Archive for the ‘Urban Living’ Category

Word on the street: Sidewalk poetry

July 9, 2008

Like most big cities, Chicago has its share of graffiti. Most of it is mindless tagging, the annoying human equivalent of animals spraying their scent to mark their territory. Only this is done with spray paint or markers or—in the latest defacement innovation—acid that actually etches into plate glass and has to be ground and polished out. This is vandalism, pure and simple.

But there’s a much more creative side to graffiti that, if it doesn’t exactly make me ready to forgive taggers, maybe causes me to adopt something of a philosophical “take the good with the bad” attitude. Most famously, graffiti has given us artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It also gives us random poignant moments like this piece, spotted downtown last winter, near Columbia College:

And on a grander scale, this piece done with stencils and spray paint by graffiti stencil artist Peat Wollaeger:

Most recently, graffiti gave me a bit of street poetry. Well, sidewalk poetry, to be more exact. Walking up to the Bucktown offices of the ad agency where I work one morning, I saw a seemingly random word stenciled onto the sidewalk. And then another. And another. When I explored later, I discovered there were 38 words in all, in 29 groupings, spaced out over two city blocks. Someone or a group of someones had cut out these stencils and, in the wee-est of the wee, small hours of the morning [Bucktown and neighboring Wicker Park are infested with late night bars], had applied a poem to the streets of Chicago. Here it is:

RIP, The Spindle: Big art in Berwyn dies

May 7, 2008

Last fall I wrote about an unusual landmark in suburban Chicago that was threatened with demolition. Sadly, it fell last week, another victim of progress, if yet another Walgreens can be deemed progress. We learned about it first at Curious Feet St. Louis. Be sure to read this brief, heartfelt post. You’ll also find links there to photos and video of the demolition. Here’s my original post:

We bought a new bed this weekend out in the western suburbs of Chicago. Some assembly required, of course. The two boxes it came in, one of them 76 inches long, meant that even with our back seat folded down, the trunk would be partially open, secured by a bungee cord. To me, that meant taking surface streets instead of the expressway.

And that meant driving through Berwyn, Illinois. Berwyn is a working class suburb of Chicago and the butt of a long-running joke for a local TV celeb and bad horror movie host [I’ll wait while all Chicagoans do their best Son of Svengoolie impersonation: “BER-wyn?!?”].

It’s also, at least for now, home of The Spindle. Created in 1989 by California artist Dustin Shuler, it has given many people a reason to visit less than glitzy Cermak Plaza [to me, the way cool vintage mall sign is another].

But if you’d like to see The Spindle, you’d better visit Cermak Plaza soon. It is likely to be moved—and possibly demolished—soon to make way for a Walgreens. Yeah, we really need another one of those in the Chicago area. The national drugstore chain is headquartered here, and they loooove to build in their hometown. If you walk or drive five or six blocks in any direction without passing a Walgreens—or the site of a future Walgreens—you’ve probably somehow accidentally left Chicago. But for some reason, a Walgreens is urgently needed, right where The Spindle now stands.

The Spindle is not without its supporters, though. There’s a grassroots organization, complete with a Save The Spindle website. And the Illinois State Senate has passed a resolution to save The Spindle. If enough funds are raised, it could be moved elsewhere on the parking lot and have needed restoration work done by the artist. But as with most noble human endeavors, details of any such effort are a little sketchy and more than a little messy—questions of copyright and marketing and control [aka follow the money].

So your best bet is to get out there now and see it. Oh. And while you’re in Berwyn, be sure to check out the world’s largest laundromat, with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a kids’ play area, big screen TVs, a bird sanctuary [speaking of WTF?] and free pizza on Wednesday nights.

Alas, it is now gone. And the world is just a little bit blander.

A museum! At night! With wine! We are so there.

April 2, 2008

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There’s a lively, happy holiday song that office supplies company Staples hilariously appropriates for its back-to-school sale TV commercial every year. Parents gleefully shop for school supplies as their kids look glumly on; meanwhile, Andy Williams cheerfully sings to us that “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

That’s how we feel about Members Night at the Field Museum.

