Blog Archive

Thursday, July 31, 2008


It's been a day of worry, even though things are looking pretty good right now for Saturday.

Jay-Z's aunt caught me on the street this morning. She was crying. The guy with the gun on Sunday thinks she's the one who called the police, so he and some of his buddies have been walking by her house and harassing her.

"I ain't scared," she insisted, but she's certainly upset. She was telling me they said really stupid stuff to her like if her daughter was on the sidewalk and got shot by someone the police would come after her.

Hello, the point is that sidewalks are supposed to be safe for children to play on, dodo!

She wants to know how to get this meathead off the block. I thought we'd have to find out who the landlord is and see if the guy is really a tenant. Unfortunately, I found out tonight that a guy here who knows a lot about buildings and landlords in the area doesn't actually know this particular landlord. I'll have to see if Officer Friendly knows.

I spend all day today feeling really nervous and not knowing whether it was over this stuff or just over the more mundane trouble of trying to get portable hoops. My first connection on hoops has fallen through, but this afternoon a second lead said they would let us use theirs (they have two sets, so it's easier for them to loan out one). I feel much more relaxed now, and a bit sheepish to realize just how much of the worry was over the idea that we couldn't do basketball. Well, actually, I'm kind of relying on the basketball as part of the security strategy (organized activity prevents fights and other problems among kids), so if we weren't having basketball for two hours I'd be worried about other trouble.

And, hey, thanks 49th Neighbor, for helping us find someone to coach the soccer tournament!

Jay-Z's aunt was talking about how much nicer this block is now than it used to be. Actually, I've been in quite a few conversations on this topic in the last few days. It's because that niceness and sense of security is being threatened. Jay-Z's aunt and another lady were talking about all the shooting and killing that went on here years ago.

You may well be thinking there's been plenty of shooting just up the street, which is true. But we haven't seen a fourth-grader's brains spilled on the pavement since I moved here. Apparently that really did happen recently enough that some people here now remember it.

The other thing I haven't wanted to do is go around to every house hitting them up for potluck contributions and the DJ fund. Last night I really did not feel like it at all--I went to maybe 10 of our houses, just where people were outside or I knew them really well.

Tonight I was just on the street talking with two other people, and between them they kicked in $50.

Sarah and one of the Bradys helped me with the Spanish for our flyers. I designed the flyers and emailed them to myself, so tomorrow I can go print them out and copy them.

It's so interesting to see more and more of the ways different people are working to make the block better, even if they don't interact directly with each other all the time in the process. The guy who knows buildings was saying he's been talking to some landlords about toughening up on the tenants and their guests about loitering. He appreciated seeing all the "We Call Police" signs that Jay-Z's aunt passed around while she was doing block party petitions. He's also been talking to Officer Friendly. I let him know I had contacted the commander about having a squad car here during the block party on Saturday.

And Jay-Z's aunt came through with the rest of the crayons for the school supply bags! Sarah helped me put them in all the bags. Now if we just have enough bags for every kids in grades 1-8 who lives on the block, I'll be really happy. I'm not sure if 60 is enough. We have lots of leftover giveaway items, but we ran out of notebooks and folders for the bags, so we just did 60 and we'll see how that goes.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Block Party Prep Update

Preparations are well under way for Saturday's block party. I'm amazed to report that 9th District Commander Eugene Roy personally returned my call within one day (on Monday) and immediately agreed to send a squad car to our event. I'm not clear if that means it will be here all day, but I stressed to him that we really want the car there in the evening, because when we've had even minor problems before it was after dark.

We have 60 gift bags with school supplies for the kids--I wish we had a hundred but I've spent quite enough money this summer between my BBQ and this event. Neighborhood Housing Services donated bags, key chains and pens. Thank you!!

We will have basketball, with coaches from a group called In the Paint, a bookmaking project from the Chicago Children's Museum and house blessings and a health survey from Holy Cross/IHM. I bet the kids would rather I got the museum to come and do face painting, but since we have this back-to-school theme going I thought making books might be more in the theme.

Neighbors are stepping up. My neighbor's daughter's birthday party will be part of the block event, and she has gone crazy with food, a cake, probably a jumping jack, helping me get school supplies, her own set of prizes/gifts to go with the party, etc. Peter Pan's parents found us a DJ. Lots of people are promising dishes for the potluck and kicking in a few bucks each for the DJ fund. Ms. Ribs will grill the hamburgers for lunch. Another lady down the street is trying to get donated ice cream and cones.

Two of the Brady Girls came over this afternoon and spent an hour or so helping me get all the school supplies organized into the bags. They did a great job--I just set up everything in an assembly line before they arrived, and then they got right to it.

One of them noticed that the NHS key chains have a mini-measuring tape inside. "Our dads can use those," she said. "At Home Depot, they're expensive."

The Bradys are also planning to organize games like bingo. They wanted to know if it was OK to do that. I pretty much delegated it to them--if they can get the materials for whatever games they want to do, put out a table and run them, they can knock themselves out. I just said that I really couldn't spend any more money on supplies because I've already spent all the money I can on hamburgers, juices, some of the school supply stuff, etc. (In the Paint and the Children's Museum cost money, and I kicked in a pretty large amount toward the DJ, too. My neighbor with the birthday party has gone crazier than I have, though. Next year we will start earlier and I already know who to go to for donated school supply kits.)

