Tuesday, May 31, 2005


My neighbor, whom I call Mr. Worrisome, thinks I'm prejudiced. He stopped me at my door at 11 on Sunday night to tell me so. "I'm not speaking to you any more, and I told my family this. I think you're prejudiced."


"Because all I ever see you with is Mexicans, Mexicans, Mexicans! That's all you ever talk to."

"What are you talking about?" I asked, and starting pointing at the houses of all the African-Americans on the block with whom I do talk. "I talk to them [next door], I talk to them [across the street], I talk to you, I talk to Tony and Jesse [kings of the alley]."

"You're prejudiced. I'm not talking to you any more," he replied.

"I'm sorry you feel that way."

This, from the man who once referred to Mexicans as "Taco Bells" in my presence, then added semi-sheepishly, "I guess I shouldn't have said that, hunh?"

Yet in my heart I know he has a point. Thus far I have chosen to associate with the best-parented children on the block. Sadly, the well-parented African-American kids are all grown now, and their kids, the grandchildren of the homeowners I talk to frequently, aren't around on weeknights when they need homework help.

Back in the fall, I was talking with an African-American woman down the block who couldn't get her two year old to go in the house and put on a pair of pants. Nor was she willing to pick the kid up, take her in, and take care of it herself. Sorry, I don't have time to fix you and your kids' problems.

The sad thing is, even though there are plenty of Latino kids I don't want to make friends with on the block for the same reason, most all the kids I do want to make friends with are Latino, not African-American. There's the reality. The black kids I am friends with are grandkids who don't live on this block. That's also reality.

There is a new family with school-age black kids who moved in recently, but it takes a while to get to know people. Their kids stopped in my house once, to find out whether my ficus tree was real or fake--they thought fake until they touched the leaves for themselves. No, I haven't pushed the acquaintance further. I tell myself it's because I had a leg up on meeting people from last summer's block party and these kids may have to wait until the next one before I'm ready to make better friends.

OK, that's a defense. Mr. Worrisome's own sister is a nice girl with a baby daughter and I have made very little overture to her compared to the attention I have lavished on, say, my Latina buddy who got jumped. Frankly, part of the reason I haven't worked harder to make friends with Mr. W's sister is that I'd like to keep her big brother at bay. (I'm told there's a convicted sex offender in that house and I think it's either Mr. W or another creepy guy who is probably his brother.) In fact, it is his sister's fault that Mr. Worrisome got his name. We were talking last fall and he came up in conversation and she herself said, "He worrisome." So he is.

But Mrs. Ribs' daughters are friends with the young woman and they manage to keep Mr. W at arm's length. Well, at least Mr. W. had to stop in his tracks Monday afternoon when he saw me sitting on Mrs. Ribs' front stoop hanging with her daughters. He literally stopped in his tracks and did a double-take. I guess he's seen me with some black people now.

Earlier today, I was rewarded with a muffled "morning" from him while sitting on the stoop. He didn't know I was waiting for a Mexican.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Raid Aftermath

In short, they did get the wrong house. My neighbor across the street, hereafter known as Ms.Ribs for her cooking, is seeing a lawyer next week. They're suing.

Yesterday morning I attended an event at the small high school down the street from my house. I had to run home afterwards, in the later morning. I didn't see Ms. Ribs, but I heard her voice behind me as I was opening my front door: "You not working today?"

"Hey, Ms. Ribs," I said. "No, I'm working, just going in late." I left the door locked and went across the street to talk. "What happened?"

She sais the cops came on a tip that there were weapons in her house. Apparently they took the place apart, didn't actually show the warrant until they were done searching (illegal), and the only thing they found was an heirloom .22 from her mother-in-law, which was locked in a safe and doesn't work anyway.

"Now my reputation in the neighborhood is hurt," she said.

