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Twelve Blocks

McVicker Avenue, 2400 North | Belmont Cragin

The Random Block

By Tom Chiarella

Published Oct. 29, 2018

After first light, people walk their dogs on the 2400 block of North McVicker Avenue. Six people, seven dogs. One teenager, clearly robbed of sleep by the jerk-start of morning, trudges along in protest. A woman, then another, uses the outing as an excuse to catch a smoke. A third jogs with her mastiff. A couple of men drink coffee from paper cups.

And when the time comes, each of them pulls a plastic bag from a pocket or purse. No one seems put out by it. No one is much watching, except me, unseen, from the front seat of my Toyota. No one cheats, even at 6:28 in the morning. This is the first assertion of order and routine on your basic city block: men, women, and children walking their street dangling little bags of shit from their fingertips.

In the second hour, schoolkids, saddled with backpacks, walk in twos and threes. The sky is dark, heavy overhead, as the sun muscles over the housetops. It throws a yellow geometry of light onto pavement still wet from last night’s rain.

The kids aren’t loud, but you can hear them yelp a word or two into the quiet of the morning. They all drift in the same direction — south, always south, toward school. Two boys, maybe 10 or 11 years old, walk on opposite sides of the street, parallel each other, lofting a tennis ball back and forth. Neither makes any attempt to catch the looping throws, and it delights them whenever the ball rolls to a stop on one of the lawns. The boys appear to be keeping score. The game is over at the end of the block, where they leave the tennis ball under a cement planter.

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Sometime after 8, in that third hour, the street goes quiet again. School has begun. The sun asserts itself. Then three women leave for work on foot. The first calls out in Spanish to her young daughter in the second-floor window.

“Stay back from the screen,” she says.

“I know, Mama.”

The second woman pauses for 10 minutes to weed her garden, with her purse still hanging from her shoulder. She leaves three piles sitting on the curb like little offerings. The third returns after eight minutes, having clearly forgotten something. She comes straight back out with a little dog in her arms. The dog barks like crazy at the guy in his Toyota across the street. The woman doesn’t seem to notice him.

Sit on the street long enough and you can see people’s to-do lists piled up on their porches and in what they carry in their arms — mail, diaper bags, three-ring binders, containers of cupcakes balanced on fingertips, handfuls of garden flowers squashed in a sheet of tinfoil.

In the fourth hour, not one car passes. I walk the block. There are 63 potted plants. The garden beds are deep and well mulched. Some houses might be better decorated than others, but every house looks minded. On this Friday, not one lawn appears in need of mowing on the 2400 block of North McVicker.

The hours trip by. The street parking thins as the morning expires. There are no histrionics on this day. No drama. The ensuing quietude is a reassurance. Maybe real crisis stays behind the curtains. In a neighborhood where people care, nothing happening is a comfort.

 

I had wanted to profile a random block in the city. The question was how to pick it. I decided to throw a dart. But I know the city well enough that I didn’t want to shade a choice toward the familiar. I didn’t want to aim, even a little bit. I wanted the spot to be emblematic of nothing at all, except what it was: one block, one day.

So I took a comprehensive street map of Chicago, the kind taxi drivers once used, and pinned it, upside down and backward, to a wall in my local bar. It was the only place I could think of that had darts.

There’s probably a phone app for selecting a random city block — why wouldn’t there be? — but I liked the 19th-century spin-the-globe feel of employing a dart blindly as a tool of randomness. Then I discovered the house darts were tipped in plastic. It’s like that everywhere, the bartender told me. Safety over randomness.

There was a drunk guy at the bar, doing pull-tabs and nursing a beer. “Kenny’s got darts,” he said, hooking a thumb toward the door, at the auto shop across the street. So I walked over. All they had was a single featherless dart that had been dropped a long time ago into a plastic cup full of ball bearings. “It’s oily,” Kenny told me. “You got to throw it real hard to make it stick in anything.”

Back in the bar, I threw the dart as hard as I could, aiming for nothing at all but the flipped-over outline of the city.

My first throw hit the lake. So I rotated the map and threw again. Lake again. Third throw hit the middle of a park in North Lawndale.

“Well, you made land,” the bartender said.

Then I sidearmed the dart in frustration, hard enough to make it count, and that time it found purchase. The 2400 block of North McVicker. One block north of Fullerton. On the Northwest Side, in Belmont Cragin. Barely inside the confines of the city. I didn’t know the street, or even much about the neighborhood. No one in the bar did either. But that was my block.

“McVicker sounds like London,” the bartender said.

“What are you going to do there?” the pull-tab guy asked.

Just take a look, I told him. Get a feel for the block.

“One place is pretty much like any other,” the bartender said.

“It’s a block, not a place,” the pull-tab guy said. “Pretty specific. If you sit there long enough, you’ll see all kinds of things.”

I shrugged and folded up my map. I told him I didn’t know what I would find. The bartender looked at me and smiled. “You’ll just find normal, I bet,” she said.

 

At 10:45 A.M., about halfway up the west side of the street, an old man, a little bent up and stiff, and a small boy emerge from one house. They amble toward a pair of lawn chairs he keeps cabled to a fruit tree, where the old man sits, heavily. And lights a cigarette.

This is Phil Deglman and his 5-year-old grandson. Deglman moved to the 2400 block of North McVicker just over 32 years ago. He sits in this chair most days if it’s not raining. He minds his grandson 12 hours a day, when his son is working as a mover. Part of the day, they sit out here and watch the world go by. He’s happy to talk about the block, too. “It is beautiful,” he says. “We’ve never had no shootings.”

