Chicago is never more beautiful or dangerous than it is at night.
The workman-like, bustling, hurly-burly like endless hustle of daylight becomes a fleet and sleek animal at night.
Dressed in lights and stars, come-hither reds, yellows, and greens, the dirty carpet sky leans back and reveals a skyline of glittering skyscrapers like gangsters dressed in diamonds.
It whispers,”We’re bigger than you” and “There are more of us than there are of you” and still, “We’ve already won.”
On occasion, I ride the Chicago Avenue bus from downtown to Damen Avenue and this ride is always a miracle of languages and sights, if not smells.
The CTA buses lurch along like tired old mutts ambling from one skinny tree to the next.
At night you can see the 5-Stars lit up in neon from the new bar with the old-style signage as well as the endless taco joints and the pink horse of Alcala’a Western Wear.
This is my favorite street in Chicago; one where you are as likely to hear Polish and Ukrainian as you would English. It is a street about business–small business–nail joints, drugstores, tattoo parlors and cut-rate furniture.
It is an avenue of tribes. The Mexican joints are supported by Mexicans; the Polish and Ukrainian, the same. The influx of hipsters and artist types go to hipster and artist coffee shops and the newer eateries. Eckardt Park is there. Once a renowned boxing gym, it is now mostly a community center with a beautiful pool and park district programming. The old Goldblatt’s building, long dormant, is now one of the city’s hidden jewels awaiting a new definition.
There is a coffee shop called Lorraine’s where the food is truly shitty and the sign promises “Bitchy Waitresses.” Only on Chicago Avenue could this be considered a plus. The Edmar’s grocery store was knocked down in favor of a new Dominick’s, complete with an on-site Starbucks that despite the scorn of the local nose-rings, does a brisk business.
Chicago Avenue is the new and the old city right on top of each other, yet not as mismatched as you would think. The colors and signage from a half a block away dissolve into a Babel of urban language; urgent, seductive and unstoppable, yet visually comforting if you think of this city as your home.
One of my favorite things to do is to walk my dog down this street late at night. When I can’t sleep. . .when it is peopled by kids staggering homr from the bars, old guys leaving for work or coming home from 3rd shift jobs, it is an avenue of American stories intersecting at a swift pace and all happening at once. It seems to be an avenue in a big hurry to get wherever the story takes it next.
My dog, Chooch, goes crazy for the food smells carried up and down Chicago Avenue. Once in a while, one of the guys from Tacos Veloz comes out and throws him a choice morsel of skirt-steak. This guy loves my dog because when you give him a treat, he doesn’t just wag his tail, he wags his whole ass. These guys laugh like hell and toss him another piece of the juicy meat.
I sometimes get the idea walking this avenue that all of the platitudes about the melting pot and the American Dream are all true. It all kind of works here. There is no ruling population. It is a community and everyone has a little piece of the great pursuit of happiness here. Everyone has his or her task. This is a working city. We’re happiest when we’re working like sled-dogs so we can talk about how hard we work and what it means. In Chicago, work is identity. We are what we do. It is how we hold on to our place in this city. It is our very gravity.
I often hear criticism that I try to be all things Chicago, which is actually not really true, but so be it. I am continually fascinated by the history that unfurls itself on a daily basis here; hard not to be. This city is one of the greatest ongoing stories that I know of. It is also the place that has kept me guessing the most. There are mornings I wake up and I hate this city for its petty vindictiveness, its thoughtless cruelty, and its empty boosterism. It’s run by clowns, pygmies, midgets, and chihuahuas and suffers from a lack of self-esteem so pernicious, it pushes its truly talented out of town.
Then there are the mornings I look out the window and one neighbor is helping shovel another’s car out of the snow. Another is helping an elderly woman navigate the slippery sidewalk to the bus stop. Still another is helping repatriate someone’s idiot dog who escaped the yard. It is mornings like this when I feel like we are winning. The big narratives define a city and the small kindnesses. . .hold it together.