Dad: Did you check the plants in the greenhouse yet.
Dad: Why not?
Mom: Because I don’t like to see dead plants first thing in the morning.
This was my parents’ first conversation of the day.
I’m at my parents’ house in Door County for the week, where I’m knocking out some reporting for a magazine article. This weekend my brother and I will rebuild their hoop-house, blown apart in a windstorm last September.
In their 70th years my parents are semi-retired. They grow organic produce to sell at farm markets a couple days a week, starting the seeds in their small house, then moving them to a tiny greenhouse outside the front door.
Each day they get up at dawn and check the plants. When we get these cold spring nights there’s always a chance they could lose a chunk of the crop overnight, so they cover plantings with straw and cloth. Sometimes they throw a space heater in the greenhouse.
At 7:30 am Mom finally went out to check the greenhouse. No dead plants this morning. Relief.
I thought it was toast. I walked through the gate at the Montrose Brown Line stop and reached for my phone - my sad habit - but it wasn’t there. I knew right away that it had fallen out of my pocket when I boarded at the Paulina stop. The train lurched as I sat down, and the pockets on my hoodie were loose.
I hoped I had just left it at Northdown, along with the six months of my life I lost to the pork fries I ate, but I knew better.
My iPhone was gone, and now I was out $200. That’s $200 I can’t afford. I absorb such instances pretty well - the $250 I paid to retrieve my car when I got towed at a Cubs game last spring, getting smoked by a snowplow the day before I moved to Chicago in February, the $50 parking ticket I found on my window a couple weeks ago. These are experiences, part of becoming a city-dweller. Once they happen, I can only step forward. I try to focus on that.
But I felt pretty ridiculous Friday night when my last vision of my phone was the green dot moving across a map away from the Kimball Station, the end of the El’s Brown Line. That left me, a journalist working remotely, without a phone.
I tracked it to an apartment complex, sent a message in hopes that whoever found it would be kind and return it. No response came, and after staring at that green dot in the FindMyiPhone app for a couple hours, I wiped the phone from my computer.
In the morning I went to my carrier, hoping to get a replacement, but it would take a week. Then I emailed my brother in Madison and asked him to call the Kimball Station in the minute hope that it had been turned in.
"They might have a phone matching your description," he emailed me. I tried not to be enthused, but allowed myself a chuckle, knowing exactly what my older sister, a longtime Chicagoan, would say - "You are such a lucky little shit."
I drove a few blocks to the station, still trying to expect it to not be my phone, but sure enough, they had it. Someone had found it and turned it in, or a CTA employee found it. The lady wasn’t sure. Either way, I was ecstatic.
Another reason to love this city. Good karma, I like to think. Maybe it loves me back.
I offered the lady money, I wanted to reward somebody, even if I didn’t know who to thank. She turned it down, laughing at how ridiculous it was that I was so relieved to have found my phone (and it is ridiculous, really).
"Just keep up with your phone!" she said from behind the glass, shaking her head.
Just keep up with your phone. I will, thank you very much.
After six weeks living in Chicago’s Lincoln Square, I’m getting adjusted to a few things. My top four of the moment.
1. Horns are not honked to say hello. In rural America, there is no instinct to honk at the car in front of you. Most of us don’t even know how to use our horn in the spur of the moment. We’re too nice. If road rage boils, it takes a moment of fumbling and wheezing honks before we hit the horn solid enough to send a message, at which point our target is long gone. Our horn is a vehicular wave. If you hear one as you walk down the sidewalk, you expect a driver to follow up with a holler. It might not have been for you but you wave anyway. Better safe than sorry, and you probably know the guy, so he’ll wave back half-heartedly as if to say, “oh, hi to you too.”
2. Needing to be efficient leaving my apartment. There’s a process here. I have to lock my doors, I have to carry the keys to the rear gate, and if I’m so inclined to see which bill has arrived, I need the key to my mailbox. I live on the third floor, so if I forget something, I have to dash back upstairs, rather than pop into the front door. In Chicago’s March heat wave, this is embarrassingly exhausting. I never locked a door in Sister Bay, sometimes even forgetting to lock the door to the bar.
3. I will never make it to every bar and coffee shop. Back home, I could grab a drink at every bar that opened its doors on a January Tuesday in the entire county and still have 11 hours left in my day. I have yet to cover the restaurants on my block since I moved.
4. I will not know the person who just walked in the door. In Sister Bay - hell, in Green Bay - when the door to the bar opens, every single person in the room turns to see who just joined the party. The chance of knowing the new arrival are something close to 87 percent. I still turn to look here, expecting to see someone I know, but I’m learning. I’m also learning that I know longer have to prep for walking in the door to a sea of faces looking at me.
The following day, I attended a workshop about preventing gender violence, facilitated by Katz. There, he posed a question to all of the men in the room: “Men, what things do you do to protect yourself from being raped or sexually assaulted?”
Not one man, including myself, could quickly answer the question. Finally, one man raised his hand and said, “Nothing.” Then Katz asked the women, “What things do you do to protect yourself from being raped or sexually assaulted?” Nearly all of the women in the room raised their hand. One by one, each woman testified:
“I don’t make eye contact with men when I walk down the street,” said one.
“I don’t put my drink down at parties,” said another.
“I use the buddy system when I go to parties.”
“I cross the street when I see a group of guys walking in my direction.”
“I use my keys as a potential weapon.”