For starters, the Field is one of our favorite museums, chock full of fascinating things that teach us about both the natural world and the many and varied cultures humankind has created over the millennia. Anytime you get mummies and dinosaurs—including Sue, the largest, most complete Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in the world—in the same place, you’re off to an interesting start. But there are also cases of butterflies, a Pawnee Earth Lodge, Aztec and Incan treasures, fossil plants… and room after room after room of amazing natural life played out in taxidermy dioramas. Like the imposing grouping of water buffaloes above. Equal parts awe-inspiring and slightly surreal, these displays give most of us the most intimate view we will ever have of the creatures that share the planet with us. The museum not only wows you with its amazing collection, it goes to great lengths to tell you why it all matters.

Just as important as the exhibits—arguably even more so—is the work the staff does in the field. At any given moment, the museum has teams of scientists and anthropologists all over the planet, not only collecting and cataloging, but furthering science with their research both on expeditions and back at the museum. And on any given Members Night, you get to talk to some of these people.

We begin every Members Night visit the same way. We head for the Great Hall, get wristbanded for alcohol consumption, buy our drink tickets and grab a glass of wine. As cool as just being at the museum is for us, being there after hours with a drink in hand ramps it all up considerably. We have to be careful, though. At a similar event at the Shedd Aquarium once, instead of marveling at the beauty and diversity of the sea creatures on display, Marion just found herself wondering how each might taste.

time-flies.jpgWine in hand, we immediately head behind the scenes. Members Night is like an all access pass to a rock show, only for science geeks. All those places usually marked No Admittance? You’re admitted. You get to wander the halls, peer into offices, see what scientists put up on their walls and doors—there were fewer Far Side cartoons this year than in previous visits. You get to see where work gets done, exhibits get planned, where at least some of the museum’s vast collection of study specimens is stored. While the museum’s exhibition space is vast, high-ceilinged and continuously being updated, behind the scenes is a fascinating rabbit’s warren of utilitarian, dark corridors with pipes and wiring snaking overhead. Dark wood doors with frosted glass windows open onto cluttered offices and brightly lit laboratories.

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Coolest of all, though, is you get to meet the people who work in this fascinating environment. And rather than being irritated about having to work extra hours on these two nights every year, they are genuinely delighted to be surrounded by people interested in what they do. Asking someone a question is like flipping an on switch. Fascinating information just starts pouring out.

On our most recent Members Night visit last week:

Marion and her sister Lena learned that ancient textiles are often repaired with one of three grades of Japanese paper made from mulberry bark, extremely strong, but so light and thin it “feels almost like nothing,” as Marion said.

dodo.jpgI learned that, unlike humans, all birds have circular disklike bones in the backs of their eyes, and that, like humans, they have kneecaps. I learned this from a scientist seated next to the case of live dermisted flesh-eating beetles that clean study skeletons for the museum. She was carefully tweezing little bits of gristle and flesh they’d missed on tiny bird skeletons as we talked; Members Night is not for the squeamish.

We spoke with a zoologist whose current project is photographing minute flies that live on bats. The flies are so specialized that each species of fly lives not only on one particular species of bat, but only on one specific part of that bat. Around the neck, for instance, or under the wing [which Marion kept calling the armpit, and the zoologist kept gently correcting her]. As a bit of trivia, this is interesting enough. But it is anything but trivial; it is yet one more bit of evidence that every environmental choice we make affects many, many more fellow inhabitants of this planet than we can begin to imagine.

One might think this event would be about as well attended as a Friends of Sylvia Plath poetry reading. Well, one would be wrong. It is packed both nights every year. And not just by the pocket protector crowd—it is about as diverse an audience as you’ll find anywhere, by any measure you choose. Of course, if you’re still reading this, chances are I’ve stirred your inner geek too. Maybe we’ll see you there next year. Marion’s already trying to work out a way for us to get in both nights next time.

Thank you, Benjamin Franklin.

March 26, 2008

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What can I say? We’re library geeks. This stack is some of the materials Marion and I currently have checked out from the Chicago Public Library. By our standards, it’s a modest pile. Marion is a voracious reader; I’m a guy with good intentions. Inevitably, my eyes are bigger than my literary stomach, and many books return unopened. Again, what can I say?

