Artist Date 69: Spicy. Trouble.

It smells warm inside Savory Spice Shop on Lincoln Avenue. Artist Date 69. And while I know intellectually that warm is not a smell, it feels like it. Spicy. BBQ rubs. One is called Pearl Street Plank. I take a photograph of it.

I am afraid I am going to get into trouble.

I am often afraid of getting into trouble. Like the time Julie and I smoked cigarettes inside the multiplex at a midnight showing of The Crying Game.

The movie had been out for a while and we were the only ones in the theatre. Julie lit up. I was aghast. “What? Are you afraid we are going to get into trouble?” she asked. A little bit mocking. Well, yes…I was. Just like when we smoked cigarettes in seventh grade on Shabbat.

Julie was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household. On Saturdays, my mother would drop me there for the day. Sometimes we watched movies on the Betamax (Meatballs was our favorite.) – her father’s concession.

Irv was a wise man who understood that raising his girls in an observant home, but not in an observant neighborhood, was tricky. Their customs were “other” than those of the secular Jews surrounding them. So while Julie could not go to movies and dances on Friday night and Saturday, she was allowed to watch movies, regardless of the prohibition against using electronics on the Sabbath. And also to go for long walks. Walks that often involved McDonalds’ French fries and Virginia Slims Menthol 100s.

Julie was brazen. I was convinced we were going to get caught and get into trouble. We didn’t. But that sense that I might have to explain myself has never entirely left me. Even today at the Savory Spice Shop.

I know some stores prohibit photography. I know I could ask if it is ok. But I don’t. Instead I snap and hope no one will question me. It is this sort of internal gyration that causes me anxiety. The kind I could easily avoid.

2014-03-23 14.14.42An employee says to let her know if I have any questions, and invites me to sample and to brush any excess onto the floor. She adds that my boots are “magnificent,” and we talk for a solid five minutes about the quest to merge fashion and function. I am reminded, part of the joy of a funky aesthetic is people want to talk to you. Want to talk to me.

She makes no comment about my photography.

I finger baking spices and books on pickling. But the spices from far away call me like a siren. Exotic. Other. Like I always wanted to be. I try to conjure up the smells of the market in Kigali, in Argles, in Jerusalem, but I cannot. I only know I was there.

I smell red peppercorns from the Szechuan Province. Green ones from Mysore. Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves. Asafetida from Iran, also known as Devil’s Dung and Stinking Gum. The label says it smells like garlic gone bad. To me, it smells like sulfur. Eggs.

There are Grains of Paradise from West Africa and Pinchito from Southern Spain. Preserved Lemon and Pomegranate Molasses. Marrakech Moroccan Spice and Berbere Ethiopian Seasoning.

2014-03-23 14.19.28I think about cooking and wonder what I would make. My repertoire has become small as a single woman. Often times, it just doesn’t seem worth it. So I stick to egg-white omelets, soups and salads. Black beans, kale and squash. An occasional piece of fish roasted with fennel and oranges and olives.

I think about travel. The recent loud and incessant call to go away – somewhere big. Somewhere sexy. Sometime this year – my 45th come October. Italy or India.

Today I do not have to decide.

Instead, I allow myself the pleasure of revisiting Africa. Spain. And France.

Israel. Germany. Amsterdam.

Ireland and Mexico.

To return to each marketplace I visited – photographing beans drying in the sun. Salted fish. Unskinned rabbit hanging from a hook.

To the suburban movie theatre and the safety of Julie’s home. To her basement where her papa fed us Oreo cookies with a finger pressed to his lips as if to say, “shh…don’t tell.”

I think about the real trouble I caused in my travels.  The kind I should have been worried about but wasn’t. In Berlin.  Avignon.  Puerto Vallarta.  Today I know better.

Today there are no secrets. Nothing to hide. Nothing to get me into trouble.

Artist Date 30: Among the Flora, Invited Out

Stephanie
Stephanie

One of my readers invited me on an Artist Date.  Number 30.

Actually, she’s a friend…and a reader.  Her name is Stephanie.  Last week, she sent me an email inviting me to the Bucktown Tree and Garden Walk.  Hers would be among the 80-plus featured.

I was touched, delighted that she had somehow become “involved” enough in my story, in my process, to join in, to help me along.

So Saturday morning I pedal my vintage Raleigh to her neighborhood.  The day is sunny and hot, but not humid.  A Chicago miracle.

I tie up my bike at Club Lucky and buy a ticket for the walk. In exchange for $5, I receive a map of the gardens with descriptions of each, access to a complimentary trolley, and a coupon for $10 my next meal of $35 or more.

I hear my name called.  It is a woman I used to know.  I didn’t recognize her.  She isn’t surprised to see me.  She heard I moved back to town.  That I am divorced.  Chicago feels like a small town.  It is comforting.

We embrace.  And I jump back on my bike, headed to Stephanie’s, forgoing the trolley.