Peter Pan wants to organize a soccer tournament. That's another project I had to delegate. We need a coach. Neighbor on 49, I'm looking at you! Watch your email for a personal invitation.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Green Science Demo

Sarah and I went to the Back of the Yards branch library today to see a demonstration of "green science." I was hoping to take more kids, but one Brady family was not at home and the other Brady Mom said her kids couldn't go. It was a pretty hot day, so I could understand not wanting them to go on a long walk.

Sarah and I made the trek, though. As usual, Sarah chased butterflies all the way over there. She caught one and let it go in Cornell Park. When we got to a vacant lot at 50th and Damen, there was a really interesting creature in there. I guess it was a butterfly--it flew like one and when its wings were spread out, it looked like one, but on the ground its wings folded up in a sort of boxy way. You could almost mistake it for a grasshopper or cricket. We were both fascinated with this bug and chased it around the vacant lot for a good while before it flew off toward the alley and we lost it. We'll have to look it up in the bug guide.

When we got to the library we had some water and waited while the day care group lined up and took seats. There were a few other people like us, not organized groups, just adults (moms, presumably) and kids. I believe the presenter was named Mr. Offut--he was the science teacher for the librarian who introduced him.

The demo was pretty fun, although I'm not too super-sure how much "green" any of the kids walked away with. We got to see some cool tricks involving air pressure. My favorite was getting a hard-boiled egg (peeled) into and out of a milk bottle by changing the air pressure around it. To get it into the bottle, he threw a lit piece of paper inside and put the egg over the opening, which created a vacuum and sucked the egg in. To get it back out, he blew into the bottle to put more air behind the egg and force it back out. (He held it upside down, getting gravity in on the action.) This time, the egg came out really slowly, but it did come. You could see this egg's exit was unusual to him, too.

Sarah said her favorite trick was when he showed how magicians can pierce a balloon without making it pop. If you slide a long, sharp object into and out of the balloon through the two ends (the knot and the dark spot where the rubber isn't stretched as tightly by the air pressure), it won't pop.

Afterwards, we hung out in the library for a little while and found some books to check out. Sarah got a comic book (Robot Dreams) and a book about how to draw funny cartoon figures. She read a good bit of that one while I looked for a couple of books for me (a medieval murder mystery and a coming of age novel that looked interesting).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Gun on the Block; Neighbors Step Up

Earlier today, someone down at the south end of the block walked out of his house and had an argument with someone else from the next block north. Our neighbor went back in his house and came out with a gun. He aimed at the other party walking away. Probably a dozen children were on the street between him and his target, according to neighbors.

I was inside the house with one of the Brady Girls when I heard voices shouting outside. Sarah was in my yard, so I made her come inside while I found out what was happening. Adults on the street were yelling at the guy to put the gun away, couldn't he see there were children in the street, etc. etc. I went back in the house with the girls.

Amidst all this, the police were called and given an exact address, so the next time I came back out there was a paddy wagon and a squad car at the end of the block. Officers were knocking on the door.

Sarah's dad was going down that way looking for her. Oops! I went after him and told him and the relevant Brady Dad that their girls were in my house, out of harm's way.

We went back to looking at pictures of flowers and lions on the computer. Whew.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Saturday Night Live

...from Marshfield Avenue, where somebody is having a very loud DJ for their birthday party.

I was out in front of my house, talking with Sarah's dad, who was sitting on his porch and then came down to chat across our fences. He has been trying to keep the kids out of my yard when I'm not home, which I appreciate.

We were talking about the block for a while. He was happy to hear about the block party next weekend. I thought Sarah would have told him but it seemed he didn't know what was going on. We were talking about safety and the recent reduction in problems at the corner. He asked about last summer, when we didn't do a party, and I said we didn't do it because of security problems (the blue house across the street). He got it.

Then we talked about school and Sarah. At her old school in Pilsen (Perez) they recommended she go to Orozco, which has a bilingual gifted program. He and his wife decided not to do it--I didn't quite understand what he was saying about why, but I'm pretty sure it was the usual reasons parents who don't understand how the Chicago school system works decide not to jump on that kind of opportunity--it's farther from home, they don't really know how much better it is, they just see all the hassle involved and they think their neighborhood school is OK because they have no base for comparison. I was just looking on line, and using test scores as a measure for academics (knowing that's a problem but also knowing it tells you something), Chavez is better than Perez but Orozco is better than both.

His wife is pretty frustrated with Chavez. The LSC is factionalized and there aren't very many opportunities for new parents to break into what's happening there. I should introduce her to someone I know on the Chavez LSC who's a get-it-done kind of person and not interested in the factional fighting.

Today at Costco (more block party purchasing, thanks to a friend with a membership) I spotted Brain Quest for 4th graders on sale and picked up the questions and the workbook that goes with them. Sarah wrote down a list of things the kids want to do at the block party and it had some spelling errors, which surprised me because her language skills are so good. (They were common bilingual errors, like "Balley ball" for volleyball but I was still surprised to see them.)

