Sunday, February 17, 2013

South of No North, North of No South

As of September of this the year of our lord 2013, I will have lived in the north side of Chicago for twenty years.  That’s almost half my life.  That being the case, one might conclude that I am now unquestionably a northsider.  Sure, why not?   Well… I can’t always say as much, since the south side (southwest, to be exact) roots run deep.  There are considerable differences between the two areas, though really, once you peal away the superficial, not so much.  Having spent time in both areas (though, to tell the truth, I have barely explored a lot of the real south side, at least not as much as anyone claiming to be a Chicagoan should), I've noticed a lot of the same bullshit, just presented differently.  For example: baseball separates the north and south side, represented by the Cubs and Sox.  Both sets of fans are equally obnoxious to me, and I could give a fuck about baseball these days, but I will say that the complaints about the Cubs fans (they’re a bunch of drunken yuppies) and the Sox fans (they’re a bunch of drunken tradesmen) seem pretty similar to me. 

Other differences: southsiders can’t imagine driving up north as, they fear, there is no place to park.  I admit, it is a problem, but one you get used to.  Now, this bothered me less in the glorious years before Daley screwed us with his parking meter privatization (I’ll never forgive him for that), but I feel that the parking, or lack thereof, is a small price to pay for living up here.  Anyway, I live in Rogers Park, which, I admit, is no parking paradise, but it’s hardly as bad as Lakeview or Lincoln Park.  And, while we’re at it, my neighborhood is hardly the yuppie-laden land my south side pals might imagine.  It’s pretty blue collar, has some crime, some danger, some fun, some great places to eat and drink, and, in many ways, feels like home.  Clark Street from Devon to Howard reminds me a bit of Archer Avenue.  But I don’t know that my south side connections get that, mainly because they never come up here.  I realized long ago that if I wanted to see my family (with the exception of my mother and stepdad and brother, who have come up many times) or my old friends, I would have to make the effort because they sure as shit were not going to.  I can count on one hand the times my extended family (love you all) has come to visit and I can count on two fingers the number of times my old friends (miss you all) have made the trek.  But that is my fault, of course, for defecting.  (Not to sound bitter or anything.  I know they all kids and jobs and lives that busy them.)

Again, parking is the issue, but another factor might be the actual length of time it takes to get up here.  Okay, I get that, but really, the drive is not so bad.  I’ve done it many times, sometimes more than once in a single weekend.  (I might ask some people to look up the word reciprocity in the dictionary.)

I don’t want to pick on my south side buddies only.  Many of my north side friends have also expressed misgivings about the south side.  In fact, I get a lot of questions along the lines of: “Is it violent?” and  “Will I get mugged?”  I remind them that I grew up in the southwest suburban area near Midway, not in the heart of Englewood, but to these northsiders, everything past the Loop is a ghetto. 

The problem has to do with representation.  The most recent example is the Showtime program, Shameless, which I have been digging lately.  While it’s good, skuzzy fun, it exists in a fantasy of Chicago, despite being mostly filmed here.  The show takes place on the “south side” which is never 100% defined.  One character referred to her neighborhood as Back of the Yards, which seems consistent with many of the street names mentioned on the program, though, in reality, the show is filmed on 21st near Kedzie.   No matter—the actual location of the characters is not terribly important—this is fiction, after all—but there are numerous references to the “north side” that make it sound, again, as if everyone up north lives in a giant condo and has gobs of disposable cash.  The north side has plenty of shitty areas (Uptown still gets a little hairy at times), but not in the universe of Shameless.  It’s just too easy to write tales of the divide between these two parts of town, thus, when a character goes north to visit someone, the obvious choice of location is the Gold Coast.

And while we’re on the subject, there are a ton of areas excluded by the north/south split, mostly, the west side, which is never really discussed, as the Bulls and Hawks belong to everyone.  And the south side itself is composed of many different neighborhoods.  To say you are a southsider could mean you live in Bridgeport, Kenwood, Englewood, Hyde Park, or Hegewisch, for example.  So, just as the southsiders tend to cling to easy ideas of what goes on up here, the northsiders do very much likewise. 

A while ago, I posted online about my life since moving up north.  I mentioned that I used to eat steak burritos, White Castle burgers, and Italian beef sandwiches fairly regularly when I lived south.  Now I eat tofu, Thai food, and drink kefir for breakfast.  These were easy classifications, and my last trip to a Dominick’s on the south side netted me some kefir, couscous, and a fair amount of foods that I would have considered yuppie crap years back.  There’s even a Starbucks or two!  It may be happening slowly, but my old blue collar neighborhoods are going the way of the latte.

This is all to say that none of it matters.  If where you live is how you define yourself, well, there’s something wrong with you.  Not to say one ought to be complacent about or indifferent to their surroundings, but while I recognize the greatness of my city, I see how different its many pockets are from each other, which makes it hard to say I am a Chicagoan since I am really only familiar with a fraction of this town.  Okay, a few fractions, but I know better than to let such silly definitions (northsider/southsider) define me.  Nevertheless, it is somewhat inescapable. 