"Not with me," I told her. She wanted to know when the next CAPS meeting was. I believe it's June 6. That ought to be interesting.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Police Raid

Last night my two older girl pals showed up on the doorstep to take home some chocolate soymilk, when the cops showed up at a house across the street. I came to the door and four cop cars were out front, two marked, two unmarked, and two guys in bulletproof vests were running up the steps, hollering, "Warrant!" I didn't see any warrant displayed, though.

There were two more cop cars out behind their house. Eventually, six cars were parked facing south on our one-way north street. The officers searched the parked car out back (I'm told by a neighbor), used flashlights along the side of the house, and six of them spent a long time smoking cigarettes out front, the tips glowing orange in the fading sunset. A neighbor told me later a man was taken out in handcuffs.

The lady of that house came to our very first block club meeting last month. She did the ribs for my housewarming party. Her daughters gave me Block wineglasses as a housewarming gift. I brought them tamales at New Year's. Frankly, I think they got the wrong house.

Meanwhile, the same group of guys who hang on the northwest corner of the intersection north of my house kept right on hanging. Their friends joined them. I'm sure some of the dozen or more kids staring at the raid from there were just gapers, but I think some of them do sell drugs on that corner. The house where we know the absentee landlord doesn't give a s--t sat untouched.

Meanwhile, the girls and I watched the stormtroopers in bulletproof vests unload their enormous rifles into the trunk of one of the cop cars. One girl wants to be an investigator. "I want to go see that," she said.

"When you do your internship at the Police Department in high school, you can see them," I suggested.

I have a call in to the CAPS officer newly assigned to our beat meetings to find out what that was all about. Sheesh!

Monday, May 23, 2005

Stay of Eviction

Friday night, I went to a play by Redmoon Theater's Dramagirls : http://www.redmoon.org/nap/dramagirls.cfm

In one scene, a preteen girl thows suitcases off a portable set of wooden steps while describing her family's instant eviction. "He wanted to rent to somebody else. We had to go." Her family of four or five dogs and as many brothers and sisters spent 105 days in Grandma's basement before finding a new home of their own. "I slept with the dogs. It was tremendous."

I arrived home around midnight, after post-show dinner and libations at The Handlebar,
http://www.handlebarchicago.com/, to find two messages from my neighbors down the block. "We really need to talk to you. It's OK to call back anytime," said the second one. I walked down and looked at their windows to see if any lights were still on. They were, so I knocked. The mom answered the door, told me her oldest son would be coming to translate, and started talking anyway. I gathered the new landlord was planning to throw them out the next day.

Like everywhere else in Chicago, houses are turning over and landlords are jacking up the rent. This family had been paying $500/month for over a year, month-to-month, no lease, for a two bedroom apartment holding a family of five. The new landlord wants to charge $700 for the same place. No written notice, no 30 days, just you have to go.

"Who in our neighborhood is going to pay $700 a month rent?" asked my pastor, when we were talking about this Sunday morning. An excellent question.

As I suspected, the landlord handled this illegally. Thanks, Ida, for checking the Internet to confirm our suspicions. Chicago has an unusually strong ordinance that protects tenants' rights, but sadly, the law is often flouted because many people don't know what's in it. You can read the law or read explanations of what it means at:

The nice lady next door to my friends, a parent who works at the local grammar school, tried to tell off the landlord, but it didn't do any good. After I got the official word from Ida, I went over and said, "Yes, you can call the police, and this is who you call if they don't help." Surprisingly, the police responded quickly and helpfully. A very nice pair of female officers showed up and the Spanish-speaking one negotiated the dispute. Everyone settled on 30 days to get a new place. I think they could have had 60 in the law, since the guy didn't notify properly, but there's a place for rent across the street and they'll have to leave eventually anyway.

So, for now, the boxes they had in the attic are in my basement and the beat-up navy Buick their dad wants to fix up is sitting on my parking pad. There's even an empty can of Modelo Especial sitting in the middle of the front seat. The car is blocking the view of the dumpster, which is a definite plus. And it reminds me of all those clunkers my dad used to litter our driveway with. How back to the future is that?

