Street Smart Chicago

Dime Stories: Lessons From the Street Where I Live

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Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

By Tony Fitzpatrick

I live in Ukrainian Village. Some 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 trust strangers: this is Chicago, a city of tribes and bone-deep grudges.

My neighbors have begun to thaw a bit. After all, it’s been four years. 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.”

She is afraid for me to know that she actually kind of likes me. When I am going to the corner for cigarettes she tells me ; “Get me pack of Vir-geen-ee-ah Slims Men-toll…I pay you later.” I always do and she never does. She tells me the Irish are “stupid people who cannot govern themselves.” She’s a charmer. One time I was walking with my daughter and she almost smiled at us. A few days later she asked me, “Who is the pretty little girl you were with?” When I told her my daughter, she said, “Must look like her mother, lucky for her.”

She is especially suspect of Chooch, my dog. She calls him “Leetle devil-dog, like dog what tried to eat Gregory Peck in ‘The Omen.'” I try to tell her those dogs were Rottweilers; she swears that the ring-leader dog looked just like Chooch. “He is evil leetle bastard… look how he looks at me. He knows I am wise to him. If he shits on my crocus again? I beat him with a chain.”

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 and remake 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 dopes like me; or worse yet, the stroller people, 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 the world and other things to you. In short? Don’t be an asshole. Who knows; you might learn how to attract hummingbirds. Or make a tea that clears your sinuses. Or learn what the promise of a job and a new life in a new country means to those who come from a hard place in the world where there wasn’t much to trust. Better yet? You learn how to be a neighbor and that the best assets we have in a neighborhood are each other.

Shut up and listen, Mr. Big Shot.

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