Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Christmas Tale from Back of the Yards

This story is courtesy of the Holy Cross/IHM web site. Fr. Bruce told this story in church on Sunday but my Spanish was not good enough to understand it completely until I read it in English just now. Check this out.

A true Back of the Yards neighborhood Christmas story - The grandmother was a little overwhelmed with all the wonder of the Posadas. Her grandson had won two gifts at a raffle during some very special nights of Posadas, celebrated in the neighborhood from December 16th to the 23rd. The community walked all the streets during the evenings accompanying Mary and Joseph who were seeking a place to stay, ...a place where the light of Christ would remain. Each evening was filled with wonder and delight for hundreds of children, thanks to the help of many adults in the neighborhood. Each day was different, but on several nights donated gifts were given to hundreds of children.

The grandmother decided to hide one gift, a big truck, and give it to the four year old child on Christmas day. After all, she figured, the other gift was enough for now. But the clever four year old would have none of it and he asked what happened to the truck he had received as a gift. Staying a step ahead of him she told him that "La Llorona" had taken the gift. (The Spanish legend of La Llorona is famous in our community with several versions of a mother who lost her children in a moment of panic and now wept at night looking for them through the alleys and streets.) The grandmother explained that La Llorona would return the gift to Santa Claus on Christmas Eve "Noche Buena" to return it to him then.

The child asked why La Llorona would not return it herself beforehand. The grandmother explained that La Llorona could not cross the border any longer because she has no documents, no legal papers. So she will give it to Santa to bring because he needs no documents.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Yucky Day and More High School Applications

It's icy sleet/snowing this morning. Oldest Brady Boy stopped by early to shovel my front sidewalk. A little later I went to see his mom to fill out a couple of backup applications to Kennedy and Hancock. I decided they were probably the best of the reasonably close by schools for Alvaro.

His little brothers and sisters are all sick. They were all crashed out together in a heap on top of a long, wide but pretty thin mattress on the living room floor, covered in those big fuzzy dollar-store blankets. Seems like there's a stomach bug in the house. Ines told me she felt like throwing up.

In the corner stood their little fake Christmas tree and some bags full of presents. Brady Bughunter, who seemed less sick than the girls, was already playing with one of his--a giant transformer-style bug that you can guide with a radio control thing and make it change shapes. His baby brother is scared of it, so his mom made him quit driving it around the house.

We got everything on the forms except Oldest Brady's school ID number. He took his report card back to school and forgot to bring it home when their break started at the end of last week.

I was just interrupted by his mom. She stopped by. Her son got home but he didn't have his report card, so we called Chavez and got his ID number. I'll take the applications over to the post office early this afternoon.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Magnet Madness II

Well, we got Sarah's magnet school applications done today. Her mom came over. This time I let her touch the forms herself--with the GEAP ones I was afraid of mistakes so I did it myself.

She made a mistake or two on these, but I have a white-out pen that puts precision tape over the error so it looks fine corrected.

Her mom really wants her to go to Orozco. She wants to be an involved parent, but she doesn't drive. It's a lot easier to get to Orozco from our houses than to any of the other schools on the bus--it's a straight shot up Ashland. I will say here frankly that I intend to bring Sarah to the attention of some people I know over there. It might not make any difference, but it can't hurt.

Last night when all the snow was coming down, Oldest Brady Boy and Tone-Loc were out with shovels doing good business. They asked if they could do my front steps. I said yes, but they took so long to get there I did it myself. And Joey's mom was out shoveling her snow, so we finally had time to call Casa Tepeyac. She was supposed to go over there today--hope it worked out.

Anyway, the boys saw the shoveled sidewalk and steps and kept going, but I came out and called to them as they were crossing to the next block: "Hey, wait! I want you to do my back steps and sidewalk. Plus I have stuff for you guys."

I had homemade chocolate chip cookies left over from Tony's birthday and school applications for both of them. This morning I saw Oldest Brady's mom and said we need to do one application by Friday for him to go to Kennedy, just as a backup plan in case none of the Nobles works out. "I don't want to see him at Richards," I said.

