18 December 2009

I Blame the New York Times!

(Photograph copyright 2009, all rights reserved)

The Boy, as most of you know, is only home on weekends. Over the years, we've adjusted to this nicely and I generally arrange things so that he can spend that time relaxing. Given that he generally works a 70 to 75 hour week, I figure it's only fair for him not to have to bother with things like lugging a vacuum around and braving a grocery store on a busy Saturday. It works. This frees us up so we can go out for dinner, shop in our neighborhood and do whatever it is we WANT to do, rather than noodle around with boring chores.

Now, one thing we both love about living in Chicago is that it's a city of neighborhoods. If you don't live here, it's hard to know what I mean by this. It's sort of like living in a big city composed of a whole bunch of small towns. There are height restrictions for building in most of the city, which means that no building is permitted to be more than four stories high and there are a lot of mixed use properties. There are a lot of buildings that are retail at ground level with residential space above, for example. I like this a lot. It keeps things relatively civilized. I've lived a downtown canyon or two in my time and I have to say that it's very alienating.

To get back to the neighborhoods... See, Chicagoans are very attached to their neighborhoods. In each little area, you can generally walk to anything you need. There's a pub, a couple of bars, half a dozen restaurants, a clothing store or two, some art galleries - you name it, you can find it in your neighborhood. That's why, when you hear someone talk about Bucktown, Lincoln Park, Andersonville or Humboldt Park, everyone else nods. We know what that means, and since Chicago is also a city that drives, we've been to most of those places to try out new restaurants, for example.

This is all background. I figured I'd best include it because it leads into a very angst-ridden situation where we live.

A couple of weeks ago, The Boy was reading his Sunday edition of the New York Times, when he bellowed, "Goddammit, there they go again!"

I asked him what was wrong, and he said, "Look at this! Just look! Some bobo reviewer blew into town and reviewed our favorite restaurants again!"

He read off the review and sure enough, there was a whole lot of glowing, almost worshipful text about a couple of places, Kuma's Corner and Great Lake Pizza, which has not only been given glowing reviews by the Times, but GQ and a couple of other national magazines as well (Yes, it IS that good).

"Oh, fercrissakes!", The Boy muttered, "NOW look what's gonna happen! More goddamned fat suburbanites in freakin' Dockers are gonna be taking up all the seats! We can't get a decent meal in this neighborhood as it is with all those idiots and it's only going to get worse!"

We'll leave him muttering for a few minutes. I was actually kind of amused by this. The Boy has always sworn he's going to grow up to be a curmudgeon and it's really starting to show.

Chicago is renowned for its restaurants. Some of the best eating in the country and in a couple of instances the world can be found here. We have a lot of famous places and chefs here. All you have to do is Google places like Avec, Alinea, Schwa, L20, Bin 36, Xoco (Rick Bayless' latest), Urban Belly, NoMi, Moto, Tru and so on (it's a LONG list) to know that in this town we take our food seriously. Naturally with all of the super-famous places come a lot of places that are not so famous, but are also really, really good. This is where the neighborhoods come in.

Our house is on a street corner that is the exact convergence of THREE terrific neighborhoods; Ravenswood, Lincoln Square and Andersonville.

All three of these neighborhoods are within walking distance and all three have their attractions, the most important of which are food related. In the past three or four years though, some magazine gurus and a few newspaper gurus have decided that where we live is "edgy" and "sophisticated" and have been beating the world over the head with reviews of all of our favorite places. It's maddening. We adore the Hopleaf Bar , for example. It's our local. It's where we go when we're done with the day's zooming around and want to stop for a drink before making dinner. They also happen to make the most delicious mussels and frites I've ever had, bar none.

Then, the Hopleaf got Reviewed. I think it was Food and Wine magazine that mentioned it, but don't quote me on that. I could be wrong. The next time we went in...well, you know what happened. The Boy's "fat suburbanites" were all over the bar and bitching that they couldn't get reservations in the restaurant (they don't take reservations) and had to wait instead. Every time the crowd dies down a bit, another reviewer shows up. It's maddening.

"It's not just the Hopleaf, though is it?" The Boy was on a roll, "No, it's every damned place in MY NEIGHBORHOOD! I KNOW it's an edgy neighborhood! That's why I LIVE here!"