We’ve always been library geeks. In St. Louis, librarians knew us and our children by name. We used to get invited to librarian-only parties. [To balance things out, I’d like to say here that we also used to get invited to staff-and-musician-only parties thrown by the crew of the Broadway Oyster Bar.] Daughter Claire has picked up the torch; she works in a library.

Growing up in St. Louis, I was blessed with access to an excellent library system [it was recently ranked second in the nation, in fact], and I discovered it early. Many of the city’s branch libraries were grand beaux arts structures, with ornate columns, profuse ornamentation, grand stone staircases and massive, heavy doors—especially to an eight-year-old on the skinny side. Beyond those heavy doors was a quiet sanctuary, elegant, ordered, cool in the summer and invitingly warm in the winter. And books. Mountains of them. Miles of them. All free for the taking—well, the borrowing. Even though I didn’t know the term business model back then, I wondered how they could possibly do this. Obviously, I was equally naive regarding taxes.

I only knew that they somehow did manage to do it and that, with my library card, I was in the club.

Anytime you have a great idea like this, everyone wants to take credit for it. As Wikipedia tells us, “Many claims have been made for the title of ‘first public library’ for various libraries in various countries, with at least some of the confusion arising from differing interpretations of what should be considered a true ‘public library’.” In ancient Rome, Greek and Roman scrolls were available to readers in the Roman baths; but these weren’t lending libraries—scrolls couldn’t be checked out.

benjamin-franklin.jpgIn the United States, Boston lays claim to the first town library, established in 1636. But most give credit to Benjamin Franklin for creating the first lending library. You have to wonder where he found the time. One of the nation’s founding fathers, he was also a printer, an author, satirist, politician, scientist, inventor, civic activist, statesman and diplomat.

For all the press Gutenberg gets for his printing press and how it brought books and knowledge to the masses, books were still very expensive, especially in America, and not readily available even to those of moderate means. In 1731, Franklin and a group of friends formed the Library Company of Philadelphia. It was set up as a subscription library; individuals bought shares, and the money was used to buy books. Members could then borrow books, making it possibly the first lending library. It is still in existence today, now operating as an independent, non-profit research library.

But with the Internet, do libraries still matter? Do books, for that matter? One word answer: Amazon.com. One of the most successful businesses on the whole worldwide web is a book store. And yes, the marketing of books is changing. Life for independent booksellers like our friend Jun, who runs the wonderful Foto-Grafix Books in San Francisco, is more challenging than ever. But drop in any book store, independent or big box chain, and you’ll find people hungry for books. You’ll find us there too. Some books you just need to own, to flip through again and again. To just take pleasure in knowing that you own it.

You don’t have to own everything, though. In this acquisitive culture, I’m not sure everyone gets that. Our good friend Laura told us of discussing books at work. When she mentioned finding something at the library, her colleagues laughed. Not derisively—just in that confused, it-would-never-occur-to-me sort of way.

But that’s the beauty of libraries. They’re a great place to kick the tires on a new author or be pleasantly surprised by something that catches your eye as you get the library crick in your neck, scanning titles sideways. There’s also almost a perverse anti-ownership pleasure in knowing that others have read this book before you, and many more will read it after you do, part shared experience, part recycling smugness.

So, yeah, we’re library geeks. And perhaps geekiest of all, on more library visits than not, I silently thank Ben Franklin.

 

 

Art and food together. “Is this heaven?”

February 6, 2008

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Last Saturday night we went to Chicago’s first ever Slideluck Potshow, held at the spacious Madron Gallery. As the event’s name sort of implies, it’s a combination potluck dinner and slideshow. At first blush, this sounds like something the Moose Lodge in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, might put on to liven up a long winter night, with everyone oohing and aahing over the multiple green bean casseroles and Ed’s 827 slides of the Alaskan cruise he and his wife Doris took, “when was it now, two years ago… three years ago?” Or as my Brooklyn Buddy Ronnie Ann put it, “Now wait a minute… people willingly go to watch slide shows without having committed a crime?”

