Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Great American Road Trip

"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." - St. Augustine

   Hitting the road in one week. Packing a bag on Wednesday night. Getting up early on Thursday morning. Loading a cooler with some snacks. Picking out some good driving music. Heading south from Chicago. Driving down the length of Illinois, across a chunk of southeastern Missouri, passing through a small patch of Arkansas, and landing in Memphis.

   A view of middle America from behind the windshield. Small towns, expansive farms, and a few remaining wooded areas. Giant trucks and sprawling gas stations under a big open sky. Many things in the less populated regions of this country seem massive. Caricatures of their urban cousins. Enormous churches, billboards, and tractors, all dwarf their condensed urban equivalents. Yet they remain small ornaments on the landscape of their rural home. Pieces of the quiet beauty that blankets the roads and fields and homes of the region.

   There may not be an American tradition that I am more in love with, than The Great American Road Trip. Some of my favorite childhood memories come from just such trips. Wood paneled station wagon. Mom behind the wheel. Cans of pop and bologna sandwiches. Four kids sprawled out in the car. Windows down, with feet hanging out in wind. Pumping our arms at the trucks we passed and the gleeful laughter that followed the blasting of their horns. Laughter derived from the idea that we knew of a secret language. One that belonged to children and truck drivers alone.

   We carefully noted the license plates from different states. Some clue seeping in. A clue of the vast world outside of our small one. And special reverence was reserved for those plates from the furthest corners of the country.

   There will be no small children in the car for this trip. But the feeling is similar. The feeling of exploration. Me and Abby. Exploring the countryside. Exploring Memphis. Exploring our sense of what we can and can not do. Questioning boundaries. On the road. The peaceful hum of steady movement all around us. A quiet engine. Rubber tires on asphalt. A reclined passenger seat. Slowing the world down, while simultaneously rocketing through it. And embracing the feeling, even if only for a little while, that maybe we could just keep moving forever.

(Thanks for the road trips mom!)

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Alvarez Hardware Store

   I walked down to my neighborhood hardware store about a month ago to get some keys made. It's a small store, and it seems to be run by just one man. I've tried to bring him whatever business I can over the last six and a half years that I've lived in this neighborhood, but that isn't much. I bought a new toilet seat a few years back. And I've directed a new neighbor or two to the store. But other than that, I've just gone there for keys.

   The man was never unfriendly with me, but I usually felt like I picked up on some sense of frustration mixed with resignation coming from him. I figured that his store had to be struggling. It was usually empty, and my occasional need for keys wasn't going to keep him afloat. But there wasn't much I could do about that. I am a renter, rather than a home owner, so I only tend to the most minor repairs in my apartment.

   It wasn't until this last trip there that I spent any significant amount of time thinking about the store, what it may mean to the man that owns it, and also, what it meant to me.

   I arrived to find that the door was closed. The windows were covered from top to bottom with plain brown paper. And the iron gate that was typically pulled aside during business hours, was closed and locked. Alvarez Hardware Store had finally gone out of business.

   I took a step back and took a moment to look at the store. I'd walked by it over a thousand times. I'd walked into it about a half dozen times. But I think that that was the first time I'd noticed the name.

   This was presumably the name of the man that had owned and operated the store. I have no idea what his first name is. I never asked. But I immediately thought back to that aforementioned sense of frustration and resignation that I thought I got from him. And for the first time, the irony of his key making services struck me.

   This neighborhood, Pilsen, has seen a significant demographic shift since I first moved here in the spring of 2005. The shift started before that. But even if I stick to the changes that I've witnessed first hand, the contrast between "what is" and "what used to be" is stark.

   In 2005, I moved into a neighborhood that seemed to be comprised entirely of Hispanic families. That summer, I saw front porches crowded with friends and families every night. I saw kids playing in the spray of a fire hydrant. I saw mammoth 4th of July block parties. I heard an ice cream truck every 30 minutes. And there was even a small family circus that set up in the park every September.

   Of course Pilsen was not an Hispanic Mayberry. There was a notable gang presence, and it was relatively easy to recognize the houses from which drugs were being sold. And on one evening I found myself frighteningly close to a shooting.