I told her dad I got this book today because I think she's smart enough to know fourth grade work already and if she doesn't know it (and Chavez for some reason doesn't teach all of it, especially spelling), at least there's a small sort of backup. I don't want her to be at a disadvantage when it's time to take the high school entrance exam.

Her dad was saying they don't know anything about the high schools. Their daughter was top 10 percent at Juarez, but I think Sarah is smart enough to go to a selective enrollment high school if she gets the appropriate education between now and then. I also mentioned San Miguel just to put the idea in their heads. Grades 6-8 are where kids in CPS lose a lot of ground.

In April I went to visit friends with a fifth-grade son in the Palo Alto public school system. I think about what he's reading and doing and I think about my kids here, especially Sarah and some of the Bradys, and I'm ready to out-helicopter the most helicopter parent.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

The Tree, Bughunting, and a Block Update

All's much quieter on the corner tonight than it's been for weeks. I can't hear anything--if they're out there now, I don't know about it. Hurray.

We dragged the ladder out in the yard and found quite a collection of critters: a grasshopper, a butterfly, another snail (they were messing about in the grass when they weren't on the ladder). Then they all got excited about turning my compost. So we turned it, then I remembered I had things to put in it (newspaper and some seriously spent veggies in the fridge crisper, I'm sorry to admit). They actually all helped shred the yellow kale and wilted cabbage--I didn't even want to do that!

They think we've already got more dirt in there than we did last week. I think that is wishful thinking but I'm not arguing too strenuously about it. I'm just happy there's a better chance than there was--given my complete inattention to the compost pile--that perhaps there will be more dirt in there after all.

As it was getting dark, Oldest Brady Boy spotted something big in the less used garden box--it was a bug big enough to move piece of wood chip mulch. I went in and got a flashlight. It turned out to be a big orange beetle. I have to look it up. I think one of the guys squished it in the end, because I found a shmooshed orange thing about the size of a quarter on the sidewalk out back after they went home.

Once they all left, I had a minute to pull down a leaf off my mystery tree and flip through the tree guide. It does seem to be a catalpa, probably a southern catalpa because they say the leaves on a southern catalpa smell unpleasant when you crush them. They didn't say that about the northern catalpa. Northerns are native here, but the southerns are acclimated as far north as Michigan, so I assume we have them, too.

Still quiet. It's so pleasant.


Dawn's mom is from the Mexican state of Zacatecas. I just found a great In These Times piece from last May about what emigration to the U.S. from Mexico is doing to small towns there. I don't even think Dawn's mom grew up in a small town--I think she grew up on a farm.

The reason the piece caught my eye is that I had the good fortune to meet the writer, John Gibler, when I visited Oaxaca in 2006.

If you're interested in knowing what the effects of Mexicans leaving their country look like back home, check it out.

Fast Post-CAPS Action!

Wow, I'm shocked. Our Officer Friendly's chat with the landlords of the house on the next block has shown some quick results. There's now a "No Loitering" sign up right on the corner.

Apparently Officer Friendly himself spent his lunch hour yesterday circling the block and telling those guys to move. He even wrote one of them a ticket. They were mad, but they left. I haven't seen a big pack of them there today.

I might even go up and clean up the traffic circle and the corner there tonight if it stays quiet. Just adding one more signal to say "we won't put up with your mess around here."

This business with people hanging on the block has got to be over with by August 2. Jay-Z's auntie and I went to see the alderman's aide tonight. Good thing, too--she couldn't find our application for a block party permit. So I filled it out again and she faxed it downtown to DOT right in front of us. When the alderman came to sign it she introduced herself to us and we invited her to come. I suggested she come to the party between 2 and 4 p.m. when we're having basketball with some college coaches in charge. She said yes.

I heard from Auntie that plans are in the works for food and a DJ and I didn't have to do anything. Thank God!

I think I'll suggest to Officer Friendly that he invite the landlords to stop by our block party. If there's any trouble, they'll see it for themselves. More likely, and better, they'll see that this block is not what it was 15 years ago, and they need to step up their game screening tenants, because people here won't put up with out-of-control neighbors. (Yeah, we have our problems, but the problems of recent vintage cross a line.)

We're also planning to get registered as a block club. I think we have enough people willing to sign up as officers. I just hope everybody who wants a title can have a title they like and can do at least some of the work. "We never had a block club the whole time I've been here," Jay-Z's aunt told me. I think that is almost 20 years. No wonder it's taken four years to even get close to it.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Post-CAPS conversation

Well, I ended up having a conversation with Sarah after the CAPS meeting. She saw the papers I brought home, including the crime reports for our beat over the last month, and took a look at them. She had lots of questions about words like "larceny" and the difference between assault and battery. I actually forget the difference between the two, but thanks to the little police icons, we figured out that aggravated means you assaulted or battered with a weapon, but simple means you just used your fists. I even explained counterfeiting, fraud and embezzlement.

