The Mayor (in Chicago, that’s capitalized) came to the farm today (the farm where I work, not our little smallholding). I was not there. I do not like the man- I think he is smarmy, slimy, and rude, a small man with a Napoleonic complex, who comes from North Shore wealth and has no concept or care of what an average citizen’s daily struggles are (note that these opinions are personal, and should not reflect on my place of work). However, I’m glad he came, to see the amazing things people have been working on, and hope that good things come of the attention… but I don’t have anything nice to say to Power right now. I am angry, and sad, at the way things work in The City that Works (but only if you have enough money and the influence of the Right People). I have friends who are teachers who want to burn the man in effigy downtown in protest of the way he’s handling negotiations with the teachers’ unions… we advised that this would be a very Bad Idea and would not help their cause, no matter how good it might feel.
We’ve been told by many people that the only way we’ll be able to buy the lot next to our house from the city is to bribe the alderman (err, make a campaign donation), because that’s how things get done here… always has been. A cyclist gets doored by an undercover cop and is palmed a twenty to not phone it in. Grease the wheels… and maybe they won’t grind you up and run you over.
I’m mad that it’s hard as hell to get anything done… and that I can’t just grow good food and sell it to people who want it without a million layers of bureaucracy and regulations to sort though first. I’m sad that the best solution to food access that those who get to make the important decisions can come up with is to bring in national chain stores to the “food deserts” rather than making it easier for small community-owned businesses to meet these vital needs. I know a lot of folks who are trying to start businesses to meet these needs and hitting roadblocks every step of the way, and that no one seems to have the answers. The food problem is just one little toenail of a great big problem faced by many of our citizens, and that problem is poverty, a crippled social structure, crumbling neighborhood schools, and in some cases, a misguided war on the young men who should be supporting families, but because of past mistakes, lack of education and opportunity, or just a dearth of any legitimate employment opportunities, try to support themselves in the only way they know how, in underground economies and street trades that our society has deemed criminal.
Every day on my ride to work, I have to go past the jail and county courthouse. A couple that I know was just arrested, and are somewhere behind those walls. My heart breaks to ride by, and to fathom how big that building, how thick and tall the brick walls, how many people are held there. Some of them for sure were doing Bad Things, violent things, and I’m glad they’re not out walking around. The folks I know were taking risks, bigger than I could have guessed or cared to know, and doing very illegal things. They are not the first or last to fall. There will be many more. No one was hurt by their actions, and they’re not bad people, or I wouldn’t have known them… but I may not see them for a very long time. Their dogs are orphaned, in the temporary care of a friend, and certainly confused- where are their people? A lot of money was spent, and will be spent, to arrest them, hold them, and charge them with “crimes”, all paid for by our tax dollars. I’m a little wary to even post this, because such is the culture of fear that our society has created, but I have nothing to hide. I grow only food, because I am not a risk-taker. I play it safe, and play it cool, and try to stay out of trouble. I just can’t help but think of all the resources that our society wastes on the drug war, while murders and rapists and all sorts of other nasty folks and things are walking around free, or getting slaps on the wrist. It makes me so mad I could spit vitriol and curse and swear… and it wouldn’t change a thing. I’m in a funk; nothing good comes out of my mouth… I want to be happy, and hopeful, and have confidence that things will get better; that reason will prevail. Hippy-dippy though it may be, I want to sit in the sun, watch food and flowers grow, to write, and feel a deep sense of righteousness, that all is well with the world, that this is a place that I could in good conscience bring children into and raise them with the one I love, but it’s not. It’s nasty, brutish, and hard all too often. How did we get here? How much farther do we have to fall before we say “enough”!
I go back to an old friend, a powerful poem I’ve revisited a million times when this place gets me down. You can hear Lew Welch read it here (four minutes in) or read below:
by Lew Welch
I lived here nearly 5 years before I could
meet the middle western day with anything approaching
Dignity. It’s a place that lets you
understand why the Bible is the way it is:
Proud people cannot live here.
The land’s too flat. Ugly, sullent and big it
pounds men down past humbleness. They
Stoop at 35 possibly cringing from the heavy and
terrible sky. In country like this there
Can be no God but Jahweh.
In the mills and refineries of its south side Chicago
passes its natural gas in flames
Bouncing like bunsens from stacks a hundred feet high.
The stench stabs at your eyeballs.
The whole sky green and yellow backdrop for the skeleton
steel of a bombed-out town.
Remember the movies in grammar school? The goggled men
doing strong things in
Showers of steel-spark? The dark screen cracking light
and the furnace door opening with a
Blast of orange like a sunset? Or an orange?
It was photographed by a fairy, thrilled as a girl, or
a Nazi who wished there were people
Behind that door (hence the remote beauty), but Sievers,
whose old man spent most of his life in there,
Remembers a “nigger in a red T-shirt pissing into black sand.”
It was 5 years until I could afford to recognize the ferocity.
Friends helped me. Then I put some
Love into my house. Finally I found some quiet lakes
and a farm where they let me shoot pheasant.
Standing in the boat one night I watched the lake go absolutely
flat. Smaller than raindrops, and only
Here and there, the feeding rings of fish were visible 100 yards
away – and the Blue Gill caught that afternoon
Lifted from its northern lake like a tropical! Jewel in its ear
Belly gold so bright you’d swear he had a
Light in there. His color faded with his life. A small
All things considered, it’s a gentle and undemanding
planet, even here. Far gentler
Here than any of a dozen other places. The trouble is
always and only with what we build on top of it.
There’s nobody else to blame. You can’t fix it and you
can’t make it go away. It does no good appealing
To some ill-invented Thunderer
Brooding over some unimaginable crag.
It’s ours. Right down to the last small hinge it
all depends for its existence
Only and utterly upon our sufferance.
Driving back I saw Chicago rising in its gases and I
knew again that never will the
Man be made to stand against this pitiless, unparallel
Snuffles on the beach of its Great Lake like a
blind, red, rhinoceros.
It’s already running us down.
You can’t fix it. You can’t make it go away.
I don’t know what you’re going to do about it.
But I know what I’m going to do about it. I’m just
going to walk away from it. Maybe
A small part of it will die if I’m not around.
Sometimes I feel like that fish out-of-water here, the only home I’ve known for my adult life. I want to be somewhere where I can walk barefooted without fearing broken glass, spent syringes, and junkie shit. Somewhere where the dirt is not toxic, the sirens are not constant, and the gunshots in the distance are deer hunters. Where I can shoot a .22 off the back porch at the squirrels in my tomatoes or just at tin cans without taking out a neighbor or their window, where windows don’t need iron barricades, and only get broken by kids playing baseball instead of throwing rocks… where neighbors aren’t quite so close, and you can go out for a walk without seeing another human soul if you choose. I do love the community here, have friends I adore and in some ways can’t imagine being anywhere else. But there are days when I really want to be anywhere else but here. I miss hills, and trees, and craggy rocks wet with clinging moss, clean air and stars so bright they light your steps though the truly dark dome of sky, not the sickly orange-sherbet glow which hangs heavy over our night… but I do like something about the bigness and anonymity of the city… the freeness and openness of the folks I know… and there’s a lot of good here. I just wish that I could make my peace with the rest of it.