Street Smart Chicago

Sammy the Christmas Dog

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sammy snowAs a young couple, my wife and I moved out of the Roscoe Village neighborhood to Portage Park, a place where we could afford to buy a home. About a month after our housewarming, my wife was at her office Christmas party at Condon and Cook, a law firm near Dearborn and Chicago. On a whim, she wrote “Puppy” on the “Secret Santa” form in the office pool.

December 22, 1998 was a cold, dark, snowy afternoon. The office was about to close for the five-day Christmas break. My wife was sent out to file briefings at the Daley Center. When she returned she saw a shoebox in the hallway with a red ribbon around it. Inside it was a Yellow Labrador-Pit Bull mix. It was tiny, the size of a guinea pig. Apparently, one of the other secretaries had been told she could not keep a dog in her apartment.  I drove downtown to pick them up. I remember how the tiny puppy kept shaking in the little shoebox as we drove home on the Kennedy Expressway.  It kept trembling as we entered the house. It took a couple of days for him to get used to us, but by Christmas, 1998, he knew he had a home. Read the rest of this entry »

Holiday Works: The Raffia Wrapper

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Perhaps you’ve seen a gift wrapper work, a calm clerk who folds crisp paper around impossible shapes and binds them with striped string. Perfect, and caring, and warm. When they’re done, it looks like a gift.

There is another class of gift wrapper: the one who, in early November, finds a flat surface in the back room, shoves a menagerie of items into decorative baskets and boxes, and fumbles with scraps of ribbon until these collections of colorful objects look something like what one might call a gift.

I am this wrapper, and when I wrap a gift, I look like a cat tangled in a ball of yarn: confused and stuck, eyes wild and glowing, mouth slightly ajar. I find scraps of raffia in my apron for weeks to come. I develop a deep loathing for raffia.

Raffia is a dried-out, shredded-up palm frond that looks like a softer, wispier version of hay. You can wrap it around a jar full of anything, and it will somehow look perfectly rustic.

It has become so popular among crafters that you can now find imitation raffia—paper, rayon, plastic—in any color you wish. I have three spools: fluorescent green, red orange, and brassy “pearlized” (plastic).

It is this versatile ribbon that looped itself around my every other finger and pulled me into that state of mania that descends upon the retail workforce every November. It’s the state in which you grin and say “hello” to everyone you see, every time you see them. The state in which you forget to eat lunch, but you remember to eat the free candy in the break room, then you suffer dearly. The state in which you travel through time more quickly, and your short term memory all but disappears. The holiday spirit.

Visitors to my wrapping lair will find me staring at the tense intersection of two delicate strings of raffia. I pull one end, and one of two things happens: either I tighten a knot and collapse under a wave of relief, or I undo the taut interface of string, and watch the ribbon fall off the box in the same way my cardigan slumps into a wrinkled mass when I shrug it onto my couch at home and sigh.

The more strings of raffia I use, the fluffier it looks. I fold it over itself, and loop it around my fingers. This confuses my shoe-tying instinct, and I have to relearn the narrative of the shoelace bunny. I relearn it with extra string tied around my fingers—which is like tying my shoes in another dimension, while drunk.

A coworker sees me, grins, and asks me how it’s going. “Remember how I said I like wrapping presents?” I say, and I grimace. She takes the grimace as a smile, as retail workers have trained our grimaces to look like smiles. She smiles back at me, says “girly girl.” She hadn’t heard me swearing at the thing.

I bring the boxes to the shelf. I stand them up like they’re a choir. I re-fluff the raffia.

Boxes disappear over the next two months. Away they go, wrapped by one stranger and given to another. Away they go to a dinner party where you don’t know anyone, but you want to impress them—because you live in a big cold city and you need friends to keep you warm.

In January, I will unwrap the remaining boxes. I will place each item back on the shelf, and I will throw away a festive wad of raffia. (Abi Knopp)

The Quarrywomen: How a Group of South Shore “Divas” Are Defying the Odds

City Life, Holidays, South Shore 3 Comments »
Veronica Kyle/Photo: Natalie Perkins

Veronica Kyle/Photo: Natalie Perkins

By Krisann Rehbein

I’m proud to say that the paper snowflakes were my idea. When my cab pulled up in front of The Quarry at the intersection of 75th and Phillips, my heart sank a little. Excited for the opportunity to write about an arts and artisan holiday pop-up market in South Shore, I was expecting things to look a little more festive. My cab driver was confused. There were bars on the windows and a combination of butcher paper and foam sheets slipped between the glass and the security bars.

