

“Really?”

“Sure. Please.” I find the certificate and give it to him. I want to add that I’ve wanted to put an offer up on Facebook for someone who lives close enough to take the yoga classes, but I recently changed my Facebook policy to only go there on the first of every month and I don’t want the certificate to expire in the meantime.

“Can I send you some free theatre tickets?” he asks.

“That would be great!”

He puts his email address in my phone and I am suddenly dying to explain about Facebook. I think he would get it. He’s a poet and he seems fully engaged with life and up for new ideas. But will he think I’m an over-sharer who’s too worried about when to go on Facebook?

“Is this your stop?” he asks. We’re at Berwyn and the doors are open.

“Oh! Yeah!” I get out and run for the closing door.

“See ya!”

“See ya!”

Business as usual

trick or treaters
Out of candy, except for 6 fun-size Almond Joys in the sideboard.

“This street is dead,” I heard some boy shout last night, when we’d turned off the porch light and shut the shades and hung a sign saying, “Out of Candy.” I’d contemplated writing, “Sorry, Out of Candy,” but reasoned that we’d bought plenty and I didn’t owe anyone an apology. But also I didn’t want to get egged. I settled for adding an exclamation mark, like we too were stunned. “Out of Candy!”

I probably wouldn’t have heard the kid, our windows were fastened tight, but I was out with Django. She was both fascinated and terrified by the walking hordes of costumed marauders with their lit-up candy bags, unzipped backpacks, cavernous pillowcases, and crinkly grocery bags. Or was that me. Mostly older kids now, in the dark, trolling for houses that still had candy to hand out. The guy on the next block who’d set up with a laundry bin full of candy AND bloody Mary fixings for the grownups, was cleaned out and cleaning up. “No matter how much you buy, it’s never enough.” He wasn’t nearly as cheerful as he’d been on our early walk, and I learned he’d just seen two kids peeing on the side of his house.

“I told them, have a little respect for the neighborhood,” he said. But they shouted back something nasty and went the other way.

“How old were they?” I asked.

“Maybe early 20s.”

Django and I crossed the street to avoid an oncoming horde. “A doggie!” I heard a witch yell. We walked past the one house still open for business. “How do you still have candy,” I asked the couple standing at a table set up on their front walk.

“Starlight mints,” said the woman.

We came home through the back gate. Instead of running up the stairs, Django sniffed and listened to the night. I was glad Tashi and I changed our rehearsal to tomorrow, so she wouldn’t be walking to the train on All Hallows Eve. I need her safe for opening night. So instead, she’d called earlier and told me the whole show like a radio play, while Dave manned the candy station. I think in every show I ever work on, I want to do one rehearsal like that, audio only. It was strange and wonderful.

“This street is dead,” I heard the kid yell out front, and I decided it was time to get inside.

TMI alert

disposable rubber glove
Ultimate unspecific respect for what the story might be.

We were having such a lovely time, sitting outside at a corner table, being treated to dinner by my niece for the very first time. A great dinner and good conversation with her and her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s mom, who was in from out of town, and everything was just winding down. I thought, “I don’t really have to, I’ll wait til I get home.” Then I thought, “It’s going to be such a pretty walk home, I don’t want to suddenly have to.” So off I zipped to the women’s room.

Inside, there were two stalls. One was taken, and a woman was just exiting the other with her little girl. I went into that one. The floor was oddly wet, the seat less oddly so. I embarked on a series of strategic maneuvers to avoid all surface contact. Outside I could hear the mom gently instructing her daughter on washing her hands. “Rub your hands together…No, before they go under the water.”

Then I heard voice from the other stall. “Mommy, I’m done.”

“No,” said Mommy, “I don’t think you’re done yet.”

“But it doesn’t want to come out.” Oh no, I thought, I don’t want to hear this. But of course I couldn’t stop listening. “It’s halfway in and halfway out.”