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Scholarship Dinner

I'm backtracking to last Saturday night to fill you all in about the Holy Cross/IHM scholarship dinner. I got a ride out there in the van with some of the guys who play in the church marimba ensemble. One young man in the van with us was an undocumented student who wants to be a priest, but the seminaries here in the city won't take him because he doesn't have papers. Can you imagine?

A priest from Spain joined us in the van as well. Fr. Fernando has worked in publishing for many years, first in magazines and now in books. When I told him my current deadline woes--my first story idea for this month tanked, it took until last week to get all the data organized for my second idea, and now it's late May and our May issue is still in progress--his response was, "I would fire you." Thank God he's not my boss! We did have a good laugh over the adrenaline rush of magazine publishing. He works in book publishing now, which he says is a very different pace. He worked in the Philippines for some years and it was rather chaotic trying to get anything done out there, I gather. Now, in Spain, one of his big theological book successes was written by a nun in Kenya. He felt obligated to get her book out, he told me, because if it was tough trying to get a book published in the Philippines, imagine the difficulties in Kenya! And by theological publishing standards, this book was a big hit--the initial run was 1500 books, but they had to go up to 3000 to meet demand. So, for this guy, coming to Holy Cross/IHM and saying Mass and hanging out feels like a vacation.

There were more faces I knew at the banquet than I expected. Two or three of the local principals came, a couple of people from Neighborhood Housing Services (the people who sold me my house), and the lady I see everywhere--church, CAPS, Chavez LSC meetings. Fr. Ed from St. Joe's sang the blessing before we ate. Even my lawyer was there!

I was seated at a table full of older women, mostly nuns. I suspect whoever did the seating saw my Irish first and last name, didn't know me, and assumed I was a nun, too. Next year I'll have to ask to be seated at the NHS table or something. The ladies were very nice but most of our conversation centered around the high quality of the rolls. They were good, but let's just say it's a good thing I wasn't putting out $100 to attend based on the food. The dinner funds scholarships for parish and neighborhood young people in college and in private high schools, and scholarships are awarded without regard for a kid's immigration status.

They got Willie Delgado, a state rep who grew up in Back of the Yards and now lives on the Northwest Side, to lead the live auction. It was pretty fun to see a bunch of nuns ponying up hundreds, even thousands of dollars for stuff like a foosball table.

No punchy ending to this blog entry--just gotta get back to deadline, so I don't get fired!

Tuesday, May 17, 2005

St. Joe's Basketball

Last night St. Joe's had a teens vs. adults basketball game as a fundraiser for "Repair My House," their big church renovation project. Maybe 30 or 40 people showed up and paid two bucks for the privilege of cheering them on. The kids had on green uniforms with "St. Joe's" in white across the front of the jerseys. They must be left from when St. Joe's ran a high school. I didn't know until recently that the high school had survived all the way up to about 2000.

Anyway, the kids had nice-looking uniforms and the grownups were in whatever they were wearing. My friend Pat actually played for the adults--she's barely five feet tall and her hair came out of its braid instantly. As usual, there was one female on each team, and neither saw a lot of action. "They are a team of two," she said afterwards, a little frustrated.

"But you got in there," I said. "You got some play!" I saw her sneaking under people to snag the ball.

One of Pat's little boys made his First Communion last Sunday. I think that was the son who came up and urged her to leave, saying, "Ma, I need to do my homework!"

The game itself was pretty entertaining--very ghetto ball, lots of flashy moves, plenty of fouling, though they only argued with the ref a couple of times. It was a church game, after all.

Fr. Rogelio played for the grownups, too. He sank a few three-pointers and stayed very level-headed while being double-teamed by kids. There were a couple of guys on the adult team who could keep up with the younguns, but you could see the men slowing down on the rebounds to catch a breath. The kids never stopped.

Vanessa, the head of the youth group, came in at the half and asked me, "Is it slaughter?"

