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Feb. 28, 2005

For four years Sandy and I have volunteered at the Inspiration Cafe, an organization that provides meals, job training and other important services for those in need in Uptown. The Cafe's major fundraiser is an annual art auction, a gala sale of dozens of juried pieces donated by local artists.

It was at last year's auction that I bought my very first piece of art, an abstract painting of an El platform at sunrise. What's funny is that earlier that day I had helped hang the art and came very close to hanging it upside down. Such is abstract art.

Later, during the silent auction, an older gentleman was looking at it and asked for my help in seeing the El. "I just don't see it," he said. I studied it and suggested where the platform was. A few more moments and I could make out the El speeding by. The more I looked at it the more I liked it. It reminded me of countless Thursday mornings bicycling down Broadway, parallEl, to cook breakfast at the Cafe.

"Well, I just don't see it," he said, "but I like it." He put in a bid at $55. Once he left, I put in a bid at $60 and later increased it to $85 in order to win.

This year's auction is March 18. This weekend Sandy and I photographed all the art to be auctioned. Sandy will put the pictures online. There are a lot of great pieces this year, some of which I'll surely bid on. Perhaps I'll make my second art purchase, though you are encouraged to try to stop me.

Photo taken: Feb. 26, 2005


Feb. 26, 2005

If you spend much time downtown late at night, you will eventually fall for the stranded teen scam. It's like the Spanish prisoner scam, in that a fool and his money are parted, but much less ambitious and not nearly as intricate. I fall for it about once a year.

Usually it's a boy. He flags you down and gives you a convincing sob story about how he was here visiting his girlfriend but now he's $10 short for the train back to Indiana and he's embarrassed to ask but can't you just help him out? And because you are caught off guard and because you are a generous person you give him a few bucks and never expect to see it again.

Tonight it's an older guy, maybe 40. It is just after midnight underneath the AMA Building. He's wearing a construction outfit and a hard hat and is talking frantically on a hands-free cell phone. He's smoking. His hands are dirty.

Once he has my attention he ends the call and explains his situation.

His family owns a construction company, he says. I recognize the name, not just from its signs around town but from reports of its close and thus questionable ties to the mayor. They're doing the demolition of the Sun-Times building. Tonight somebody broke into the site and stole some equipment. He was in the middle of a beer and a sandwich when he got the call and had to come down to deal with it.

Then his truck broke down and AAA isn't covering the tow truck that came to fix it. He has $220 but is $50 short and of course he left his wallet at home. If he can't pay, his truck is going to get hauled to a pound at 60th and State. There are gangs there, he says. He is frantic, but shoves in my face a towing receipt that seems to support his story.

So what the hell. I get ready to give him $50. While I dig around for some paper he keeps talking. Mentions his trust fund, the $58 an hour he earns as a crane operator. Points to a nearby skyscraper he worked on. He's not some bum, I'm to understand. He asks me where I work, says he knows some of the union guys there. I say I just do computer stuff.

I write down my address for him and write down his. He lives in New Lenox, which I gather is a suburb. (I don't leave the city much.) I give him the money. His hands are full so he sticks his cigarette in his mouth in order to shake my hand. His grip is strong and calloused. We hug.

We walk through the plaza. He says how thankful he is and how angry he is "at, I'm sorry, that black guy. The tow truck guy. I'm not prejudiced, but jeez."

At the stairs to the Red Line I give him my hand again and tell him to take care. He shakes but looks at me in disbelief. "You're taking the train home?" he asks, as if we were at the shore of Lake Michigan and I'd said I was going to be swimming home.

He looks down the stairs and sees two black guys talking at the bottom. StreetWise vendors. "You're going to go down there? Alone?" He says he's going to walk me down. I try to beg off. I do this all the time, I say. It's the city. I live here. He's even more frazzled than before but he insists.

We walk past the StreetWise guys. One asks him for his cigarette. "Y'now you can't smoke on the train," he says.

"Well, I'm not riding the train," my new friend says with a nervous growl. He looks like a man who could make a bear cry uncle, but the CTA has cowed him.

At the turnstiles he asks if I really do this every night. Does stuff like that happen all the time? "Hey, it's the city," I say, all the while thinking: "Stuff like what? Stuff like black people living in Chicago? Stuff like StreetWise vendors wishing they had a cigarette? Yes, I imagine it happens almost every night."

I thank him for the escort and shake his hand yet again. A few seconds later he yells after me.

"Hey, guy," he says, "are you married?"


"You seeing anyone?"

Yeah, I guess I am. What, does he want to set me up with his trust-fund sister?

"Well, my dad is going to see that you take her out to a real nice place. I mean it."

I insist that I don't expect anything more than my $50, but he means it. Me, I've already written it all off as a karma deposit. Then he thrusts his grimey paw through an iron grate and I shake it one last time and wish him luck.


Feb. 25, 2005

Two recent moments:



Someone asks whether I'm buying Cubs tickets.

For about five years the Cubs have used a wristband-lottery system to open ticket sales. To receive a numbered wristband, fans spend about an hour in a queue from the former Yum-Yum's all the way to Waveland. After two days of this the team draws a number at random. Sales commence with the corresponding wristband and continue sequentially.