He was irked. He's irked every time this happens. I can't say I blame him, either. Lately it seems that every restaurant in all three of our neighborhoods has had a glowing review in a national forum. In the past year or so, we've had reviews for Ann Sather , A Taste of Heaven (Made notorious by a sign that the owners put up requesting that little children stay seated and use their "inside voices" in the restaurant. Parents were furious, other patrons ecstatic), Bistro Campagne , Cafe Selmarie , Chicago Brauhaus and most notoriously Hot Doug's . One of our favorite stores Scout was also reviewed in a shelter magazine not so long ago. I have to congratulate the guys that own it - they deserved the review. A bunch of other similar furniture and vintage stores that have moved in to the same area, which is good for all of us, especially in this economy, but still!

(For those that are interested, Hot Doug's not only makes the best hot dogs on the face of the planet, they also famously flouted the moronic (and thankfully temporary) ban on foie gras bylaw that Chicago City Council was dumb enough to pass a couple of years ago. Doug, bless the man, continued to make his justifiably worshipped foie dog and pay the fines that he incurred. Sadly for those of us who like GOING to the place, it was also very favorably reviewed by Anthony Bourdain on his show "No Reservations" last year. Now if you want to go there, you have to join the lineup at 10:30 in the morning and stand in the cold until you can get in. Sigh. Anthony, I'm a fan, but dammit man, you've highjacked my hot dogs! )

I could go on. And on and onandonandon... but what's the point? I know that a lot of neighborhoods in a lot of cities have gone through the same thing. The people that live there have pretty much the same thing to say when the trendsters show up and start blocking the sidewalks and taking up all the good seats in their favorite bars. I'll let The Boy have the last word...

"Next time another damned reviewer shows up someone should... toss him in the nearest puddle! Yeah...or steer him to Rogers Park or something."

(You do realize that I've deliberately left some places out, right? I have SOME loyalty, after all.)

15 December 2009

A Christmas Rant

(Photographs copyright 2009, all rights reserved)

I have a confession to make. The photo on the bottom is from LAST Christmas. Yes, that's Sarah up there in that tree (slightly blurry because the tree is moving, of course) and she's a lot bigger now. We ended up with just lights on that tree because decorations seemed fated to hit the floor no matter what we did. Also, you'll notice that there's no topper on the tree. This is because the only one we have is glass. It's gorgeous...and I refused to allow it to be anywhere near tiny paws.

This year I was smarter about it. I got shiny plastic and tin decorations that are unbreakable and if they do fall, no kitty will be harmed. They can't climb the tree any more because the branches are too close together, which is a good thing. Maybe next year I can use the glass ones....However, the second photo is hot off the presses - my improvised disco-fabulous tree topper. It's all plastic all the time, and I fully expect The Boy to pick on me no end because of it. I think it's cute, so it stays.

I have to confess, I love Christmas. If you know me, you know it's not for religious reasons. We have no children and not a ton of family, so it isn't about family for us either. Generally we spend Christmas on our own. I happen to like it that way. The Boy doesn't work in the week leading up to the holiday and he certainly doesn't work between Christmas and New Year's, so we get that time to ourselves - the rest of the year, he's out of town all week and home on weekends only.

I'm a sloppy sentimentalist at this time of year and only this time of year. Even Christmas shopping is fun. Finding the perfect gift is something I love doing. I adore getting the tree and decorating it. I LOVE putting up the outside lights, and I usually do that on my own, too. None of these things are terribly important to The Boy, but I suspect he likes watching me have fun, so it's all good.

I'll grant you that for many, this is the MOST stressful time of the year. If that's true for any of you out there, I highly recommend spending a quiet Christmas. Tell the families you're staying home and relax! Take away all the pressure of travel, cooking, family fights, etc. and opt out. Even if you only do it for one year, it will help you reconnect with the holiday and truly enjoy it. It's lovely and you can visit anyone you WANT to see AFTER the day.

However...this was a rant.

Every year, my mother sends a Christmas box. It's full of The Boy's favorite jam cookies, a book or two and things like fuzzy socks and kitty toys. Nothing fancy, just some ordinary and useful things. She wraps the box in brown paper, covers it with Christmas glitter stickers and tosses it in the mail in early December. However, by the time she's done (and haven't we all done this), it's not such a small box. In fact, it used to be the size of an apple box - now it's reduced to about half that size.

Our postie is great, but there's a size limit to what she's allowed to put on the truck, so this package is invariably left at the post office for me to pick up. I never thought of this as a big deal, and the actual picking up of the box is never really out of my way, usually just a quick stop on my way to somewhere else.

But then we moved....here. And our local post office, the Ravenswood Station in Chicago, is a disaster area. It's a big station with only a tiny frontage. There's space for only four cashiers at a time. No big deal. The staff have been there at the same station for a long time - that's a potential problem. Now, post offices in Chicago have been rated as some of the worst in the country in terms of service, speed and accuracy in deliveries. This was last year, and they're supposed to be working on improving that. I haven't seen a lot of problems, myself. Like I said before, our postie is a wonderful lady who's generally in a great mood and the station where I go to get stamps and send things out is wonderful.