Except the slideshow was art—very current work by Chicago artists. The crowd was an entertaining mix of mostly artists and hipsters. The food was plentiful and, for the most part, really good and interesting—this was not the kind of event where you show up with a bag of Doritos or a green bean casserole. And there was even a potluck dessert table and a potluck bar.

For our contribution, we brought a nice bottle of California sparkling wine, and Marion made a heaping bowl of the delicious soba noodle salad she posted on Blue Kitchen last week. The latter was an especially big hit—had the bowl been scraped any cleaner when we picked it up at the end of the evening, we could have just put it back on the shelf.

After the crowd had sufficiently fed, imbibed and networked, we all settled in—mostly sitting on the floor [and feeling fairly collegiate, I think] for an amazing show.

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Slideluck Potshow is the brainchild of advertising and editorial photographer Casey Kelbaugh. It began in his backyard in Seattle back in 2000, when he invited friends and colleagues to bring slides and food. He told me Saturday night that the first shows really were slideshows, with artists loading their slides into carousel trays and projecting them onto the screen: “Click-click… click-click… click-click…” Now it’s all gone digital [of course], with images being set to music and the whole show being run from a laptop to a projector.

Kelbaugh did a number of slide show parties in Seattle before moving to New York in 2003. He wasn’t sure how the idea would fly there, but he gave it a shot and hosted his first New York Slideluck Potshow in his East Village apartment in 2004. According to a New York Times article, “He was surprised when 120 people arrived, obligingly toting home-cooked dishes as well as images of their work. The event mushroomed into a kind of open-mike night for photographers and other artists, who would show up with trays of slides or CDs to show.”

As Slideluck Potshow’s own website says, “Slideluck has become something of a global phenomenon, as they are now taking place everywhere from Berlin to Minneapolis, Mexico City to Washington, DC.”

And now, Chicago. Chicago’s show was heavy on the photography—no surprise, since Kelbaugh is a photographer. The work was a real mix of images, ranging from beautiful to compelling, disturbing, amusing, lyrical and sometimes just plain strange.

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Particularly moving was a series of paired images by Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante. He began visiting an Illinois family farm 13 years ago, taking thousands of pictures of the husband and wife, their land and their animals. In 2002, the farm was sold and became a subdivision. Last year, he returned to the area and began shooting the new life there. He was surprised by what he discovered when he did. “I just started to watch and to shoot and I began to realize that there were so many similarities in what I was shooting to what I had shot,” Strazzante said. “When I think about it now, it’s really eerie.” Here’s a link to a Tribune piece that includes more of his wonderful photographs.

As with any group show, there were a few clunkers in the bunch. But they were greatly outnumbered by real gems. At the end of the evening, we left happily sated, our bellies and brains equally full.

You are here. And here. And here.

January 9, 2008

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More than 30 museums and institutions in Chicago have been participating in a Festival of Maps this fall and winter. We’ve only scratched the surface, but have seen some amazing treasures. At the Newberry Library’s Mapping Manifest Destiny: Chicago and the American West exhibit, a map drawn by George Washington during the French and Indian War. William Clark’s map of “part of the continent of North America,” drawn during his exploration of the Louisiana Purchase with Meriwether Lewis. At the Field Museum of Natural History’s Maps: Finding Our Place in the World exhibit, Charles Lindbergh’s flight map for his historic New York/Paris flight in 1927. Two maps drawn by Leonardo da Vinci and loaned to the Field by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And a tattered roadmap of the U.S. that lovingly traced a family’s impressively extensive road trips in the pre-superhighways 1930s, covering much of the country, from Florida to Washington state and stretching even into Canada.

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Many of the maps on display throughout the city are beautiful works of art in their own right, or significant pieces of history. Just as often, they represent major breakthroughs in our understanding of our planet, and the civilizations and cultures that have inhabited it. A painstaking map of the ocean floor made in the 1950s from sonar readings proved for astonished scientists that the earth’s crust was made up of separate moveable plates. Also at the Field, a map on a video screen depicted the American Civil War in four minutes, with each second representing a week. The map showed the gains and losses of territory, with many areas changing hands more than once as battles raged. All the while, a counter in one corner served as a grim reminder of the human cost, more than 1.3 million soldiers dead at the war’s end.

