Creative Nonfiction

Creative Nonfiction Issue #16

Sap Rising: A Natural History of Neighborhood

By Arthur Plotnik

Like old homesteaders circling their spread and recalling the early days, we often walk the forty steps of our cherished one-tenth-acre plot reflecting on when we settled in an unsettling Chicago neighborhood some three decades ago. We didn’t face locusts, dust storms, or massacres (though one murder took place around the corner)….
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*Image from Droplets, a photographic series by Natcha W., Photography


Sap Rising: A Natural History of Neighborhood

By Arthur Plotnik

Like old homesteaders circling their spread and recalling the early days, we often walk the forty steps of our cherished one-tenth-acre plot reflecting on when we settled in an unsettling Chicago neighborhood some three decades ago. We didn’t face locusts, dust storms, or massacres (though one murder took place around the corner). But homesteading of any type has its challenges and triumphs, its engagement with the locals. In cities as on the prairies, you do what you can to fit yourself to the land and the land to you.

My new wife Mary and I were hardly urban pioneers. We got married, wanted out of apartment life, and looked hurriedly for a place we could afford. When we found one with our main requirements—space, tree-shaded street, and nearby stores and public transportation—we tuned out the ominous signs. It wasn’t among the worst Chicago neighborhoods, but who with any choice buys where gang graffiti brands every garage door? Where abandoned cars lie dying? Where boozers congregate like carp outside a cluster of beer joints?

Answer: People just eager to settle on their own patch and build from there. Mary and I had both been through divorces and post-divorce befuddlement and adjustments, enough displacement, enough temporary frameworks for getting by. We were of age: She’d done her twenties, I’d done my thirties, and we felt armored enough by our love to face the unknown.

We moved into the house in late summer. When not working—me, an editor; Mary, an art instructor—we spent most of the fall and winter focused on the house’s interior. Learning how to do it as we went, we sealed leaky windows; we buttressed the roof with attic joists; we dressed in space suits and removed asbestos. We damn near killed ourselves making an 80-year-old, shag-carpeted, lead-piped, cracked-walled, moldy-cellared, aluminum-clad heap into a more livable dwelling.

Our house hasn’t changed greatly since those early efforts. Now, in the age of security apps and thermostats you can control from Paris, it has become a dumb house among rising smart ones. Gentrification over the years has wrought McMansions and dizzying taxes. Designer pets and triple prams. Fairs. Block parties. Galleries. Kid spas. All of which prompts our nostalgic recall of the settlement days, as if to recapture an authentic experience of “neighborhood”—not as the kid-safe, stable destination for foodies our neighborhood is, but as a rooted, organic thing whose sap gets in your veins, rising and falling with the seasons and the life-cycles of its dwellers.

During our first spring here, when we took a breather from our dusty labors, that experience began in earnest. We would go for walks or sit on our still-carpeted, rotting front steps and let the neighborhood in.


Next door

Window by window, door by door, the street opens its orifices. Stale rooms suck in the air and release the effluvium of a long winter. From the house just west of us comes this refrain: “Let me die! I want to die!”

The voice, like a bow over loose strings, belongs to Hannah B., widow and home owner. After ninety-three years in the neighborhood, Hannah sounds inclined to move onward and upward. And who is that barking at her, refusing to oblige the wish? That, we learn, is Frieda, once a tot growing up on the block. Now, in her late fifties, she is Hannah’s caregiver and unintentional tormentor. Occasionally she rides off to her own life on a squat balloon-tire bicycle she might have used as a child, her heavily-stockinged knees rising above its small frame.

Some weeks later, in the four-flat apartment building to our east, the wailing of a new baby counters Hannah’s plangent cries. The infant belongs to Eddie, a middle-aged man waiting for a change of financial luck, and Ok-Jun, his impatient young bride from Seoul. Between failed entrepreneurial schemes, Eddie, a generous, amiable soul of Serbian descent, sells drapery to South Side families in need of everything but drapes. Ok-Jun puts her nervous energy into scolding him, sewing dresses, and cooking Korean food. We catch the aroma of—and are invited to sample—her spicy dishes and fermented cabbage, kimchee. Hot peppers and garlic run deep in her gastronomic genes, and the doll-faced baby echoes that yang in its cries.

