I used to watch the bag lady from my living room window on Eastlake Terrace, in Rogers Park. She was a haughty old woman in a peaked hat, a long dress, stockings, and blocky shoes — an outfit too fancy for her daily rounds of flipping open the lids of trash bins on Rogers Avenue Beach, rooting through the contents, carrying away her finds in a Macy’s bag, and collecting cigarette butts to satisfy her smoking habit. She had a few friends on the block, but the one time I tried speaking with her, she fixed me with an evil eye and returned her attention to the trash bin.
Rogers Park is full of eccentrics, so I didn’t think much about the bag lady until I realized I hadn’t seen her for several years. One morning, I asked my neighbor Patrick, “whatever happened to that woman in the hat?” Patrick knows everyone on Eastlake Terrace. A burly, bearded, tattooed bachelor, he’s lived there since he was four years old, in an apartment house built by his great-grandfather, and spends his mornings holding court on a park bench, with a toy dog at his feet.
“Oh, that was Vivian Maier!” he exclaimed. “It turns out she was an amazing photographer. After she died, someone discovered her pictures in a storage locker, and now they’re making a movie about her.”
That was the first time I heard the name of the street photographer whose posthumous fame has created an industry of art books, movies, print sales, gallery showings, and biographies. After I saw the movie Finding Vivian Maier (in which Patrick made a cameo, since he’d called the ambulance when she took the spill that sent her to a nursing home), I wasn’t surprised that Vivian had chosen Rogers Park as her retirement home. Rogers Park is the attic of Chicago, where the city stores people it can’t use, but can’t get rid of, either.
One night, a wholesome young couple of my acquaintance wandered into the Lighthouse Tavern, my favorite Rogers Park dive bar. They’d just moved to the neighborhood. They were lovely people, but I knew they weren’t going to make it. They weren’t weird enough. Sure enough, as soon as their lease expired, they moved to Lincoln Square. They couldn’t stand the gunshots, and the prostitutes doing business in front of their building. In Rogers Park, only the weird survive.
Like Don Selle. Around the turn of the century, I often spent my evenings at Don’s Coffee Club, at Jarvis and Greenview. Evenings were the only time I could spend there. Although it was a coffee shop, Don’s didn’t open until 7 p.m., missing the ‘L’ riders not only on their way to work, but on their way home. Don ran the coffee club Don’s way. He didn’t want a lot of strangers there. He only wanted people who could relax in easy chairs he seemed to have salvaged from alleys, and appreciate the Big Band LPs spinning on his hi-fi. Curmudgeon though he was, Don became a popular figure in Rogers Park, drawing crowds to his annual prom and his Oscar party, where I seem to remember watching the ceremonies on a black-and-white television. Don’s popularity led him to close the business in 2000. “I can’t stand all these people,” he told the Chicago Reader’s Neal Pollack, a former Rogers Parker who once called his neighbors “the sediment left over after you put the city of Chicago through a sifter.”
You don’t need a whole lot of business sense to run a successful business in Rogers Park. It may be a handicap: You’ll come off as a capitalist pig who’s ruining the neighborhood’s laid-back vibe. Strictly from commercial, as Frank Zappa put it. Novelist Achy Obejas once captured this scene at the No Exit Cafe, the Beat-era coffee shop on Glenwood Avenue, famous for its games of Go.
We sit down, examine the menu and try to order. We attempt a half sandwich with a cup of the soup of the day.
“Ah, I don’t know what it is,” says the wait person, not moving.
“Could you please find out?”
“Oh, yeah,” she says, like a light bulb just went on. It’s tomato barley. “And bread with your sandwich?” She rattles off a bunch of different breads.
“A croissant, then,” I say.
“No croissant with the half sandwich,” she says.
“Oh, no white tonight.”
“Well, look, off that list, what do you have?”
“Dark rye, maybe whole wheat. I don’t know.”
The service was no better around the corner at the Heartland Cafe, founded in 1976 by Movement People Michael James and Katy Hogan. Yet the Heartland lasted 42 years by building a brand that brand went far beyond its buffalo burgers and tofu scrambles: there was a general store, a magazine, The Heartland Journal, a series of 5K races in Loyola Park, the Red Line Tap, the Heartland Studio Theater, and a still-running radio show, Live from the Heartland, a forum for the owners’ – and the neighborhood’s – left-of-center politics. James, the president of the 49th Ward Democratic Party, brought Barack Obama to the restaurant during its 2004 Senate campaign. The Heartland reflected Rogers Park’s image of itself as a community of eccentrics, misfits, and free spirits. Late in its run, the restaurant held fundraisers and sold memberships to cover $118,000 in bank overdrafts, and the kitchen was shut down for sanitary violations after a customer contracted food poisoning. Hey, we’ve all had troubles with The Man.
“It was less like a restaurant and more like a clubhouse where the spirited went,” No Wristbands host Justin Kaufmann recently told James during a segment on Rogers Park.
“There’s really a deep spirit,” James said. “We had our critics, whether it was the food, our politics, or our service, whatever it was, but other people got it, and they appreciated the complexity and the whole of it, and the good harmonious vibes.”
Good harmonious vibes satisfy the customer more deeply than good food or good service — at least in Rogers Park.
Last year, artists Jackie and Don Seiden sold their Candyland house on Pratt Boulevard, which is painted in pastel greens, orange, and yellows. As a local landmark, it’s right up there with the house on Lunt Avenue whose front yard is filled with mirrors and trash sculptures. I don’t know who bought the Candyland house, but so far they haven’t changed the paint job. That’s a good sign. They may be weird enough for Rogers Park.