But it’s not all history. A number of interactive exhibits show how GPS and other technologies are remapping the art and science of mapmaking. And why, even with all this technology, there is still a need for human eyes at ground level.

Some exhibits have already closed, and some will end soon. Others will continue into the spring. For more information, check out the appropriately map-based Festival of Maps website.

Wait. Wine fights lung cancer too?

January 2, 2008

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What can’t this miracle elixir do? We’ve all heard how moderate wine consumption can fight heart disease. And if you’re a regular WTF reader, you know it can actually improve memory. Well, now the November issue of Cancer Epidemiological Markers & Prevention reports that drinking wine can actually reduce the risk of lung cancer among non-smokers. As a recent article on this report at Wine Spectator’s website states, “While smoking has been identified as the greatest risk factor, a significant number of lung-cancer cases are unrelated to tobacco use.” Read the whole article here.

Living in Illinois now reduces lung cancer risk too. As of January 1, virtually all public places in Illinois are smoke-free, including bars and restaurants. Whether you’re a smoker or not, you have to applaud that waitstaff, bartenders and other industry workers will no longer have to accept secondhand smoke as a work-related health hazard. And selfishly, I’m looking forward to hanging out in some of my favorite bars without coming home smelling like I’ve been hanging out in some of my favorite bars.

Photo credit: Sebastiani Vineyards

Elephant seals and the wilds of Manhattan

December 12, 2007

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My Brooklyn buddy Ronnie recently sent me an article published on Nurture New York’s Nature website about New York harbor as Henry Hudson first found it back in 1609. The area was rich with abundant and diverse wildlife—as the article puts it, “Bears and wolves and beavers and more. Packs of them. Millions of them. New York, primeval. Functional and healthy. Bountiful.”

What struck me most was not how different New York is today, but this statement that followed: “For Europeans coming from a nature-depleted Europe whose soils had already been over-exploited to the bone by millennia of intensive agriculture, such proliferation was a promise incarnate.” And this was speaking of Europe as it was in 1609.

I forget that about much of the Old World, how denuded so much of it is of significant wildlife and how it has been for so very long. Some years ago, we met a French couple living in St. Louis. They had a daughter about Claire’s age, so we got together with them from time to time, them speaking fairly good English and us making noble attempts at bad French. One beautiful Sunday, we went to the zoo. For the husband of the French couple, the exotic creatures—lions, elephants, tigers—held only passing interest. But he was fascinated by the American wildlife—partly, I think, because it was unfamiliar to him. Wolves, rattlesnakes, black bears, mountain lions… as we saw each of these creatures, we would have the same conversation: “Now, zees one, where does eet leev?” “Here. Well, in America.” “Oh, laaa!”

At the time, I thought he was impressed and alarmed that America was home to so many dangerous creatures. And I’m sure that was a little bit of it. But now, I realize that part of his response was pure wonder that these animals still existed in the wild at all in a place so overrun by civilization.

And that got me thinking about elephant seals. Our recent California trip was one long string of highlights, strung together like, well, a lot of really cool things happening one right after another. But even in that abundant milieu, one highlight that stands out was seeing elephant seals. Scores of them. Hundreds of them, in the wild, stretched out at their land-based rookery just north of San Simeon on California’s Central Coast.

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It. Was. Amazing. We had been seeing a fair amount of wildlife all along the way—sea otters, harbor seals, hawks galore and even some deer—but this was a whole different level of being reminded that, no matter how much we plow it under and pave it over, Earth is still first and foremost a natural place. These hundreds of creatures we saw lounging on the beach just yards away were merely the early arrivers of the 15,000 who return here twice a year. The ones we saw were all adult females and juveniles of both sexes. The massive breeding bulls—they can weigh 2-1/2 tons or more—would arrive later. According to the Friends of the Elephant Seal, “the Northern Elephant Seal… spends eight to ten months a year in the open ocean, diving 1,000 to 5,000 feet deep for periods of fifteen minutes to two hours, and migrating thousands of miles, twice a year, to its land based rookery for birthing, breeding, molting and rest.” When they are in the open ocean, the adult males live and feed near the Aleutian Islands. The females and juveniles live further south, as much as 5,000 miles offshore. Some females have been reported as far west as Hawaii. We count ourselves as very lucky getting to see these magnificent creatures up close, holding their own along the increasingly less wild Pacific Coast. Maybe a little less lucky getting to be downwind of them. Wow.

