The REAL Magic of Christmas...

It's one of the few things I actually like about Christmas.
Fuck the caroling, sugarplums, illuminated trees, wassil (whatever the hell that is) or fruitcake.
The best thing about Christmas? The Yuppies go home.
Not just the Yuppies, but all the other Chicago transplants who move here post-college or relocate to the big city to make their break in music, acting, whatever, and just end up working at restaurants or tending bar. When the season of flying reindeer comes, they make the pilgrimage back to whatever podunk town they came from to spend the holidays with their families.
And for me and other lifelong Chicagoans, it means a few precious days of actually being able to find a parking space without circling the block for hours buring up that $3-a-gallon gas. It means walking in and out of the stores in under a half hour. It means finding a seat at the bar when you just want a quiet beer or not getting tangled up in the leash of some chocolate lab who's owner leaves it tied up outside while they stand in line for a mocha latte frappechino pino grigio whatchamacallit.
It means the street are normal again.
I had long suspected that Chicago was becoming the Midwest mecca for post-college jobseekers, not that the almost sudden influx of bars flying the flags of other state universities wasn't a tipoff. And as watering holes hoisting the banners of the University of Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Indiana, etc. became more prevalent, the streets got more and more crowded and parking in many of the neighborhoods I use to frequent became a like scavenger hunt.
But during this one week in December, when the young urban professionals head back to Spitdribble, Iowa or Chumbucket, Wisconsin, or Squeezebottom, Michigan, to spend the holiday with the very relatives they tried to so hard to get away from, it's like the city is all mine again. I can move with freedom, park with reckless abandon ("Wow, do I want to park on the left side of the front door of the store or the right side? Hmmm, decisions, decisions..."), fit my 6-3, 245 pound frame onto a barstool and feel hemmed in by some douche and his backwards baseball cap-wearing buddies who have never heard of personal space.
Narrow-minded and provincial? Sure. But I'm a narrowminded, provincial guy who can actually find a parking space in front of his building for a few days.
They'll be back soon, though. Who the hell wants to spend New Year's Eve in Chucklebuck, Missouri? No, migration back home will begin just about the time the last turkey drumstick is devoured. And New Year's Eve in Chicago will be a drunken yell-fest as those polite please-pass-the-potatoes voices bellow out "PARRRRRRRR-TAAAAAAAAYYY!!" in alcohol-lubricated ecstasy,

But for now, just this week, I have my city back.


I'm Late for Work, Where's My Coffee Cup?

Update No. 2:
The panhandling guy I wrote about earlier, the one who conducted a mini-survey to see if he had previously panhandled from me… he has a job!

Well, sort of. Like I said, I always see him on the bus stop while going to work and not only wondered about his panhandling style, but also where he goes, since he panhandles until his bus comes (which is the same bus I ride), gets on (not sure if he pays with his panhandling proceeds) and rides downtown. I usually get off before him, so I was never sure where he goes or how far he rides the bus.

But Thursday I rode one stop further than I usually do. There’s a Lavazza coffee shop there and, having tired of giving my coffee money to Caribou and Starbucks, I decided to give my coinage to another faceless corporate entity for a change. Panhandlin’ Dude got off there as well and I didn’t really pay attention to where he could possibly be headed, just ducked into the coffee shop.

When I came out, I walked through the light rain and across the street to the building where I work. There’s a sort of open promenade around the building that provides shelter from the drops and as I’m walking through I glance to my right and there he is. The Panhandling guy is outside of my building. And he’s not just hanging out but actually panhandling. I see him stop a young woman and jiggle his beat-up coffee cup, the same one he carries around when I see him on the bus stop in the morning.

Which leads me to the question: Does this mean he has a job? I mean, if a guy gets up at a set time each day and every day and takes a specific bus to a specific location to ply his trade, that’s pretty much a job, right? Sure, he’s just hitting people up for loose change as he meanders around the Loop, but his diligence, his routine, that’s gotta count toward something resembling a job. Sure, any old vagabond can sit upright on a park bench, yawn a couple of times, reach down to the old coffee cup at his fee and be “at work”. But to set your alarm, wait for a specific bus and get off at the same destination every work day, that takes a special kind of dedication.

It’s that sort of can-do, go-getter spirit that has made American great!


End of a Dubious Era...

The mysterious Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood gets even more mysterious.

Only a few months after I speculated about the very existence of the mysterious Chinese restaurant in my neighborhood, the one that has been there for all of the 16-plus years I’ve been in the area and where, as far as I know, I have been the only customer, I walked past it recently and received a mild shock.

It’s up for sale.

In the big picture window of the restaurant is a handmade sign with “Business for sale” and a phone number written in marker on white posterboard. There’s another sign with the same message on the front door, in case you missed the one five feet to the left.

