Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Hidious Hugo

The first image is Startled Hugo, in the second he is merely Hideous [dbl click to enlarge].

Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Meat People

Free Meat Day is Tuesday at the Northwestern Settlement House Food Bank.

Lately I've been popping by the bank myself. It is a humble affair run out of a meeting room at the settlement house. You have to live in the neighborhood to receive the service. Some days there are tables you move past and sort of pick-and-choose. Other days you are handed a bag of pre-selected food. The settlement house also has a day care, a charter high school, ESL classes, a children's theater and the like. So the food bank, given it serves only a narrow geographic area, isn't that big a deal. It's a small operation amid many larger social service operations.

But on Tuesdays the Meat People arrive.

It's the food bank's most popular day. The Meat People begin arriving at six in the morning though the bank doesn't open until eight. They arrive in cars, they pull wheeled carts, and carry large nylon bags. They are big people, and in the winter--with their puffy coats, hats and boots--they appear even bigger. There is a system on Meat Days; upon arriving you go to the front desk and get a number then go back outside and stand behind the person with the number before you. It's first come, first serve, so the lower your number--the thinking goes--the better the meat to chose from. On Meat Day they have the tables set with box after box of semi-frozen meats. You are allowed three chicken, two beef and two pork packages. All from local supermarkets and past its sell-by-date.

At some point the Meat People became unruly and the numbering system was deployed. All other days you simply walk in, present ID, and receive a bag of mostly canned food. Twelve ounces of canned, unsweetened applesauce anyone? I got six.

So something happened. It's like the stop sign at a seldom used intersection. It's annoying and you wish it wasn't there but understand there was a horrific accident at this innocent crossroad and the stop sign was the least they could do in its wake. Grieving families demanded it.

The Meat People bring such thoughts to mind. There are warrants out on at least a few of these meaty characters. They mill about, classic loiterers. Trading food bank tips, swapping ID, laughing at unfunny remarks. They bum smokes and withhold matches. But mostly it is their size and numbers. And their aggression for free meat.

My neighbor named them. We stood waiting for the light to change, at six-thirty in the morning, on our way to work. People were assembling across the street. "The meat people, man," he shook his head, "Spoiled meat for bad people." He's a square young guy with a trendy dog. We'd never spoken much. And I didn't dislike the Meat People, I resented them.

I am a client of this food bank, making meager withdrawals as needs warrant. Quiet, private transactions. My name is on an index card in a little tin box.

On Meat Day it is as if there is a run on the bank. The anxious nerves of the small mob of large people is palpable. The meat angle sort of fits; bloody, industrially produced, dumped with such profligacy on the poor. Leaking pink fluids from worn, stretch-wrap packages. Maybe there wouldn't be enough. It had probably happened once or twice. There was a history of people leaving without meat and this added an edge to the affair. This potential run on the bank.

I've stood among them, clutching my number, and waited to be called forward to claim my meat. I've picked through the thick walled freezer boxes. Rejecting a family size fifteen-pack of chicken thighs. I would have to cook all those thighs that night because there couldn't be more than a few hours left in them. Fifteen pale, saggy thighs at the end of their eight-hundred-mile journey. And the lady behind gives a gentle nudge because I've lingered sufficiently over the chicken thighs.

I got a pretty good roast and a pecan pie out of the visit.

At about mid-day--after the morning ration has been distributed and the one hour lunch break by the staff--the meat truck shows up. It's a nice, white bobtail with a crew of three young men. They back it up on the sidewalk, unload onto hand-trucks, and deliver through the front door of the high school. There are about thirty people out in the cold, waiting for their number to be called. The truck arrives with some fanfare. The people are expecting it, watching quietly for it.

The street is blocked off as the truck unloads. Obviously if you are waiting around for meat and a meat delivery truck shows up you have some interest in what's being loaded in. So people gather at a respectable distance and watch. Those with good eyesight relay what they see; chicken, pork. More chicken. Looks like all chicken. No, that's pork right there. It is. It is.

There is a reason the meat delivery goes through the halls of the high school. There are laws about who can get with-in five-hundred-feet of a high school. Sex offenders, violent felons. The list goes on and is added to year-after-year. The Meat People have specific knowledge of these restrictions regarding adult strangers hanging around high schools.