She smiled in recognition. I'm glad I don't have to worry about Peter Pan, although I'll probably go ask if he applied to the Nobles. Even though he has sibling preference (a guaranteed seat) at Perspectives, he was interested in Noble and Oldest Brady Boy is his good buddy. It's stricter, too, which might actually be good for him.

Crossing the Digital Divide

Picasso called me about 1 o'clock this afternoon. I was in the tunnel at the Roosevelt station.

"Are you home?" he asked.

"No, but what's up?" He told me he was in the process of wiring up his new Internet, but it's 50 feet from where the jack is to his room, where he wants his computer to be, and his ethernet cable wouldn't reach that far.

"I'll try to go by Radio Shack after this meeting," I told him. The meeting ran long, but I was taking my computer to the shop--a repair place on the North Side--and they told me they could make a 50-foot ethernet cable for me. So I said yes, do it, and called Picasso back.

"Hey, the repair place can make you a cable," I told him.

"How much does it cost?"

"Hold on and I'll find out. If it's too much for you I'll make it your Christmas present." I asked the guy, who thought it was about $15.

"Oh, I can pay you back," Picasso said.

Then I remembered to ask him what he was doing home at one o'clock in the afternoon on a school day.

"It was a student development day. I went last time and it was really boring. We didn't do nothing," he told me.

"All right, you didn't miss classes, but we're going to talk about this the next time I see you. You're going tomorrow, right?"


"If I get home in time tonight, I'll call you and bring the cable over. Otherwise I'll get it to you when you get home from school tomorrow."

Picasso goes to Curie. I'll have to check in with some teacher buddies of mine there about what this student development day stuff is and why it's boring.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Dawn Update

Sorry, dear readers--there's Internet trouble at Chez Maritza, which delayed this post. Here goes:

I saw Dawn's mom at the Guadalupe Mass at Holy Cross on Friday night. She came with Angel. Dawn didn't want to come because she didn't take a bath this morning?...something like that, which I didn't catch clearly. I do know she likes a long soak, especially in the winter.

I got to church really late myself, after the fun part--the dancing. Bummer! I didn't see Dawn's mom with Angelito until the sign of peace. After Mass, she asked me if I wanted to go get something to eat downstairs in the hall and I said sure. So we went down and got plates with chicken in mole, rice, a tostada and a tamal. Angel really liked the music--the marimbas were playing, and he was banging along on the table. I played a little table marimba with him, and his mom and I were cracking up watching him.

After we left, she gave me a ride home--she's got a car that works, mas o menos--and she told me a bit more about Joey and Dawn. She's working weekends now at a Food 4 Less (not the one here in our neighborhood), but she's working 11 to 7 and she doesn't like it because that leaves Joey unsupervised all weekend long. She's been trying to get him to stay with his dad but it sounded like that's not working well--I'm not sure if it's because Joey won't go or his dad is busy or some of both.

This is all leading up to the big news about Dawn. It probably won't surprise longtime readers of this blog to hear Dawn will not be staying at Big Picture. Her mom is supposed to come in to school on Monday to sign her out and work out the details of transferring her to another program. Her mom couldn't remember the name of the new school, but supposedly it has early morning and evening hours so students can work during the day. Dawn and her mother agree that she wants to work and should be working to help support the family. It sounds like Alfredo and her teachers support this because she has continued to be iffy about attendance and classwork

Of course I'm really disappointed, but since she and I have hardly been in contact--I think we have spoken less than five times since August--I don't have the right to say a danged thing about it. All I know is that Dawn's chances of ever getting a high school diploma are about to drop substantially.

Will she even show up at the new program? Is it really any good? I don't know, and at this point I also don't know if I have it in me to push much to find out. I hope she pulls a Meg and finds herself happy and working hard in her new school, but I somehow suspect the road for Dawn will take a few more twists and turns--Meg didn't get back in school right away and being out for a while and really understanding what a dead end life is without a diploma made her much more motivated to go back.

