I live in Ukrainian village in Chicago. A great many of my neighbors don’t even speak English. They like being among themselves. They are suspicious, clannish, and at times, paranoid and unfriendly. This doesn’t surprise me. A great many of my neighbors are from the Ukraine and lived under harsh totalitarian regimes, under a czar or a dictator. Many of them are old enough to remember the scourge of communism in their lives. They don’t much like strangers; this is Chicago, a city of tribes and bone-deep grudges.
My neighbors have begun to thaw a bit. One lady brought me a sack of beets from her garden and, noticing that I had several bird feeders in my yard, told me the secret to attracting hummingbirds–red flowers and sugar-water. She told me that only she had hummingbirds in this neighborhood even though the city “is lousy with them– you have to know how to attract them.”
My other neighbor, the old Ukrainian lady, gives me the evil eye and pretends to dislike me more than she actually does. She calls me Mr. Big Shot and follows me when I walk Chooch (my mutt) to make sure I clean up after him. I also think she just wants someone to talk to as well. She calls my work, “crazy-man pictures,” but she always asks me about them. She also walks her old biddy friends by my place and points saying, “Famous big shot artist lives here; four doors from me.”
There are gorgeous gardens in my neighborhood. My neighbors work hard on these and from my back porch, it is a different city. . . explosions of color from yard to yard and giant sunflowers in some of them. There are also all manner of tulips and roses, columbine and wandering vine, weeping cherry and plum trees. It is an amazing thing to see in late spring and summer. It occurs to me that this is how people who have lived hardscrabble lives add beauty to their world.
They come from hard places in the world and now they are free and they guard that freedom with alacrity and a fierce sense of boundary.
In Chicago, property is the cornerstone of what one has in the world and in my neighborhood it is relished and lovingly adorned. My neighbors are under siege by people like me who move in and don’t understand the contract that they silently have with one another. Don’t play your music loud. Don’t have big parties. Don’t let your kids or dog run wild. Don’t let your dog shit on my lawn–or my tree-lawn. If you have an old person next door, you shovel their walk and if there is a blackout, you look in on them. If you see an old lady struggling with her groceries, you carry them for her. And when she makes you a cup of tea for your kindness, you sit your ass down and drink it and listen to her while she explains things to you. Who knows; you might learn how to attract hummingbirds. Know that you are talking to someone who comes from a hard place in the world where there wasn’t much to trust.
Shut up and listen, Mr. Big Shot.
This one is called “The Bruised Village” It is the hobo symbol for “Go.”