Neighborhood sociopathology

Although I don’t have any medical training, I believe that I have accurately diagnosed a person who lives on my street as a sociopath. (And most likely, by implication, a Trump supporter.)

How did I reach this conclusion? Observation.

My kitchen window overlooks a busy urban street that is in high-demand for parking due to its proximity to popular storefronts and restaurants. When a parking space is vacated, it’s typically immediately taken up by another vehicle. Spaces are unmarked, so cars are parked bumper-to-bumper.

Except during the early hours of the morning. At that time, the stores are closed, and there are often open parking spaces with big gaps between them. And that is when I frequently see my neighbor strategically adjust where his two cars are parked.

He’ll rush out of his home and move both his vehicles so they are parked behind each other. This, you might be thinking, seems reasonable. But it’s where the pathology emerges.

He carefully places each car so that they consume the maximum amount of space. Positioning them just in front of a loading zone (so that nobody can park behind), and then leaving a several foot gap between his cars. I have even seen him pace out the space between his cars so that it’s large, but not so big as to be a usable spot.

When he’s done —and this process takes several minutes— his two cars are taking up enough space to park at least three, if not four, vehicles.

He’s precisely the type of person who should move to the suburbs. And here’s the kicker, he has a two-car garage that he doesn’t use. Definitely a sociopath.

Small-town Dead

This year, I’ve driven back-and-forth across much of the United States multiple times. Resulting in at least 6000 miles of travel, and several weeks of being on the road.

As a fan of Blue Highways, stopping in small-town America is always a highlight. (Although not always a respite when in Trump-y areas, such as Deadwood and all of Oklahoma.)

One consistent attribute of many small towns is what I’ve come to call “Dead Soldier Square.” It’s remarkable how many places have memorials to residents who have died in recent military service. Occasionally, it’s an old-school statue, but more often the memorial consists of photos of the dead on streetlight poles, or otherwise distributed along Main Street. Every so often, the placards are placed in the windows of empty storefronts, which makes them even more haunting and evocative by combining two forms of civic loss.

The photos of dead youth haunt your every step. The intention is probably to remind the living of their sacrifice, but I suspect the actual result is numbing and normalization.

It’s especially poignant knowing that for at least some of these young people, joining the military was the only viable means of escape from the town. And now, in death, the town is the only place where they are remembered.

Pandemic Drip Dry

“What’s all this about?” — I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been asked about the album of photos that I’ve been posting on Flickr. Now, I am closing the project and explaining its genesis.

It began after a conversation with a friend about how our daily lives had slowed during the COVID-19 lockdown. For me, washing dishes by hand and letting them air dry was a mindful approach to the monotony seeping into every aspect of the day.

The symbolism of cleanliness, nutrition, and patience was intentional — why should I hurry to complete this mundane task? I had nowhere to go. The photographs reflect the everyday sameness, but also the quiet persistence of waiting for the plague to pass. There are gaps in the timeline because not every day of the lockdown can be recalled.

Now, two years into the pandemic and one year of this project, our Sisyphean routines continue due to the ignorance and callousness of others. But in these times, this means I am still here. Still washing. Still waiting.

Five people at the post office

I open my post office box and on top of the week’s mail is a peach-colored notification slip. For most people, “Oh! I have a package to pick up!” would be a joyful surprise. But those people don’t live in my neighborhood. Here, the thrill of a pick-up is also delivered with no small measure of trepidation. (My local post office was once rated by the Postmaster General as the worst in the country.)

old school pobox

The post office, located on a busy Chicago street, still smells like the shoe store that previously occupied the storefront. I notice when I arrive that there are only five people ahead of me in line, which is pretty much like winning the lottery. The plexiglass plague shields, along with the mandatory face masks, require people to speak loudly, which lets me eavesdrop while I wait for my turn.

A twenty-year-old brunette is at the counter. She asks the clerk “Do I need to put a return address on this package?”

The clerk replies, “Yes, all mail should have a return address.”

“Where does it go?”

“In the upper-left corner, but you wrote the destination address up there, which is going to confuse everyone.” “Here,” she says, handing over a pen, “write your return really small above it.”

“OK, thanks. I thought it might need one, but I didn’t know where it went.”