In the end, I explained all the crimes she asked about on the Clearicons cheat sheet except prostitution. Sarah is eight years old, her parents are very protective of her, and the other day she said, "Eew, that's nasty!" at a photo of a blond pinup in a bikini, so I didn't think it would be right to break it down for her without her parents' knowledge and consent.

"It's a crime involving sex, and that's all I'm going to say about it right now because I don't know if your parents would want me to discuss it with you," I told her.

When Sarah wants to know something, she is very persistent. "So maybe you could explain it when I'm older?"

"Yes." (I appreciate intellectual curiosity and persistence.)

Shortly thereafter, two plainclothes and one uniformed officer showed up in an unmarked car and began shaking down some guys a couple of houses up. Word got around that the cops had also gone by the house on the corner and warned people that if they kept hanging around they would be arrested. (That didn't seem to make much dent, based on my recent 911 call.)

A bunch of people were staring at the police and the guys they were searching, including Sarah, but I convinced her that was not a good idea. (I was in and out of the house, so I'm not sure if they actually arrested anyone.)

She and I spent some time filling people's bike tires with my pump and sitting on the corner making things from the "puzzle pieces." (I really have to come up with a better name for them.)

Sarah told me that at her old house in Pilsen, there were so many gangs on the block that she was only allowed to play for 10 or 15 minutes at a time, even though her mom knew all the families. I asked her if she felt safer there or here and she said here. I know she gets to spend hours outside here. I just hope we can keep it that way and maybe even make it better.

CAPS Meeting

I took a couple of neighbors (two from the same family) to our CAPS meeting tonight. I went to give the police a heads-up about the block party. Also, our problem corner has been problematic of late and I wanted someone else from the block besides me to be there.

Turns out I didn't have to worry about the corner not getting discussed. We walked in a few minutes late and it quickly became the hot topic of the night. All the regulars were complaining about litter, loitering, gangbanging, drug sales and intimidation going on over there. Medicine Man was harassed by these guys his next-to-last day here. I was really angry when he told me that--he almost got through the whole year here without incident, and then these jokers showed up.

Interestingly, the landlords of the building where strangers hang out in front all the time arrived shortly after we did. It took me a few minutes to realize they were the landlords at our corner--not sure if I just lost focus or if the constant switching between Spanish and English got me confused.

Although the landlords took a pretty severe verbal beating from some of the regulars who have been coming to this meeting for years and had never met them before, they appeared willing to work with the police on curbing the loitering in front of their building, though they were reluctant to start formal eviction proceedings on a family that seems to have connections with the loiterers. I guess we'll see what happens here.

One of the officers present had looked up the number of calls to police about problems on the corner in the last week, and it was less than 12. Half of them probably came from me--I'm pretty sure I called five or six times last week.

It's tough to decide when to call though, because if they're just hanging out, there isn't much anybody can do, so I don't want to bother a dispatcher. Late at night I'll call about noise and earlier I'll call if it looks like an argument might erupt into a fight, but I can't see well enough from here to know if drug sales are going on.

Afterwards, I asked someone I've made friends with a couple of blocks north if I could call him and his family when I call 911 so they could make an additional call. He said yes. Since I got here I've tried off-and-on to start a phone tree, like the city and CAPS tell you to do, but there are lots of problems with doing this. Some are due to a lack of organization at our beat meeting--every month we all sign in and put down our phone numbers, but I have no idea what ever happens to those sheets. Nobody has ever tried to connect those of us who attend.

Tonight was the first time I've ever gone up and asked someone if they would help me with a 911 call. It's taken nearly four years for whatever combination of building relationship and increasing Spanish fluency for me to get to the point where I felt comfortable doing that. (I used English tonight to ask my neighbor up the street, but we've mostly spoken Spanish up to now.) The family who came with me also agreed to call and gave me their number.

Over the weekend, a friend of mine told me at his CAPS meeting in Little Village a while back, they used to get cell phone numbers for beat officers so they could call up and let them know where to swing by on their shift, suggest what to look for, etc. That's another thing I've never seen here.

Then of course there's the issue of creating enough community that people want to form a phone tree, and helping them get over their fear of retaliation. I got numbers from some families when I held an impromptu block meeting last fall, and they're still up on my fridge, but I have to admit I don't use them. I feel awkward speaking Spanish on the phone to strangers--one family doesn't have working phone service now--lots of times I'm making phone calls at 11 or later and I don't want to wake people up, blah blah blah. Plus one of the moms told me she called the police over something a while back and the next morning, the headlights on her car were broken.

Well, I just put my mini-phone tree to its first test. There are three guys out there on the corner right now drinking 40s and hollering. I called the cops, then I called my two neighbors who said they'd help me out tonight. One didn't answer; the other agreed to call right away. It's a start.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Medicine Man Hits the Road

Well, I hauled myself out of bed much too early this morning to say goodbye to Medicine Man. He was driving back to his home town of Omaha in time to make a wedding this afternoon. By this time next week he'll be in Africa on a medical mission trip. A few weeks later he'll start med school. He'll be here in Chicago, but he's moving to be closer to school. It won't be the same without him around here, that's for sure.

