Sunday, February 29, 2004


The Demise of the Big Blue Building

A few days ago, I visited the new Borders bookstore on the southeast corner of North Avenue and Halsted Street. In the context of giant bookstores, it’s nothing new. But, in the context of my immediate neighborhood’s life, it's very new indeed.

A blue-bricked YMCA administration building (which also housed a day care center and outdoor playground) stood on the site before they bulldozed it to make way for the Borders and other shops. I don’t know for sure, but I assume that when North Avenue began erupting into a retail mecca, the non-profit YMCA decided to cash in and move their administration elsewhere. (In addition to Borders, the mall features an exercise equipment shop, a children’s clothing store, an upscale kitchen store, a bank, and a separate, ugly concrete parking garage.)

I don’t know what happened to all the families served by the daycare center. Before the bookstore, what little life could be found on the southeast corner of North & Halsted was supplied by mothers shuttling their children to and from the building. I know that Operation Christmas operated out of the blue building. You could help by adopting a family and buying their children Christmas gifts. Then, you’d drop them off on the second floor the week before the holiday.

Where do these families go for daycare now? I don’t want to be naïve to think that the loss of this center meant little to the families who used it or to our community, nor do I want to make cynical assumptions that the YMCA’s management could not or did not make decisions based on the best interests of the people they serve.

So, for purposes of talking about the arrival of Borders, let’s assume a neutral position on the demise of the Y's administration building. Let's also recognize that this lack of common knowledge about what happened to the YMCA's families and administrators is part of the nature of community change - for better or worse.

Back to Borders

In my opinion, the arrival of Borders impacts the immediate community in a positive way.

First, the corner on which it sits sprung to life as soon as Borders opened its doors. People now head to or from there. The sidewalk used to be a narrow, sharp right angle that was dangerous to cross because it could sometimes get crowded with people waiting for the bus. Cars would cut their turns close as they sped around the corner. The Borders’ entrance is set at an angle against the intersection and is set back from the curb by at least ten feet. This gives pedestrians a lot of space and breathing room, particularly with the bus stop there. Drivers can now see around the block before they turn and consider the pedestrian traffic.

Second, it is the first kind of public hanging out space, other than parks, within walking distance for us. The closest public libraries are on Diversey or Fullerton. The only Starbucks is a small one north on Halsted and not suitable for “hanging.” There is a 24 hour Starbucks about half a mile east on Wells and North Avenue, but that is a long walk on a cold winter day. The Borders also hosts a lot of programming where they bring in authors and musicians.

Third, the retailers are sucking up all the space on North Avenue west of Halsted. I know of no new housing units being built in the gold rush for consumers. It’s all retail. Even though it’s a retailer, Borders offers a place of respite. You don’t have to buy a book. You can just sit and read one there. I find it a meaningful destination amidst the mindless consumerism on North Avenue, and I can walk there easily.

Two more things

To Borders' credit, they display titles about Chicago right when you walk into the store. I think it’s an important element of a rich community to share, promote, and reflect our community. I’d like to see them go deeper in their offerings. Right now, they feature lots of tour guides and fancy picture books.

I appreciated seeing their support of local author Elizabeth Crane. Her hilarious book of short stories called When the Messenger is Hot is now out in paperback, and Borders featured it on a prominent display with Ralph’s World (see below). Go get a copy of this book. You’ll have a great laugh and be touched in the process. I know that sounds clichéd, but it’s true. I think she’s smart, witty, and off-beat – three perfect traits in a writer.

Borders also gave prominence to Chicagoan Ralph Covert aka the Ralph’s World guy. If you have a child under 7 years old, pick up some of Ralph’s stuff. On his album, The Bottom of the Sea, he sings a solid rendition of Itsy Bitsy Spider that ends with him explaining to the children accompanying him that the song is existential. All the little kids try saying "existential" and Ralph simply concludes “yeah, that’s what it is.” Another song goes M-o-m-m-y needs c-o-f-f-e-e. Need I say more?

