The layout is simple: OfficeMax chairs nestled behind Ikea desks topped with PCs. No cubicles. When I arrive in the morning, the phones are already ringing. I drop my bags and run to answer. Today the caller asks, “What’s an alderman?” It’s a strange question — they’ve got to know they’re calling an alderman’s office — but a surprisingly common one. I don’t imagine other professionals get these calls at their place of business: “Hello. What is a dentist?”
Before living in Chicago, I’d never heard the word “alderman.” I did a quick Google search. I found the definition — a member of a city council tasked with dealing with legislation — as well as five pages of Chicago-related links and a company that sells farm equipment. It’s appropriate since, historically, plenty of aldermen have plowed the city for their personal benefit.
In Chicago, aldermen deal with much more than legislation. Since the municipality was established in 1837, it has been well known that if you have any city-related issue, from rats to looking for a job, you call your alderman. That said, I never called my alderman for anything. All I knew was aldermen sponsored park district baseball teams or got their sons-in-law jobs as governor, so I was surprised 12 years ago to find myself working for one.
My title is director of business affairs and communications, but it means nothing. In an alderman’s office, you do everything. My first few days on the job were difficult, since I struggled with why anyone would call a legislator to report that their neighbor was keeping a miniature horse in a garage. Now I roll with it, bringing a Leslie Knope level of positivity.
Most days consist of tree-trim requests, follow-up calls to city departments, and processing sidewalk café applications. But then there are the days when I believe Studs Terkel is looking out for me. On those days, I’m gifted stories that are a Chicago writer’s dream. One of my favorites was when a broad-shouldered, red-faced man came storming through the door of our reception area screaming, “You need to get rid of those Divvy bikes and you need to get rid of them now!”
Divvy bikes, in case you don’t know, are a Rahmbo legacy, a healthy alternate form of public transportation, so it was surprising to see this man so upset about them. After I explained that I could not get rid of the bikes, Red-Faced Man stepped closer to me, lifted his finger inches in front of my nose, and sternly said, “If you don’t get rid of the Divvy bikes, I will get rid of you … the Chicago Way.”
I didn’t know if he meant he was going to break my knees or have me transferred to a higher-paying office.
Since I’m a Korean and Puerto Rican woman working in a mostly white part of town, rarely does a day pass without someone commenting on my face. I’m met with questions like “What are you?” and “Where are you from? No, where are you from?”
A guy in a cowboy hat walked into the office to get a public way application approved. As we sat face to face on opposite sides of my desk, I could tell he was about to ask me something stupid by the way he removed his hat and leaned toward me. It’s the kind of lean-in that warns ambiguously brown folks like me that the next part of the conversation will include a racist whisper.
“You look like a Puerto Rican,” the cowboy said. Saying I look Puerto Rican might easily have been a response to my generically ethnic face, but there is a difference when you put an “a” in front of it. See? Racist.
I told the cowboy, “My father is Puerto Rican and my mom is Korean, but my dad wasn’t around. That’s why I don’t speak Spanish.” I added that last part because when people find out that I am half Puerto Rican, they immediately want to know if I speak Spanish, even if they can’t. It’s weird, like a random skills test. Imagine you’re in a grocery store and someone asks, “Hey, you look white, can you read this Kraft mac and cheese label?”
Apparently, the cowboy had recently purchased a fighting rooster in Puerto Rico and left it there in the care of some locals. The rooster died, and “now your people owe me a chicken.” I approved his application and showed him to the door. Before he walked out, he remarked that the shape of my body was “interesting” and I should be a ring girl for him at one of the boxing matches he promotes, maybe doing a Hula-Hoop routine because I could “pull off Polynesian.”
A top concern we hear about is dog poop. It’s reasonable. Y’all need to pick up your dog poop. It really affects the quality of life of your neighbors. When they repeatedly step into little Tootsie Rolls in the parkway, oof, they get mad. Even my work-from-home husband spends a portion of his day waiting to pounce on the next human who leaves a doggy doo in our yard. Sadly, his stalwart efforts have been thwarted by his new obsession: Man Bun Who Walks Cat.
A resident, who I hope never reads this, called my office desperate for help. He started with, “I doubt you can help me. This is my last resort.” He said his next-door neighbor had an aging greyhound and took the dog onto the roof of his house, instead of into the yard, to let the animal do his business. The concerned citizen was baffled why roof poops were deemed better than yard poops for the ailing dog. Baffling Roof Poops would be a good title for my tell-all book, I realized.
My caller explained that he didn’t want the dog owner to get into trouble or ticketed, but the situation was problematic. During the summer, the sunbaked droppings would produce a stench that made him gag, though it evidently didn’t bother the neighbor, who kept his windows closed and blasted the air conditioning. But it was the rainy days that my caller truly dreaded. When the skies opened up, splatters of feculence splashed against his own house. If he forgot his umbrella, exiting his home during inclement weather was exceedingly unpleasant. Splatters of Feculence would also work for my book.
The stories I tell less frequently are the ones that actually motivate me to unlock the office door every morning. Like helping the hard-of-hearing old woman with her property taxes while she tells me about growing up in a golden brick bungalow on Leavitt Street, with me interrupting to yell questions about annuities. Or there’s the time I cried after a Puerto Rican veteran and father of three came into the office just to shake my hand for helping his family after they lost their home. And then there are the paczkis my coworker brings in, a sugar-dusted reminder that I’m part of a team.
The fundamentals of the job come easy to me: Be kind, take the extra step to help, and patiently listen to all who deserve your attention and also to those who don’t. The best part, though? That tap on my elbow at a dinner party from someone asking me to tell that story again, and I say, “You mean the one about that guy who called because somebody shit in his convertible?”