I think I've been in denial for the last few weeks about his departure. Sometime in June I had told myself to quit borrowing the car and bugging him to help out with Junior's math homework--give the guy a little transition time out--but no, it didn't really work out that way. Although he did seem to have a lot of fun with his Americorps buddies these last couple of weeks, so I don't think Marshfield Avenue's demands cramped his style too much.

Speaking of his Americorps buddies, they had an end-of-year dinner and award ceremony last night at UIC. Medicine Man didn't know it, but months ago his boss at work had put together a nomination for him for a national service award. I wrote a letter of support talking about all the great stuff he helped me do with the kids here on the block. We still don't know whether he won, but he did become a finalist, so the Americorps people gave him a certificate last night and his boss and I got up and said nice things about him.

He was really surprised. "I was just doing my thing," he said. It's nice to see somebody get recognized for just doing their thing.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Camp Marshfield Craft Night

Thank goodness my meeting tonight ended early. I got home about 6:30, just in time to donate my spigot to the evening's water balloon fight up and down the sidewalk. After drying off, we went inside my air conditioned house and a spontaneous craft night emerged: pastel drawing, newspaper hats, origami stars. Here's how it all started.

I rode up to my house just in time to see some guys walking away with water balloons, Bradys following behind. "Can we use your hose?" asked Oldest Brady Boy.


"Can we get you wet?" begged Memory Girl, who rode up on her bike to join the action.

"Well, I have to put my bike away and change, but then you can get me wet," I told her.

"You won't get me wet, though, will you? My mom will be mad."

"No, I promise I won't get you wet."

So I put my bike away and got in my surfer gear (board shorts and a tankini top, great clothes to get wet in and modest enough to avoid too much comment from adult male passers-by, though there's a lot of that obnoxious behavior around here). Then we went out back and Memory Girl, Sarah, Jay-Z, Brady Bughunter and one of his girl cousins all took turns spraying me with the hose. Once I was cooled off, they watered my grass and those who wanted to get a little wet did.

Then I looked in my composter which isn't composting much because I don't turn it enough or wet it down. I found a can in there and the other kids thought Brady Bughunter had put it in. I don't blame him; it sure looks like a trash can. I called him over, explained that only plants and some food leftovers go in, cans don't, and asked him to take it to the alley dumpster. He did.

Meanwhile, everybody was looking at all the spiders that have spun webs inside the composter. One of the Brady Girls--who henceforth we'll call Ines--found a giant plastic cup in the yard and started using it as a spade to turn the compost. Thanks, Ines! Then we rehooked the hose to the spigot (we unhooked it for water balloons after the spraying was over), and Irma wet down the compost and dug around in it some more. I was relieved to see that the botton actually may have turned into dirt--though I added some dirt a while back and it was hard to judge whether there was actual new dirt in there or not.

They found a slug. They all called it a snail. I tried to explain that snails have shells and slugs don't, but I'm not sure that fine point stuck. It was a cool looking slug with pronounced tentacles and a fine slime trail on the lid of my composter, where we put it after we pulled it out of the compost. I meant to put it back and I forgot. I'll have to go look and see if it's there or if it slid down to the ground.

Anyway, we hung out on the front stoop for a while until I was dry. Then Ines and two of her cousins wanted to come inside, and I said OK. After Ines went to the bathroom, they found the construction paper I got from the dollar store and my fancy crayons (oil pastels) and got busy. Her brother, Middle Brady, came in and wanted to make a newspaper hat. I forgot how so I turned on the computer and put "how to make newspaper hat" in Google and sure enough, got instructions. Middle Brady figured it out pretty fast from the illustrations, and I made one, too.

Then Ines wanted to look up how to make paper flowers, so I put that in Google and we got another site. Ines went to town here--I left her on the computer to look up tons of different craft ideas while I went upstairs to change out of my still-damp shorts.

By now Sarah, her niece and most of the younger Bradys were all in the house, coloring and cutting away. "Can we have a craft club?" Sarah asked.

"Aren't we having one now?"

"Yeah, but can we have it not from seven to eight at night?"

"Yeah, more like four or five?" chimed in a Brady Girl.

"Well, when I have to work, this is the time I can do it." Later I promised to leave them some craft supplies in the mailbox tomorrow morning when I go to work.

They want to make decorations for the block party, and Ines says she can design the flyers and at least make some copies. I can probably get the rest of the copies made if she can't run off a lot.

We talked about stars--Ines wanted to make a three-dimensional star (you make two identical flat ones, then cut slits and slide them together). She drew a six-pointed star, acknowledging, "that means something bad."

"But five-pointed stars do, too," I said.

Sarah was making a four-pointed, diamond-like star. "Can we do those for the party, if they don't represent?" I asked.

"I think they mean something bad, too," Ines told me. They probably do.

"Maybe we'll have to just make so many different kinds of stars nobody could say we were representing," I suggested. Or maybe we'll have to avoid star designs altogether, I thought but didn't say right away. It makes me so mad that little kids can't just draw stars for fun without people reading the wrong things into it. I may have to get some expert advice on this one.

