Sunday, October 18, 2009

Indian Summer

We're having one of those October days in Chicago, the kind that make Snowbirds homesick.

As I was driving to the shop, I thought this might be a great opportunity to get started on that "Doors of Park Ridge" poster.

East of the Pickwick Theater, any turn north off of Touhy Ave. brings you through the older section of town. Some of these houses have been here for a century. In most cases, the old houses that remain were the larger houses back in the day. Nice big Georgians and Mediterraneans and Victorians, houses with some fucking charm. There are some modest sized homes that remain, but they were fairly large back when they were built.

Sadly, almost all of the Cape Cods are gone. My favorite.

Late in the 20th century, and through the first decade of this century, it was decided that small houses are stupid. Everyone had to have 3800 sq ft. Everyone needed 6 bedrooms, 4 baths, a "Great Room" with a vaulted ceiling to greet visiting heads of state or some fucking thing, oh and don't forget the solar frickin' greenhouse.

So now, the old section of my adopted home town is a mix of great old homes, and McMansions.

And I watched it happen. Outside of my brief foray into the glamorous world of executive transportation, I have worked on the homes of this community since the day I graduated from high school in 1978. With absolute honesty I can say that I treat all my customers the same way, but I take extra satisfaction when I work on an old house. I pay more attention to details. I hate McMansions. Every time I saw another old, smallish home torn down I got bummed out. Whenever I get a call from a McMansion owner, I just shake my head.

It's not that I half-ass my way through a McMansion window replacement job, but I am also well aware of the fact that those windows should not need replacement. Not yet. They're only 20 years old. The windows on the older homes, the hundred year old homes, are still functioning beautifully. Wood prime windows protected by wood storm windows that were manufactured with such quality that it still boggles the minds of the wonks at Pella.

And the doors, they had character.

They had stories. Like this one here.

Can't you just feel the history? Imagine the thousands of times children ran up those steps and dashed in the door with great news or a cut knee.

Or that one. I picture some pimple faced kid carrying a flower in a box, wearing his first tux, got the old man's 57 Chevy idling on Elm, nervously edging his way up that sidewalk.

A look across the street, and I know with certainty that history lives there. I know now that a young girl, and then a young woman walked through that very door, every day of her life, loaded with ambition, and visions of greatness. That was 40 years ago, and I'll bet you a trillion dollars that if Hillary found her way to my little blog here, the memories would come flooding back.


Back in 1992 we flooded Chicago. Well, I didn't but the people at Great Lakes Dredge and Dock did. While working on the Kinzie St. Bridge, near the Merchandise Mart, they punched a hole in the floor of the Chicago River, and we all learned that our high-rises have basements. We also learned that if you have a series of antique coal delivery tunnels connecting all of the basements, and if you allow the Chicago River to begin flowing into those tunnels, the result is chaos. Bedlam.

There's a chapter of Behind Black Glass devoted to an evening I spent driving a man named Witt Barlow from local TV station to local TV station. It was the night of The Flood. That charter was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Mr. Barlow was the boss at Great Lakes Dredge and Dock. The honcho. I had Satan in my car.

Witt was in defensive mode. He had 3 young publicists traveling with him, and they had charts and graphs and all kinds of visual aids that were being passed around the back seat of my car.

Oh, and I was totally eavesdropping.

At one point Witt motioned towards the blowup up a picture taken in the flood zone and said "But you can see right there that those are the creosoted piles. We didn't drive those! Here's the ones we drove right here. THOSE AREN'T OURS!"

And one of the publicists said, "Yeah. Yeah. Say that. That sounds good."

And Witt said, "It's the truth."

And the publicist said, "Even better."

I'll never forget that exchange for as long as I live.

Shortly after that, although not shortly enough thanks to Richie and his merry band of morons, a man named James Kenny and another guy named John Kenny came along and made a management decision.

While Daley and his fellow criminals cowered in the corner of an office at 121 N. LaSalle, the kids at Kenny Construction decided to stuff a very large fucking cork in the hole in the floor of the Chicago River. Then, they went upstream and sealed off the tunnels thataway, and then they went downstream and sealed off the tunnels down there, and with that the basements of Chicago stopped taking on water.

Genius. Pure, simple, stupid, genius. Grace under fire.

Kenny Construction became local heroes. Kenny Construction took its place in the history of Chicago. Rightly so. Kinda.

Some years later, a man walked in my shop, looking very much like Arnold Palmer.