I said, "Well the score is 56-48, but it feels closer than that."

At the end of the third period I asked her what she thought. "It's a good game!" she exclaimed, mildly surprised.

"Simply's trying to be all slick," I told Brother Joe, when he went up, faked a shot, tried to pass and lost the ball. But I have to give him credit--he got a lot of rebounds. He and Ricky were the stars of the youth team. They eventually won with a score of 108 to 73.

Friday, May 13, 2005

More Birthday and a Haircut

I talked to the birthday boy about an hour ago. He says his mom is taking him out to buy the game. Thanks to the poster who looked up the price--it's $35.99, which is more like what I expected. Well, they own a Playstation so I guess they can get a game now and then.

Thanks to Su Casa, I am able to offer the birthday boy a free ticket to a play downtown tomorrow. One of the volunteers called me today and invited me to come in lieu of tutoring this week. They need an additional driver. Plus, they have one or two extra tickets, so I can bring the birthday boy along for the ride. It's at the Merle Reskin Theater downtown.

Last night my friend Isabel, who lives a couple blocks west of Marshfield, cut my hair. She and her husband are my only grownup friends in the neighborhood who primarily speak Spanish, but speak English well enough that I can be their friend first, not their kids. I met Isabel on a church trip to Indiana last fall--there's a Franciscan retreat center out there. We made friends in the van. Isabel thinks her English is bad, but she quickly realized after trying to talk to me in Spanish last fall that her English rocked by comparison.

Isabel is a very smart, very determined woman. She was the only woman from her village to graduate from high school in her youth. Her four children are well-behaved and good students. She landed an excellent husband back home, who eventually did college here in the States, holds down a good job in facilities at a large university here in town, doesn't run around, and actually tries to be of some help with the kids. Although of course Isabel could use more help with the kids than he succeeds in offering, which she complains about.

Isabel has a passion for hair. Years ago she worked in a salon, but now she has a back problem and four kids, two still in preschool. These days she has a station set up in her kitchen--a chair, lots of brushes, dryers, and curling equipment. She keeps her extensive stash of hair coloring products in the bathroom. Every time I have stopped by on a weeknight she's been doing somebody's hair--shaving a teenage boy's head or giving one of her friends highlights.

Back in February I got my first haircut from her. I used to spend about 50 bucks a pop at a North Side salon called Karma on my chic super-short dos, but that was before I took on two mortgages to get a house. Isabel charges "seven or eight." In February I was so happy I handed her a ten and refused the change. It grew out nicely, too. She figured out how to make the ends flip out and stay flipped out, even though I don't even own a blow-dryer.

But lately it's been feeling kind of long and shaggy, and I'm going to a fancy banquet to raise scholarship money for Holy Cross/IHM kids tomorrow night, so it seemed like time to get it cut. Isabel and I pored over her haircut magazine collection and I found a style I liked, so we gave it a try. I'm afraid my own ambivalence about getting my hair cut showed. I was kind of liking how it was growing out, but it needed a trim and I wasn't sure if I wanted bangs back or not. So now I have bangs and a cut that fell somewhere between the picture and a slightly longer variation in one of the other pictures, which one of Isabel's daughters pointed out afterwards. Daughter number two takes after her mom and likes hairstyling, though her own long black hair is usually just up in a ponytail. Clearly Isabel felt bad that I wasn't as enthusiastic--she charged me six bucks and insisted I take home some chicken. My fridge is a little bare, so I took the chicken, but I feel bad that she feels bad. I woke up this morning and liked it better.

I will have to make sure Isabel knows she's a godsend in the hair department. I'm a terrible hair client and hate trying to make my desires known to a stylist, since half the time I don't know what I want anyway. I was dreading finding someone in the neighborhood to cut it, since if I can't explain myself in English about my hair, how was I ever going to do it in Spanish? So, believe me, I can put up with a little ambivalence now and then. As long as she keeps getting the flip right at the bottom and charging me nothing, I'm happy.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Practical Math

One of my little boy buddies came by last night to get his souvenir from Florida. He picked out three scallop shells I swiped off the beach in St. Petersburg: one for him, one for his mom, and one for his little brother. (I figured his dad could share with his mom--there's a bunch more kids to give shells to as well.)

