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30

Cut-Rate Liquor, Greasy Food, and Hope for Humanity, All on One Street

An ode to Chicago Avenue

Chicago Avenue is never more beautiful than it is at night. The workmanlike, bustling, endless hustle of daylight morphs into a fleet and sleek animal. Dressed in lights and stars, come-hither reds, yellows, and greens—the dirty-carpet sky leans back and reveals a sight of glittering skyscrapers, like gangsters dressed in diamonds.

On occasion, I ride the Chicago Avenue bus from downtown to Damen, the bus lurching like a tired old mutt ambling from one skinny tree to the next. This is my favorite street in the city, one where you are as likely to hear Polish and Ukrainian as English. It is a street about business: candy-colored storefronts, taco joints, nail salons, tattoo parlors, cut-rate furniture, cheap shoes, and good burritos.

Art by Tony Fitzpatrick
Illustration: Tony Fitzpatrick

It’s a no-bullshit proposition. Like the Loop Tavern sign says: “$2 Shot $4 Pints.” The grammar might be wrong but you understand the message—and if you don’t? Just keep walking, Lunchmeat. This slashie (a bar/package-liquor store) is for guys who want a shot and a beer and a six-pack to go. See? Because Chicago Avenue keeps moving. It’s like a shark that way—even at night when it goes slower, the signs continue the pantomime of perpetual motion. It is an avenue in a hurry.

It is also an avenue of tribes—the Mexican joints supported by Mexicans; the Polish and Ukrainian ones likewise. The hipster coffee spots do a brisk business with the influx of the nose-ring and man-bun crowd. Chicago Avenue is the new and the old city right on top of each other, yet not as mismatched as you would think. The colors and signage from half a block away dissolve into a babel of urban language—urgent, exigent, seductive, and unstoppable; these are my primary colors.

One of my favorite things to do is to walk my dog, Chooch, along this avenue late at night when I can’t sleep, when it is peopled by kids staggering home from the bars and old guys leaving for work or coming back from third-shift jobs. Chooch goes crazy for the food smells wafting up and down the street. Once in a while, one of the guys from El Taco Veloz comes out and throws him a morsel of skirt steak. When you give Chooch a treat, he doesn’t wag his tail, he wags his whole ass. This guy will laugh like hell and toss him another piece.

I sometimes get the idea while strolling this avenue that all of the old tropes about the melting pot and the American dream are true—it all kind of works here. There is no ruling population; it is a community. Everyone has a little piece of their own. And everyone has their own task.

There are mornings I wake up and hate this city for its petty vindictiveness, its bottomless cruelty, its idiotic and empty boosterism. It’s run by clowns, pygmies, and Chihuahuas and suffers from a lack of self-esteem so pernicious it makes one despair of the species.

But then there are the mornings I come down Chicago Avenue and see one neighbor shoveling another’s car out of the snow. Or a young Mexican woman helping an old Ukrainian lady navigate the slippery sidewalk on the way to the bus stop. Mornings when I see what is good about us. That is when I feel like we are triumphing. The big narratives may define a city, but the small kindnesses hold it together.

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