Thursday, June 22, 2006

The Wood Lot -South Side, Chicago

The bus to the South Side is crowded, due to the attraction of the Sunday morning market which pulls in people from a wide area along with a few tourists eager to sample some local colour.
They soon get a taste of this when a cry goes up from the back of the bus:
”Get your hands out of my pocket.”
We all cling more tightly to our purses while straining to see the source of the rumpus. Nothing more is said except we are all watchful and silent and I am glad to get off the bus. Tucked under my arm in an old shabby bag is my 1,000 dollar video camera.
I find Michael and Tyler eager to talk about the fire.
They run The Wood Lot off Maxwell St. Some people may see it as a junk yard run by two former 60’s college dropouts, others as an environmental projects specialising in recycling.
For Michael and Tyler are idealists.
They want to save the planet, starting with renewable resources. High on their list is saving and recycling wood and some years ago they colonised a nearby derelict warehouse and stuffed it to the gunnels with wood which some day someone might want.

After years of dereliction the area is now being regenerated and the new owner, a property developer, wants them out.
Michael and Tyler will have no truck with it. They refused to remove their wood while they themselves occupied another semi-derelict property with no water, electricity nor heating and survive by scavenging through the city’s dustbins.

Michael takes a certain pride in his ability to survive on the Chicago streets, something that Tyler has taught him.

On December 31 at 1.30 am while the Chicago Millennium celebrations were in full swing their warehouse of stored wood burst into flames. Phone calls to the Fire Brigade went unanswered.

They suspect arson.
But they can’t prove anything. And if they could what good would it do?

The site is integral to the new development of the Maxwell St area , all part of Mayor Daly's grand plan .
And that derelict building stood in the way.
“Come and see it,” says Michael. .
He shows me the site.
Its razed to the ground.
We stare in disbelief at the empty ground. Two weeks ago a huge derelict warehouse stood there.
”They cleared the it completely, ” says Michael.
“That’s Chicago”, added Tyler.

I commiserate with them. We return to the yard and Michael makes us some coffee in his makeshift hut.
He lifts the lid on the wooden orange box he’s sitting on.
“Here, take one.”
He hands me an apple from a tray of apples that look like a Cezanne painting.

I eat it with a sense of guilt knowing that he has been given these apples under the “Chicago Feeding the Homeless” programme.

These apples were not meant for folk like myself who have never known the pangs of hunger.

“Is it OK if I come with you this morning?” I ask Tyler.
“Sure. I am going shopping.”

Now Tyler cuts a strange quirky picture. He wears an Afro wig, oversized black-rimmed glasses, no shoes, a layered look of disparate garments long before it became fashionable and sometimes he completes the outfit with an enormous red bra.
Today the final startling accessory is missing .

He pushes a supermarket trolley.
“I ‘ve got some shopping to do. I need to buy a gun.”
I nod.
Did he say gun? Perhaps I did not hear correctly.
He repeats it.
“Yes I need a gun...”

Maybe this is not a good time to be carrying a video camera so I put it away discreetly in my oversize duvet jacket (15 dollars courtesy of Mitzie).

“There’s one.”
He spots two Afro-Americans sitting on the edge of their opened car boot.

They have bags of equipment at their feet.
“I need to buy a gun, y’know to staple wood.”
Phew! and there I was thinking we were about to purchase a shotgun....
The guys root through and produce one.
“That will do. How much?”
“Two dollars.”
Tyler hands the money over and we walk on.

Everyone knows Tyler. He is a minor celebrity in the area having lived there for years after leaving his university research post and becoming a registered schizophrenic who refuses treatment. He speaks several languages and has a PhD in physics . The son of a wealthy East coast family he gets by on a small allowance. Much as I long to film the area I know it is neither the place nor the time: so the camera stays in its bag.
The morning is taken up with research, meeting and talking to the people whom Tyler introduces me to. He is popular and even the police stop and chat to him.

We return to the Wood Lot to find Michael surrounded by four affluent looking middle-aged women.

They are from Cincinnati and they are want to buy some genuine old iron garden gates. Michael assures them he has plenty, it is just a case of finding them, and he begins turning over vast quantities of junk .
The women watch.
I seize the opportunity.
“Do you mind if I film you for my college project?”

The women are startled by the request.
They shake their heads. They don't want it broadcast that they are shopping for second-hand goods in the South Side of Chicago.
But one woman though shows some interest.

“Where you from?”
“Of that’s all right! Nobody knows us there.”
So I film them haggling for the gates then loading them into the back of their station-wagon.
They reckoned without the internet. And blogging.


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