Then we got talking about his birthday, which is tomorrow, but the party's on Friday. He wants the Incredibles game for his Playstation 2. He heard from a friend that it cost $2.99, but he didn't know whether he could pay for that with a $5. It is Shell Boy's 11th birthday and he is in special ed. I have spent much of this year frog-marching him through addition and subtraction facts, multiplication tables, and long division. We also did addition and subtraction of decimals, if I remember right. Apparently, it either didn't stick or he can't transfer it to money. Yikes.

For once I had a wad of small bills and change at the ready, so we practiced with them. He and I counted out $2.99, then he gave me a five and I made him change. He seemed pretty clear that if he gets five bucks for his birthday and his mom takes him to Kmart, he can get the game. "I'm sad," he said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because I'm afraid my mom won't take me to Kmart on Friday."

I have no idea whether he'll get there or not, but I think he will. I'm just afraid I'll miss the trip to Chuck E. Cheese afterwards, because it sounds like they're planning to go before I get off work. Friends of mine who are parents advise me to give Chuck E. Cheese a miss, but it sounds like an anthropological adventure to me.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Yard Work

I got back from Florida yesterday afternoon and it felt like Florida here in Chicago. My next door neighbors to the south were having a birthday for Daya, whose name was written in purple crepe-paper streamer across the garage windows in their back yard. I wonder if she even lives there--I don't think it's the little two year old who can say my name in English with startling clarity. Daya may have been the preteen running around in a strapless prom-dress contraption, but I'm not sure. There must have been at least 50 people over there.

While the neighbors partied, I got some yard work done. Jesse, the other king of the alley, came to cut my lawn. He has a mower and I don't. But he didn't have gas, so there was a delay while he scrounged for some gasoline. I hadn't seen one of those old red-and-yellow gasoline cans in decades, but somehow he dug one up. He mowed the lawn while I went to church. The 5:30 Mass is in Spanish, so it's good practice. Attendance was light yesterday--I'm sure everyone just wanted to be outside. But I still spotted some familiar faces, one guy from daily Mass and the lady who is on the local school council and goes to CAPS every month. She's a "peacer"--she gets out of her pew to greet people she knows at the sign of peace. After a 15-year hiatus, it's nice to be part of a parish again. The youth group gave out carnations to all the moms, and then some. One of the girls handed me a pink one when she passed my pew walking out during the recessional. It's in a vase on the kitchen table at home now. Maybe it's good luck.

After Jesse cut the grass I dug up a few violets that had begun incursions into the front lawn, where Neighborhood Housing Services had actually rolled sod before I bought the house. I also watered, which was pointless since it's going to rain today, but some of the sod died last summer and I'm trying not to let it get any worse.

Jesse was dismayed to learn that I am planning to dig up the entire back yard--where he planted grass seed late last summer, to some good effect. The back yard looks great on the surface. There's hardly a bare patch of ground and the dandelions and violets give it nice coordinating colors. But I explained to Jesse that after he'd seeded the back yard, I had had the soil tested and the lead level is dangerously high--it's like 1500 parts per million. I forget what the line is where it becomes dangerous, but this is way beyond it. So no kids under age 5 are allowed in my yard this summer. The other problem back there is the ground is uneven and full of junk. I already dug four or five wooden boards out of the ground. They must have been part of the deck that burned off in the fire in 2003. Fernando's dad offered to get a tiller from his job and bring it over to level the ground, but the whole yard needs to be dug out for trash before he does that--I'm afraid the tiller would break from hitting a piece of concrete or another board.