When Dawn started at Big Picture, I chose 2009 for a four-digit sequence I use all the time in honor of her graduation year. It was sort of a promise to her, and myself, that I would be there when she crossed that stage. She might cross a stage and get a diploma yet, but it won't be that one. I'll be there at Big Picture in June, crying happy tears for all the graduates, but part of me will be crying other tears for Dawn, too.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

News in Brief

A social worker from Dorothy's new home stopped by today to pick up diapers, laundry quarters and her mail, especially her Social Security card (just arrived) and a stack of letters from DHS about benefits. The social worker tells me that Dorothy has to stay for 30 days, but because "she's young" (i.e. in her 50s) they would like to help her find permanent housing elsewhere. They work with Thresholds, among other agencies. I know Thresholds and respect them.

The current residence does have meetings in the building, and Dorothy is now going to work every day. I don't know where or for what, but she's making $2 a day doing something and getting out of there. The social worker gave me her name and said she could help me find whoever ends up officially assigned to Dorothy.

This morning I ran out to the bank and on the way stopped to chat with some neighbors who sent their youngest to Perspectives Math & Science Academy. "She loves it. I love it," said her mom. That's what I like to hear.

Tony from down the street came by last night and again today. His birthday was yesterday. (Lucky fellow, he shares a birthday with Rod Blagojevich. Though I have a lot to say about that guy, I'll refrain here.) I've been working at home and cooking on the side, so he got quite a birthday meal: lentil soup with saltine crackers, baked potato, lemon pie and chocolate chip cookies. The cookies were at his special request--this is becoming an annual event. Yesterday Tony shoveled the snow off my back porch and back sidewalk. "Yup-yup got locked up," he informed me. That's why he hadn't been around to get the job.

We talked about how he spent his birthday. "I got some beer...I ain't even going to lie to you. I got a bag of weed too. As soon as I had the beer and smoked the joint, I went to sleep and didn't wake up til three o'clock today."

"I bet you're hungry now, aren't you?" I asked. (I was about to go pack him dinner to go.

"Mmmm-hmmm." We both chuckled a bit.

The best news is my new roommate, known here as the Good Elf. She hung out with me this afternoon and organized my utility closet while I made cookie dough, then scooped cookies on the baking sheets and put them in the oven while I got some work done. She already reorganized the front hall closet, washed the kitchen floor, and unclogged the first floor sink and bathtub drains. She's staying here while she looks for work and volunteers some time at Su Casa--for once, they have so many workers they don't need another one right now. But I need a housekeeper/secretary, and so far she's doing a great job.

"It looks nicer in here," Shutterbug observed to me on his way out the door this morning. I just smiled. Yeah, Good Elf!

Helping Troubled Teens (and maybe preteens, too)

Today's New York Times features a story about Florida's efforts to intervene early with families where youth and teens are acting out, but before there's a need to bring in child welfare or the criminal system.

Teens can stay in structured, temporary shelter for up to two weeks, while receiving counseling and learning about anger management and social skills. Families who call the system can also receive free or low-cost counseling and referrals even without having a child stay.

This is a bit like Casa Tepeyac/Boys and Girls Town of Chicago here in the neighborhood, but different in some important ways. The explicit goal of Florida's program is to reunite the child with his/her family and stay in the community. Casa Tepeyac is beginning to do some outreach to families here but it is in the early stages.

Which reminds me that they told me to have Joey's mom call and they would try to help her, and then I went out of town and she and I haven't said boo to each other since I got back. Hopefully I will catch her by Sunday and we can call them.

Magnet Madness

Sarah's mom just stopped by. I did some research on potential magnet schools for Sarah--ones with decent-to-excellent test scores within the six-mile limit for transportation. The four I found were, in order of reputation/test scores: Murray, Sheridan, Saucedo and Gunsaulus. Sarah's mom is most interested in Sheridan because it's the second closest, she knows about where it is off the top of her head, and it has good test scores. I managed to tell her it would be good to apply to all four of them at this point because she can always say no later if she gets it. She's getting the point that Sarah may not get into Orozco.

She is really worried about high school for Sarah. "This neighborhood isn't the greatest, and neither are the high schools," she said. "Richards isn't very good, is it?" [all quotations are very loosely translated from Spanish]

"No, it's not."

"I need to know more about high schools."

"Jones College Prep is very good. It's downtown, so it's not hard to get to. Whitney Young is another good one."

"Better than Juarez?" [Juarez is where her older kids went. At least one of them was in the top 10 percent there.]