   But on the whole, I felt like I'd moved into a tight-knit community of families that had laid down roots in the neighborhood. People knew one another, and I always got the sense that they looked out for one another.

   Much of that feeling is still here in 2011. It just isn't as strong. The packs of children are thinner. The block parties are fewer and farther between. The songs of the ice cream truck less frequent. And I think 2008 was the last time that circus came through.

   Today's Pilsen, while still predominantly Hispanic, is also home to people that look like me, and live lifestyles that are similar to mine. Single people in their twenties and thirties. Mostly white. Students and artists and hipsters and aimless wanderers. We came here, just a trickle at first, and then a steady stream. We provided a clientele for a few new restaurants and bars and coffee shops. Thrift stores became vintage clothing stores. We drove up the rent and fattened the pockets of the area landlords and real estate investors in the process. And we probably influenced the increased police presence and the improvements on the local CTA routes. (At a time when both of those public sector services are being defunded.)

   But we didn't go to Alvarez Hardware Store. Except of course to get some spare keys for our new apartments. It must have felt something like making a weapon that you know may very well be the instrument of your death. Grinding keys for the new residents of what is soon to be your old neighborhood.

   And as I looked at that closed storefront, I wondered, for the first time, about the man that used to stand behind that counter. I wondered how long Mr. Alvarez had had his store. I wondered if he has a family to support. I wondered if he has had to take a job at some big box store, making keys for low wages. Or if perhaps he found his way to something else. Maybe even something better?

   I also considered the irony of my own role in the demise of this business, and that of other small businesses in the neighborhood. The small bakeries and taquerias. The tailor and the corner drug store. They are a part of the identity and the appeal of the neighborhood. They're a part of what attracted me to the place when I first walked down 18th street, just days after moving to Chicago. But their inexpensive goods and services can't handle the rent increases that I help to bring about. And the new demand for higher end commerce will continue to push them out. And some day down the road, I will wake up to see that the process is complete. That by my mere presence, I've helped to sow the seeds of the destruction of something that I once found beautiful.

   And as these thoughts collected in mind, I didn't experience them with any sense of guilt. Nor did I feel any call to arms. The world changes. And I don't want to fight the dying man's fight against change, as long the living man's embrace of it is an option. I will probably leave a world that looks little like the one I was born into, and I wouldn't have that any other way.

   However, I do want to be conscious of my active role in the world. And I want to be aware of those around me. I couldn't have saved Alvarez Hardware Store. But I could have known the man's first name. I could have taken a closer look at that particular piece of the neighborhood that I am so fond of. I could have taken a closer look at another man, and my relationship with him.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Switching Gears

"know when to fold 'em" - Don Schlitz

   I'm leaving for Memphis in 24 days. The trip was planned around the St. Jude Memphis Marathon on December 3. I'll be going with my girlfriend, Abby. This was to be my sixth marathon, and it will be her first. The race is still the focus of the trip, but my role in it has changed.

   I've been fighting an ankle injury since September. I tried pushing through it, and it got worse. I tried resting it, and that seemed to be working, but then it flared up again. More rest is probably the answer, and that's what I'm going to do. But with less than four weeks left before the race, and considering all of the training runs that I've missed, I have to accept that I won't be ready to run 26.2 miles any time soon.

   I'm going to request that my registration be switched to the half-marathon. That's a distance that I feel comfortable with, and I'm still hopeful that I can get myself in good enough shape to make that an enjoyable run. This is the second time that I've had to pull out of a marathon, and while I am disappointed, I feel like I've made my peace with it.

   There is one big upside to this change in plans. I'll get to see much more of Abby's first marathon than I would have if I'd been focused on my own race. I've been watching her prepare for months. Watching the miles add up. Witnessing her excitement and her anxieties. The peaks and valleys of this experience can be gloriously high and achingly low. And I'll now be able to see the culmination of that experience in a way that I just couldn't have done as a participant.

   And in that sense, I haven't lost the experience of running this race, so much as I've exchanged it for a different experience.