At least the lead issue simplifies this year's garden planning. I did a little research and found out sunflowers will take up lead from soil. Su Casa Catholic Worker says they have extra seeds, and I bought some at the big garden fair at Garfield Park Conservatory two weeks ago. So next weekend, I hope Jesse and I can get out there with a couple of shovels, dig up the crap, and then I can plant a yard full of sunflowers. The irony is the least offensive way to dispose of lead-filled sunflowers is to landfill them.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

La Maestra

"La maestra! La maestra!" That's what M. always hollers when I show up at Su Casa. Since about my third appearance, the shout is followed by scampering and a hug.

M. is six years old, a little chunky and a bit of a clown. I started tutoring him in English on Saturdays maybe two months ago now. His friend O., who's a little taller and skinnier, usually tags along. I heard O's report card was terrible, and of the two of them his English is stronger. I worry about M. He has more trouble than O. does remembering things, even when we play that memory card game where you lay picture cards face down and take turns flipping over two of them to see whether they match. O. was much better at remembering which card was where than M. was (not to mention than I was, but hey, I'm an old lady.) M., like so many boys, is good at manipulating objects and has lots of energy to burn. I try to be very insistent with Su Casa that I really only want to play/work with the two of them at a time because I poop out easily. I was not built to be an elementary school teacher. God bless them!

To be honest, I have no idea what I'm doing, but since they both know so little English and are so young, I just hang out and play with them and speak to them relentlessly in the target language. If I have enough time and can run them ragged enough, I will read them a story. Su Casa needs more really simple Dr. Seuss-type books, like "Hop on Pop." I got a whole hour out of "The Foot Book" the first time I went over.

Last week I brought over one of those Leap Pad books--they're books you put in an electronic pad and it doesn't just read the story, it gives you games to play and sounds to make using an electric pen. These books are really cool. M's mom even came in and watched for a while that day. OK, I guess this is a product endorsement:

Last night was pure play, and two younger boys I will call Teeny and Teenier joined us. We went in the garden--they have a playground set and a live rooster flapping around. I think maybe I learned more Spanish than they did English--is "escondido" the same as "hide and seek?" Think so. Later we had a choo-choo train going with me pulling a wagon and two boys pedaling big wheel-style plastic bikes behind. I tried to show them the difference between pull and push but I'm not sure it took. I wiped a lot of snot (always carry tissues) and had to kiss Teeny's bumps at least twice, once on the chin and once on a finger.

Why don't Spanish lessons for grownups include hide-and-seek or freeze tag?

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

CAPS Showdown!

Before I moved to Marshfield Avenue, our CAPS meeting used to be great, I'm told. They had Spanish-English translation and a core group of residents who worked hard to watch out for gang and drug activity and to light a fire under the rear ends of delinquent landlords who let those activities go on in their buildings. Years back, Marshfield used to be known as "Murderfield" for the number of gang-related shootings going on. This CAPS meeting made a real difference in bringing that number down.

How the mighty have fallen. Since last fall, when I started going to these meetings, I found a facilitator running her mouth about the political ineffectiveness of our gerrymandered neighborhood and the apathy of our aldermen. I found cops who made little effort to engage with the residents who came, and I found a majority of Spanish-speaking residents sitting there with no clue what was going on, since there was no official translation. A lady I will refer to as Red has been trying to translate on the side for her neighbors, but she told me she got a headache at the last meeting because everyone was talking at once and no one gave room for her to fill people in.

Last week, I went to the district meeting and pleaded for help. Yesterday, Red went up to our facilitator and told her straight out she wasn't doing much of a job. This led to an incredible scene of histrionics--this woman red in the face yelling at everyone within earshot (that would probably be half the block, really), and taking my alderman's rep to task for things she can't even control, since they aren't in the ward. Red and I agreed it was clearly displaced anger and being told she needs to develop an agenda and make sure there's translation.