Sunday, February 22, 2004

Available on E-Bay Right Now

Sweet Oil Medicine Bottle - 2201 North Halsted
from the label: Harvey Rexall Pharmacy 35 cents
Prescription Specialists
Phone: Lincoln 9:0297

Asking $5.00, no bids
Seller's location: Northeast PA

1905 Postcard from Lincoln Park Boat House
Published by B. Sebastian, 202 E. North Avenue
Printed in Germany

Written on its front:
I know you are entirely too
busy to read a letter
with best wishes

Asking $3.39, no bids
Seller's location: Apopka, FL

Thursday, February 19, 2004

Introducing ThePlaceWhereWeLive Tourist Attraction R e v i e w s

(Last Post from the West Coast!)


Like screws in search of giant red magnets, we all, at one time or another, wander the map looking for stuff to do. Maybe that's why they call them tourist attractions. The term captures the "if we market it, you will come" mentality that permeates the travel industry.

ThePlaceWhereWeLive's Tourist Attraction Reviews, introduced today, will help you figure out who stinks and who smells nice. Does the attraction exist to suck the wallet out of your pants (which, granted, you might be inclined to enjoy), or might the attraction be an overlooked gem steeped in rich history, intrinsic
value, or wacky motives that somehow work?

You need to know. We will tell you (on a completely haphazard schedule). We will award attractions a self-explanatory OK-GO! or Lame-O! rating. In rare instances, a tourist site may be designated A-Gem-O! in which case you should log off and get packing.



From their website: "Ascend two and a half miles to a pristine wilderness aboard the World's Largest Rotating Tramcars."

Some reasons why Palm Springs Aerial Tramway has been deemed OK-GO!

1. It grew out of a local guy's wacky dream for the public good. The tram was built because Francis F. Crocker thought it would be a cool idea, literally, if he could ride out of the hot desert and up onto the snow-capped Mt. San Jacinto on a blistering summer day.

Crocker dreamed this in 1935, and he held tenaciously to his vision until he rode on the tram's inaugural trip in September 1963.

2. Profit never motivated Crocker. To this day the Tramway remains a non-profit organization operating as a public corporation of the State of California.

Because the tram needs to maintain financial self-sufficiency, it does have commerical aspects to it. I counted two gift shops, two cafes and a fancy restaurant designed to "attract" people to the mountain. They also took our photo at the bottom of the mountain in order to sell it to us at the top. Plus, admission fees weren't cheap ($20 adult, $14 child).

However, the place felt down-to-earth like other national or state parks we've visited. I could not detect any ersatz ploy by an offsite corporate marketing department. It felt like a state park facility, which we consider a compliment.

3. Only audacious engineering can shimmy two tramcars up and
down a mountainside, and the tramway organization acknowledges this accomplishment.

They document the technology for the public and try to teach about its challenges. For example, they carved a big window in the top mountain station so you can watch the massive concrete counterweight rise up and down as the tramcars slide along the cables. Or, before boarding, you can feel one of the steel cables they use to hoist the tram cars. They're the width of a shower rod but four kabillion times stronger.

4. As a result of building the tram, Crocker and his accomplices created a
13,000-acre public park on the top of the mountain called Mt. San Jacinto State Park and Wilderness Area.
It's the real deal with hiking trails, beautiful vistas, and friendly rangers. Thus, the "attraction" brings you to a destination with intrinsic value -- a stunning nature preserve that you otherwise could never have reached.

5. You enjoy splendid views on your way up and down in the tram car, and
you pass more than 8,000 feet of rocky mountainside, giving the ride intrinsic value, too.

6. As the brochure reports, Palm Spring's tram is the largest rotating tramcar in the world. That ain't nothin.

Friday, February 13, 2004


Sign posted outside the door of our hotel:

Warning: Chemicals Known To The State of California To Cause Cancer Or Birth Defects Or Other Reproductive Harm May Be Present In Foods Or Beverages Sold Or Served Here

Sign posted inside the door of our hotel:

Warning: This Facility Permits Smoking & Tobacco Smoke Is Known To The State of California To Cause Cancer.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004


The surfers were already packing up when I awoke this morning and slid the hotel room window/door open to get some air. One graying surfer wore an all black wetsuit and loaded boards into his extra-long white van. "I've been here twenty years," he said to another surfer. "It's such a bitchin' lifestyle."