I’m not going to pretend it’s like the passing of an era, the departure of an old friend or any of that melodramatic crap where you try to affix human qualities to an inanimate object. Hell, I get upset with people refer to pets as their “babies” and those dogs, cats and finches are living, breathing things. And like I said in the previous post, the food kinda sucked and it was a little creepy in there, not the sort of qualities you spend time reminiscing over. (“Yeah, remember that restaurant we went to where we threw up immediately afterwards? You know, the one with the club-footed waiter and the rat in the corner that stared at us the whole time we ate? Yeah, good times…”).

But I have to admit, it did make me stop for a second. I mean, the place seems like it’s been there so long that horse-drawn carriages probably brought the first shipment of wonton wrappers. So to see a “for sale” sign in the window, especially coming not too long after pondering this weird little restaurant’s place in my immediate universe, well, it’s a little strange.

Now you just have to wonder what the hell made them arrive at the decision to bail out after, oh, about five years of not having a single customer? What make that elderly Asian woman turn to that elderly Asian man one day and say, “You know, we haven’t had a single freakin’ customer in five freakin’ years. I’m 91 and you’re 100… maybe we should think about retiring.”

Could the death blow have been the brand spanking new Thai restaurant that opened up across the street, the one with the clean floors, cool Ikea-looking wooden tables and chairs and the people behind the counter who DON’T look like they spent time in a WWII internment camp in California? Yeah, yeah, I know…Thai…Chinese, two different things, but to a lot of folks, “noodles is noodles”. And in this battle of Asian food supremacy on Bryn Mawr Ave., the new place won hands down.

Then again, it could just be a case of “striking while the iron’s hot.” In the past two years there have been a flurry of new businesses opening up on the strip: Starbucks, an upscale-ish Mexican restaurant, the Thai place, a new bank, a White Hen Pantry, a small storefront theater, a new version of a famous fancy-schmancy French restaurant that has its main digs in the well-to-do area of Lakeview/Wrigleyville, condos both new and converted popping up like weeds. Maybe the owners just figured now was the time to sell, to get some of that greedy developer money and jump on a slow boat to … well.

Whatever the reason, they’re leaving and it’s going to be… well, I don’t know what it’s going to be. Different… how about that?


Coffee, tea or "Get the Fuck Out!"

My favorite coffee shop has been outed. Well, OK, it's not like no one knew it existed. But it wasn't overrun with customers. You could still go there on a Saturday morning and get a seat at a table by yourself - maybe even one of the good, big tables where you can spread all of your crap out and set up the laptop and take advantage of the free wi-fi. In fact, my last blog post was done there.

It's called Charmers, a sort-of dainty name for the converted coffeeshop in a spot that used to house a gay bar. Nice coffee, good selection, some decent food if you're hungry, big windows for people watching out on the street and a location that's not too obvious. Just the sort of place for a semi-social recluse like me.

But now they've been found out by Time Out Chicago magazine, a publication that is gaining in popularity wth the hip urban professionals around here. It was part of a cover story on the top non-chain coffee houses in Chicago by neighborhood. The top location in my Edgewater/Rogers Park area was a place called Metropolis, which is a great place for coffee (they roast it on premises) but, goddamn, that place is ALWAYS crowded. I've been there at 7 AM and it's crowded, noon and it's crowded. I've walked by at 5 p.m. and it's crowded. Sure the coffee's great, but what good is that if you can't sit down and enjoy it?

My second favorite place, Enuui Cafe in Rogers Park, has good coffee, but the wi-fi sucks. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't, sometimes you have to sit in the right area of the room to get a signal, meaning you're moving from table to table with all your shit.

So I happened upon Charmers. OK, confession time. I didn't "happen" upon it, I found out about it through the same medium I now blame for it's possible demise. I read about it in a publication. Although, I think I did drive past it one time previously, but didn't really consider going in. The only thing I did was notice that the gay bar I used to see from the elevated train on the way to Evanston was gone. But it was featured in the food section of a local newspaper as part of the resurgence of businesses in the Jarvis Street area so I decided to check it out. After all, who the hell reads the food section, especially among the hip urbanites who are lining up at Soundbar to check out DJ Whatshisface? And since I had been familiar with the area for a long tie, I didn't consider myself a trend follower. I already new about the spot. I was just a regular customer who hadn't become regular... yet.

That's one of my secret fears, that people will think I'm one of the trendy crowd who get their ideas on where to go and what to do from magazines and newspapers, rather than thinking for myself or being an urban pioneer who scouts out spots based on a whim. I get a secret joy from point out to people, "Oh, yeah, I started going to that place a long time ago, before anybody else went there." (I managed to somehow ignore the fact that when I first went there, there were people inside so SOMEBODY had to know about it before me.)

But now Charmers has been exposed and I'm getting all provincial, as if they were supposed to lock the doors after I got there. "Nope, sorry folks. I know you read about it and it got great reviews and all that, but sorry... HE'S here now so that's it."

God, I'm such a closet snob.