"Yes," I told her. "All the students in these schools have to take an exam to get in, so they are all very intelligent."


"I think Sarah has the mind to go to a school like that, but I'm afraid if she stays where she is they won't prepare her well enough to go there."

"Yes! I want her to be well prepared, and I don't think they are giving her enough homework." [She used a word I didn't recognize here--often people say tarea/chores for homework, but homework or assignments or challenging stuff do seemed to be the point from the context].

So I only have two Options applications in the house and no printer. I'm going downtown tomorrow and will run off some more copies of the form. We'll fill them out over the weekend and get them in the mail Monday. Applications must be postmarked by Friday December 19.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Dorothy in the Witch's Castle

I went to see Dorothy at the nursing home today. It's the Witch's Castle all right--she's not even allowed to go outside for the first ten days. Today was day 3. And it's not a place you want to spend much time inside. The first floor lobby is full of dirty, smelly, mostly men sitting around arguing and watching TV. Not many of these people are old--just worn down by life, on SSI, with no other place to go.

Dorothy pointed out a few people in the throng she's made friends with already--to her credit, they generally seemed to be among the saner and more solid citizens in the joint. She also pointed out a security guard--a tall, thin man in a uniform joking around with a couple of residents--saying, "That's security," with more than a hint of disgust in her voice.

"People are getting high in here," Dorothy told me while we waited for the elevator. A seriously crazy guy came up to her and whispered something in her ear. She turned him down forcefully; it was a request for either money or sexual favors, I'm not sure which.

There are two elevators. One of them is broken. Fourteen of us piled in the one that works when it eventually made its appearance. The crowd got ugly when the fifteenth guy tried to get in, blocked the door, but wouldn't get out. He finally left. I got a spot against the back wall and kept my hands in my coat to deter pickpockets. It smelled. I was glad I had a very big coat on because I was more worried somebody would try to cop a feel in the elevator than I was about getting something stolen.

Dorothy is on the fifth floor. It doesn't look so bad up there--pretty traditional nursing home, usually two to a room. (She told me some are three.) The floor was shiny and there was an attendant at the station by the day room where people can watch TV. Dorothy's roommate seemed pretty well-put-together; she was neatly groomed, had clearly showered that day and was reading the Bible when we got there. The room was clean, orderly and nicely decorated with plastic flowers and such. Dorothy introduced me as her sister-in-law and her roommate said, "If I'd known she was having family come I would have made the bed." I told her next time we'd give her advance notice.

Dorothy had many complaints. First off, nobody told her where she was being taken when she left the treatment center. Supposedly this is a temporary placement while they try to find her a spot in a long-term recovery home, but who knows how long that will take. One of the aides who gives her her meds follows her medication schedule; the other one doesn't. They are supposed to be keeping her meds in strict confidence since some of them are for HIV, but they aren't doing that. They have them out in public and they talk to her in public about them. She says she saw a woman argue with staff and the staff gave her tranquilizers against her will just to shut her up. That seemed pretty plausible just from spending half an hour in there.

The attendant at the front desk on Dorothy's floor did a double-take when she saw me and heard Dorothy explaining to me how the women's shower doesn't work, so both the men and the women use the same tub and shower station on her floor, which means the guys are walking in while the women are taking showers. I walked us away discreetly before she had time to really freak out about me being there.

We stood in the back stairwell so I could ask her how she likes her roommate. Dorothy does like her. Then the same crazy guy from down on the first floor came down the stairs and started bugging Dorothy for 75 cents. "You don't know me! How come you asking for money?" she said to him. This started an argument that I was afraid might turn physical, until Dorothy said, "Besides, I don't have any!"

"Oh, OK," said the guy. He turned away and walked downstairs. A woman had joined us in the stairwell; she and Dorothy marveled over the looney tunes they were having to deal with in this joint. Clearly the other woman was pretty new, too. "I can't wait until my daughter gets me out of here," she said.

I got the numbers for her probation officer and her counselor back at drug treatment and promised her I would call them Monday to find out what is going on. I'll probably call the social worker in the building there, too, just to let someone on staff know someone is looking out for Dorothy. I also promised I would call her every day until the 10 days are up and she can get the heck out of there during the day. They don't have meetings in the building either, so she can't even go to a meeting for 10 days. That's crazy!!

