Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Blackout

Not long after my wife and I got married, I worked really hard doing house painting and staining so that we could save up enough money to buy our first house.  It was the Victorian cottage I have spoke of in other posts that we renovated.  I have also mentioned in other posts that the neighborhood we lived in was just starting to gentrify so it was still a bit shady sometimes because of the gangs who drew graffiti on garage doors at night, and the guys who persistently drank in the alley. 

The houses in our neighborhood were actually very nice and the neighbors were either people who had lived there for over forty years, or were people, like us, who just wanted a cool and affordable house to live in and work on.  When we first moved in we met a couple of people our age on the block. There was Scott and his wife.  He was an architect in the city, and also owned the Village Tap, a place we liked to go to. There was also Richard, the realtor that believed Roscoe Village would be a hot place in the city some day, (and he was right).  Other than that, we didn’t really know anyone in the neighborhood for a long time.  It’s like that in the city sometimes, I think.

That all changed for a few reasons.  The first reason was that my brother-in-law and I tore the little front stoop off of the house and had a full front porch, with a swing and everything, put on.  People would walk by and say “thank you” because they knew it was helping the value of their homes. That’s when we first started gradually meeting people in our neighborhood.

The second reason we started meeting people was that we had a baby.  There is nothing like a baby to attract people to your house.  After my son was born all the moms and grandmas on the street came by to see and hold him and revel in memories of what it was like to have babies of their own.  Carol, the older woman who lived next door to us, and never really ever talked to us, gave me a baby present one day over the fence.  I thanked her and as we talked, she bragged about how she toilet-trained her twins when they were two. I thought it was bluster, but I said, “Wow.  Did you really?” She replied in her thick accent, “I had to. We were fleeing East Germany. There was no way to do diapers.”  I talked to Carol a lot after that.

The third reason why we met out neighbors in the city was because of the blackout. One night my wife and I went out to dinner, and left Ben with his teenaged godfather, John.  My wife and I have always had two people from our family be the godparents of our children and then selected a teen from our neighborhood church to also serve.  We walked to a restaurant over on Irving Park Road, had a nice meal, and walked back home.  When we got back into our neighborhood we noticed there were no lights on in the businesses or houses.  We started walking much faster and cutting through alleys.

When we got home John was sitting on the porch swing with Ben who was wailing.  I asked, “What the hell is going on?” John said, “My dad called and said the power is out all over Lakeview.”  It was a very hot summer that year, hotter than we had had in a long time. I asked him, “Did he say how long people think it is going to last?” Karen took Ben into the house to try to calm him down.  “No, the Addison Street power station blew out.”
I sat down and ran my hands through my hair.  I said, “Ok, I’ll just drive you home.”  John looked at me and laughed.  “You can’t. Your car is in the garage and you don’t have any other kind of entrance than the main door.  The opener won’t work.” He patted me on the shoulder.  “It’s alright, I’ll walk home.”  As he left he said over his shoulder, “Oh, by the way, the police stopped by.  Your son was crying so loudly, they thought I was maybe beating him.  It’s all good though.”  Suddenly a good night turned into a very bad night.

I walked over and got a ton of ice from the local market and we put things from the freezer into coolers so it might with some chance not spoil. My wife and I slept with Ben on the fold-out couch in the living room because our bedroom was way too hot.  There was a little breeze off the lake so it wasn’t too bad, but I remember getting up all night, writing, and desperately hoping the power would come back on.

The power did not come on the next day, or the next, so I stayed home from work.  I told my wife that she should have her father pick her and Ben up, because I was starting to get concerned about the heat.  She said, “No, it’s not bad enough yet.  We’ll be Ok.  It’ll be on soon.  I am mostly concerned about the food. We can’t keep buying ice.”  

That night the heat did not really dissipate much.  In fact it felt worse. There was a shady character down the block who inherited a legacy house from his parents.  I did not like him much because his young kid once stole his truck, did a hit and run on my car, and then all he could come up with to compensate me was an offer of “some really awesome cassette tapes.” During the blackout I cut him a little slack when he took his portable generator around the neighborhood and started helping people who really needed power the most. He also took a big monkey wrench and opened all of the fire hydrants for awhile.

After he opened the hydrants people started coming out of their houses. Toddlers, teenagers, and several adults all started playing in the water.  People went into their backyards.  They hauled lawn chairs and grills out into the street.  We started cooking all the food in our coolers that would spoil if it was not cooked.  We ate and drank beer late into the night. We talked and laughed. We got to know each other as neighbors.

During that strange block party, I met a man who had the house across the street from me, and owned the small red brick apartment building on the corner.  He was an older, retired guy, a widower, who everyone on the street called “Thumbs.”  It was an ironic nickname.  When I shook his hand, I saw that he had no thumbs, just a couple of stubs.  I never asked him how he lost them. He was a nice guy.  We talked about how the neighborhood was getting better.  He offered to come over and help me with some things I was doing on my house.  

The very best part of that night was when some of the people who populated the apartment building, members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, borrowed some folding chairs from “Thumbs,” set them up in the vacant lot across the alley from my house and played an impromptu concert. They played Haydn; they played Mozart, and they played Vivaldi, because I asked them to.  It was beautiful.

When the night was over, the hydrants had been resealed, and everything had been put back away, my wife, my baby and I went to bed on the fold-put couch again.  Sometime in the morning we were awakened by strange sounds and lights. The power was back on and we had air conditioning again.  My wife and I sighed and thanked God that it had not been worse and went back to sleep.

In the weeks after the blackout, it seemed me that people waved to each other a lot more, which was nice.  I saw a lot more people talking in their front yards and on the sidewalks than I did before.  People would stop by our porch to ask how we were doing with the new baby or to offer help if we needed it.

I think one of my favorite memories of our time in Roscoe Village is this. One day I came home from work, not long after my second son was born. I found my wife, who at the time was transitioning from being an executive to becoming a stay-at-home mom, in the living room with all the young girls that lived on our street.  They were playing a boom box and dancing the “Macarena.” That made me smile and laugh.  It made me feel like we didn’t just live in a house; we lived in a neighborhood.   

I liked that when we lived in the city we lived in a neighborhood. I like that when we moved out into the suburbs we still live in a neighborhood.  People here help each other; we watch over each other and our kids. We sit on driveways by fire pits and socialize, we laugh a lot. We lend things to each other. We cook things for each other when it is needed.  We celebrate together, and we mourn together. We welcome people when they move in, and miss people when they leave.  That is a neighborhood.

Not everyone lives in a neighborhood.  Some people live in what are just communities of houses, go about their business, and never feel a sense of connection with the people who live around them. I feel sad for them.  I have lived in my current neighborhood for almost seventeen years. I love it and all the people that live around me. 

I think neighborhoods are something precious and that I cherish very much.  Everyone should be lucky enough to live in real neighborhoods.