#960: The King of Quiet Moments

July 30th, 2018

In my neighborhood, there’s a school for the French. Next to it is a French café owned by a French woman who smiles like a diamond sparkles and whose forearms drip and dangle with tattoos. 

Her hair is the color of a wheat field, pulled to ponytail for convenience sake. She looks about my age — late 30s — but could be older with the smile subtracting years.

The espresso is rich and bitter. The croissants are bold and buttery, and at least the one I bit into oozed with molten chocolate.

As the order comes up and I ask if the French café and the French school are connected.

“No,” she says, with slight annoyance, and the smile drops, I presume from the constancy of the question or the assumption that her French and theirs must mingle.

To wander there on a sunny morning, you have to wander past a storefront Buddhist temple. The red doors are open — a rarity — and a waft of incense thickens the air along the street. A woman wanders out, her face as straight and annoyed as any worshiper putting in their Sunday morning obligation.

From inside those open doors, a clacking pairs with the incense. Some ritual, I guess. A clock-like, constant clacking of wood on wood as the reverent stand facing the incense, clack-maker and three serene Buddha. Each has a rainbow halo behind it, buzzing circles of neon lights shooting like a Republic serial ray gun from the Buddhas’ heads.

Before that, we crossed the line of bars, closed for the morning, a street for revelry and stumbling at night, now the parade grounds for dashing young white women in prim ponytails and workout athleisure wear carrying their Starbucks coffee cups down the road.

Here, a gay bar where the old-timers grow grayer each night. Here, a dying restaurant where the Hispanic family looks longingly for the customers who used to buy tacos and overstuffed burritos.

Here, home.

And Stanley’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables is up for sale.

It seems odd that my wife and my morning adventure of coffee and croissant brings to mind a discount grocery store four miles to the south, but it does. Did. I wrote about Stanley’s before, 700 stories and a lifetime ago. It’s one of those weird, wonderful oddities a big city offers — a place that buys up produce too ripe for the mega-grocers and sells it for a pittance.

But it’s in the blast radius of the massive Lincoln Yards development the mayor wants to drop upon the city. The project’s an A-bomb of wealth, blasting everything poor and weak and human out of the district.

Two miles away from Stanley’s, Mr. Ping Pong has closed.

It was a combination U-Haul rental shop and ping-pong competition space I swore I was going to write about someday. I swore I’d get to it in these 1,001 stories, but I kept putting it off. I was busy. I’d done too many stories in Ukie Village already. I was tired and, hell, it’s not going anywhere.

Then it went somewhere. Rent got too high. Another odd little spot closed.

So many places I’ve written about have closed. Pen shops, book stores, diners, little gardens old ladies thought might fight gangs, bars. Corner spots mowed down as everything becomes nicer and more efficient and wealthier and more… Rahmish. We’re living in Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago because he refuses to live in ours, and it’s not getting better.

I’ll cherish the smell of incense and the laughter of old-timers smoking outside the gay bar while I can. I’ll savor the smiling woman’s baking and the sound of children chattering in French as they walk past clacking temples while I still can. These are the quiet moments of the nook I call home. My sounds would be the knocking of ping-pong balls if I lived another place, the morning rush of grocery shoppers if I lived another. My sounds are no better, they’re just mine.

The future will be nicer. Convenient. Wealthy. And as homogeneous as rice in risotto. When the profitable businesses drive out the poor ones and the hyperprofitable drive out the ones that just get by, all our quiet moments will sound the same.

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