Anyway, they cleaned up--I set the oven timer and gave a 10-minute warning to finish what they were doing, then a two-minute cleanup period, then we all went outside. They didn't leave the place too messy and Middle Brady Boy took home the science comic books from the Museum of Science and Industry. He was having trouble pronoucing "Ecosystem," so I don't know exactly how much science he'll get out of them, but he liked them and he'll look at them and maybe he'll even get his big brother to take a look, too.

Even Littlest Brady Boy stopped in and drew something. I think one of his sisters or cousins took it home to show his mom.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Loss of Memory

Over the weekend Memory Girl and Auntie's daughter borrowed my Memory game and the book Not a Stick. Unfortunately, they got left out overnight in the thunderstorm. The book actually survived in decent shape, but the Memory cards were pretty much ruined. I let the girls divide up the ones that hadn't totally fallen apart and take them home.

I forget where I got that, but I'll have to go looking for a replacement. Once Memory returns, I think I'll have to be a bit stricter about how long you can use it and getting it back before night time.

On Sunday night we took out the ladder and Sarah, Brady Bughunter, a couple of his cousins and Jay-Z all got some turns climbing up and picking the long green cylinders off my tree that isn't a maple tree. I wish I knew what kind of tree this is, but I don't. The pods are a foot long and solid. I assume it is some kind of seed, but if so, it's all one seed--we opened one up and didn't find seeds inside.

Jay-Z helped me transplant my basil into a big pot. He dug the hole, and I put the plant in to make sure it was at the right level. Then he filled in the dirt while I went over and turned on the hose, gently. He picked up the hose and watered the newly potted plant.

"Thanks for helping, Jay-Z," I said.

"I like helping," he answered.

Lest we forget, this is the same kid who has a mother in jail and a father on the corner with a bottle in his hand. One or maybe even two of his cousins just got out of the big house. His auntie worries he will grow up to be a criminal.

I worry about that, too. And I worry that people will look at Jay-Z and never even know that he likes to chase bugs and pick pods off trees and that he likes to be helpful if you give him a job to do.

I don't know if it's a cultural loss of memory or if we just don't want to know, but we seem to be good at forgetting that "those kids" who struggle in school, who get in trouble, who make great fodder for sociological study, they really aren't all that terribly different from "our kids:" nieces, nephews, sons, daughters, kids known to the people who study sociology or write newspaper columns about "those kids."

So I hope I don't forget Jay-Z's smile on the ladder, reaching for the green pod hanging just beyond his fingertips.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ugly Stuff

It's getting ugly out here. Or maybe I'm just learning too much for my own good.

Jay-Z's auntie told me Joey and one of his pals disrespected her. Apparently she told Joey to stop doing something, and he told her she should perform acts on them that no 11-year-old should be talking about. Auntie was understandably furious, but her solution left me speechless. She hired another boy from our block to beat up Joey and teach him a lesson.

I haven't talked to Joey about this yet. I don't know if I will or not. We haven't been talking much. Auntie suggested he has been out tagging garages. I took a walk down the alley tonight after work and spotted a garage with what I believe is his signature.

I have been thinking about talking to his mother about putting him in Casa Tepeyac/Boys & Girls Town for the first month of his new school. It would certainly help him get more homework done than he would if he stays home, I think. Given these new pieces of info, maybe it is time to get him out of here. This won't be the easiest conversation to have, though.

The other ugly is I'm starting to get to know more of the "who's in charge here" down and dirty. When you have three strong black women with different ideas about how to get business done, that is not an easy thing to negotiate.

Tonight, with the gorgeous, comfortable weather, there were an awful lot of people out on the street. They were not people who live on any of these blocks. This is making me a bit more nervous about the question of security with this block party. A cop friend of mine suggested writing a letter to the commander asking for some police presence (at the end of the party, especially) and taking it to the district advisory meeting. I'll do that.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Puzzle of the Week: Block Party Organizing

OK, friends, I've gone and done it. Put my foot right smack in the middle of block politics. I had a nice thing going here for almost four years, but now here we go.

So Jay-Z's aunt has been in a tizzy about putting together a block party. (She really wants to do it so she can have a big blowout birthday party for her own daughter, but she put her self-interest aside enough to move it into August rather than July and make it a back-to-school event, since Chavez starts so early--August 4 this year). The lady at the end of the block who has organized this in previous years wanted to do it in August, which I had said "sounds great" about back in June. I tried to reach Block Lady before we went off to the alderman, but we didn't connect. So we went earlier this week and got petitions. If you don't have an organized block club you have to gather petitions to get a block party permit.

So Auntie has been out getting signatures. She went to visit Block Lady last night and they ended up in a shouting match. (Let's just say I saw that coming when we didn't talk to her before we went to the alderman.) I saw Block Lady this morning and tried to patch things up a little. Though she seemed mollified, her point to me was we are on our own for getting this thing done. She'll advise, but whatever stuff she used to get she's not getting. "You're gonna have to pay for this yourselves," she warned.