That’s not the case one block over, in either direction, he says. “They just had a shooting at the park. But none on this street. And I don’t expect any.”

Does anyone else come out front during the day whom I can talk to? Deglman pinches one eye against the drift of his cigarette smoke and winces. “Not really,” he says. “Most people use their backyards for sitting.” He doesn’t have that option. “My father-in-law owns the house, and about 10 years ago, he had me build him a building in the backyard. I call it the Museum of Puerto Rican Culture. So now there’s just three feet of open space back there.”

It seems an interesting quirk of the neighborhood, this makeshift museum. I’d like the chance to see it. Deglman shrugs this request off. “It’s closed now. He used it as a place to meet his friends. Now it’s just kind of a warehouse for his stuff.”

I tell him what I’m after: life on a city block, seen from a single day. He nods vigorously. “It’s a good street,” he says. “I get along with everybody. It used to all be Poles, then Puerto Ricans. Now Filipinos and Ecuadorians seem to like it.”

Every house on the block has been expanded in some fashion — a second-floor conversion, a front porch extension, a finished basement, a backyard addition. “If you look,” Deglman says, “you’ll see that every house has these gutter extensions too.” His grandson runs past us then, dragging a plastic toy sword. “I’m just saying, you can see this is a street where everybody takes care.”

What other changes has he seen over the years? He points over to a little house set back from the street. “The guy who built that house once told me he used to be able to stand on his porch, look north, and he could see all the way to Montrose.” That’s more than 20 blocks. It seems inconceivable now, since the canopy of arbors makes it hard to see more than a single block away now. “It’s a big city that rolled in here,” he says. “And this street was here the whole time, with all these people.” He waves a cigarette in the air. “No one ever notices it, when you’re quiet and take good care like these people here.”

 

At 12:30, a woman passes down the street, pushing an ice cream cart. I give her a nod and approach. She shrugs as I do.

Lo siento,” she says. “No abierto todavía.”

I wave that off. I just have a couple of questions, I say. When I ask if she lives here on the 2400 block of North McVicker, an alarmed blankness drops over her face. And I can suddenly see myself: a big white guy with a shaved head and dark glasses carrying a notepad and questioning the comings and goings of a young Mexican woman on a random city block. It feels bad to us both.

I remove the glasses, smile, and look her in the eye. “Por favor,” I say. “Mango.”

An hour later, I’m back in the Toyota when a white Escalade pulls up close on my left. Alarmingly close, actually. Like four inches. The driver, perched well up above me, is a big guy with close-cropped hair and a wicked long beard fashioned into some kind of braid or dreadlock. My window is up, so I can’t hear him, but he’s waving his hands, pointing at me, making gestures I can’t read.

I think, very directly: I’m screwed. He’s got me blocked in. I can’t open my door, not even a crack. Maybe this guy has an issue with me being here. And why wouldn’t he? I’m an intruder, even sitting curbside. And what’s with the pointing? Is he waving at something? Is it a warning?

I start to roll down my window, but then I realize that he’s not looking at me at all. He’s speaking past me, toward the sidewalk, where a tiny old woman is pulling a grocery basket behind her.

The guy with the dreadlock beard is not hassling her. He’s chiding her. “I should be doing that for you,” he says. And the woman, his grandmother, waves gently before she turns to unhook the gate in front of her house. “Call me when you go to the store,” he says. “I’ll come with you next time.” She smiles and does a “Fine, fine, don’t worry” wave past me, toward him, says something in Spanish. He calls out to her, promising to be back before breakfast tomorrow. He calls her pequeño conejo. Little rabbit.

I slide down in my seat. He pulls away. The abuela goes inside her house. Neither of them seemed to notice me.

 

When the schoolchildren return, late in the afternoon, life starts moving again through the 2400 block of North McVicker. Boys play soccer in the alley. Packs of children waft toward the park. The dogs come back, dragging their people behind. A man eating a sandwich walks by. I’m sitting in my own lawn chair by now. He stops and asks if I want half of his sandwich. He seems to think I’m down on my luck.

There are women selling fruit at the end of the street, he tells me. “Everybody needs fruit,” he says. “You should buy a papaya.“ I walk with him to get one.

Then I walk some more. Up the block, then down. Up one alley, then over to the next. So many plantings. It is a long stack of normal, this block. Small, well-built homes — brick and mortar, clapboard and stucco, cedar, poplar, and pine — their various constructions pressed forward to the street in good times and retreating inward, indoors, when things got tough.

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I take inventory of this place. A concrete cougar on one porch. Year-round Christmas lights in the form of plastic icicles on another house. A forgotten window sign in support of unions. A stack of firewood, placed by that loving abuela, in the lower crook of a fruit tree. And yes, the unseen Museum of Puerto Rican Culture too. The details of eccentricity — kitschy, particular, and sometimes vaguely out of place — carry normalcy to the end of the day on the 2400 block of North McVicker.

The sun goes down. I stay, observing, until darkness overtakes the street. Young people drive by blaring music too loud for this place. Then they are gone. Eventually, there are kids waving sparklers in one yard. Then another. They know the weekend is coming. They will be free from school. Then this one block, like every sort of normal, can become somewhere new once again.

Tom Chiarella was a writer at large at Esquire magazine for 18 years.

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