Stuck in my stall with all my squeamishness, I remembered being in grad school and watching a documentary some guy had made of his wife giving birth. After the film, we had a class discussion about whether the guy had violated his wife’s right to privacy. In my opinion, it was my privacy that had been invaded. I didn’t want those images in my head. I’ve sometimes wondered if seeing that film contributed to my decision not to have children. That and over-population, lack of desire to semi-replicate myself, and other personal reasons. But also fear. Maybe for some people, seeing it step-by-step demystifies it in some respect so you can begin to understand the greater miraculousness of the whole process, but for me, I’m braver when I don’t know what’s going on.

“Just take your time,” said Mommy. “I’m going to take Shelly back to the table. I’ll be right back, okay?”

“Okay, but Mommy?” Oh, please don’t say anymore.

“Yes?”

“Make sure you come back, okay?”

I left my stall and walked to the sink as Mommy and daughter 1 walked out. I turned on the water and tried to wash my hands in a brisk, reassuring fashion, in case daughter 2 was listening and worrying about being left alone with a stranger. “Who are you?” she asked from her stall.

“Oh, I’m just another customer, here having dinner,” I said.

“But, what do you look like?”

“Um…” What do I look like to a small child? “I have brown hair. I’m about as tall as your mom…” I heard something behind me and turned to see the stall door opening. The little girl popped her head out. I tried not to look too closely because it seemed like she might still be sitting on the pot. But I noticed a tiny spot of something brown on her angelic cheek. She was probably five years old, and had the sweetest smile in the world. “Oh,” she said, “I really like your shoes.”

“Thank you,” I said, trying not to think about what the spot might be. I dried my hands and she closed herself back in the stall. “Do you want me to wait here ’til your mom gets back?” Please say no, I thought. I don’t know how to talk to you.

“No, that’s okay.”

“Okay, ‘bye.” I left and went back to my table. On the way, I saw Mommy getting daughter 1 settled at the table. For some reason she was carrying another chair to the table, though it looked like they were finished eating. A man and another daughter were also sitting at the table. Mommy looked very tired. I realized it must take a lot of effort to take three small children out for dinner. I don’t want to see that much reality when I’m out for a nice dinner, but it’s their reality and they’re trying to be out for a nice dinner, too.

On our walk home, I didn’t mention the little girl and the mysterious spot, but I did appreciate my new Birkenstocks that no one else had complimented up until tonight. Probably because they look exactly like my old Birkenstocks, or maybe because who compliments Birkenstocks? The moon was out and the streets were quiet, and the walk was just as lovely as I’d hoped. I did make Dave stop once, to take a picture of a disposable rubber glove lying in an alley just off Western. It caught my attention, but I didn’t want to get too close.

The day the circus left town

pawn shop postcard
I'm not making this stuff up. Hardly.

Late last night, the guy sweeping up after the very last elephant was a woman. She sat in front of her house and held a small sign: “Free Gov. Blagojevich.” I wanted to tell her that Blago isn’t governor anymore, and he isn’t in prison yet, but instead it hardly seemed worth it. There’s just something not very interesting about the Blago train, now that he’s been convicted.

It was more interesting three years ago, when we lived in a condo across the hall from The Guys. The State of Illinois rented the unit as a crash pad for Blago’s security detail. I hated how their Crown Vics took up so many parking spaces out front, and how they left a rusting Weber grill on our shared back deck, and how they used garbage bags as curtains in the living room. But they were a novelty, and some of them were genuinely nice. Peter the postman gave us the low-down on who was in charge of who, and what the deal was with “the football.” It was fun to watch The Guys muttering into walky-talkies as they scurried from condo to Blago house, looking solemn and authoritative about exchanges that probably consisted of, “Gotta pee, be right back,” and “Is there gas in Crown Vic #3? I’m making a lunch run.”