Hannah feels just enough vigor to keep at Frieda, pleading nonstop for this and that relief, including death’s, until Frieda loses it and a surprising Christ Almighty, shut your mouth! escapes her and flies in our windows. Yet Frieda of the ruddy face and gray-blonde curls is a compassionate woman who likes to recall the younger Hannah.

“You should have seen how beautiful she was,” she tells me. And I do see it when I help Frieda carry the hollow bones down the porch stairs and place Hannah and her rocker in a patch of sun. The light eyes are still handsomely set above high cheek ridges. At these times Hannah manages a smile and a few cordial words, and I feel good for having removed her from the gloom of the old house. The rooms I’ve seen and their gothic heirloom furnishings are in reasonable repair; but the wallpaper looks, and the fabrics smell, pissed upon by time. The house is probably the oldest on the block, dating well back to the nineteenth century. Other superannuated houses, such as ours, have disguised their age with synthetic siding and other cosmetics of the last few decades. Hannah’s, with layers of asphalt peeling off blackened planks, shows the neighborhood’s years.


Sound of Kindness

The neighborhood gets busier as the years pass. The noise can be relentless. Builders hammer down new roofs. Eight wheelers cut through our block to the commercial boulevard. The plumbing firm across the street dumps heavy scrap—like bombs—into a metal truck bed at six a.m. But one morning a new roar shakes our front windows, and we go to check it out. It’s Enrico, a retired airport worker from three houses away, with a brand new power mower. We’ve exchanged greetings before, usually when he passes by on his daily walk, a painful slog in giant orthotic walking shoes. (They help deal with his diabetes, he tells us.)

And here he is, pushing the shiny green-and-yellow machine across our parkway—the grassy strip between sidewalk and road–mowing it for us. And then the next neighbor’s. He’s doing the block, and nothing we say can discourage him. He says he hopes we don’t mind if he does it weekly. Es un placer hacerlo, he says—a pleasure—knowing I speak a little Spanish. Homesteader-wise, it’s the closest thing so far to neighbors raising a barn or helping with the harvest. The mower’s roar becomes a welcome sound.



Image from "Droplets," a photographic series by Natcha W., Mud Season Review
Image from Droplets, a photographic series by Natcha W.



Mimicking organisms, neighborhoods have their own ontogeny, a life force driving development from embryo through maturity, and sometimes rebirth. Fertilized by lake-bed mollusks and the composted remains of Native settlements—Illini, Miami, Potawatomi—our Chicago neighborhood began as a mud baby with a few farmhouses as its baby teeth. In its adolescence it sprouted celery stalks and cabbage. It grew an industrial spine with tracks and brickyards, fattened up on German immigration and commerce. Then the German strain thinned out. Others came to enrich the blood—Irish, Greeks, Luxembourgers, Scandinavians, Slavs, Poles. The neighborhood pumped up its commercial sinews. It daubed its mud with parks and yards. It grew the ashes, elms, maples, catalpas, and lindens whose sap would push the tree canopies of a later century to forty-foot heights and shade our streets.

But back then, like many of its urban kin, the organism fell sick, atrophied, gave way to a rash of cheap boarding houses and low taverns, their occupants typically single laborers and itinerants. Until—regeneration of a sort. A new elevated train from downtown pulled in fresh blood, bringing workers with families to settle in the more spacious outlying neighborhoods. Developers filled in the spaces, mainly with balloon-frame houses and brick four-flats. Tradespeople thrived. Into the dwellings came newer waves of working immigrants—Mexican, Colombian, Ecuadorian, Guatemalan, Indian, Middle Eastern, Chinese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese. African-Americans appeared, too, but in numbers limited by real estate practices that linger, abominably and to all our shame, to this day.

People representing these and many other groups live within the half-mile-or-so radius designated as our neighborhood. Not all of them are lucky enough to own a home, and many of the apartment dwellers come and go. Still, it’s the world in our back yard. To someone passing through, these streets might seem the all-American melting pot or salad bowl or cultural rainbow. But such a view would be merely a static one, a frozen snapshot. When members of different cultures feel their mojo, their sap rising so to speak, they go into action in vastly different ways. One group’s sap can be another group’s poison. Individuals within each group have their own ways, too, of getting on each other’s nerves, as do people of different ages and income. Living in a rainbow neighborhood, we get to observe all this and sort it out with much excitement, angst, and a discovery of our own intolerances. When does this homeowner stop celebrating diversity and start locking doors and calling the authorities?