All of this went on even before the cops showed up. Surprisingly, we got a bright spot in the midst of all this drama. At last, a Spanish-speaking, neighborhood-residing cop came to a CAPS meeting! Hallelujah! "I think this is just to appease us," warned Red, who is concerned there's still no improvement on the facilitation side.

This cop, to be known as LC (local cop, to distinguish from DC, decent cop), actually took a bunch of people's phone numbers and said he would call us. OK, OK, I am sold on this new commander. Now all we have to do is work out the facilitator thing. I even went and told some of my neighbors it might be worth coming to the next CAPS meeting. One of them told me through her daughter that she quit going when they didn't translate anymore. "Eso es porque no voy a facilidad," I said, which didn't quite say what I intended (that's why I'm not going to facilitate), but since it was spoken so badly, she got the point and laughed quite hard.

One of the white cops (who generally sit there and joke around with each other when the meeting goes into Spanish, how rude) actually made a point to come over and give me some advice. It was the first time any of the cops had tried to say anything constructive to me in the months I've been attending so far. So, a bit of progress, let's hope.

Monday, May 02, 2005


We have a new police commander in the 9th district. Since I told you the district you can find out who he is if you're really interested, but I'll leave his name out of it even though the news is good. He used to work in Chinatown. Everyone says he's a breath of fresh air compared to the last guy. From the meeting I saw last week, I believe it. He's organizing a job fair. He's worked to include Chinese as well as Spanish translation at beat meetings. When asked to appear at a June event creating a memorial park near my house to honor a 12-year-old boy who got shot during a neighborhood cleanup two years ago, he committed to come on the spot.

That's pretty impressive, and I'm hard to impress about cops in Chicago. Although my brother is a prosecutor and we had a cop neighbor who used to organize the snowplow for our street every winter when I was a kid, I lost my fondness for the boys in blue almost as soon as I landed in Chicago. I spent my first year of teaching escorting my male, teenage students out the building and partway down the block so they would not be immediately hauled into paddy wagons. The fact that they had spent the entire day in school was immaterial to the cops, who knew they were trouble and would routinely pick them up, drive them around and drop them off in rival territory just to show who was boss. One of my guys, probably the only responsible father in the lot of them, who was really trying hard to get his life together, had a cop plant a bag of cocaine on him and had to face trial. Our interim executive director, a priest, went to court as a character witness on his behalf. That may have been the only thing that got him off.

Last week I also heard about the most recent beat meeting in the beat where the memorial park is going to be constructed. Apparently a resident complained that her teenage son was harassed by police while sitting on his own front step. "If he didn't have a shaved head, and look like a gangbanger, we wouldn't bother him," was their only response. And the former facilitator of this beat is a decent cop!

This guy, now known to you as D.C. for "Decent Cop," serves with me on a local board. We're on the committee to put this memorial park together. The other night he gave me a ride to my next meeting after our board meeting. We got talking and he said he's planning to go to law school. I fessed up that my dad was a public defender back in the day. "That's what I want to do!" he said. By the end of the ride, D.C. was trying to convince me I should tag along to law school with him. "You'd make a great lawyer," he said.

"I know. It runs in the family," I said. "But really, we need more people like you being lawyers than people like me."

What D.C. really wants is a law school study buddy. He wants to trade Spanish help for law school help. Hah! But he did make me practice speaking Spanish for a few sentences and tried not to let me backslide.

It is good to know I've met one decent cop in the hood, even though D.C. doesn't work in this district. I ran into him this morning as I was going to the bus stop--it was the first time I've seen him in his uniform. He and his partner had stopped at the rim shop after dropping off prisoners at 26th & Cal. I wonder if anyone I wouldn't want to see me shaking hands with a cop saw me shaking hands hello.

I was told recently there are people on the block who think I'm a cop. I wonder if this is good or bad. Everybody on the local board tried to assure me it's not a bad thing, even the guy who had to go to court because gangbangers were threatening him for his efforts to get them off his block. That is a road I really don't want to go down. The good news was about two dozen people showed up to back up my fellow board member at the harasser's trial.

