By BRIAN SCHMIT
I was on my way home from work. It was late. Late enough to employ a taxi instead of the ‘L' - greatly decreasing the chances of, say, a man larger than myself robbing me of both my money and my body's holes their structural integrity. I could see the fluorescent light of the 7-Eleven ahead through the cab windshield. It was two blocks away… would I ask to stop or not?
The driver and I had not said much to one another. It seemed that we were both happy for the quiet as we traveled. The silence broke only briefly on Lake Shore Drive as he received a call from his cell phone. A woman's voice shot out from the car speakers in some East Indian variant before the man hurriedly responded, abruptly ending the call. His eyes lingered on me in the rear view.
"That my wife," he said, and stared at me for a little while longer almost like he was trying to see whether or not I believed him, as if I possibly understood a single word that was spoken. Maybe it's his neighbor's wife, I thought, calling him while her husband is out even though the cabbie told her not to. It all changed those few months ago, that night they met eyes as they both went for the last kofta, realizing at once that it was each other they had been unknowingly hungry for. I thought of her husband, the poor man. How slippery that slope is, I reminded myself, from paneer to penis.
The 7-Eleven made its final approach. I was thirsty and a Gatorade would do me good but I knew that wouldn't be the end of it. One of those deflated, pre-made sub sandwiches would undoubtedly call to me, even though I promised myself that I was done with that life. I’d been retired ever since a stunted, evil-looking man with a pig nose, glasses held together by rubber bands, had joined in line behind me with the same sandwich, the cashier asking both of us at once if we wanted packets of mustard.
"You're no pig boy, you're no pig boy," I quietly repeated to myself, eyes tightly shut, until the cab passed the store. I didn't want to bother the driver anyway. We were stopped at a red light several blocks later when the driver spoke.
"That man," he said pointing to the crosswalk in front of us. "He have bird."
I followed his hand to see a man strutting across the street clutching a pigeon around its neck. He wore a long coat and doo-rag, both of them trailing in the wind behind him as he moved like Neo from the Matrix but homeless. I couldn't tell if the bird was alive or dead or with which option I would be more comfortable with. The man acknowledged our presence with a quick glance in our direction and was gone almost before he arrived, disappearing into the darkness of a side street. The silent spell that this mysterious bird man placed on us was broken as the light turned green and we continued on our route, the driver speaking again:
"This place not good.”
That place, Uptown, is a Chicago neighborhood in its truest sense. In a city where each neighborhood seems to be becoming some form of Lincoln Park, where Michigan transplants with names like Thad and Ashleigh hang out and drink hoppy wheat ales after their kickball games, Uptown is an anomaly. It is a place where people with names like Ronnie and Karl drink Special Export in dimly-lit shit holes, and the only kickball that is played is when the cops find Ronnie passed out in an alley and their boots meet his bag.
Uptown is a place where old Chicago can nearly be grasped. The Chicago when, yes, even the north side had grit. It is because much of the north side is so clean, so safe, so nice that is difficult to imagine things not always being this way. Can Thad conceive of a Wrigleyville bereft of all those bars pledging allegiance to different out-of-state colleges? A Lakeview where people bought property because they couldn't afford to anywhere else? That's why I like Uptown - it is one of the few crusty vestiges left of this city's crusty legacy.
Once the heart of the American film industry, this is where people like Charlie Chaplin and a lot of other names no one but your dead great-grandma would recognize ate and shopped and had sex. Uptown was the entertainment pulse of the city. Broadway was the glitziest Broadway outside of New York, with grand spaces built around venues for vaudeville and jazz, some like the Aragon Ballroom and the Riviera still there today. Fleeting though was its golden age. The area's decline began when our wonderfully mild winters drove the entertainment men west but began in earnest only with the advent of the Depression. All those opulent hotels soon were subdivided into smaller accommodations or left to deteriorate, most times both, the dance halls and cocktail lounges began to attract a markedly seedier element - manicured greenery was replaced with piles of random litter; marble fountains with rivers of hobo piss.
Uptown's fall continued through the 1960's and 1970's, locally known as "Hillbilly Heaven,” it was home for much of the migration north by the poor whites in Appalachia who were attracted to the area by plentiful work and its cheap, almost universally lease-and-deposit-free housing. These same opportunities soon drew a substantial segment of disenfranchised Native American populations across the Midwest as well. The Chicago gang began its meteoric rise across the city at this time as well, the Latin Kings carving up much of Uptown. As if that were not enough, the cherry on what sociologists and historians have termed a "shit sundae" was the channeling of much of the state's recently released mental patients to the neighborhood’s small apartments and halfway houses.
Today the neighborhood continues to live in the faded glamour of its past. Still home to many recent immigrants, the area has large concentrations of those from the Middle East and Africa. Also due to the distancing and eventual designation as separate community areas of Uptown's only prosperous portions in the 1980s, Edgewater and Sheridan Park, the blight of Uptown persists.
I looked to the passing landscape thinking about the words of the cabbie. I disagreed with him. Even as we passed "Blood Alley," a stretch so named for the staggeringly high number of knifings committed on its pavement, I disagreed. I thought of the painted faces of those silent films at the turn of the century, names in blinking lights, I thought of the blight too: the bar flies, the bums, the billy clubs to the head. I thought of Uptown, the last remnant of a Chicago long gone.