As this conversation is taking place, another young woman arrives. She’s carrying a shopping bag full of small pre-paid packages. I decide that she’s an Etsy seller, shipping out orders. (She seems crafty.) She begins piling the packages on the far counter, which is the designated spot for dropping off ready-to-go packages, but she has so many that she has to carefully balance them on top of each other. The clerk notices this and yells at her for not asking for a bin to hold the packages. The girl sheepishly takes the bin she’s given and empties the bag, leaving the bin on the counter.

As she’s departing, she passes another woman, who is entering. This new woman approaches the drop-off counter, gingerly peeks inside the bin, then rudely interrupts the clerk to ask if it’s OK to add her single package. She gets a surly “That’s what it’s for” in reply.

The next person to approach the counter is an older Asian lady. I think she’s with the half-dozen young Asian women who are huddling just inside the door. The ethnic similarity between the old woman and the young group triggers something in the clerk. She yells across the lobby that the group needs to get out of the way of the door. The group, startled, timidly shifts around, then after a few seconds, exits en masse. Their reaction and movements remind me of gazelles being stalked by a lion. (I sure do miss Marlin Perkins.)

Meanwhile, the older Asian woman at the counter tells the clerk she needs to send something via “certificate mail.” I wince, presuming that the clerk will harshly correct her, but instead she points her towards the forms on the other side of the room. Then, noticing the woman is holding a loose stack of papers, she also directs her towards a rack where she can pick out an envelope to buy. (By the time I leave, the old woman will still be filling out the form. Her young friends huddling outdoors clogging the sidewalk, oblivious to the dirty looks from people leaving the nearby L station.)

I hear an exaggerated sigh behind me, I turn my head slightly to glance at the woman in line behind me. She’s impatiently shifting her weight from foot to foot, as if her fidgeting is a magical dance that will hurry things along.

The next person to approach the clerk doesn’t have an envelope either, but she wants to send Priority Mail and the clerk has a flat-rate envelope at hand. As the transaction is continuing, the customer removes a crumpled letter from her purse and asks why it was delivered to her home. The clerk takes it, compares it to the Priority Mail envelope that the lady has just finished addressing, and says, quizzically, “Because it’s addressed to you…?”

“Oh no, I sent this. The address it was going to is here,” she says, turning the envelope over to reveal its back.

The clerk looks at her in silence for a couple of seconds and says, “Well, that’s why it came back to you.”

“Oh, I guess I accidentally sent it to myself then.” She reaches into her purse again and removes yet another letter. “Well, why did this one come back to me?”

The clerk pauses for a longer time. Her eyes darting between the customer and the envelope. I think she’s counting silently to herself. Finally, she says, “This is a business reply envelope. You can’t cross out the ComEd address and send to somewhere else instead.”

“Oh, I guess that makes sense.” Her questions answered, and her transaction completed, the woman leaves.

The lady behind me clucks her tongue loudly.

Next is a young lady who pre-paid for her package online and believes, falsely, that she can just hand it over and walk away. The clerk stops her from leaving because she has used a Priority Mail box, but paid for First Class. The clerk tells her to repack the item into a plain box, which she must purchase, as only Priority boxes are free.

The next person to approach the clerk is a woman who has been busily packing and addressing an Express Mail envelope while she’s in line. My mind is wandering, so I miss the start of their interaction, but I’m jolted back to attention when the customer loudly exclaims “Twenty-Six dollars? You gotta be kidding.” The clerk says that is what Express Mail costs.

“Express Mail? I didn’t ask for no Express Mail! Just regular mail is fine.”

“You put it in an Express Mail envelope.”

“I didn’t know that meant twenty-six dollars.”

“Go put it in a Priority Mail envelope instead, then come back up here,” the clerk suggests.

The lady walks away waving the envelope at all of us in line — “you all watch out for these twenty-six dollar envelopes! They don’t look like they are twenty-six dollars but they sure are!” She cackles, “that’s one expensive envelope!”

At last, it is my turn. I hand the clerk my peach-colored notification slip and show her my identification when she asks to see it. Meanwhile, a second clerk opens her window and the lady from behind me rushes towards it.

She plops the package down on the scale and, with a voice dripping with frustration, says, “Priority Mail.” The clerk glances at the package and slides if off the scale saying “This is the wrong kind of tape, I can’t accept this package.” “What? Are you kidding me‽” The tone of the lady’s voice catches the attention of the clerk who is helping me, and she chimes in ; “You can’t use masking tape, it won’t stay sealed.”