I guess at the bottom of all this I wish we didn't need cops and courts for people to live in peace, and I wish we had real schools and real jobs for young people so they wouldn't hang on the corners and sell drugs and scare the neighbors. It's really sad to me that there are so few people trying to do good things in a neighborhood that the only way some people can get their heads around it is to assume they are cops.

Especially when the cops in the neighborhood aren't always doing such good things. At our first block meeting a couple of weeks ago, a 13-year-old boy told us two "Polish" cops had accosted him and pointed guns at him for no apparent reason. They were looking for a kid who had done something wrong a few blocks away. The boy was on his way home with his sister, minding his own business, when police stopped the car, took him out and started barking questions and pointing guns. Yikes.

Yet I'm still calling 9-1-1 when the kids up the street yell loudly and harshly enough at each other. I hate it, but it's hard to know what else to do.

BBQ Season Opener

Despite yesterday's clouds and cold, we went through with the premiere barbecue of the 2005 season. My young neighbors Aurora and Jose helped me get the fire started--we had two methods going side by side.

Method 1: standard Kingsford

Aurora doused the briquettes with inordinate amounts of lighter fluid, stuck in a few fluid-soaked pieces of heavy paper and kept looking for something to fan the flames with, while her brother scoured my yard in search of kindling. Dried tree-of-heaven seed pod cases seemed to work best.

Method 2: Whole Foods Yuppie
My track record with the standard Kingsford method is so marginal that my dad is either laughing in heaven at this or spinning in his grave, since he would Kingsford-grill us steak on a hibachi almost every Sunday of the year, including December and January. In order to uphold the grilling honor of the Kelleher name, some years ago I went higher-tech and lower-chemical. I bought a chimney starter. Here's what it looks like, more or less (this is not a product endorsement, just an example):


I also bought a bag or two of Whole Foods wood charcoal pieces. With those and the chimney starter, you don't need lighter fluid. I haven't tried Kingsford briquettes in the starter, but I probably should. The wood pieces burn faster than the briquettes do.

Results: Surprisingly, this was the first time ever that my chimney starter didn't light on the very first try. Aurora got the briquettes smoking and a little ashy on the corners before I could get the starter going. But on try two or three, the starter went up. Jose liked looking at the red coals through the air holes (from a good distance back, may I add.) Then we dumped them on and had a good, hot fire.

The party ended up working itself into two shifts--first were my beyond neighborhood friends plus two young women working at Su Casa, a nearby Catholic Worker house of hospitality for homeless Latino families. They are among the few shelters in the city that will take intact families. Su Casa and other Worker houses are a lot more than just shelters, though. If you want to know more about the Catholic Worker movement: http://www.catholicworker.org/ One of my North Side friends promised to get an old bike of his fixed up and get it down to them. Hope that works out. We were also treated to some mighty fine grilled meat--seemed too thick for carne asada mexicana, and the grillmeister who produced it was Chilean/American, but whatever he did, he worked some serious mojo! Andrew, el rey de res asada, tells me that in Chile they make chimney starters out of big old cans. So don't feel compelled to order from Amazon if you're handy.

The second shift was Aurora, Jose and the rest of their family--their big brother and parents. They brought cebollos--the Mexican onions with a smallish, perhaps inchwide, white bulb and a long green stem. Aurora showed me how to grill cebollos: you wash and trim them, make sure they are very wet, then put about five of them on a piece of foil, salt them and put a pat of butter at each end, then bundle them up on the foil in a packet and put them on the grill. It's kind of like grilling corn.

We also had burgers and Polishes. A Polish with the cebollos was really good!

Aurora's mom wanted to know what I did to the hamburger meat to season it before I put it on the grill. I did some of them different ways, and they don't know about Worcestershire sauce, so it was hard to explain. I also did a couple that had chili powder and Mexican oregano. Next time we'll have to prep the burgers together so she can see for herself.

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