‘Life is great’

IMG_2829I happened by this mural in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood about a week ago. I spotted it again a few days later, before a show at Thalia Hall, in the same South Side burg. I couldn’t take my eyes off it.

I don’t pretend to know the city’s landscape all that well, but I do know that Pilsen, not long ago, had been a dodgy place to find yourself. Gripped by the usual street terrors of drugs, guns and gangs, it was considered by most—when it was considered at all—an area to be avoided.

Now it’s something different: safer, by any objective standard; gritty, but in that comfortable, gentrified way; popular among the beardo-and-hipster monied class.

In other words: whiter.

We often talk about this stuff—or, rather, around it. Not necessarily with malice or prejudice, but in a sort of code. Fact is, a quarter of Pilsen’s Hispanic population is gone from the neighborhood since 2000. Property values are up, yes, but so too are taxes and rent. Some families—many that have lived in the area for generations—can’t afford to stay there anymore.

I’m not smart enough to know what it all means, how to fix it—or even if “it” actually needs fixing. Stuff happens. Things change. In the end, we’ve all gotta deal.

I just see that mural, and I think it’s beautiful. And I see a place like Pilsen changing, and I think it’s nice. And also kind of a shame.

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Transportation is a precise business

I should’ve known what I was in for today.

When I opened the Uber app and flipped my status to “online,” I was pinged right away. The client called me before I could leave the house.

This was unusual. And the conversation was … complicated. With a great deal of explanation, I learned that Beck, the client, wants me to pick up some materials. We’ll call these materials The Package. What made this ride different from most is that it included no rider. I’ll be honest: I have no idea if Uber considers this to be kosher. I feel like the answer is no. But I don’t have any rule against transporting packages, I think to myself, and that should be good enough. so I agree to the delivery. As I hang up, Beck tells me, “Don’t worry. I’ll tip you well.”

When I arrive at the pickup location—a suburban alley dividing rows of townhome garages—no one, and no package, is to be found. I call Beck.

“Are my mom and dad there?” Beck asks. Mom, dad and I, incidentally, are not old pals.

“Uh, I don’t see anyone,” I say.

“Wait, is the garage door up or down?”

“Down.”

“Hold on.”

Here’s the thing: Even at this time, I don’t know where Beck is. Waiting inside the garage? Ready to accept The Package at the other end of the trip? At an undisclosed location monitoring my actions via satellite camera? Who the hell knows?

When the garage door opens a moment later, Ma and Pa Beck are there to greet me. Wide smiles. No words. At the entrance to the garage is what appears to be a gas-powered hibachi grill and a pair of propane tanks—one of them still attached to the main apparatus.

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Further weirdness ensues.

My efforts to coax some guidance from Ma and Pa are DOA. Ma hands me her phone. It’s Beck. He tells me, “My parents don’t speak much English.” Beck is overplaying his hand here: Ma and Pa speak zero English.

He tells me The Package is comprised of all that I see before me. I worry aloud whether it’ll fit in the trunk of my just-cleaned Hyundai Sonata, particularly the hibachi stand. Also … about that attached propane tank. “It’s easy to remove,” Beck assures me.

It is not easy to remove.

Eventually, though, I’ve squeezed The Package into the car, soiling it with a dusting of sooty shit that also now covers my hands. Where once I had been puzzled, then frustrated and soon agitated, I was now full-on prickly. And this is before I swipe in the app to begin the trip and realize I’m staring down the barrel of a 17-mile trip with a hot wok/dirty bomb bouncing around my trunk like a goddamn nitroglycerin pinball.

The ride is uneventful and harrowing. By all rights, no less than two-thirds of Chicago’s southwest suburbs should have been leveled in the hibachi blast. But I’m able to safely deliver The Package. “There’ll be some guys there to grab it,” Beck—cryptically, weirdly—has told me. Except that I arrive at the vaguely marked destination—a vast expanse of loading docks in a sprawling industrial area—and again not a soul is to be found.

I wait two minutes—my standard allowance (a man’s gotta have rules)—then call Beck, exasperated. “No one’s there?” He sounds stunned, which makes one of us. On cue, a driver emerges from a nearby truck wearing a look that says, “I have a head injury.”

“So … I think your guy is here,” I tell Beck.

“Who is it? Who’s there?”

“Look, I don’t know his name.”

But Head Injury hears Beck through my open passenger-side window.

“Becka? Becka!”

I pop the trunk, scramble from the front seat and unload The Package. The transfer leaves behind an even larger mess of sooty shit than the original pile. By now, Head Injury has been joined by a friend, both of them standing by, not at all at the ready, staring at me blankly. I wait a beat. There’s the matter of that tip.

There would be no tip.

I drive away suspecting that it will be a long, strange bastard of a night. And so it was.

I’ve gotta get some better fucking rules.