No, I say, I will not be buying tickets this year, and I describe how it used to be, before the lottery, before the Internet, before the scalpers and speculators, before the Cubs' owners sapped almost all the joy and fun out of being a fan.

I was in college right before the Cubs hit their tipping point, when bleachers were still the cheap seats. You could get walk-up tickets to most games, but if you had a popular game in mind -- Opening Day, for instance -- you could camp out at Wrigley Field the night before the first sales. It would be cold and miserable and you would wish you had brought more socks, but people would be friendly and would chat about the pitchers and catchers who had reported that week. And it was good. A fan could earn his tickets, rather than depending on luck (via the lottery) or wealth (via scalpers, may they burn in hell).

In 1997 I waited overnight and didn't even stick around to buy. I had to go take a test. I waited with Stacey until we were finally inside, in a carpeted waiting room where the Cubs had laid out coffee and Ann Sather cinnamon rolls. I stuffed my pockets with rolls, gave Stacey a list of a few games I wanted and high-tailed it back to Evanston for my test.

So, no, I tell this person, I will not be buying tickets this year. And I feel like the old man who, when invited to the movies by his grandson, declines and instead rhapsodizes about the first talkies, when cinema was good.



Why I am not an accountant, or perhaps why I should be one: I don't think of the soda machine as selling Diet Cokes for $1.25. I think of it as selling three laundry quarters for $2. The Diet Coke is free.


Feb. 22, 2005

At Boulevard Bikes.

I have a fetish for fixed-gear bikes. My eyes follow fixed-gear messengers as they glide down the street, and when I see a fixie parked I will stop for a few seconds to study and admire it.

The fixie makes perfect sense in Chicago, where the only hills are overpasses and it behooves a rider to have fewer parts that can get gunked up by salt and oil. But I could never have one of my own.

There are two ways to get a fixie: build one or buy one. I lack the mechanical proficiency to build one (my lack of bike know-how deserves a separate post and probably a proper scolding, too) and I haven't the spare cash to buy one.

And even if I could buy one, I'd be a pretender. I'd be trying to buy into a cachet. I'd be the type derided in "High Fidelity," the kind of guy who shaves his head and then claims to have always been punk.

Photo taken: Jan. 9, 2005


Feb. 20, 2005

Three recent moments:



I'm in a coffeeshop. Tables in the center of the room are reserved for a speed-dating event. Around 6 p.m. women start to gather. They chat nervously about the process, just as the Christians of Rome might chat nervously about why they've been herded into the Coliseum and whether that was a lion they just heard roar.

As if dating isn't humiliating enough. As if speed-dating doesn't multiply the humilation enough, compressing a year's worth of rejection and disappointment into a single hour. This coffeeshop has broken new ground in the field of humiliation: speed-dating with spectators.

I watch and listen, pretending to read just like all the other non-participants along the room's perimeter. I know the decent thing to do would be to leave but I can't. It's like gaping at the proverbial car wreck, except it's a dozen car wrecks. It's a demolition derby of human relations.

It's a strange thing to watch relationships be born and die in just five minutes with all the boring parts edited out. It's reality TV reality.



I'm using a trial membership at a neighborhood gym. It's located in a historic hotel, a relic from the days when Edgewater was a resort community for Chicago's wealthy, before the El was extended north and brought in all the riff-raff. The weight machines and treadmills are in an elegant ballroom, complete with chandeliers, high ceilings and marble floors. It feels like "The Shining." I expect blood to start dripping from the walls, or maybe tropical-flavored Gatorade.



I'm riding down Lawrence on my way to poker. It's night, so I'm wearing my reflective vest and balaclava and have turned on the blinky atop my helmet. A guy sitting in a parked car across the street thinks it looks pretty silly and yells, "Where ya goin' there, spaceman?"

I don't mind being regarded as looking silly, but I take exception to being heckled for it, so I do something the guy isn't expecting at all: I do a quick U-turn, roll up to his open window and threaten to break his fucking nose.


No, of course I don't. I may be capable of willing a broken nose, but as you might guess I am not capable of threatening one, let alone do the actual breaking. I wouldn't even know how to. Ask him to wait while I unlock my U-lock and then club him with it?

But I do make the U-turn, roll up to his open window and with a well-practiced glare ask, "What's that, friend?"

I'm pretty sure he was slack-jawed to begin with, but now he is slack-jawed and mousy. "Nothing," he says. "Sorry."

And that's the great trade-off of the balaclava. Although it makes it harder to hawk loogies on Hummers (but not impossible), it lets me adopt a personality contrary to the nice, timid guy that I am. It keeps my head warm but turns my heart cold and vengeful.


Feb. 18, 2005

Gus watched through her Treo.

Photo taken: Feb. 5, 2005


Feb. 17, 2005

The groom wore flip-flops.

Photo taken: Feb. 5, 2005


Feb. 16, 2005

Photo taken: Feb. 5, 2005


Feb. 14, 2005

At the Grand stop on the Red Line.

I was not aware CTA stations had men's washrooms. Nor Ejector Rooms within them. Nor valves that I should turn on in case of fire.