The following is an excerpt from the Desert Sun newspaper. (It was written by Benjamin Spillman and published on February 9, 2004.)

"Charles Hough doesn’t use a broom and dustpan to clear his patio after a strong breeze. The retired Cathedral City man fires up a collection of high-powered vacuums, a fleet of reinforced push carts and a gasoline-fueled, power broom with a heavy duty, rotating brush.

That’s because the high winds that buffet Hough’s home on Ventura Drive carry sand -- literally tons of it -- onto the patio, into an empty pool and under his roof tiles.

'I work dawn till dusk after every sandstorm,' said Hough, whose home is separated from the open desert by a row of trees and a huge sand dune. 'In a dry year when the wind is blowing, I can get… tons of sand in my yard and on my roof in one long weekend.'"

Tuesday, February 10, 2004


(We flew from northern California to southern California on Alaska Airlines. Apparently, they've expanded.)

In an America where corporations love to placate their customers with the faces of non-threatening spokespersons -- Betty Crocker, Colonel Sanders -- you've got to appreciate an airline that paints a giant, Big-haired Ambiguous Man on the tail of its planes. The logo stands out among the banal corporate graphics of the other planes like Bob Marley at a Pat Boone concert. He has two white tuffs of hair on either side of his head that kind of look like devil horns, and his expression suggests that he may have just smoked a big doobie. I think he's supposed to be an Eskimo, but he looks more like a wild apparition who wants to intimidate the ground crew into getting its shit together. Even Zachary asked, "Mom, who's the bad guy?"

I went to Alaska Airlines' website to learn more, but no luck. Instead, I read that they announced a week ago they'll begin flying "from Seattle to The Windy City." Their press release sums us up this way, "A business powerhouse and one of the busiest air travel markets in the world, Chicago is also home to Wrigley Field, the Sears Tower, and the Museum of Science and Industry." Maybe they should paint the wild guy on the wall of their public relations department, too.

Sunday, February 08, 2004


I did spend my first hours in California marveling at their timid, 65 degree winter day. I wore a cotton sweater and jeans to the playground and realized suddenly that I had lost track of my sunglasses more than a month ago. I teased Zachary by telling him in a mock authoritative voice to put on his mittens.

My brother-in-law and sister-in-law, Mike and Julianna, moved out here in June from a place on Burling near North Avenue. If you've ever taken the brown line as it snakes north from Sedgewick to Armitage, you've probably peered into their former yard beneath the el tracks. Maybe you've seen their dog, Zoe, running around with a toy hedgehog in her mouth.

Mike and Jules balk at their new friends in Los Gatos who moan about the sometimes rainy winter days, and they spend a lot of time appreciating the weather's near perfection. Mike said, "I used to think about how much easier it would be for homeless people if they could live here rather than Chicago, but now I can't figure out why all the people with money don't come."

Friday, February 06, 2004


When you leave Chicago in February for anywhere that doesn’t have cold weather, people are happy for you. You don’t even have to be going on vacation. They get it. They are happy for you in a way that is kind of like when someone you’ve been talking to for half an hour discovers that it’s your birthday and that you’re eight years younger than they are. They perk right up. They wish you well. Maybe they feign envy. Then the topic disappears permanently off your conversation's navigational chart.

That’s the way it is. It’s snowing outside for the four hundred fuckingth time and everything has been the color of newspapers since before anyone was born. Everyone understands that winter in Chicago becomes something to get through. If fate gives you an opportunity to make a break for warmer weather, you go. They get this and you feel fortunate for the chance to do so.

That is, until your pilot comes out of the cockpit with a yellow utility flashlight moments before you were expecting to take off and a good half hour to forty-five minutes after de-icing. He heads directly to the emergency exit row, politely says “excuse me” to the passengers seated there, and peers out at the wing as snow blizzards around it. He excuses himself and crosses the aisle to the other wing. Looks again. He heads back to the cockpit, expressionless. You and your fellow passengers fall into complete silence and begin contemplating how lucky you really are.

