All over the west and south sides of Chicago there are still live poultry shops. It only now occurs to me that I’ve never actually been in one. Americans are particularly squeamish this way– we never want to look the creature we’re about to slaughter in the eye. We’d rather see it fried with some biscuits and gravy on a plate, or in nugget form in a small styrofoam box; or even better, chopped up with a bunch of vegetables in some soup. We’re not much for the blood and the feathers and the screeching death that comes along with butchering poultry.

A number of people in the city have begun to keep chickens in their yards in Ukrainian Village they raise their own eggs and I have to admit it is kind of heartening to see a plump chicken or two walking the alleyways. You want to warn them that: feral cats, large rats, raccoons, and now coyotes also now walk these alleys, and would gladly feast on them; but then you notice these are some big-assed chickens and when you get right up close and look them in the eye?  You see all of the madness in the world.These chickens are Chicago chickens and they just might be able to hold their own.

Years ago, when I first opened my studio on Damen Avenue, there was a small bodega a few doors down from me. The older Puerto Rican guy who ran it made change out of his pocket, rather than the cash register. The store was badly stocked, open when it  wanted to and closed at odd hours. We struck up a friendship by virtue of being neighbors and sometimes having to look out for the same goofs who would run in and grab stuff when you weren’t looking. We were also the only Sox fans in that part of town. I liked him, He had thick bifocals and a sad smile and spoke the kind of English that one speaks when they learn it first in Chicago. He referred to the alderman as “our guy” with a roll of his eyes.
I only knew him as “Popi.” One day, I noticed these Polaroids taped to the side of his antique cash register. They were all pictures of roosters…more specifically, fighting cocks. He told me, that in Puerto Rico, he’d raised many champion birds. He said where he came from people weren’t  hypocrites about things like cockfighting. He’d tell me, “You gringos get all weepy about  two chickens fucking each other up WHILE you eat your McNuggets.” He had a point.
He also, once in a while, would stop me in my tracks when this line of conversation occurred. He would ask me if we cared as much about people as we did about the chickens. “There you go– white people will wring their hands over cockfighting, where each bird has a fifty-fifty shot at coming out alive. But kids in this city are blowing each others’ heads off for dime bags and where are your tears for them?”
Bucktown changed and the bodega is long gone, as is Popi and his backyard full of fighting cocks. There were a few of them that were beautiful in a wild, mad, kind way. Rubio, a starkly black, long-plumed bird with a blood-red head. Pinto, a speckled mess with sharp thorny spurs, and Azul who. Popi explained. was a rare blue-faced gamecock who he’d paid better than a grand for back home. He fed them only prime feed and fought them in Indiana, he explained, “with a bunch of white guys who look like a dumber version of you.” It was nice to know that somewhere out there there is a dumber version of me.
I guess what has changed about Bucktown the most is the absence of people like Popi and the fact that I used to walk my neighborhood and sometimes hear three or four different languages being spoken in the length of a couple of city blocks.
Now there is a Marc Jacobs store and restaurants that people blather on about on Yelp! all the time. I’m old enough to know that this isn’t bad or good–that change is the human experience. I don’t miss the days when you had to look over your shoulder in this neighborhood, though. Judging from the gun violence you STILL kind of have to.  I do realize that in very short order, it is a different city. That for all of the technology that was supposed to connect us, it feels like we are more alone. For all of the cameras and crime-prevention gestures and feel-good documentaries, we are still apt to maim and kill each other.
It has always been a cruel city– it is our history; Steel, slaughter, railroads,and bootleggers made the cash register ring, and this was the only music anybody with any power danced to.
Popi was right. We’re still killing each other in Chicago over dime bags, and still wringing our hands over smaller cruelties. Everything has changed, and everything remains the same.
Published in: on May 13, 2014 at 5:47 pm  Comments (1)  
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The House Made From Leaves

The House Made From LeavesThis is one of those late summer drawings.

I read some stories about the Shaker culture who used to construct this canopy of a great bough of leaves, called a “Bower.” It was a place they went to worship and receive divine light–what they believed to be the light of God. Somehow the sun was not miraculous or divine enough for them, so they would go into the Bower and shake and chimp out thinking the sun was laying a different, holier kind of light on them.


This time of year, especially a day like today, late summer comes with a whisper of autumn; a chill to let us know what awaits us in a scant 30 days or so. I love days like this, the sun still high up in the sky in the late afternoon and the shadows creeping ever longer each day.