My old boss from the Aspidistra once told me he never would have hired me if knew I came from the south side.  When I moved here, my old pal John D.P. told me to make sure my shoelaces were tied while walking around Wrigley Field.  The tag line for the Southtown Economist used to read, “People Up North Just Don’t Get It.”  I saw a guy once on the El wearing a shirt with “US Cellular, where there’s more drive-bys than line drives” printed on it next to a Sox Sux logo.  And god knows there are far more Cubs Suck shirts worn around US Cellular.  Dear lord, how can a city so divided stand?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Shvlovsky, Ugresic, and the Damned MFA Novel

More than ever, the real world needs committed enemies. The half-joking observation by Croatian essayist Dubravka Ugresic—that socialist realism lives on in what she called “contemporary market literature”—has only grown more apt and less funny since she made it a few years ago. The swelling MFA industrial complex and the now almost entirely monopolized corporate publishing market enforce their edicts with no more flexibility than the bureaucratic state: novels must be peopled with “motivated” and “dimensional” characters, “believable” plotlines, something called “resolution,” and other such sparkly ghosts. Ignoring centuries of literary whimsy, 91 percent of American MFA students—I base that figure on my own informal polling—and a similar proportion of mainstream book reviewers regard the novel as a type of window tasked with representing the real.

But literature, the young Shklovsky insists, is its own planet, bound by the rules that it creates. “Art,” he wrote in Zoo, “if it can be compared to a window at all, is only a sketched window.” Its point is not to accurately reflect this same old cruddy, shrink-wrapped world, but to steal us new sets of eyes, to forge new and unimagined senses. This is art’s one virtue, its promise and delight. And the novel, call it dead or alive, is not a thing among things of a certain weight and size, obliged to obey established formulae. It is a weird box of almost bottomless openness, a compact revolution in a cloth and cardboard binding. Or, if you prefer, in pixels. 

From an essay on Victor Shklovsky.  Read the whole thing here.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Eating Veggie Like a Carnivore

It’s more fun being a vegetarian than people think.  Actually, it’s as much fun as eating meat.  Really, who gives a damn?  Leonard Cohen wrote something about this:

“A man who eats meat wants to get his teeth into something. A man who does not eat meat wants to get his teeth into something else.  If these thoughts interest you for even a moment, you are lost.”

No disrespect to Mr. Cohen and his famous blue raincoat, but fuck off, Lenny.  This shit does interest me more than some of your songs these days, especially considering the politicized nature of food in the 21st century. 

Sidestepping that rant and the inevitable debate, let’s just focus on some meatless alternatives to some of my favorite dishes from when I was a carnivore. 

And to prolong this prologue even further, let me say that yeah, there a few things I miss about meat, mainly White Castle burgers, but the other things I miss are easily replicated in meatless fashion, the top three of them being the Reuben, the burger, and the hot dog.  Thus, my quest for veggie versions took me to a few spots around Chicago.  What follows is the report, as if you give a rat’s ass:

The Reuben

Oh, what a lovely sandwich.  Corned beef and sauerkraut mix with abandon, heaped upon rye bread with Swiss cheese and Russian dressing, a veritable United Nations of flavors.  I used to love the Reuben, so when I saw that Native Foods offered a veggie version I became more than stoked.  Having missed the initial offer (it came and went last year around St. Pat’s day), I sought solace at Revolution Brewing, a pub/brewery in Chicago’s Logan Square area.  They make good beer, so it seemed logical that the Reuben would be worth a dance. 

All things considered: not a bad Reuben—the Russian dressing is exceptional—but the tempeh meat substitute does not even try to duplicate the taste of corned beef, which is fine, but still… $12 bucks for this? 

Thankfully, Native Foods made the Reuben a regular menu item, so I got to try it and… damn tasty.  Like everything else there, not cheap (more than a real Reuben would ever cost) but pretty close to the actual sandwich, though the Russian dressing could be better (and there could be more of it).  I’m happy to visit there each Thursday when the sandwich is the special of the day and comes with a bowl of onion soup.  

The winner in this match up was definitely Native Foods.  The Reuben is closer to the real thing and the restaurant lacks hipsters unlike Revolution, which, considering its location, was rife with ironic facial hair.  

The Dog

There’s something about veggie dogs—they don’t suck, but they don’t really taste like anything.  It leads me to wonder if real hot dogs really taste like much, thus our city’s predilection toward saturating them with mustard and relish and sport peppers and celery salt and whatever you can think of, except, of course, ketchup.  Whatever the case, I like the idea of a good hot dog, though I am disgusted by the idea of a real one.  I have been for a long time.  Hell, the thought of the shit that goes into a hot dog, even the all beef Dave Bergs, makes me a little sick.  Store bought veggie dogs are fair to middling and require something to add a dash of flavor (chili being my at home choice).  But saints be praised, my lovely wife discovered that Hot Doug’s makes a meatless dog.  It had to be good, I thought.  This is the place for gourmet dogs in the city.  If they could pull off an andouille sausage dog, why not a veggie one?