Dude dripped class, although he tried to hide it. Jeans, blue oxford, Polo windbreaker, Johnston and Murphy loafers. Looking closer to 50 than 70.

"Are you related to the people that saved the city from the flood?" he asked with a strange grin.

"Uh, no, I spell it differently."

"Bet ya get asked that all the time."

"You have no idea. I hear James Kenny got the Irish Ambassador gig."

"He did. He's a friend of mine."

"Then why did you ask...."

Just grinned at me. He was testing.


His name is John O'M. Turns out he worked for the company that laid the foundation for Trump's new tower by the river. Actually, he's sort of in charge at that company, but you'd never know it unless I told you.

"What can I do for you Mr. O'M?"

"Call me John."

"Thank you."

"I need you to fix my door. It's on an old house, and I don't want to replace it."

"I can do that."

"I know. How's your dad?"

"He just retired."

"I know."

The son-of-a-bitch was testing me the whole time, the bastard. I guess I passed because John and I have become friends. Not like every day friends, but in the last decade I've spent many hours sitting at my desk and talking with him. Not exactly a father figure, I have one of those, but a real solid guy who has seen far more than I have. I'm lucky to know him.

I told him my Witt Barlow story.

(For awhile John, I drove a limo. My dad and I were fighting..... "I know." Fuck!)

Turns out that my friend John and his company had plenty to do with plugging the leak too, although they didn't carp about Kenny Construction getting the face time on WGN.

Oh, and he trusted me enough to let me work on his door. He wanted to keep the old wood, but put modern storm protection over the entryway to keep the elements at bay.

That's John's front doorway. The side-lites and the storm door were easy. The transom window not so much.

And they have a great tree on their parkway that always goes code red around now. It's one of the reasons I took this picture. The girl walking up the sidewalk with her lab tried to step out of the picture while I tried to include them.

"Beautiful tree isn't it?"

"It sure is."

"Hi buddy!"

"That's Riley."

"Hi Riley. Gooooood dog. Stop sniffing my balls Riley. I've been watching that tree turn colors like this for over 30 years now. I never get used to it. I love the house too. Friends of mine."

"What a shame. Terrible news."

My fucking heart sank. Oh no. Don't tell me this. Not my friend.

"They moved."



artandsoul said...

I'm not sure how you do it, but so many times your writing goes along really well and then at the end I find tears in my eyes. Whats up with that?

Really good stuff.

Schmutzie said...

I take that as high praise Cindy. They're not really sad tears though, right?

artandsoul said...

No, not sad ... but it gets to me in a real way. Something poignant about doorways into people's homes and lives, and trees growing in the same place for 30 years, and then "they moved" and yes, it's high praise.

If someone's written word can produce a physical reaction in my (and by that I do not include throwing up or gagging!) then I consider it a job well done.


Keifus said...

I've got to think that the older homes are built better because homeownership was a bit more ...selective back in the day, say, before 1945 or so. My grandfather (he was a contractor too, before he was an engineer) built his house in the fifties, cursing the whole time (I'm told) about the second-rate slapdash crap anybody else would put up.

On the other hand, it's not hard to see how far building materials have gone downhill. It's pretty obvious even when I patch up my 1970s-vintage shack.

Also better building favors long-term survival. Imagine transporting yourself back to Capone-era Chicago and looking around. Or maybe right before they installed the World's Fair. It'd be horrifying.

And nice door, by the way.

K (for some reason, my feeder thingie hasn't been updating)

Schmutzie said...

Yeah, it was right around then...1945-1955 that the quality took a nosedive. Maybe it was due to the need for tons of homes to be built in a hurry to accommodate all the returning GIs.

(Artandsoul's feeder thing isn't updating either. I think when my modem blew up, and then was replaced, the feeder thing stopped feeding due to the new IP address. Just a guess. Maybe if you could...ahem....try reloading it?)

Schmutzie said...

Hey it worked! It's updating. Did you reload it?

Keifus said...

I didn't do nuthin.

I was thinking '45 because in addition to the returning population, they added the tax incentives around then too. Was just throwing out a half-educated guess.

Schmutzie said...

Artandsoul's is working too. Weird.

You don't make half-educated anything K. The point about the building materials is valid too. I have taken windows out of 100 year old homes, and examined the lumber they used to build a simple double-hung sash. Dude, the quality of wood was so much better then, simply because they weren't using so much of the stuff.