A team of volunteer market decorators were assembled inside, staring at the bars. There was a general sense of anxiety. The owner of the space, Suzanne Armstrong, said the paper and foam could be removed as long as something went up that prevented people from looking inside. While worried a bit about crime, she was more concerned that curious passersby would walk in all day. The Quarry isn’t yet ready to operate outside of scheduled rental events.

My mind was spinning with this unfortunate design problem. I know! Paper snowflakes! I grabbed a pair of scissors and some scrap paper, whipped out a paper snowflake and stuck it on the foam outside of the bars. Somehow, it looked like snow. We could do this. Everyone started making snowflakes like crazy. In about an hour, it actually looked festive.

This is a story about women who are trying to make positive change in their community, against some unexpected odds. The holiday market was created by Veronica Kyle and Natalie Perkins with input and support from countless others. Collectively, they believe that artists can change communities for the better. Veronica got the idea while working with friends Mary Steenson and Sharon Louis Harris on an effort called the South Shore Sustainability Collaborative. That was four years ago. In the interim, they created a community garden, took over an adjacent vacant lot and constructed a community “hospitality table” and developed architectural tours with the Chicago Architecture Foundation (which I ran while I was on staff). No one had time to execute the pop-up vision. When Veronica met Natalie in August, the idea reemerged. “I don’t think people ever have time to execute the vision. Ultimately, you just step out and start doing the damn thing. I am just as busy now as I was four years ago. The thing is, I’ve learned a lot about the neighborhood in that time.” Read the rest of this entry »

Presents: The Holiday Issue

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11.27.14PresentsWhether you’re early Ebenezer and hate the holidays, or late Ebenezer and adore them, one thing is definite. Like death and taxes, they’re inevitable. So why not make the best of them? We’re used to mediating both Scroogean extremes in our household, and we’ve discovered a couple of things: try to cut through the commercialization of the season, and relish the finer ideals of the time (charity, peace, family); and, if you must buy gifts (and who does not?), shop local. Not only will you feel better about keeping your money in our ecosystem and supporting the efforts of a mom and pop you know, but you’ll actually enjoy yourself. And so, contemplate our mix of stories (and advertisers!) and let us help you find your way to “keep Christmas well.” Or Kwanzaa, or Hannukah or… (Brian Hieggelke) Read the rest of this entry »

Grand Theft Noel: Tis the Season for Familial Larceny

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By Robert Rodi

I come from a large family—three sisters, three brothers—and for years we siblings bravely persisted in honoring the holiday spirit by giving each other Christmas presents. But when spouses entered the picture, and then kids—the latter popping out at the alarming rate of sometimes two or three a year—our gift-giving expenses seriously spiked. As the only childless member of the clan, and therefore the one who took the biggest hit to the fiscal solar plexus, I ventured to suggest that maybe it was time we adults retired the habit, at least with regard to each other. As it was, the practice had devolved into everyone submitting a list of several things he or she wanted, and the others dutifully trotting out and buying them. “The whole spirit of gift-giving isn’t even there anymore,” I said. “It’s like ordering online. Only without a return policy.”

So we tried it the following year at our traditional Christmas Eve dinner, and it went just swimmingly. The kids had the pleasure of ripping into boxes beneath the tree like a pack of crazed weasels, while the adults celebrated the occasion in a more dignified fashion, with platters of home-cooked food and a cascade of fine California wines. Read the rest of this entry »

The White Castle Song: Why? Because It’s Open on Christmas

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It’s open twenty-four hours, round the clock
Good service all the time, there’s always something going on.
Always something going on.
Simple Menu… excellent service.

You know this is a song about White Castle.
Because when you are on your way home at 4am,
White Castle is always open… Even on Christmas.
But if you are at White Castle on Christmas, you are out of luck.
Then again, maybe not. Read the rest of this entry »

A Buddhist’s Holiday: Shambhala Day Well-Wishes from a Wounded Would-Be Warrior

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greateasternsunBy Emerson Dameron

As a practicing Shambhala Buddhist, I like to think I don’t have too terribly much invested in this forthcoming holiday racket. That’s good, I suppose, because it’s stacking up to be another tough one.

This year, I have lost two jobs, one rather recently. And I have twice come rather close to losing my life. The first came in April from a sudden flareup of acute pancreatitis that had me in the hospital for four indescribable days, detoxing from booze and experiencing worse physical pain than I had previously imagined possible. The second came a couple of weeks later, which had me back in the ER with a severe gastrointestinal bleed and a hemoglobin level that my admitting doc described as a third-world problem.