By the time we moved there, our neighborhood had become a magnet for new immigrants from the Balkans, among them Serbs, Croatians, Bosnians, Bulgarians, and Albanians. Ours was the enclave where you’d find KISS ME, I’M ALBANIAN mugs. A tiny restaurant made to look like a dining car on the Orient Express, with lamplit tables against murals of Balkan valleys. A Yugoslavian delicatessen called Jadran with huge no-smoking signs above its tables and dozens of regulars stopping by to have a good smoke and a plate of black sausage, onions, and yogurt. The German delicatessens on the same street were better stocked; but Jadran made a fresh, hot bread unique among breads. Italians use the word morbidezza to describe the fleshy resilience of their own best loaves. But in the morbidezza department, a hunk of Jadran made other breads seem like old carcass. Having eaten the Yugo-bread, made masticatory love to it, we still run to one of the surviving bakeries the moment we recall that pillowy chew. But another memory from our settlement days is less savory.

They are angry-looking toughs, a small group recently arrived from the troubled Balkans. Many have the flattened noses of street fighters. They move in clusters, endlessly conversing in shouts and hand waving. Hair like black seaweed covers their heads and tufts bristle from their T-shirts. In jeans, massive leather jackets, and high-tech running shoes, they congregate in two cafes, enshrouded in smoke as thick as mustard gas. Sometimes they gather at the neighborhood Greek-run greasy spoon, where they squeeze in eight to a booth to smoke and talk, fiercely animated.

I sometimes envy the boisterous camaraderie of men in groups. But as a neighborhood settler I would just as soon not see gangs of macho males feeling the pack instinct, the hunting urge, the warrior urge. In the evening some of the Balkan men go in groups to a nearby bar and package store run by a slick Syrian-American named Ike. Ike’s is a long, dark place that pulls in soccer matches by satellite and draws a moody crowd that isn’t welcome in the Bavarian taverns up the street. We duck in there once in a while to pick up a six-pack or mixer.

With his gray crewcut and hard stubble, Ike looks like a prison-camp enforcer. He wears gold chains and screams “fucking bastard” all night into a phone. Most of the customers speak languages other than English, punctuated with what sounds like their own words for “fucking bastard.” The jukebox plays big-beat music in foreign languages. A muscular blonde barmaid slams down drinks.

In mild weather, others of the Balkan group head for the neighborhood park, an open space two blocks square which happens to have a few Balkan-tree beauties—horse chestnuts—among its scattered trees. There, by the ghostly light of a street lamp, they play rousing games of bocce and drink beer into the early morning hours, pissing copiously. With each toss of the weighty bocce ball, they argue like jackals over prey. Empty beer bottles are heaved in the direction of an overflowing trash can. Although most park users have conceded this corner to the bocce boys, an occasional passerby suggests that they moderate their behavior. But the sap is oozing now, unstoppable, and the by-passer is cursed by tongue, saliva, finger, elbow, crotch.

Like the passersby, like most settlers, I quickly yearn for things to go my way in the neighborhood. I want to influence change that suits me, without changing anyone’s life or making every neighbor like myself, which would yield a street full of burned-out professionals as exciting as an old briefcase. I yearn to modify vexing and menacing behavior, either neutralize it or fine-tune it to my values. I want colorful yet civil neighbors who respect the concept of tranquility at the close of a day, especially a shitty one. I want Teutonic order and Latin carnival. I want British tidy and Mediterranean bazaar. I want and I yearn. But—not a wave-maker or neighborhood activist by nature—I do nothing about it.

Such yearning is, of course, an urge to control, which everyone knows is a one-way ticket to cardiac arrest. But it is also a survival and territorial instinct. It gives rise to “Megan’s Law,” requiring neighbors to be informed when convicted sex offenders settle nearby; to targeted zoning, such as restraints against synagogues in homes; to curfews and city ordinances forcing parents, on pain of arrest, to “exercise reasonable parental control” over their children. The liberal half of me recoils from such controls. But there are times when I feel no one should be allowed outside without a doctorate in deportment.