Dorothy insisted on walking me down the stairs when it was time for me to go. "No way am I letting you walk down these stairs by yourself," she said.

She had just told me she doesn't walk up the stairs; I didn't want her waiting for the elevator again. "Girl, don't you know I used to do karate?" I told her. We both started laughing.

"Karate, judo, I don't care, I'm walking you down these stairs," she said. When we got back to the front desk, we said good-bye and she nagged me. "Put on your hat-it's cold outside."

"Yes ma'am," I said. When she gets out of there, I'm going to name the place, but not before. I looked it up on line before I went and it seemed like it wouldn't be too bad. Guess I was wrong.

P.S. On the bus after I left, I was trying to think of the reading from The Velveteen Rabbit my sister had me read at her wedding. It seemed rather appropriate to the circumstances. You can see it here.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Dorothy's Trapped!

Far from being in A Safe Haven on the far North Side, Dorothy is stuck in a nursing home "right here!" Well, not right here--it's south of here--but it's not far enough away to be a real change of life for her. And it's a nursing home, which she made clear she does not want, and apparently they took all her money for expenses and left her with $30. And they don't give her adult diapers.

I will be going down to where she is tomorrow to give her some of her diaper stash. I know she doesn't want to be there, but we'll have to see what else is possible. I'm afraid she'd rather go back on the streets than live the way she is now. It could very well come to the point where she breaks the rules just to get herself thrown out, but then ends up using again.

Personally, I'd be delighted if she stayed locked up in the nursing home and quit trying to call me collect. I had a bunch of collect call messages on my voice mail and couldn't figure out why until one call came in when I had the phone on. The guy on the line assured me it would be about six bucks for six minutes (one of the automated ones said $14! No way!!), so I took it to get her number and address. I told her not to call me again because I won't pay for it. I'll call her before I go out there tomorrow.

Oy veh. Somebody remind me why I let myself get mixed up in this stuff? Oh, yeah, as the real Dorothy said, there's no distinction between the deserving and the undeserving poor. Sometimes that is seriously hard to remember.

Orozco or Bust

Well, its Orozco or bust for Sarah next door. If you click on the link, you'll see why--parents like it and they have good test scores. As they should, since they are a bilingual gifted center as well as a neighborhood school.

Her mother came over earlier this week to get help filling out the GEAP application. I was trying to persuade her to look at some schools besides Orozco, but the other bilingual gifted centers are on the North Side and beyond the six-mile zone in which CPS will provide bus service.

Elementary school applications are a whole new world for me. I've always been more on top of high schools: which ones are good, how you apply, these days who I know that I can talk to about particular kids, etc. To help Sarah's mom, I called a friend of mine in Chicago Lawn who has been through the drill a couple of times. The first gifted program she had her son in was fine in the early grades, but she heard they hadn't worked out the upper elementary part so well, so she applied to Lenart and moved her child between kindergarten and first grade a while back. It's a long drive for them but they do it.

Sarah's mom was not interested in a long drive. Between the work schedules of everyone in the house, driving Sarah back and forth to school does not seem to be a very realistic option, though they do have a functioning car. Her approach is to just be determined and apply every year from now through 7th grade. She is open to some magnet school options in Pilsen and Little Village, so I hope to persuade her to send in a few more applications between now and the December 19 deadline.

In a way, I'm kind of glad her mother doesn't read English. She was spared the sight of these contradictory and somewhat confusing "Tips for Applying to Options for Knowledge Schools."

Tip #1: Do not apply to just one or two schools! Apply to as many schools as you would be happy to have your child attend.

Tip #2: Don not submit applications to schools that you would not want to have your child attend. If a school is too far from your home...then do not apply to that school.

Since we're not especially close to anything but Orozco, it would seem Tip 2 outweighs Tip 1.

A few years ago, IFF put out a report on the areas of the city with the greatest need for better-performing elmentary schools. New City (which includes Back of the Yards) ranked 23 of the top 25 neediest areas. South Shore ranked number 1. If we're only 23rd highest in need, I really feel for those South Shore people.

A few years ago

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