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Here in the Midwest, we get plenty of reminders that we share this planet with other species too. Too often, it’s as roadkill along the highway. But we also see hawks and other raptors along the highway, not just surviving, but actually thriving. And as human and animal territories collide, animals are becoming more urbanized, more adept at living with their human neighbors. Rabbits, raccoons and, unfortunately, skunks are doing quite well, thank you, in parts of the city and suburbs. The once endangered Canada Goose has become a nuisance on golf courses and in suburban office parks. A pair of peregrine falcons that nests on the fire escape of the Uptown Theater is just one of several that call Chicago home. And last spring, a young coyote wandered into a Quizno’s sandwich shop in the Loop downtown [it was captured and released unharmed].

Sharing space with wild creatures is not without its challenges. Just ask any suburban gardener about deer. And then there are bears. My brother lived on Kodiak Island for a while, where there are apparently more bears than people—Kodiak brown bears, to be precise, larger than grizzlies. The local newspaper would routinely report on any bear scat found around school playgrounds, and he said anytime you went camping or hiking, you always wore a side arm and you always sang or talked to yourself, because the last thing you wanted to do was surprise a bear.

But voracious deer and ferocious bears aside, there is something exciting, renewing and humbling about sharing living space with wild animals. I’m glad we do.

Borrowed milk, butt bumps and poetry

October 24, 2007

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The small ad agency where I work has a full kitchen, complete with—quite improbably—gas stove. Mostly, though, people use the microwave, the coffee maker and the big, communal fridge.

The other morning my colleague Matt asked if he could mooch a little milk from me for his coffee. He then said he was always doing that, borrowing stuff or even occasionally filching it [the former is fine with me, the latter drives me nuts]. I told him our styles were just different. When he brings food in, his philosophy is “what’s mine is yours.” I never take him up on it, though, because, as I told him, my philosophy [at least regarding communal fridges] is “good fences make good neighbors.”

That led to a discussion of the Robert Frost poem I had referenced and Matt had picked up on, Mending Wall, which of course led to us looking it up online and reading it. It was as wonderful as I’d remembered it to be. I’ll include it in its entirety below, so stick around.

The poem talks about two different ways of looking at life—one open, the other private, turned inward. It also talks about the walls we put up between ourselves and others. When the narrator of the poem questions the need for the stone wall he and his neighbor are repairing between their rural New England properties, the neighbor simply answers, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Besides reminding me yet again of the simple beauty of Frost’s writing, the poem also got me thinking about how, on some levels, “good fences” make urban living work as well as it does.

I live in Chicago and, like in New York, our subways and els can be packed, especially at rush hour. Once my brother was visiting me from small town Mississippi, and he took the el with me down to my office one morning. He expressed surprise later that all these people were crammed shoulder to shoulder on the train and nobody spoke to anyone else. Living in a place where everyone says “Hey” to people on the street—sometimes even people they don’t know—it seemed cold and unfriendly to him.

To me, though, it is just creating one’s own private space in very crowded conditions—and respecting the privacy and boundaries of others. And it’s what makes this kind of situation work. Riders adopt the 1,000-yard stare or read or pop in the earbuds and the “good fences” go up. Even in this most public of situations, they can retreat into their own privacy—precisely because their fellow riders have, for the most part, signed off on the same unwritten contract to respect those fences.

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And it’s not that people never speak or acknowledge one another. Delayed or stopped trains will start a buzz, for instance. I’ve gotten into conversations over what someone was reading. And once, when a fellow passenger took the whole privacy thing a little too far, hauling out an electric razor and shaving, another passenger made eye contact with me and mimed brushing his teeth, causing us both to smile, nod and roll our eyes. But all these are moments of genuine contact, however fleeting and casual, rather than enforced cordiality. I have spent a lot of time in small towns, watching relatives offer up a friendly “Hey” to someone passing by in the name of small town politeness, only to follow it up with a muttered scurrilous aside to me about that person’s character, lack of good sense or some other grievous shortcoming.