Her partner Errol is on the porch painting, plein air.  She is inside sautéing onions and baking a pizza – snacks for the other artists expected today.

She gives me a tour of her home, its walls spilling over with her artwork, Errol’s and that of other creatives.  Her first still life hangs in the stairwell.  It is a pear.  Or is it an onion and ramps?  There are several, grouped together.  I don’t recall.  In some ways it doesn’t really matter.  Her raw natural talent is obvious.  It is the kind that makes me wonder why I bother.

Stephanie and Toulousse
Stephanie and Toulouse

I meet her cat Toulouse, and a black one whose name escapes me.  He is missing some bone in his head, which makes his face appear somewhat smushed.

I leave my helmet and my basket with her, and receive explicit directions to stop by Sam and Nick’s.  She points out their location on the map.  “Just tell them we sent you.”

On the way I stop at my first floral garden, (Stephanie and Errol’s was planted with art – some framed and hanging.  Other funky and environmental.  A striped sidewalk created with a power washer and wood planks.  Painted sticks growing out of the soil.  Their colors “changing” from orange to green depending on your position.  Like a painting by the Israeli artist, Agam.)

Marsha is watering plants.  She seems surprised to see me.  Actually, many of the garden owners do.  As if they have forgotten that the garden walk is today.

She shows me her zinnias and her tomatoes.  Nothing remarkable, but lovely. Sweet.  Growing.

Walking into the private space of a stranger, I am reminded of being in Amsterdam.  According to my Frommer’s guide residents intentionally keep their shutters open – proud of their homes, inviting a peek inside.

This is Marsha’s first season in the garden.  She moved in recently, leaving the suburbs and joining her husband in the city.  Her house is on the market and she is keeping her fingers crossed.  She gives me hope – seeing her in this new space, putting down roots, with a partner.  And also knowing that she had a life all her own before this change.  And I assume, to a certain degree, still does.

I don’t tell her any of this.  Instead I tell her about my recollections of Amsterdam, how I recently killed a cactus, and about being invited on an Artist Date by her neighbor.  I run my hands through a tomato plant and bring them to my face.  I love the smell.  I rub my hands on my neck, as if putting on the earth’s fragrance.  I thank her and say goodbye.

2013-07-13 12.31.31

A wading pool is set up at the corner of Hoyne and Moffat, along with a glass bubbler filled with ice water, cucumber, melon and strawberries.  A few chairs are perched in the shade of a tree.  There is a note, “Relax and Hydrate.”  I fill up my water bottle and keep moving.

I stop at Nick and Sam’s.  Sam is wearing a white bee keeper’s hat.  I go inside and talk with Nick about his artwork.  Striking etchings using photos from the Kinsey Institute.  He points out the racy elements because I don’t see them – not at first.

I admire his collection of roller-skate cases lined up on a shelf, each with a tag hanging from it – letting him know what is stored inside.

I visit more than a dozen gardens.  Some consisting of little more than sod on a double-wide lot – one with a basketball net and cement court, another with a large inflatable swimming pool.  Two toddler girls in matching hot pink bathing suits and white sun hats are wading in it.  Their limbs, deliciously chunky.

Others sit on top of garages, tucked behind homes.

I follow arrows and stairs climbing up.  Water spills out of the wall and is caught in a ceramic bowl, a chalice.  Suspiciously clean, striped pads sit on top of teak furniture.  Several blue umbrellas block the sun.  A man, presumably the owner, offers me a bottle of water from a cooler.  I feel like I am at a spa.

At another, an intruder.  I am greeted by a man eating his lunch under a wooden canopy covered with vines, listening to the radio.  His daughter hangs shyly behind him, swaying side to side, her head following her hips.

Most of the homes are noticeably without “hosts.”  Only a laminated card, with a number corresponding to the map, identifies them as part of the walk.

I had expected storybook gardens, like something from the south.  Manicured.  Dense.  Sweetly pungent.  Or wild and overgrown, with tall, smiling sunflowers – like my favorite one in Mendocino, a sleepy resort town on the northern California coast.  A sign implores visitors to photograph, but to refrain from picking.

Instead I encounter mostly neatly trimmed hedges, modest groupings of plants and flowers that clearly thrive, creative use of small space —bringing nature into the city.

2013-07-13 12.54.05I remember moving to Chicago the first time, in 2007.  I was heart-sick for San Francisco.  For pastel-painted Victorians, rolling fog and rolling green hills.  I made it my mission to take the most beautiful path I could wherever I went.  The one with the most trees, prettiest homes.  I had forgotten about that.

Eventually I settled into Chicago.  My surroundings ceased to be new.  And I ceased to notice them.  Until today.

I return to Stephanie and Errol’s to pick up my things.  A few of Errol’s painter friends are here.  They ask if I am a painter.  I shake my head.  I tell them that I am a writer, a dancer, a frustrated potter.  A girl on an Artist Date, being reminded of the loveliness all around me.