The operation only lasts ten minutes and that includes young-guy clowning and loafing time. Then the orange cones are collected, the truck is waved back and gone. It was the only benefit of showing up late and knowing your number won't't come up until after lunch; to witness the meat truck bringing additional mercy to the poor. There is an ambivalence about maintaining this distance. Why couldn't they be permitted to simply loot the truck--take less than five minutes, and be on their way? Save everybody about three hours.

The Northwest Settlement House Food Bank is open five days a week. The other four days you wouldn't notice it was operating. The Settlement House is a good neighbor; they fly the flag, it's a polling place. They manage the high school parent pick-up double-parking pretty well.

But on Tuesdays the Meat People arrive.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Home Land Security & 10,000 Chinese Ferret Cages


Paul was helping a friend find some warehouse space for his business. Through recommendations and word-of-mouth Paul and his friend went to visit a small factory on Chicago's west side that was rumored to have space available.

It was a long low building that ran most of the block. A commercial Realtor 'Space Available' sign hung on one end of the building. But Paul had been recommended to the owner at the last site they'd visited, "Ask for Roger, he's the owner, he'll show you around," the last guy had said.

The entrance to the office was set back from the street and a rolling-gate closed the parking lot off from the street. Paul and his friend, Ben, stood at the closed gate and looked at one another. And then it mysteriously rattled to life and slowly rolled open enough for the men to pass through. As they made their way the office door they could hear it closing behind them. Not the best neighborhood, so an auto-gate wasn't out of place.

The office area was a crowded, over-lit room hastily partitioned into a warren of cubicles. Heavy-set middle aged women seemed to run the place. They signed-in and were asked for their Drivers' License, which they produced. Paul grew concerned when the woman left with their ID.

Roger was an affable forty-five-year-old man. He led them into the warehouse to show them the space. Paul asked discretely about the license deal. Roger explained as they walked the length of the building; "Homeland Security. We're an importer of pet cages. Mostly bird, but also ferret, and the like. Dog and cat carriers, accessories. We produce here, but we've always imported. They say they inspect one percent of containers coming in, but it's considerably less than that, is my understanding. So we're registered, DHS comes out and visits twice a year. We're required to log all visitors. Not that they can stop something coming in, but so they'll be able to put it together after the fact. Homeland Security." He chuckled.

They passed pallet-after-pallet of ferret cages. Thick, blond Chinese cardboard boxes stacked high. Ben remarked; "Ah, the Chinese box," while running his hand across the polished surface of the distinct box, 'Made In China' stamped across the bottom in compliance with import regulations. Somewhere in his lifetime he'd passed through similar warehouses filled floor-to-ceiling with these exact style boxes. Domestic boxes were brown and coarser. It was obvious China was proud of its boxes, that considerable extra costs were sunk into this diplomacy-by-box. If you're sending three billion boxes to a nation, for Gods sake, make them superior boxes. On the one hand they were better, but on the other hand they exhibited a cheapness that belied the actual boxes' robust nature. Their strength was a virtue of state sponsored export box policy. To use a lesser box could mean death.

But then Ben's mind drifted back to ferrets, "Aren't ferrets like weasels?"

Roger explained; "They are, but without the water."

"Are they legal?"

"In most places. Not California, Michigan, Hawaii, or New York City."

"Why's that?"

"In California it dates back to the 1850's, when agricultural interests had them outlawed. They've been domesticated for thousands of years, but in the States they're sometimes seen as an invasive species. A family of ferrets in the wild could destroy your crops, raid your chicken coup at will. They were smarter than your average nineteenth century farmer it seems. But in most places it's legal and they apparently make good pets. You have to have a gland removed, similar to a skunks stink gland."

"Huh."

"We do a good ferret business."

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The 'America Is Doomed' Meme


Oh Internets, how I once believed all you told me of the eminent Fall of America. Yes, I read all the urgent economic ruin stories, the manic cultural collapse predictions, the End of Times hullabaloo. Peak Oil. CIA Psych-Ops operating out of the basement of the White House. The Bush/Cheney Fuck 'em all attitude. Of Tyranny and Ruin all around. Serial killers. Broken hearted stalkers scheming.