This annoyed Auntie no end. However, she is under the mistaken impression that the city will show up with lots of hot dogs and back-to-school goodies for the kids. (We will be lucky if we get a fire truck and a jumping jack, especially on three week's advance time. I need to find out if we can get hot dogs from our state rep for cleaning up the block. That may be possible.) Auntie does realize we will need to solicit donations, and she's got time to pound the pavement, which I don't.

I will hit the street tonight to try and recruit some help getting food and other goodies donated. I will also be asking around for recommendations for a good DJ: one who will play music that crosses ethnic and age preferences in musical taste.

If any of you all are veterans of block party organizing or have tips on where to get good free stuff, especially school supplies--or a good DJ--please comment!

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Junior Insect Lifesaving

Just a little more from Camp Marshfield today--early on, Sarah was showing off a grasshopper she found in the yard when she dropped it by accident and it landed in a puddle of water at the bottom of the basement stairs. (Littlest Brady had been fooling with my hose and it hadn't quite shut off, so there was still a puddle after I discovered this and turned off the hose all the way.)

"Oh, no! He might drown!" she cried. "I have to save him!" She rushed down the stairs and looked intently at the puddle. "There he is!" She managed to get him on her finger without crushing him and came back up to ground level.

"Put him down on the grass and let him dry out," I suggested.

She went for the concrete instead. We all thought the creature might take a moment to rest. But no. Instantly he let out a three-foot jump and got away.

"I saved him! I'm a hero!" Sarah yelled proudly.

"You are a hero. Good job!" I said and gave her a high-five.

This got them talking about heroes. Brady Girl was Sarah's hero today for catching her Nintendo when Sarah dropped it. Sarah was a hero today for saving the grasshopper. Somebody had a reason I've now forgotten for why Brady Bughunter was a hero today.

"Maritza is our hero every day," said Sarah. (I swear to God I did not make that up.) Brady Girl agreed. Brady Boy was too busy bughunting.

I tell this piece publicly only because Maritza absolutely could not be Camp Marshfield's hero without all the great support from readers of this blog, who have donated about a couple hundred bucks' worth of books, cool games and priceless moral support to the camp un-director just by reading the blog. You are all my heroes, every day. (I'm not making that up either.)

And by the way, I'm sitting out on the back porch with my laptop and some bug I don't recognize keeps flying around. It looks like a beetle with its wings shut but flies more like a bee or a wasp. Guess I'll have to go try looking for it in the bug guide.

The Bug Guide Is a Hit

Well, after a July 4 holiday, Camp Marshfield got back into full swing late this afternoon, when Sarah and her bug-hunting friends arrived in my back yard and began shouting excitedly over their latest finds.

"Oh, goody, I get to bring out the bug guide," I thought. Many thanks to the Rogers Park friends who have graciously sent along their copy of the National Audubon Society's field guide to North American insects and spiders. It's a great resource--the front section is all photos, grouped into types: caterpillars, beetles, moths, butterflies, grasshoppers/crickets/cicadas, flies and spiders, to name some but not all the categories.

"Hey, you guys, look what I got," I called out the back door.

"Maritza!" they all shrieked. "Look what we've got!"

So we traded: bugs for bug guide. Brady Bughunter Boy was the first to grab it, I believe, and he spotted some bugs he'd seen before right away. Sarah got it next and recognized quite a few bugs, many of which she'd found in Chez Maritza's back yard Even Sarah's four-year-old niece wanted to look at the bug pictures, at least for a little while.

Then a Brady Girl arrived, and we had to get the puzzle pieces out--that's what we call the box full of wood and cardboard items that look like puzzle pieces but work more like Legos or Tinkertoys--you use them to make things, not to put a puzzle together. But we keep calling them puzzle pieces because that's sort of what they look like.

So a couple of kids made things out of puzzle pieces and a couple of other kids went bug-hunting, and Sarah's niece took a look at this book I love called Not a Stick.

Then Sarah and Brady Bughunter wanted to grab the long green seed pods that hang down temptingly from the tree in the back yard. If they stand on my raised parking pad they can almost reach the lowest-hanging ones, but not quite. So I agreed to go in my house and get out my indoor ladder and let them climb up on it. They got seed pods, from which Brady Bughunter was going to make "pizza," but then he and Sarah got interested in the bugs and discarded bug exoskeletons to be found on the tree leaves. Even little Angel from next door wanted to climb the ladder and yank on some leaves. It was all quite exciting and Angel cried when I took the ladder back in the house.

Once that was done, it was time for another favorite activity. "Who wants a snack?" I asked. Everybody did, loudly and emphatically.

Fortunately Camp Marshfield stocked up on granola bars at Costco while picking up barbecue food--I was hoping the box of 96 two-packs would last the summer, but two new cousins of Jay-Z's dropped by and one of them was hungry. I think she ate five packs by herself. "Do you have any cookies?" she asked me before trying them.

"No," I said firmly. "What you see is what you get." (Although I must 'fess up I went to the Ashland Dominick's tonight and their cookies were on sale, including the maple creme ones I adore and never buy because I'd eat the whole bag by myself. This time I did buy the bag, plus a bag of chocolate chunk, because they're for Camp Marshfield, right? Yeah, right. "This is exactly the kind of thing Dad would have done," I thought in the grocery store aisle, laughed, and took them to the register. No, I haven't eaten any yet.)