That Ravenswood office, though. Yeesh. Put it this way. One year I was picking up the Christmas box. At that time, you were meant to go to a door and ring a bell, whereupon a postal employee would take your orange ticket, look at your identification and hand you your package. That's pretty standard. THAT year, I went to the box and rang the bell and....nothing happened. I went to move to the regular line after I had waited about 15 minutes with no response. It was 9:00 in the morning and the line was already out the door, because there were only two people in front, but I figured this was better than standing in front of a locked gray door...

No dice. One of the cashiers pointed at me and said, "You don't get packages in this line! If you line up here, we won't serve you!"

So I went back to the door and rang the bell again, whereupon the woman sang out AGAIN, "We know you're there! The more times you ring that bell, the more time you'll have to wait!"

I was seething. It took ANOTHER 15 minutes for someone to answer the door. Finally I heard the lock...and it was the woman who had been barking orders at me (and by this time, four other people). She seemed furious and delivered a long lecture to all of us in line that we were "mean" and that she didn't have to do anything for us. She looked me in the eye and informed me that if I ever rang that bell again, my package was going back.

Now this is only one incident with these people. I have been in there several times, and I have NEVER ONCE seen any of them crack a smile unless it was to a family member or friend. Several times I've been there during business hours and all four cash desks were closed at the same time. Seriously. ALL of them. On one memorable occasion, about half a dozen of us in line phoned the Post Office to complain at the same time. When someone finally opened their register 20 minutes later, we were all on the phone.


This brings us to today. I started the day in a terrific mood. All I had were a couple of errands to do, namely pick up the Christmas box and hop to Target to get one last present for a friend. No, I won't tell you what the present was. She reads this. There's some other stuff that needs doing - I have to make some cookies and do the big grocery shop for Christmas Eve dinner (game hens), but none of that needs to happen right this red-hot second. I actually had a really fun post to put up here this afternoon. Sigh.

But I went to the post office first.

As always, I went early enough so as not to hit the lunch rush - it was about 10:30 a.m. by the time I'd parked and got in the door. Again as always, the line was out the door, but there was a glimmer of hope because three people were there and they were actually taking clients. I went to the door right behind another lady who had already rung the bell. We waited for a minute or two, then the lady that I like to call "The Yeller" shouted that we had to get in line because things had changed. I took this as a positive development because the line seemed to be moving.

The three cashiers were talking to each other as always, and I've learned the hard way that they just don't exert themselves to push the line through. It was slow, but moving. There was an older Hispanic woman in line about three people ahead of me and when she stepped up, all hell broke loose.

Now this woman was obviously taking care of two grandchildren while their parents were at work. One of them was about six months old and sound asleep in a side-by-side stroller which was parked in a back corner out of the way. The other was a little boy of about three or so who was so bundled up that he could hardly move (think Charlie Brown). He was standing beside the stroller, waiting pretty patiently for a little kid.

When their grandmother got to the cashier, she had an orange tag like about half of us that were in line. The cashier took the tag and brought back the package, then demanded that the older woman sign for it and show some ID. This lady had no English, so it took a minute to get that across to her. It WAS a big thing to the cashier. She demanded, in English, a driver's license. Repeatedly, and getting louder with each repetition. Finally another fellow standing in the line translated, but it took a minute for them to get organized.

And this is where the fun starts. See, the grandmother, who had no English and was illiterate even in her own language, made her mark on the clipboard. She signed with an X. Signing with an X is perfectly legal. You can even sign a will that way. At one time, it wasn't even that uncommon. I clearly remember taking credit card slips that were signed that way. No, I'm not that old.

The cashier went skyward. She was demanding in English that this poor lady who didn't understand a word she was saying write her name. This cashier kept repeating "Write your name!" louder and louder while everyone in line looked on, getting more and more uncomfortable. She was oblivious. This was an inconvenience to her and everyone was going to know about it. It was obvious that she was starting to get out of control and didn't give a damn who knew it.

Meanwhile all the grandmother saw was a woman three times her size yelling things she couldn't understand. In about three minutes, this cashier, who was given a perfectly legal (albeit unorthodox) signature managed to reduce an elderly lady to tears. Finally the gentleman who had translated before stepped up to help. He somehow managed to get the ranting cashier to hand over the package and get the woman and her grandkids out the door without further incident.