The women went on for several minutes, until their side of the blackboard was completely filled with responses. The men’s side of the blackboard was blank. I was stunned. I had never heard a group of women say these things before. I thought about all of the women in my life — including my mother, sister and girlfriend — and realized that I had a lot to learn about gender.
I always think about the time in college when I was upset that the painters had left ladders up to our non-locking bedroom windows and my male housemate said, “Calm down! What’s the worst someone can do, steal your computer?”
“This is what the politicians should focus on, instead of promising lower taxes and lowering the gas and stopping pornography. You know what? I’ll pay the taxes. I’ll pay the high gas prices, but focus on this violence that’s killing these kids.” - Ray Navarro, neighbor of 6-year-old Aliyah Shell, killed in a drive-by shooting Saturday.
A couple weeks ago I got a chance to see the author Alex Kotlowitz present clips from The Interrupters, the documentary he produced with director Steve James. His books about race and urban violence, including There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River, are among the best on the topics. I spoke further with him in a phone interview the following day.
“One of the revelatory moments in making this film for me was realizing that this violence comes from a different place,” Kotlowitz said. “There is stuff going on in their lives that has little to do with the moment at hand that causes relatively petty disagreements to become violent.”
I’ve been hearing about this guy in bars and coffee shops a lot this week, so it helped when my long-since transplanted Chicagoan friend in Door County gave me the story in his Pulse column week.
“Well, folks, what if I told you that Pulaski, in terms of places and events named in his honor, is one of the most honored individuals in American history? And consider this: Casimir Pulaski is one of only seven people – in the entire history of this country – to receive honorary American citizenship? [Note the other six, for you curious readers, are: Sir Winston Churchill, William Penn and his wife Hannah Callowhill Penn, Mother Teresa, the Marquis de LaFayette, and Raoul Wallenberg.]”
How, then, should we measure students and teachers? In ninth grade, my students learn about the scientific method. They learn that in order to collect good data, scientists control for specific variables and test their impact on otherwise identical environments. If you give some students green fields, glossy textbooks and lots of attention, you can’t measure them against another group of students who lack all of these things. It’s bad science.
Until we provide equal educational resources to all students and teachers, no matter where they come from, we can’t say — with any scientific accuracy — how well or poorly they’re performing. Perhaps if we start the conversation there, things will start making a bit more sense.
I walked in alone, but I knew right away I was among friends.
"Does anyone here know how to tap a keg?" asked the woman behind the makeshift bar at the Tumblr Writers’ Happy Hour hosted by the new Uncharted Books in Logan Square.
Nobody from the dozen or so early arrivals piped up and, being from Wisconsin, I knew this was my calling. Tapping a keg is not hard (in my years at Husby’s, the most difficult part was not knocking myself out by cracking my head on the door frame of our crawlspace keg cooler. It wasn’t uncommon) but it felt good to be useful.
Halfway into my first beer (I should mention that the beer and booze at this writers’ gathering was free, courtesy of Tumblr, a company for which my fondness is growing rapidly) the upstart bookstore’s owner, Tanner, slumped in the front door with jumper cables hanging from his arms and exasperation on his face.
"Does anyone have a car here that could give me a jump?"
I paused. It had, after all, taken me a while to find a parking space. I was fresh off my first $50 donation to the Chicago Department of Revenue for overstaying a spot by a few minutes last week, and I was reluctant to risk moving.
But I was due. I’ve been the guy begging for a jump a good 50 - 60 times in my life. That’s not an exaggeration. In fact, there are certainly friends of mine that would argue that they alone have jump-started my car 50 times. But I’m going to keep my estimate low for the sake of what’s left of my ego and to fend off dis-belief in anyone bothering to read this. If you would like to temper your doubt, just page back to my earlier Tumblr post showing the results of my recent decision to pull out of my driveway in front of a snowplow. Yup, I suck at cars.
So here was my chance to start crawling back to even, and again, it felt good to be of use. I successfully gave Tanner a jump and I even got my parking spot back. I’m finding that this city, so big, isn’t so unlike home. There are a lot of small towns crammed into this metropolis.
By the time I got back inside Uncharted the place was filling fast and the last copy of The Chicagoan (an inspiring literary effort to say the least) was snatched. By 7 o’clock the fledgling little bookstore funded in part by a Kickstarter campaign (I’ll write more on this later) was packed to capacity, the whiskey sours were all gone, and the owners’ adorable little husky could no longer handle the stimulation and had to be taken home. Well, he may have been more buzzed than overstimulated – he had a thing for the beer.
Rachel Fershleiser, who handles outreach for Tumblr, had arranged the event after stumbling across Uncharted’s Tumblr not long ago. Prior to her work at Tumblr she spent six years working at a book store in New York, and her affinity for independent shops has not waned. She got to know Tanner through his blog, and when she knew she was coming to Chicago for the Association of Writers and Writers’ Programs conference here this week, she hit him up about doing a Tumblr promotion at the shop.
I left thinking what a strange convergence the night represented. Here I was, drinking free beer and booze at an event promoting Tumblr in a new independent bookstore launched in a sketchy economy through a blog that led to a Kickstarter fundraising campaign.
It seems, I thought, that we’re starting to figure out how this can all work.
Without Tumblr or the web, Tanner may not have gotten his store off the ground. I almost certainly would never had heard about it. I wouldn’t have spent $16 on a great collection of Chicago stories.
And I never would have had the chance to pay forward just one of the dozens of jumps I owe the world.