It was a time of severe disappointments and learning to be less clingy by having certain attachments violently ripped asunder. On the upside, it was the year I finally began practicing Shambhala Buddhism in earnest, with accountability, as part of a community and as someone determined to thrive in a very new and unfamiliar reality. Read the rest of this entry »

Checkerboard City: Gifts for Transportation Geeks

Checkerboard City, Green, Holidays, Lakeview, Rogers Park 2 Comments »

The Recyclery’s t-shirts feature a cool intermeshed chainring design.

By John Greenfield

My holiday wish for 47th Ward CTA riders? The return of the full #11 Lincoln Avenue bus route.

For everyone else, here are some groovy gift ideas for transit, walking and bike enthusiasts. Most of these Chicago-centric goods and services are homegrown, so you’ll be supporting local businesses and organizations, while minimizing the amount of gasoline burned in transporting schwag to stores.

Up in Rogers Park, the Recyclery offers bike safety and mechanics instruction for kids, plus open shop sessions and maintenance classes for adults. They also donate refurbished bikes to refugees, people experiencing homelessness, and low-income families. You can help fund their good work by purchasing gifts from their online store. Gift cards are available for bike upgrades at an open shop session ($30), a two-part tune-up class ($75), a six-week overhaul class ($180), or a used bike, helmet and lock ($300). They also sell Recyclery t-shirts, featuring a beautiful intermeshed gears design ($25), and limited-edition posters by local artist Jay Ryan, with a fanciful image of the shop overrun by cats and bears ($25). The Recyclery, 7628 North Paulina,

Another organization that deserves your support is the Active Transportation Alliance, which advocates for better conditions for walking, biking and transit across the region. You can buy gift memberships online for as low as $35. In addition to bankrolling the group’s work, an Active Trans membership includes discounts at more than 100 bike shops and small businesses, a copy of the regional bike map, and a discount on an annual membership for Divvy bike-share.

Read the rest of this entry »

Presents: The Holiday Issue

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Cover by Max Clarke

Cover by Max Clarke

In these secular, overwhelmingly commercial times, the holidays can easily become a season of dread, of disdain, of why-do-we-do-this-again-and-again? Like Charlie Brown, every year I find myself searching once again for the true meaning of Christmas. I found it, this year, when reading Naomi Huffman’s heartfelt essay about her grandparents, in this line, which unexpectedly choked me up: “All the fanfare, all the fuss, it was all for us, their grandchildren.” You have to read it in context, of course, but I realized: That’s what the holidays are all about—family, memories and love, unconditional love, the kind of love those lucky enough to feel it as children binds us forever to those who gave it to us and creates a lifelong longing to find it again and, ultimately failing that, to pass it on. Read through these essays, all written by sophisticated, urban, maybe even “ironic” writers, and see if you can’t find that thread yourself. It’s there. (Brian Hieggelke) Read the rest of this entry »

Seasons Misgivings: Christmas Has No Conscientious Objectors

Essays & Commentary, Holidays No Comments »

National-Lampoons-Christmas-VacationBy Greg Langen

Taylor Swift was raised on an eleven-acre Christmas tree farm a few miles outside of Cumru Township, Pennsylvania, a small rural community located in the southeastern corner of that state. I don’t know what to do with this information right now, or why it comes so easily to my mind, but considering its heavy rotation inside my head I feel that this is somehow crucial information to consider when thinking about the holidays. I don’t know either.

We learn about the holidays from our families I suppose; that and sheer repetition. I learned how to celebrate the holidays from my dad. Unlike my mom who was sent into a feverish spin until the festivities ultimately unraveled her, my father stood in front of the holiday season and let it hit him like a truck. He didn’t so much participate in the holidays; the holidays seemed to happen to him. This is a notable difference, I think, even if the end is the same.

“National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” first arrived in theaters on December 1, 1989. I mention this only to get the numbers right. To date, my father has watched “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” a total of at least twenty-three times, soon to be twenty-four. I am not that far behind. We had the VHS copy of this movie. Now we have the DVD. Despite what cultural commentaries this Christmas movie supposedly makes on my family (as opposed to, say something like the hallowed greatness of “It’s a Wonderful Life”), I forget whether or not I actually like the movie. I know that when I was younger, the image of Clark Griswold rocketing down a snow hill on a saucer greased with “non-chloric silicon-based kitchen lubricant 500 times more slippery than any other competitor’s cooking oil on the market” could send me into hysterics, but when I watch this scene today I don’t know why I am laughing. But I am laughing. My muscles retain the memory. Sitting in front of this movie I am the picture of a Happy Christmas. Read the rest of this entry »