The cashier settled down to take a few more people, muttering all the while about green cards and illegals (and if anyone wants to have this debate, let me tell you right now that it won't be entertained here). It took a few minutes, but it finally registered on her that about a dozen people would have gleefully thrown her in the snow and left her there, and she got angry again. NOW the muttering was about "doing my job" and "I don't have to take this shit" and whatnot. No apology. No acknowledgement that she might have been wrong. Nothing. She was just pissed because ... I don't know, people saw her lose it? Hard to say.

Naturally, when it was my turn, she was the free cashier. She looked me in the eye, put up her "next window" sign and tried to leave. It didn't work. She had to take me. I handed her my orange pickup card and when she went in the back to get the box, she pretended she couldn't find it. There was yelling out of the back room - she was claiming it was never there. She continued this game until I think someone put the box in her hands.

I have to admit that I couldn't resist. When she finally handed me the box, I asked if she wanted me to sign. She paused and said no. THEN she closed her window.


This is not a rant about the Post Office in general. Working with the public is never easy. The job is boring, they're on their feet all day and I'm sure that there are a lot of nasty people in that line up per HOUR, let alone on a daily basis. I know all this. I've worked my share of retail, I've waited tables, and I know how it can be. I've been there. I also know that if I had EVER treated a customer the way that poor woman was treated today I would not only have been fired on the spot, I would have deserved it.

We've had terrific postal service for the entire 9 years we've lived in the States. I have to admit that I'm still agog that people get mail on Saturdays here, because I don't think anyone else has that. One of the ladies that works in the station near us in Texas went a long way out of her way to help us get our mail when we moved here. The station in Chicago that I go to for stamps is also amazing. The staff are universally quick and pleasant and truly nice to people. They hustle because they know that if they get people through the line quickly they'll be dealing with happy people instead of cranky ones. I've never had to wait in line there for more than ten minutes, and that's during the Christmas rush. To everyone at the Graceland Postal Store at 3024 North Ashland Avenue here in Chicago, happy holidays - you guys are great.

No, this was one person, in one station where I suspect everyone has worked together for far too long. They seem to have made a collective decision that customers are nothing more than an inconvenience to them, put on Earth to get on their nerves. I've seen that staff displaying all kinds of behavior ranging from deliberately slow to rude to (today) downright mean. There was no excuse for what happened there this morning. None.

A message to you ladies: Being polite to customer is NOT a favor. It's your JOB. Deal with it or get out. No one wants to be treated badly.


I didn't just post this out of the blue. I DID contact the Post Office about it. Eventually I got a local customer service number. The folks at that office deal with complaints like mine and worse all the time. I told the woman I spoke to there about what happened and told her that I was going to put it in this blog. She was very nice about it, took my name and number and let me know that a Public Relations person will probably be calling me. I have no problem with that. In fact, if they contact me, I'll post about that conversation right here.

(This just in. I just got a call from someone in Public Relations. He listened, he told me that the retail manager was heading over to that station this afternoon and...we'll see. Like I said I'm not holding my breath. However, he DID say one thing that's interesting. Apparently, they've started a new initiative to make it easier for customers to report problems. There's supposed to be a telephone number posted in all of the post offices in this city that people can call to report problems. Obviously, it wasn't posted in that office, or I would have called it and saved myself some work. For any Chicagoans that want it, that number is 312-983-7800. He'll be checking in to see what I've written here. I gave him the URL and let him know that I was happy to have him comment.)

At the same time, I'm a cynic. I know that nothing is really going to happen because of this. Questions will be asked, none of the cashiers will have seen anything, and the one that lost it will claim I was seeing things. There will be no disciplinary action taken, no one is going to be put on notice to behave themselves and things at Ravenswood Station will go on as they always have. I don't really care. It's not as if I have to go there more than once a year anyway. It's clearly a localized problem

I'm still angry, though. How is it that anyone can feel free to abuse someone like that woman was abused today? Who does that? What kind of twisted logic makes that all right? What's with the racist crap? What kind of society do we live in where someone in a public position can be that nasty and her co-workers watch this and do nothing? Does she get some kind of sick thrill from hurting people?

This appalling behavior is not all that unusual. I know that. My own great-grandmother never learned to speak English well, even though she was born in Canada. This sort of thing happened to her all the time. There are jerks all over the place who seem to think that they can force someone to understand them just by yelling loud enough. They don't understand (or choose to ignore) that this can be frightening, especially to non-English speakers who don't understand what they could have done wrong, but it is terrifying to someone who is elderly.

Oh well. So much for the good mood of this morning. I guess I might as well sit down and pay a stack of bills, right?

