Thursday, September 1, 2011

Wicker Park

This was when we lived in Wicker Park, Annie and I, in a fourth-story walk-up on Crystal Street, before they gentrified it completely, before the sidewalks grew lousy with hipsters, before the trendy eateries marched their way up from Division. There were gangs then, first the Gangster Disciples, and then the Latin Kings. You could date their possession of the neighborhood by the layers of spray-painted tags under the fire escape.

Once we came down and cops were blocking the road, Crystal being a one-way street. They were harassing some kids—black teenagers—for sitting on cars, and I, completely high at the time, blew my horn at the cruiser. I think Annie wanted ice cream, and these cops had parked in the dead center of the road so that I couldn’t even pull into the alley.

One cop stopped what he was doing and stomped over, and it didn’t take me two seconds to realize what I’d done, but he looked right past my bloodshot eyes and just saw a scrawny white dude behind the wheel of a reasonably respectable Honda Accord. I apologized right away. “This is for your benefit,” he lectured. “We’re here to protect you from gang activity. You people come crying to us when bangers commit crimes in this area.”

I had enough sense not to point out that even I, a mild-mannered, if not mildly intoxicated white dude with a philosophy degree from a liberal private school, had the sense to know that these kids were not gangbangers. They looked preppy. Plus, they were black, therefore they could not be Latin Kings, therefore they were not banging in Wicker Park.

Another time, I smelled smoke, and after Annie and I sniffed all around the apartment we looked out the window and saw a burning car four stories down, parked in front of the boarded up crack house.

The people were crazy friendly, even the bangers, who always had something nice to say to Annie. She told me about seeing four homeless guys at party in the alley. They were sitting on overturned milk-crates, with a forty-ounce of malt liquor and a single, sullied Dixie cup. The guy whose territory it was poured shots into the cup, and each man drank his in turn. It was like a tea party, she said, like little girls playing pretend.

If a homeless guy panhandled Annie, she’d usually say, “I’m sorry,” but if he could make her laugh, she always gave him a quarter. I never would.

One time, when we were walking down to six corners, a woman fell in step with us like we were old friends. She chatted about the weather, prayed it wouldn’t rain, and explained that she wanted to sleep in the park. She said goodbye before we hit the Double Door, waving like she would truly miss our company.

Annie said they must not have homeless people like that other places. Once I talked to a homeless guy in Dallas and out of nowhere he punched me in the face. Broke my tooth, too, and fractured my jaw. Annie said I couldn’t have known.

Coming back from the Note after hours, we saw an old Chevy parked under a streetlight on Damen. It was a weeknight and there was no one else around, no traffic, no pedestrians, just me and Annie, and this car had the dome light on, the windows down, and the radio blasting. We couldn’t help but look as we passed. Annie said later, he wanted us to look, this guy, in his car with his pants down and his hands around himself, pulling it furiously. His eyes met ours and he never stopped tugging as we walked past and Annie laughed so hard I practically had to carry her home.

But the next time we walked to the Double Door, Annie saw a guy lying in the gutter, a young guy, like our age. Annie was a social worker then—she still is—and she knelt by his side. “Are you OK?” she asked. “Can I help you?” She couldn’t hear his answer the first time, so she bent in closer. “Hold me,” he moaned, and she jumped back into my arms.

When the Bulls won that last championship, we were out there with everyone else, screaming in a crowd six-deep on the sidewalk, watching the Puerto Ricans cruise the streets with their trunks popped, kids sitting inside waving flags while everyone cheered and danced and drank. It felt real; it felt solid, like a place you could be a part of and stay forever. But that was right before Annie and I split up. It was mutual. I wanted to bum around Europe. Annie wanted to be a social worker. We waited until the lease expired on Crystal Street. Then she moved to Logan Square and I went to Prague.

We found each other, later, on Facebook. There were no hard feelings. I still call her when I’m in Chicago, even though most of the time she’s working. Sometimes we’ll meet for drinks at the Violet Hour and a bite at Big Star Tacos. We would have liked those places, if they had existed when we were together. But we don’t fit in Wicker Park anymore. The sidewalks are jammed, and the gutters too. A lonely drunk boy couldn’t lie down there now; he’d be run over by a fixed gear bike in about six seconds flat.