My back porch is a magic place this time of year; cool enough to draw outside and watch the birds at my feeder. Every once in a while, a squirrel tries to muscle in on the feeder and I have to throw shit at them. I mostly let my dog, Chooch, out in the yard because he doesn’t bother the birds and will chase the squirrels away. He has introduced three squirrels to Jesus and they don’t fuck around with him anymore. The word is out in the squirrel community.

In my neighborhood, there are gorgeous pines and oaks and maple trees, the odd exotic here and there, a Japanese weeping cherry tree in my neighbor’s yard and some tall elms frame the end of the block. The Ukrainians who settled this neighborhood planted as many trees as they could. My neighbors say it is kind of an effort to recreate the place they come from. Whatever the reason, I am grateful for the green thumbs of this neighborhood’s settlers. They’ve added much beauty to my life.

Published in: on August 14, 2013 at 1:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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Star for Western Avenue

Star For Western AvenueAs any good auto thief or auto parts thief can tell you, Western Avenue is home to the Midnight Auto, the night and day marketplace for hot cars and parts (now mostly just parts) in the city of Chicago.  Western is also the longest continuous street in the city.  It is not like Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles; one of those stretches of road that goes from the Out-house to the Penthouse and back.  Western pretty much goes from the out house to the dog house. . .not so many penthouses.

Until 1870, Western was the western border of the city limits.  Western used to be home to Riverview, the much storied amusement park that was torn down in 1967  to make way for a police station.   In its later years, Riverview had an unseamly reputation.  It was full of beatniks, sailors and kids who were to become known as hippies.  Older friends of mine tell me it was a good place to buy pot, and  maybe the last place where one could play Skee-Ball, a poor man’s version of bowling.

Every transit line in the city crosses Western; the Blue Line twice, as well as the Green, Orange, Pink and Brown lines.  Hardwired into the DNA of this street is the whole idea of transportation.  Western once hosted the longest streetcar line in the world.  Green Hornet streetcars zipped up and down Western until the mid ’50s.  My father took this streetcar to school and back.  So much for that bullshit about him walking five miles to school. . .in the snow. . .uphill.  You get the idea.

Western is a working class street, dangerous as hell and, for the longest time, didn’t even have bike lanes.  If you’re going to speed, this is the street to do it on.  In fact, if you are going to run pedestrians over, this is the street to do it on.  If you are going to sideswipe pickups full of junk and pass on the right-hand side; this is the street to do it on.  Western Avenue is a kill-or-be-killed automotive proposition.  It ain’t  for  pussies.

Lane Tech is on Western.  It used to be the biggest high school in the country.  Years ago it taught high school students the trades; plumbing, auto-body work, sheet metal and the rudiments of construction.  A great many of the tradesmen I’ve hired over the years were graduates of Lane Tech.

Between 103rd and around 115th Street once a year Western used to be host to a bacchanal of drunken louts known as the “Southside Irish Parade,” where my people, the Irish, as well as several other, mostly white citizens and suburbanites, would get snot-flying drunk and puke in your front yard.  (To my friends of color, know that these are the white people we never put on the brochures.)  The city shit-canned the Southside Irish Parade a couple of years back to many howls of indignation and ballyhoo  from your professional Irish types.  It seems to me the St. Patrick’s Day parade that occurs downtown, and welcomes everyone, is sufficient.

It is an avenue of pissed-off people going to and from work.  There is nothing leisurely about Western Avenue.  It is the Mud and the Blood and the Beer.  The working-class 500, with a little roller derby thrown in for good measure. The people speeding this 26.5 miles of Chicago’s gut?  They’re busy dying, eight hours at time. . .40 hours a week. . .’til death do us part.

It is the very picture of what Nelson Algren referred to as “Hustler’s Land.”  Grime and shining lights in equal measure.  An avenue with one foot in the gutter and the other dancing on a star.

When I was a kid, I was enthralled by all of the used car lots and their endless neon sequential lights that blinked a semaphore of promise and cash and deals.  I thought of them as palaces of some kind.  The OK used car lot with it’ spires of tiny white-hot bulbs. . .the Cars-For-Less streams of pointy red, yellow, green and blue triangular flags.  When I hear the term “primary colors,” well, these are mine.

To this day, Western is where you go when you want a used car and always, buried in their iconography or right upfront, there is a star.
The stars are a promise of something on this street; something better, something sexy, something closer to the top; something nearer to the heart of the American dream.

Published in: on December 24, 2010 at 12:21 am  Leave a Comment  
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