In the midst of the feeding frenzy, Junior and his little brother showed up to do homework. Junior has a giant pack of math homework for Golder College Prep that is supposed to last him until August 14. Thank God Medicine Man has already worked on it with him twice, and gotten pretty far into it--I had to Google "how to divide mixed numbers" because I haven't done it for so long I forgot how.

At some point in all this, I did have a few quiet moments to talk with Sarah and one of the Brady Girls about how their Fourth of July was and so forth. Brady Girl is pretty far into her Magic Tree book now; her sister is finished the twister one but wants to re-read a chapter or take it to school or something. I gave her the one on rain forests, too. I asked if she wanted it and she shrugged like "maybe," but then she took it, so we'll see. If it rains she might read it.

Memory Girl came by and she read Not a Stick all by herself. I like this book because the words are very simple, the illustrations are gorgeous, and the theme is actually pretty deep. She liked the book so much she wanted to take it home. "What was your favorite way he used the stick?" I asked her.

"The sword," she said.

"Yeah, that was cool. I liked the leash on the dinosaur, too. Did you like that?"

She nodded yes.

Later on they were all using my sidewalk chalk out front and I was going to the store, so I took the book over and gave it to her to take home.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Fireworks Rained Out

OK, one last thing. I just went out to see the higher quality fireworks display -- less noise, more pretty lights. Peter Pan's dad was just getting warmed up when it started to sprinkle, then poured down in buckets. I got in the front door seconds before getting thoroughly soaked. I can hear the kids screaming outside, enjoying getting wet.

Peter Pan's dad wanted to know if we could block the street on Friday for a fireworks display. "I could do a kick-ass show for you all," he bragged. I'm sure he could, based on the very small taste we just got, which set off three car alarms from the powerful explosions. However, having just called the alderman's office today to find out about getting a block party permit, they told me you have to give them two or three weeks' notice.

With that, I'm getting some sleep while the rain beats down and keeps the explosions from happening. 'Til next week.

Tattler Takes a Vacation

Well, having posted the good news about how my friends' summer gigs are working out, I'm going to finish my Growing Home spinach with red pepper and homemade dressing (it's supposed to be homemade mayonnaise, but it's pretty mustardy because that's the way I like it), then pack and head downstate for the weekend to enjoy a quieter Fourth of July than the one on Marshfield Avenue will be. Medicine Man and our prospective new housemate will hold down the fort while I'm gone, but the Tattler will take a break until next week.

Happy Independence Day, all!

Radio Arte Report

This evening the younger kids were running around catching fireworks while the older kids were letting off firecrackers under the watchful eyes of the Brady parents. Many of the Brady girls were hanging with their mothers on the front stoop of their house, so I braved the noise and went by to say hello.

The two girls I hooked up with summer jobs told me they'd been going for two days and they love it. They get to do theater games and they are meeting a great group of people, many of whom live here in Back of the Yards. It turns out half the Holy Cross marimba players are doing this thing--I exaggerate, but only slightly. All the participants but the two Brady girls are already in college or starting next fall.

"Everybody's really nice," said the younger Brady. "I can't believe I'm the youngest one there!" They're now hooked up with a ride from one of the Holy Cross marimba players, and they met the musician I interviewed for the Peace & Education Scholarship, who will be starting at UIC next fall as a music major. "On the way home, we make her sing in the car for us," said younger Brady. "She has a really pretty voice."

"This is the best summer ever!" enthused younger Brady. Her older sister is happy for her and thinks it's a good thing she's spending her summer with a bunch of really nice older kids. I do, too. Plus, I'm really glad they are making connections north of 47th street, to top it all off. And I did give the older Brady girl the email address of someone at my party on Saturday, which might produce even more good connections for all involved.

I believe I posted before that these two Brady girls got accepted to Radio Arte's summer job/training program, Salud:Healing Through the Arts. They'll be writing radio novelas this summer dramatizing health issues facing immigrants. We had a poster who argued with the use of the word immigrant rather than "illegal immigrant" based on the issues one of the Brady girls raised, but I suspect the program will cover issues for the entire immigrant community. A huge one is language. I was at Northwestern on Monday and noticed they had a sign listing all the languages for which translation services are available. Unfortunately, many hospitals don't have such resources. This 2002 story from The Chicago Reporter talks about the shortage of medical interpreters available in suburban health clinics. As increasing numbers of immigrants to the Chicago area head straight for the suburbs, clinics lacking qualified interpreters are stuck asking patients to bring family members or friends to translate, which can be difficult when discussing sensitive medical issues. Worse, patient health care can be compromised when communication is so difficult.

This is true in city clinics, too, as Junior's experience showed over Christmas when his mom had to go to Mercy with a torn placenta. Junior was the only one in the emergency room who could translate for him mom, and much as I love him, I'm not sure I'd want him to be my translator if I were stuck in the hospital with a torn placenta.

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