When the bocce boys keep Mary and me awake at night with hollering and bottle-breaking, we want to wrench them into a Little League code of behavior. But only in our fantasies do such modifications take place or even seem just. The bocce boys live here, too. Whose rules rule the neighborhood? How standardized, sanitized, and safety-sealed do we want life to be? Hey, we’re livin’ in the city, yo! The well-rounded neighborhood life calls for trade-offs. Usually it is easier to go with the flow, beer, piss, whatever.

But there are limits, dope and blood among them. We must modify what we can to protect the neighborhood from the undertow. We must halt the madness lurking on the periphery, the predators mugging and maiming to score a fix, insinuating themselves into the neighborhood street life. Cars pull up behind one of our block’s four-flats and slink off after a brisk transaction with a certain neighbor. It is not about pizza. For once we heed the sign taped in our window—WE CALL POLICE—and cruising patrol cars settle things. For a while.

We must also do a spring cleaning of cars abandoned on the street after a killing winter. Bad enough that snow plows have eviscerated the roadbed, but decomposing autos are in-your-face carrion. Scavengers pick them apart. Garbage finds its way onto the seats. Things crawl in to feast on fries and foam rubber. Tires collapse, skin flakes, metal corrodes, fabrics mildew, fluids leak. It is not death with dignity.

By the second decade in the neighborhood, I feel good and proprietary, and in a late spring I have reached my limit on a particular auto wreck, the one that has been sitting smack in front of our house for four months now. My calls to the district ward office have elicited sighs—backlogged three hundred complaints, but if you wanna file…The car is a junkheap, a scow, more or less intact but with four flats and a bald spare in its locked interior. Since the trunk has been pried open, I decide to raise it and take a look inside. The minute I do, a woman appears from a two-flat down the block and charges like a minotaur. “Git yer mawtherfawkin paws offen mah car!”

I’ve seen her around—a long-time resident I’d classified as good ballast to keep the neighborhood from rising too fast. I tell her the car ought to be moved. She replies, “Move, shit, Mister. Ah ketch you tetchin’ anythin’ from thet trunk, yore ass go’n move—to fuuckin’ jail.” It’s a response I can’t top at the time—though I try—and besides, she’s speaking Country, a kickass, hellion version of it quashing my attempt at civil discourse. No behavior modification likely here.

We are making some progress with Ronnie, however, another tenant of the apartment building to our east. Ronnie is an aspiring Vietnam veteran. He’s about twenty years too late for the war, but he does the thing anyway, wearing a fatigue jacket and longish blonde hair in a ponytail and smoking homegrown weed. He lives alone, acts withdrawn, works somewhere and comes home early to smoke dope and tobacco on his little terrace overhanging our narrow side yard. All this would be cool except for one thing: Ronnie likes to flip live butts into some of Mary’s planting beds. In an average warm-weather week, forty to sixty glowing incendiary devices fly from Ronnie’s terrace to blow around in the mulch.

On weekends we clean up the butts and ask him to desist. He reforms for a few days before he forgets. How do you ask people to modify their natural behavior? You try to relate to who they are. You give them room to be generous. If they are among the gentrified you use their own patterns. Hi, there—Could we ask you to work with us in maintaining a hazard-free environment? Thaaanks! Or if you’re tough enough, you give no room, just fear. Hey, Jackoff! Drop another butt on my lawn, I drop you from your fuckin’ terrace. But neighbors who are neither gentrified nor easily intimidated must be finessed. I go with something like, “Yo, Ronnie, how you doin’? How’s the weed? Hey, whoa, my wife’ll kill me she sees these butts down here. Help me out, Buddy.”

But it is almost summer, after all, when everything is eager to make its presence felt. So much to settle. Unfamiliar neighbors emerge from the houses like larvae, character unknown. Some of last summer’s darling kids are suddenly hat-backwards punks and sullen gum-chewers; other are bright-eyed and coltish, showing promise.