“It’s the only tape I have.”

“It’s an FAA regulation, you have to use packing tape.”

“This is ridiculous!” She picks up her package and stomps out the door.

My clerk retreats to the back room to locate my package. While I wait, a middle-aged hispanic man approaches the other clerk with a dirty and dented Priority Mail box. He says “I’ve mailed this twice and both times it has come back to me. Why?”

Just then, my clerk returns holding my package. It’s a book sent to me from a magician in Singapore, so it requires a signature release. The clerk asks to see my identification again, I scrawl a “signature” on the touch screen with my finger, and I depart.

I guess I’ll never know why that guy’s package keeps coming back.

(Photo by Tim Evans on Unsplash. Thanks!)

Dear future resident

Last summer, during landscaping work, we created and then buried a “time capsule” in our backyard. It includes some tchotchkes and surprises, but also some pandemic-related “new normal” artifacts. (Such as Trump’s ridiculous national postcard.) Hopefully, when it’s dug up many years from now they will think “Oh, yeah, I’ve heard that viruses used to be a problem. Hey, isn’t this the ex-president who was imprisoned?”

time capule, so labeled

A visit to Amsterdam's Oudmanhuispoort (2019)

Gordon Meyer Old Man's House Passage

Oudmanhuispoort (Old Man’s House Passage) was part of an 18th Century senior citizen’s home. We learned about the place during a late-night “ghost tour” and vowed to visit the ancient market when it was open for business. Not too long after, a rainy day provided the perfect excuse.

In the mid 1880s this passageway became a place for vendors to sell music, books, and prints. That’s still going on today, although during our Tuesday morning visit most of the stalls were closed. One booth that was open sold nothing but used dictionaries — of every kind imaginable, such as “Biblical Greek.”

It’s said that Amsterdammer Vincent van Gogh was inspired by the Japanese prints he saw here, forever changing the course of Western art. The print vendor open on the day we visited had many great pieces to choose from, at very reasonable prices. Two (a Pooka, and a Water Fairy) will be making their way back home to Chicago with us, which poses a new challenge for our luggage situation, but we’ll do our best. (Update: We visited again, and while more booths were open that time, it was still fairly sparse. Perhaps September is off-season for the market.)

Gordon Meyer Old Man Prints Purchase

The shop’s owner was a charming lady whose only U.S. visit has been to Los Angelas, so she had a few questions about Chicago, which she said was one of her best-selling old map prints.

Postscript: The passageway and surrounding buildings are now home to the University of Amsterdam’s School of Law, which makes clear their view of interlopers in classic passive voice:

Gordon Meyer Amsterdam Schol of Law

A true story from Amsterdam (2019)

Gordon Meyer holding a guitar pick

We had a “date” to meet Kay and Flo for drinks the day after our joint nighttime dinner cruise of the Amsterdam canals. Gale and I arrived early and settled in at “Bar Americain” at the American Hotel. (The fact that we were early will surprise few of you.)

The walls of the bar are filled, corner to corner, with framed 8 × 10 photos of celebrities. Gale immediately recognized a few — such as Boy George — and as we waited for the arrival of the server we tentatively identified several more, including Slash.

Our server, Roger, confirmed many of our guesses and explained the photos were all taken in the bar. (I was wrong about Lenny Kravitz, it was a Dutch singer that Roger assured me I’d never heard of.) Gale and I were both surprised at how bad Billy Idol looked and would have never recognized him. And of course there was no mistaking the boys from Texas, ZZ Top.

One of my favorites, which Gale spotted, was a young Dweezil Zappa.

Dweezil Zappa photo

Kay and Flo — who were staying at the hotel — said they heard that it was soon to become a Hard Rock property. Which makes sense, given the rock star appeal. A guest book in the lobby displayed the signatures of UB40, who were playing in town that weekend.

Roger did a good job of keeping us well served and told us, when asked, that he was a true native, having been born just a few blocks away. He also offered Kay and Flo a couple of tips for their next destination, Barcelona.

As we left I gave Roger a Bucktown pin, and he gratefully reciprocated with a Bar Americain guitar pick.

We had a great time visiting with Flo and Kay. We left them well after dark (despite intentions otherwise) and had a long walk back to our canalboat, in a heavy rain. But it was worth the experience and friendship, both new and old. I’m hoping we get back to see Roger again before we leave.