07 December 2009

Toys for Who?

(Photograph copyright 2009, all rights reserved)

Christmas is coming. I finally faced that fact last week and went online to do some shopping. It went surprisingly well, especially the clothing shopping. How many of us have gone looking for say, a nice warm sweater for someone only to find that the one you want isn't in stock at the store that sells it, or if it is, the size is never right? I stopped doing all that running around years ago. It's tiring and aggravating and by the time I'm done with the shopping I'm so cranky that it's not even fun to watch someone open the gifts any more. I've become an almost 100% online shopping girl and my life and marriage are happier because of it.

However...I don't just have adults to shop for any more. The Cool Niece is going to be three in February, and while she's already a book addict (thank her Mom for that), toys are required. Now, I have no children. It's been a VERY long time since I've been to a toy store, and I have no idea what's out there. Clearly things are considerably more complicated now than they were when I was a kid, but the basics are still around as far as I can see. I think it's pretty ridiculous to buy a laptop computer for the 4 to 8 year-old set. I've never been a fan of overcomplicated toys that "do" stuff. I figure that if a toy has a specific purpose, then it's a pretty boring toy. After all, how many times can a kid look at the same flashing lights before deciding that they've exhausted the possibilities?

Therefore I cast my eye on building and construction toys. The Cool Niece has blocks big and small, and also Duplo, which is the outsize Lego for little hands. I remember the buckets of Lego I had when I was a kid, and the big cardboard tubes of Tinkertoys were guaranteed to hold my attention for hours. I clearly remember spending half a day at a time with a friend building incredibly complicated structures, trying to use every brick in the bucket to build a house...or a bridge....or a forest. Sometimes we included the Tinkertoys as well. After all, it's easier to get height when you use them.

Clearly the kid is too young for such things now. Next year or the year after is soon enough for that. She would just get frustrated with the small pieces. I settled for a Mr. Potato Head , which should satisfy her current fascination for putting things together. It also comes with a suitcase full of extra parts which she'll enjoy greatly because for some reason she likes tidying up. The Boy picked out some really lovely picture books for her, so we're set for this year.

And thank goodness we are. I ran across this in the New York Times this morning. It seems that the construction toys of yore have become too complicated for even parents to put together. The woman interviewed was frustrated beyond belief with a toy someone had given her son that defeated her entirely. I read this and thought....wait a minute here? This is Lego! Lego is about hours of creative fun!

Alas no. Lego has managed to almost completely suck the creative fun out of its toys. I went to the website and saw literally dozens of toys, all of which must be assembled according to instructions. There is no creativity there. You build a truck and there it is, a truck for the kid to play with. I have to ask what the point of that is. Why not just buy a bloody Tonka and have done with it? Seriously why go through that? No kid is going to dismantle and rebuild the Lego version of some of these complicated things. It seems incredibly counterintuitive to me.

I was pretty disgusted by the whole thing, so I did more searching and found the Lego Large Brick Box . Thank goodness, I thought, the company hasn't completely sold out! Then I looked again, and was shocked to find that even in these supposedly enlightened times, there's a pink box for girls and a blue box for boys. In fact (and this is a topic for another day) when I Googled "building toys for kids", what I got was "building toys for boys", which is a sad statement as far as I'm concerned.

There are other terrific building toys out there as well. Tinkertoys is still sold in its iconic tube, although the parts now are made of plastic rather than wood. Yeah, I know that dates me. It's still made by Hasbro and you can still buy instruction sheets which tell you how to make more complicated structures out of the basic parts. It's also relatively inexpensive, with a 200 piece set for under forty bucks.

Meccano is still around as it has been for a century now. It's for older kids, of course, but it lets them play with electric motors and learn how things go together. What I didn't realize about it is that ALL of the sets built over the entire lifetime of the company are still the same standard sizes. This means that theoretically, your child can use yours and even your father's old Meccano to make even bigger projects. I think that's pretty cool.

The Boy and I are design wonks, so I was happy to find a really large scale building toy from Offi that allows kids to build rooms inside of rooms and forts in any shape they want. It's made of heavy cardboard interlocking sheets and when the kids are done with it, it's completely recyclable.

I noodled around online seeing a whole lot of new building toys for kids, some that looked great and others that seemed pretty lame to me, like a "tree of life" complete with birdhouse that looked like something that maybe would appeal to an elderly craft fan, but that a kid would build and then squash with that battery operated front end loader that they got for Christmas last year. Eventually I found a terrific site that covers most of the bases. It's called Mastermind Toys . It's a nice site with categories separated by age and interests, perfect for a neophyte toy shopper like me.