Thursday, February 05, 2004


There’s a strip mall just east of where I live. It’s not huge, not small. Maybe 25 parking spaces out front. It houses a luggage store, a men’s clothing store, a window blinds store, a furniture store, a mobile phone center, and a Crate & Barrel outlet.

I’ve never noticed whether or not the mall has a name, but I have noticed that I don’t hate it. I don’t find it completely visually deadening or energy draining.

Until today, it’s never been apparent to me why that should be, but I think I’ve figured it out.

There are two floors of apartments on top of the Crate & Barrel. You can see that people live there if you look up at the windows. They’ve drawn their shades in variations of up or down. Someone put a vase against one, as if they’d emptied it of flowers and didn’t feel like putting it away.

Because the apartments augment the tedious, regimented design and use of the stores, the mall doesn’t leave its site with only one kind of life. The apartments make sure that, regardless of whether or not the shops are open, real life ticks on within it. Somebody, somewhere might be playing a flute.

Wednesday, February 04, 2004


FL: Good afternoon, Consumer Affairs, this is Linda.

TPWWL: Hi Linda. I am trying to figure out where the Cheetos I’m eating today were made.

FL: Okay, I can tell you that. Under the price -- I just need the first three numbers.

TPWWL: 419

FL: That was made in Frankfurt, Indiana

TPWWL: And, how many factories do you have in the country?

FL: Well, we have different products made in different plants.

TPWWL: How many are there total?

FL: Well, some make crunchy Cheetos, some make baked Cheetos, so it depends on the product.

TPWWL: Oh. So, crunchy Cheetos just come out of Frankfurt?

FL: No, there are other plants that make it.

TPWWL: So, you can’t give me a ballpark of how many Cheeto factories there are?

FL: Are you doing a report or something?

TPWWL: No, I was just curious.

FL: Okay. Hold on a moment. (Counts) 15.

TPWWL: 15 for crunchy. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it.

FL: May I have your zip code?

TPWWL: 60614.

Tuesday, February 03, 2004


The Woman whose Dog Wears a Green Coat – Larrabee and North Avenue

She walks an Irish Terrier that has precise posture and
wears a forest green Polartec coat. When she sees us coming, even if we are a block
away, she will walk out to the street to avoid us. When she maneuvers her
dog, she pulls hard on its leash as if she’s saying, “I mean it!”

We crossed paths on the sidewalk by the corner of North and Larrabee.
She had just come around the corner, so she didn’t have a lot of time to
react. She tried to get her dog into the street, but a snow bank blocked her.
I pulled Boomer short on her leash as we passed, and I said, “Good
morning” as friendly as I could, hoping for a reaction.

She looked at me fiercely from behind the fur trim of her tightly tied hood.
Her face tensed and her eyes shined pale blue.

The Unshaven Man - Southeast Corner of Oz Park

A white-haired man walked a little dog with fur of the same color
when we met in Oz Park. The dog wore a striped coat and had a severe
underbite that kind of made him look like a piranha.

Boomer and the dog tangled leashes, but the man didn't seem to
mind. He was kind of delighted. "You have a friend. You have a great
friend," he said to his dog, but also to Boomer and me.

We chatted a bit and I told him about our trip to California and
boarding her at All for Doggies.

He said he usually gets someone to stay with his dog, but,
“To tell you the truth, I can’t stand to be away from her.” He did look
sad just thinking about it.

We said good bye and Boomer and I walked some more until we
found a glove. She picked it up and shook it like a mouse.

I looked back through the chain-link fence of the tennis courts
and could see the unshaven man just beginning to search for it,
his left hand bare while the right held the leash.

“Thank you,” he said when we caught up with him. He told me
that a few days ago he dropped his wallet out of his car while he
was getting gas in Evanston, and a NU student called to say that
she had found it. “So, this is my happy week!”

We untangled dogs and parted again. "Oh, you're going to
be great friends," he said as he walked off. "Just wait until spring.
Wait until spring."