Dear friends of Switchback,
Though my hometown is Woodstock, Illinois and will always be, I reside (when I am not travelling) in Chicago. Rogers Park, Chicago to be exact. It is the second time in my life that I have lived in this neighborhood. The first, when I was a student at Loyola University from 1981-1985. It was then, as now, “real city living” with a lot of people of all walks of life, walking around. A place where the undergrads rubbed elbows with the underprivileged. Where all sorts of shops and stores beckoned to the curious to explore. I bought my first bass guitar at the local music store, Flatts and Sharpes. And, I had my first professional haircut (yes, I had my hair cut at home until college) in Rogers Park.
So, it has been a place where I entered adulthood, and upon graduation, I was convinced that would be the last of Rogers Park. As a person who loves wide open spaces, and the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains, Rogers Park offered neither. I was weary of the winter along Lake Michigan and the dirty, dog poop-festooned snow. I felt that the reality of so many people crowded my spirit. I thought, “This will be the last I will see of you, Rogers Park,” as I moved away and on with my life.
Rogers Park had the last laugh.
It was with some surprise that I found myself living back again in Rogers Park. As much as I had changed, it had as well. It was still the gritty, melting pot of cultures and people, cheek to jowl. But now, setting some roots in the neighborhood, that diverse-city that is Rogers Park became beautiful to me.
The Cambodian grandmother in native dress, smoking a homemade cigar on one block, only to be replaced by the Pakistani woman in full burqa on the next. The improbable visuals of big city living, such as seeing Nigerian families in their vibrant Sunday best, walking past a plump señora at her taqueria, busily selling carne asada tacos to famished Bulgarians.
And now, as a homeowner, it was I who was raking leaves, picking up after dogs and late night revelers' Modelo bottles. I was now a part of Rogers Park, a homeowner and not some college-aged observer.
Digging a ditch to bury some electrical cable some years back, I found a 300 year-old clay pipe that was discarded at what must have been some 18th century lakeside camp for a Pottowatamie Indian or Voyageur perhaps. Now it was my backyard. Amazing how this place had and still changes.
The lake still is the main attraction, with its deep blue on summer days with huge thunderheads towering over it. It was and is the edge of a watery wilderness that Chicago and Rogers Park in particular is perched on. I came to understand that this great finger on the hand of the largest freshwater deposit in the world was indeed our Rocky Mountains.
And slowly, slowly, I have learned to enjoy the life of being in a place of people, in one of the most diverse communities in the United States, home to over 80 different ethnicities.
City living can be tough. The homeless man who liked my driveway for a bathroom. Occasional prostitutes wending their way along Clark Street, gaunt-faced and twitchy as they drink from their extra large Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups. Young gang-bangers hanging outside the market, nervously eyeing oncoming traffic. The human condition is on full display. And this shadier element somehow exists with the other, more beautiful part of being in Rogers Park.
Last week, on a tree-lined street not far from my home, a killer at point blank shot a 73 year-old man walking his dog. A day later, at a popular Rogers Park beach, the same killer struck down a runner. And since it was in Rogers Park, it was no surprise that the victims were as diverse as the neighborhood. An elderly gay man, and a young hasidic Jew. Killed by some guy wearing a scarf across his face and probably from an equally diverse background. Having not been caught yet as of this writing, I don’t know who or why or what would prompt such reckless disregard for life in such a rich, diverse-city.
Being on the road and viewing it from the perspective of Evergreen, Colorado, that place, my home, looked like it was menacing, ugly and dangerous. The sort of place where most people would decide, like I had in 1985, to gladly see the back of. Surely there must be a less risky locale. I worried for Annie and Áine and felt guilty as the worst thing happening in Evergreen that day appeared to be a jaywalking bull elk.
To leave would be wrong. There is a certain responsibility to being part of a neighborhood, to celebrate the good and endure the bad. To run is to submit to the fear that the bad will win. Why should others who can’t run be left behind? It seems unfair.
At the same time, heroism is the furthest thing from my mind. I would love to see this guy caught. I would love to see the gangs disbanded. I would welcome the end to the hookers, dealers and petty thieves. But in an odd way, that “gentrification” of sorts would take away some of the parts that makes Rogers Park what it is. The attempt to sanitize the city would only sweep the human condition under the carpet. It would still be there, just pushed to another neighborhood or even the suburbs.
Better in some ways to face it. To walk the same streets as the killer and acknowledge the hooker and homeless. Shop the market where the gang-bangers gather and embrace the honesty that is living in a modern city, with its sins and sinners.
So, we neighbors look out for each other. We learn to be street smart and cautious in our ways. But still, we gather for the festivals and linger along the lake. Our very existence, in the face of danger, real danger, is an act of defiance in and of itself. Perhaps it is foolish, but I believe seeing the full human condition is important for Áine, important for myself.
For as bad as things can seem, Rogers Park is always filled with light and beauty by virtue of its residents. In my little block alone there’s Áine’s babysitter, Ana, who came from Portugal and shows nothing but love to our daughter. Our neighbors across the street, Dee and Walter, old hippies and artists who have witness the neighborhood transform several times over since they moved here in the '70s. And down the street live Nadia and Sandeep, awaiting the arrival of their new baby who will combine the beauty of his Mexican and Indian genes. Around the corner there's Dusty and Jason, both college professors and like us, seasoned veterans of our little block. Or the newest couple Chance and David, moving back into the home David’s great-grandfather lived in. And of course, just a 10-minute walk away there's Annie's best friend Chandra, who knows just about everyone in Rogers Park, and who for Annie is probably the number one perk of moving here seven years ago.
I could go on about the diversity in the beauty that in its daily simplicity outshines any darkness. And, I am grateful for the rich tapestry of people. For as beautiful nature is, it is the nature of the beauty in us all that actually makes this world remarkable. And for that reason, I do find Rogers Park a beautiful place to live.
[Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone.]
For all the glory autumn ushers in, Mother Nature growls, too. Here comes Switchback backed by the United Nations reminding us we could all get walloped like, well, like a twister in a trailer park.
Leave it to Martin and Brian to put some fun back in the forecast while the southeast soaks and the UN gives us a mere dozen years to adjust the world’s thermostat. And it all starts in McHenry County, Illinois, up where Martin McCormack spent his boyhood.
In the calm before the storm, Brian FitzGerald’s mandolin has a light plunky piano sound. Could be raindrops. Meanwhile Martin’s Michael Kelly acoustic bass softly rumbles low like far-distant thunder.
“Twister in a Trailer Park” is a tale of woe and weather. A teen-aged boy is blown away by a teen-aged beauty. “Her love hit me like a twister in a trailer park,” mourns heartstruck Marty. Then it’s verse after verse of smiling Switchback close harmony recounting all those earmarks of serious funnel clouds: weird-colored sky, big hail and airborne cows.
This song is a bonus track on 2013’s live CD American Roots and Celtic Soul. Album producers Jim and Dylan Sundberg mean to put you in the room with Switchback, close to the front row, for all twelve cuts. They do a fine job. “Twister . .” even invents some excuse for the audience to bark, arf and woof. Listeners are welcome to howl along at home.
Doug Kamholz is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.
American Roots & Celtic Soul