When the indictment came down, that was a fun time to be in the neighborhood. We saw the first flush of reporters and news trucks, and didn’t realize yet they’d be a three-year fixture. It was the dead of winter and I admired their tenacity, sitting out in the cold, waiting for a shot of Blago walking from his front door to his SUV. Because you can’t have a news story without live coverage of someone getting into their car.

On one dog walk we watched The Guys execute a complicated maneuver to get Blago out the side door and into a waiting Crown Vic up the street, all without the news crews realizing he’d left the house. This required three walky-talkies.
When The Guys suddenly moved out, one cold day in January 2009, leaving only their rusting Weber and some cable wires, the parking improved. My friend Peggles moved in across the hall, and like everyone else we could exclaim over how vehemently, almost exuberantly, Blago was denying everything. His problems seemed to make him more chatty than usual, and as he jogged through the neighborhood—alone now, without Crown Vic #4 trolling behind—he’d wave vigorously, and say something like, “Isn’t this great?” as he loped by. His Teflon factor was staggering.

One morning during the first trial, I let a reporter into the lobby as I returned from a dog walk. It was a sub-zero day and I was tired of skirting the cameras on the way back from the park, when every extra step cost another centimeter of numbness in your toes. She followed me to the building and asked if she could just step inside to warm up and ask a few questions. I don’t remember the conversation, something about, “Is this media circus upsetting the neighborhood?”

“Oh yes. It’s upsetting the neighborhood.” Who was I kidding? We loved being able to kvetch on corners and post on Facebook about how annoying it all was. The helicopters I could do without, but the spectacle was nicely surreal and mostly contained to court days. And when he was mostly acquitted after a hung jury, it was just another example of how screwed up the system is and nothing changes. Always good food for neighborly conversation.

But yesterday, after the conviction, it all became less interesting. We were out on a dog walk when the verdict was announced, and on our way home two reporters stopped us. “Do you think justice was served today?”

“We haven’t heard the verdict.”

“Guilty on…what is it, Bob, 17 counts? Seventeen of 20 counts.”

“Oh. Wow.”

“So, do you think justice was served today?”

“Um, yeah. I guess.”

“Would you say justice had been served?”

“Yeah, I’d say justice was served. Wait, I’m not sure what that means. I think he did some stuff he shouldn’t have, and now he has to pay for it.”

“Yeah, can you spell your name, please?”

Suddenly there’s nothing to bitch about. Justice has been served, whatever that means. There are still blips of interest, like yesterday when he told reporters that he hates to think that “some” people in the state “might think” he’s not fighting for them. That he had the presence of mind, there in that jumble of reporters outside his door, as his wife stumbled up the stairs in tears and he hastened to join her, to keep spinning. That still staggers me, but now it’s none of my business. It’s something for him and his family to suffer through. Nothing more to see here, folks. We promise you a shot in his jump suit, sometime later this year.

On this morning’s dog walk, we avoided Sunnyside and possible reporters. Instead we headed to Ronan Park. Coming back, cutting across the lawn at Manor and Lawrence, we passed a postcard in the grass. It seemed to sum things up, so I put a biscuit under it to get Django in the shot. I guess we’re all showmen at heart.

Live Here Long Enough and You Become Your Neighborhood

Chicago neighborhood map
Yep.

I was two hours into a meeting with M and J at a crowded Uptown coffee shop. A woman wandered from another table to ours. She started saying something in a low voice that I couldn’t quite hear. She was standing right behind M, who had been making a point in her polite but determined way, and M looked up blankly, “What?”

The woman moved in closer. “No,” said J to the woman. Not mean but firm, like he was talking to his sister. “Not here.” The woman moved away.

Suddenly the whole shop looked different to me. Should I hold onto my purse? Crap, am I going to be safe getting to my car? “Are they closing?” asked M apologetically.

“No, no,” said J, unflappable as always. “She was just trying to work it in here.”

“Oh,” said M. “I thought she was an employee.”

Ravenswood Manor, Old Town, and Uptown. You do the math.