I'm trying to imagine what the Ejector Room is like. I'm thinking it's an escape pod that CTA employees can climb into during emergencies, like the one R2-D2 and C-3PO use to escape from the Imperial boarding party. Perhaps the Ejector Room blasts the pod thousands of feet into the air, high enough for a parachute to be activated, allowing the CTA employees to float down to the safety of Lake Michigan. And of course there is a valve, a valve to be turned on in the last moment before ejection, a valve that releases millions of gallons of water into the subway bowels to put out any fires.

Note to self: Get condo board's permission to build an Ejector Room.

Photo taken: Feb. 11, 2005


Feb. 13, 2005

At the Garfield Park Conservatory.

Photo taken: Feb. 12, 2005


Feb. 12, 2005

A note found in the alley behind my home:

Alexis my cousins name is Jalamen and he is a boy ain't that a boys name. Write me back



Feb. 11, 2005

This is one of my favorite murals in the city, on the back of the Hotel Intercontinental, of all places. The adjacent building is being demolished, and I presume the condos that will rise will obscure the whales.

The mural was one of my first impressions of downtown Chicago. This was spring of 1998. Some friends and I were going to a taping of "The Jerry Springer Show." Ivan was an intern there and had gotten us tickets. We parked near NBC Tower, and I remember looking up to see this. "What a great city," I thought. "Whales! Up a building!"

Photo taken: Feb. 10, 2005


Feb. 10, 2005

Personally I think that ass-related things should never be a surprise, but rather carefully planned for, researched, and outlined using PowerPoint and an Excel spreadsheet, but your mileage may vary.

"Mimi Smartypants," Feb. 8, 2005

This marital advice springs to mind when I open this fortune cookie ...

It may be well to consult others before taking unusual action.

... and, because deep down I am still 14, I append it with the usual "in bed."


Feb. 9, 2005

There were many reasons why California disagreed with me. One was the absence of fire escapes. And by "fire escapes" I mean to say "fire-escape parties."

Once a Chicago party has crested, people invariably head to the fire escape for some quiet time and some air. This is my favorite part of a Chicago party. It's a self-selecting group, but usually it's the people I came to spend time with in the first place.

Some will smoke. Some will lean on the railing and peel at their beer labels. And a pretty girl will sit on the step below you, point to her shoulders and use her eyebrows to say, "Rub, mister?"

It's a moment impossible in a flat land without fire escapes.

Photo taken: Feb. 3, 2005


Feb. 8, 2005

Sandy won by 20.

Photo taken: Feb. 3, 2005


Feb. 7, 2005

Based almost entirely on Matt's advice I invested in a 50mm f/1.8 lens. I couldn't wait for the sun to come up in the morning so I could play with it. Here's one of the first test shots. Dig that shallowness!

The depth of field is impressive, too.

Photo taken: Feb. 3, 2005


Feb. 5, 2005

The skyline, from near Foster Avenue Beach.

Photo taken: Jan. 27, 2005


Feb. 4, 2005

Near Foster Avenue Beach, with fake Lomo affect applied afterward.

In all things purity, and for me that includes photography. I'm suspicious of photos that have been manipulated in the lab in Photoshop. It speaks to my journalism background: I believe that any photo, whether a .jpg or a print, should faithfully depict what the photographer saw through her viewfinder.

Add some extra contrast here and some masking there and a photo ceases to be a photo and starts to be an illustration or a drawing or a lie. For this reason I tend to be dismissive of the Flickr group Technique: Too many of the threads have to do with aftereffects. For me, technique stops once the shutter is released.

But this photo needed some help. I'd accidentally been overexposing everything I shot at the rocks on this day but I was keen on salvaging this shot. Thus the fake Lomo effect, which I hope elevates a bad photo to an average one.

Photo taken: Jan. 27, 2005


Feb. 3, 2005

Three recent moments:



I am shopping for a wedding card. I know I am in Andersonville because at least a quarter of the selection has a same-sex theme. I know I am holding the world's worst wedding card when I pick one up that says "May you have a blessed marriage ..." on the front and "... and many more!" on the inside. Perhaps there was a mix-up at the card factory, and somewhere out there there's a birthday card whose inside reads, "... and for God's sake may it be your last one."



A student from my alma mater calls to ask for a contribution. First she wears me down by asking about my job and cajoling me into reminiscing about my college days. I'm too preoccupied with the eggs I am frying to remember much. After about 10 minutes I am so fatigued that I almost beg to give $20 so I can hang up and have my lunch. Finally she makes her pitch. "Today we're suggesting that alumni give $250." I laugh out loud, but she handles it with I've-been-calling-journalism-majors-all-week-I'm-used-to-the-guffaws aplomb. We split the difference at $30. I had, after all, just an hour earlier found $10 on the ground at the groceria when I was buying my eggs.



I'm on the Red Line to Evanston. Two elderly riders are communicating in sign language. I turn down my iPod to eavesdrop.


Feb. 2, 2005

Near Lawrence Avenue.

Photo taken: Jan. 27, 2005


Feb. 1, 2005

Foster Avenue Beach.

Photo taken: Jan. 27, 2005