New dogs, cats, birds, shrieking over turf. I have to monitor all this flux, sort it out. Right now Mary has her hands full with spring gardening chores, starting with the perennials she has struggled to keep alive over the winter, when weeks of sub-zero weather drove icy fingers three feet deep into the sand and clay, stabbing at all that slumbered. Sometimes our deep-frozen soil convulsed in a “frost heave”—a phrase that makes me imagine our whole property heaved aside like an unwanted blanket.

The primroses lift their faces as the sun takes a brief stroll through our property. Most of our planting space is on the shaded north side of the house. The sun makes a brief stop there before heading off. Mary will mulch, moisten, compost, prune, and somehow coax a garden out of the cold shade and rare light of a city yard.


Smaller neighbors

On a one-tenth-acre urban plot, mature trees are gifts of the gods. We’ve been blessed with a tall oak and a sap-crazed apple tree, as well as a horse chestnut and big lindens and silver maples on the street’s parkways. We discover something we didn’t think about before owning a piece of leafy neighborhood or believing we did: It is squirrels who own the tree-rich streets. Bulked-up gray squirrels; Double-O-Seven squirrels, with license to destroy; cartoon-faced squirrels who charm you out of a nut then plunder your flora. Squirrels who leave nothing unravaged in Mary’s garden, no patch of lawn unexcavated.

In a futile effort to control them, we read up on their ways. An unnatural force propels these creatures like pinballs through their seven-year life span. Unlike their chipmunk cousins, squirrels do not hibernate, but perform their antics year-round without so much as a break for cappuccino. And what antics! If a human had the equivalent energy—if Squirrel Man were, say, President—he would scramble up the Washington Monument, eat the Capitol Dome, and bury the Jefferson Memorial before his morning scoot around the Beltway.

Sexually, a male squirrel is a randy little stud with a difference: He has a baculum—a penis bone—and sperm fluid that forms a vaginal plug as thick as caulking. The mating dance is insane and sometimes lethal. A neighbor reports an act of sexual kamikaze he’d witnessed earlier this spring, when a pair of squirrels smacked into the cement sidewalk as he was walking by. The female squirted off, but the male lay supine, with his soul departed and erection standing rigid as a tombstone.


Natural cycles

“I want to die. Let me die.”

Everything has a way of saying “no more.” But far from ready, we keep our safe distance from that farewell. Hannah’s cries might have assured us that for some the readiness does come. One hopes it comes naturally, when the sap no longer want to rise, and not only after ninety-three years. A friend who oversees hospice care tells me that only a few patients out of thousands, all ages, were not ready to let go when the hour came. Maybe morphine helped. But may none of us be those few still fighting the night.

Our neighborhood might seem immortal right now, the commercial avenue around the corner humming with trendy businesses, good schools attracting young marrieds. But it has “died” before in real estate terms, and could easily do so again according to our retirement-fund broker. “What if things decline, you’re old and sick, and suddenly your house is worth nothing?” she likes to ask, her brows suggesting another chunk of cash into the investment fund. Maybe she’s right about real estate cycles; but the only dying we’ve seen in this neighborhood has been of neighbors—from Hannah early on to many more who were here when we arrived those three decades ago. Along with the dear ones were the ornery and vexatious. But they, too, gave the neighborhood its soul.

Would we want to return to those “authentic” days? No—no more than early homesteaders would welcome back the hardscrabble years. We do feel somewhat alienated from the “new” neighborhood when we thread through millennials rushing to the latest craft-beer tasting room or boutique gym; but damn it, we are now Those Who Came Before, and every recollection underscores our place here. When we walk, say, the stretch where Ronnie flipped down his roaches, where Hannah sat in her rocker, where Ike dispensed his fuck-you‘s, or where we suffer our thirtieth annual plague of bushy-tailed marauders, we know that the soul, the sap, of the neighborhood endures, in us.

By Arthur Plotnik

Arthur Plotnik is the author of eight books, including Spunk & Bite: A Writer’s Guide to Bold, Contemporary Style and two Book-of-the-Month Club selections: The Elements of Expression and The Elements of Editing. Among his many publications are award-winning fiction, essays, poetry, and biography. He studied under Philip Roth at the Iowa Writers Workshop and worked as editorial director for the American Library Association. A former columnist for The Writer magazine, he lives in a metamorphosing Chicago neighborhood.