Whiskey and weed soothed my jangled nerves. Xannax aided my collapse into my dirty bed each night.

And then I took a walk to the grocery store and looked around. Autos drove down clean streets. Pedestrians walked in relative safety. Buses arrived and departed on street corners. There was no Tyranny in evidence. A calm policeman supervised a fender bender. There was no panic, no disorder, no social collapse. School children with heavy backpacks marched toward school buildings, buildings in good shape, with adult supervision.

And still the right wing lunatics howled and the lefties shrieked. The End Was Near.

But it has always been Near. This mythic End.

And so I tapered off the whiskey and flushed my pills and washed my bedding and awoke the next day to an America full of promise, confusion and relative order.

My TV and high speed internets had been bullshitting me all along. It was good news all around.

Friday, January 15, 2010

In Praise of Cold, Gray Winter Days


Chicago has always bragged of its winters. This boast is mostly that; few winters truly hit the epic scale of cruel freezes, deep snow, death counts and the like. Usually the big storms skirt just south or north of town. The weathermen get into a tizzy, the usual manic warnings are issued and the city mobilizes. The Mayor declares warming centers open, snow plows fully deployed. Milk and bread disappear from grocery store shelves.

Three inches of snow falls. All the dramatic Action News camera crews have to travel afar for the requisite snowy scene.

Less discussed is the dim charm of short gray January days. The temperature is above freezing (just), the snow has melted into shallow dirty puddles. The salt stained traffic winds its way through the streets with ease. The sun rises late and sets early. The wind cuts, but not deeply.

These are the days I find most enjoyable. The special quality of flat, weak light and clear cold air give the city a melancholy deeper than Autumn. Fall is full of cheap, flashy color and brisk sharp air. Sort of the whore of seasons; all come-hither and red-lipped.

The gray winter day is a serious, reflective thing. None of Summers hot glamor or Spring-like hope. It is an old man sitting in a comfortable arm chair reading History. A lovely woman half asleep. A tall tree striped bare and standing straight and proud. A world shorn of color, laid bare in basic gray-scale tones.

The perfect winter forecast reads: "Mostly cloudy in the morning then clearing. Patchy freezing fog early in the morning. Highs in the upper 30s. Southwest winds around 10 mph."

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Easily Fixed

It was another New Year and Paul was already procrastinating. The previous year had been one long slur of procrastination: late to work most days, late with rent (he was twelve-of-twelve on that one), late to bed, late with his bills, etc, etc.

By mid-January he had already put off fixing the slow leak in right-front tire of his poorly maintained truck, late to begin his no-smoking regime, late with minding the cold he'd picked-up until he was forced to bed for three wretched days. The only thing he seemed to get done on time was minding the scattered mother-of-three he was dating.

Amelia's needs were consistently urgent, harried and easily fixed. A dead battery, a ride to the emergency room to stitch-up her six-year-old's head wound (older sister dropped a meat cleaver on his head and felt horrible), quick to remedy her urgent sexual needs (bathroom sex while the kids watched TV), fast on the draw when the father came around drunk demanding the kids outside the court ordered visitation schedule (he'd stepped onto the porch and punched him hard in the gut, watched him vomit, assisted him to his car, apologized, had the apology accepted, shared a swill of whiskey before watching the sad man drive off).

He was procrastinating moving in with her, which would have saved them both a bunch of money. He liked the kids and they liked him well enough. He was of two minds on just about everything; the nation was either doomed or it was all exaggerated fear mongering delivered 24/7 by a twisted media; the world was cooking itself to death or it was just a glitch in the billion year history of the green rock circling the sun; love was possible or love was an illusion women forced on men for selfish motives cooked up by the likes of modern pop song writers and Oprah type opportunists. There was no way of knowing. He waffled, he argued both sides of these arguments with himself, he resented people who spoke with absolute certainty on such things.

But in the end he understood you help the weak when you can and remain skeptical of the powerful as a matter of conscience. He understood that every one hundred years the local cometary cleared the old dead and made way for the fresh dead. Otherwise it was guilt, panic and procrastination. And somehow that was okay with him.