We wandered over (after a few misadventures) to California Avenue to check out the Joe Strummer dog, as it is called.  I got two—one steamed and one char grilled, both with sauerkraut and celery salt.  Cassandra got hers grilled with mustard and relish and pickles and… we’re not going to go there.  Suffice it to say, I love these dogs.  The grilled one has a nice taste and the steamed one doesn’t taste like plain tofu.  The kraut—a favorite, in case you haven’t noticed—gives them a fantastic flavor.  Kudos. 

Closer to home, we checked out Huey’s in Andersonville on a lark.  Two veggie chilidogs (with free fries!) later, I was pretty happy.  Not as good as the char grilled Joe Strummer, but not bad at all.  And they have foosball!  

Overall, the winner for me was Hot Doug's (kraut is hard to beat), though Cassandra favored Huey's.  A split decision.  

The Burger

Certainly the most popular meat substitute, the veggie burger can be blissful, though more times than not it's a dry, dull concoction.  The ones sold at the grocery store are usually better than any I have ordered at a restaurant, but, as I often find myself at pubs, I tend to eat a lot of them while outside the homestead.  The Mayne Stage near my pad has a pretty good version, though it may have been the fried egg that made it sing, not to mention the pints of beer and tumblers of whiskey.  Not satisfied with that option, Cassandra sought out some suggestions, the first being the ever popular Kuma’s Corner.

Let’s cut to the chase: the burger was fine, but I preferred the metal music blaring from the speakers.  And the whiskey on tap is a nice touch, though I doubt it tastes any better than booze from a bottle (we ate there at lunch time and I stayed sober, mostly because I wanted my impression to be unclouded by alcohol).  And the variety of burgers is pretty great.  I got the Neurosis, which was damn tasty; Cassandra, for some reason, ordered the Plague Bringer, a spicy burger worthy of its name.  Though I dug the toppings, the burger itself was merely the standard vegetarian version—soulless with only the unique condiments to give it any flavor.  And the pretzel bun was fine, though I would have liked for it to be grilled slightly, like all buns are supposed to be. Still, I had never heard of Plague Bringer, the band, and have since been digging their brand of metal.  So there's something.

And then we tried the veggie burger named best in the city by someone or other (The Reader?  Time Out?): the No. 12 at DMK Burger Bar on Sheffield.  Cassandra had that while I opted for the veggie patty melt.  I do love a patty melt.  Dark rye, grilled onions... what's not to like?  And the patty melt at DMK sounded pretty tasty what with the onions described as "burnt" and all.  Sadly, they opted for light rye, a big mistake.  Go dark or go home.  Still, an agreeable veggie burger, though I'm not sure I'd call it award winning.  The bun on Cassandra's was nice, potato based and soft, as was the eggplant that topped it off, though we could not order fries (cooked in beef fat) and, for some goddamn reason, substituting the veggie patty for the real meat version cost an extra two bucks.  The damn menu is steep enough.  At least Kuma's had no problem making any of their burgers meatless.  Fucking Lakeview DMK bastards think they're special because Guy Fieri featured them on his show.  Jeesh, I'm just trying to live without eating animals, and what, I get punished for it by some Bison cooking jerkwads? 

So, for the music, the vibe, and the variety, Kuma's wins.  Not to mention they're located in Avondale, a neighborhood I prefer over Lakeview.  Avondale is more metal, more blue collar, and has a lot more parking and a lot less assholes.      

Big V. out.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Why Drink?

Hemingway wrote that one should to drink to make others more interesting.  There’s no topping that one, but here are some of my own reasons to drink alcohol:

  • In the face of absurdity, which the universe opts to dish out on a daily basis, what else can one do but swallow mild poisons?  
  •  Because I have hands that need to hold a glass and a mouth that needs filling, a belly emptied of beer waiting for refill, a spirit unchallenged by banality.
  •  Because I can’t sleep.
  • How else are we supposed to suffer fools? 
  • Because few good stories begin with, “The other day I was sipping tea…”
  • By reducing yourself— not daily, you know, but on occasion— to a state of intoxication— not over intoxication, you see, just slight—one can better understand the truth behind the manufactured.  One can see that reality is only as real as we perceive it to be, and perception is malleable given the right amount of spirits.  Who hasn’t seen the world differently through bleary 4 AM eyes? 
  • Though booze can destroy a man like Malcolm Lowry, it can also fuel a book like Under the Volcano.
  • Because weed is hippie bullshit. 
  • There are things we wish to say and do, things that require an excuse.  What better escape clause than “I was drunk”? 
  • When drunk, we often realize that we are not impressing anyone and that it doesn’t matter a damn bit.   
  • Because the neighbors won’t shut up, the boss is a son of a bitch, the bills are due, the knee’s acting up again, it’s raining, the prayers haven’t been answered, there’s nothing on TV, the government is corrupt, and the world is going to hell. 
  • Because you just turned 21. 
  • Because you just turned 40.
  • Because you just turned 70.
  • What better way to understand the frailty of your species than by drinking to excess and waking to a crushing hangover? 
  • Someone gets to make alcohol; someone gets to open a bar, gets hired as a bartender, a bar back, a bouncer; someone gets to admit someone else to the drunk tank; someone gets to open a liquor store— all because we drink.  Drinkers are job creators. 

That’s all.  I had more, but that was two whiskies ago.