“Who’s moving in?” the little old lady yelled.
“He is,” I yelled back.
“Hi,” she said, shuffling a few steps toward my friend.
Saturday was a moving day for two good friends of mine, and in the traditions of my people, I traded my weekend and my ability to walk without going “Ouch ouch ouch” for payment pizza and maybe a beer.
That’s what brought two tired, sweaty men to a tree-lined city block where the houses fly yellow and blue Ukrainian flags.
As idyllic as the greenery and scampering children made the place seem, this was still Chicago. The streets were packed end-to-end with cars. Downtown skyscrapers loomed to the east. A few of the louder horns and sirens could be heard from the rush of Western Avenue two blocks away.
The onion-shaped spires of an Orthodox church jutted over the brick two-flats that made up the homes.
My friend and I were unloading his car when the little old lady called to us. Her name was Maria. She had a long, shapeless dress that extended to the ground. She was 80 if a day and she used a cane as she slowly walked down the sidewalk. Her smile was gripping, vibrant. My friend went up to talk to her.
There are neighborhoods in Chicago that exist nowhere except on maps. These are places that have names and histories from when there was a community. Now there’s a series of houses.
But other places are still neighborhoods, with kids running from porch to porch and little old ladies who make it their business to get to know all newcomers.
The street where I live is busy and loud. It’s convenient to transit, to a Subway that gives good coupons for sandwiches and to a coffee shop with terrible service but that will let me use their WiFi for hours.
I don’t know any of my neighbors. I don’t even know all the names of the three or four fratty white guys living downstairs, aside from one’s named Jack and another is something ridiculous like “Chase.” I talked with the next door guy once, a Hispanic fellow whose name now escapes me.
But here on this street of yellow and blue flags, people say hi. Kids run from friend’s stoop to friend’s stoop. Families sit on the front porch or sun themselves in backyards.
Old ladies want to get to know who’s moving in.
Although a chance to pick the brain of a charismatic Chicagoan would seem to be my bread and butter, I waited by the car and let the two of them talk.
It wasn’t a conversation for me. It was a conversation for the two new neighbors.
When their talk waned, my friend walked back to me and the car.
“You’ll see me a ton,” she called after, although there’s a chance she said “shit-ton” and my brain could not process the little old lady using that word. Sources are looking into it. “We’re always on the front porch.”