The subway isn’t the only place “good fences” come into play in urban living. A friend was recently in Shanghai for work and was amazed by the constant crush of people everywhere and the attendant reduced personal space. If you were walking too slowly on the sidewalk, someone would gently touch your shoulder, a sign to move aside and let that person pass. This scene is repeated thousands of times a day, and no one gets upset or takes it as an invasion of privacy. Nor is it cause for greetings or conversation—it is simply how this many people get where they are going in such a confined space.

And in New York, with its astronomical real estate prices, stores are typically designed with narrower aisles. As a New York magazine article on the Duane Reade drugstore chain put it, New Yorkers are more tolerant than most people of the “butt bump”—someone brushing past you in a crowded space.

Which is not to say the fences don’t come down, even in the big city. On one visit to New York, Marion and daughter Laurel were in the Sephora store on Broadway on the upper west side. I was standing outside, enjoying the cool morning air and the passing scene. I had my can of Diet Pepsi in one hand and Laurel’s Coke in the other. A young woman hurrying by glanced my way, made eye contact and smiled. Pointing at the soda cans, she said, “So which one tastes better? Haha! Just kidding!” I smiled back and nodded, and she continued on her way. It all happened much faster than the telling of it, human connection for just an instant. I’ll take that kind of connection over an enforced “Hey” any day.

And now, the Robert Frost poem that sparked this whole diatribe.

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me—
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

 

About photographer Travis Ruse

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In December 2004, New York photographer Travis Ruse began what he planned as a one-year project, to photograph his daily subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan and post one photograph of each day’s commute on his blog. With occasional breaks here and there, he actually continued the project into June 2007, posting 684 images in all. Together, they form a glorious mosaic of New Yorkers and that quintessential daily New York experience, riding the subway. Ruse’s project has been written about in the New York Times and exhibited at Redux Gallery in Manhattan. It has also caused my inner New Yorker countless pangs of longing.

Big art in Berwyn, Illinois

September 26, 2007

We bought a new bed this weekend out in the western suburbs of Chicago. Some assembly required, of course. The two boxes it came in, one of them 76 inches long, meant that even with our back seat folded down, the trunk would be partially open, secured by a bungee cord. To me, that meant taking surface streets instead of the expressway.

And that meant driving through Berwyn, Illinois. Berwyn is a working class suburb of Chicago and the butt of a long-running joke for a local TV celeb and bad horror movie host [I’ll wait while all Chicagoans do their best Son of Svengoolie impersonation: “BER-wyn?!?”].

It’s also, at least for now, home of The Spindle. Created in 1989 by California artist Dustin Shuler, it has given many people a reason to visit less than glitzy Cermak Plaza [to me, the way cool vintage mall sign is another].

But if you’d like to see The Spindle, you’d better visit Cermak Plaza soon. It is likely to be moved—and possibly demolished—soon to make way for a Walgreens. Yeah, we really need another one of those in the Chicago area. The national drugstore chain is headquartered here, and they loooove to build in their hometown. If you walk or drive five or six blocks in any direction without passing a Walgreens—or the site of a future Walgreens—you’ve probably somehow accidentally left Chicago. But for some reason, a Walgreens is urgently needed, right where The Spindle now stands.

The Spindle is not without its supporters, though. There’s a grassroots organization, complete with a Save The Spindle website. And the Illinois State Senate has passed a resolution to save The Spindle. If enough funds are raised, it could be moved elsewhere on the parking lot and have needed restoration work done by the artist. But as with most noble human endeavors, details of any such effort are a little sketchy and more than a little messy—questions of copyright and marketing and control [aka follow the money].

So your best bet is to get out there now and see it. Oh. And while you’re in Berwyn, be sure to check out the world’s largest laundromat, with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a kids’ play area, big screen TVs, a bird sanctuary [speaking of WTF?] and free pizza on Wednesday nights.