Saturday, May 21, 2011

The Long Drive

There is a wasp on the inside of the screen in the studio.

Returning to the farm from Chicago, there are always a few days of adjustment to different symbioses and different neighbors. In both cases, we are asked to be tolerant of the habits and beliefs of those around us, and diffident about our own ideas. In Chicago, we live in Ukrainian Village, but not the hipster part, where the Art Institute grads and the fixie riders are. We got our apartment because the Woman's name is Pskowski. We are among the very few for whom English is not at best a third language, after Ukrainian or Polish, and then Russian. On the corner, there's a four-story block of smaller one-bedroom apartments, almost entirely occupied by older immigrants who sun themselves on the small porches, gossiping across the brief divides. When we walk by, they tend to grow silent; their conversation quiets, their gestures fade from the emphatic tense to the passive or the wary. They wait for us to pass, and then they begin again. None of them speaks English; they depend on their sons and daughters, and their grandchildren, to negotiate with the Social Security Administration and the City of Chicago Office of Senior Services. They shop at a Ukrainian-Polish market on the corner of Iowa and Western, where we cannot, for we speak no Ukrainian, Polish or Russian.

Their children own the two- and three-flats that surround us, or perhaps the old ones own the buildings, and the younger ones rent, caretake, and manage. Anna the cop glowers at us when she stops by on her lunch hour to check on her parents; she parks her big Chicago Police SUV in front of the house after driving the wrong way down the street. She knows just by looking at us that we do not respect authority, that we are suspicious of uniforms, that having a relative who's a cop is not a sign of pride for us.

Her father and mother don't like us because we walk our dog along the sidewalk in front of their threeflat. Old as she is, Georgie sometimes does her business on their lawn, and though we carry our plastic bags and are quick to scoop, we affront their property, and the whole block watches, disapprovingly. The lawns are spectacularly well-kept, the flowerbeds obediently uniform and regular in their displays. In the mornings, the women sweep the fallen blooms from the young maple trees the city has planted. A week ago, one of them commented, emphatically: "they drive me crazy these damned trees." I was shocked she'd spoken directly to me; I looked around to see who deserved her attention more than I. She said nothing more. She turned on her heel and continued sweeping, her back to me.

Anna's grandmother, though: she likes us. She likes Georgie. When she is on her porch, she comes down to pet her, and they are a pair: both arthritic, both well-mannered, each intrigued by the other, friendly, ready for a chat. Anna's grandmother gets picked up twice a week to go to bingo, and once a week to a senior center for an entertainment of some sort. While she waits for the car, she talks to us. It's how we know something of the neighborhood, and of our neighbors.

These are reticent people. They are suspicious of outsiders. Where they came from, wariness was a survival tactic, silence a necessity. They are not believers in the American melting pot. They are here because they, or their parents, conceived a way to leave the Soviet Union, to come to the States, to join relatives and friends already here, to enter the underground economy if they were illegal, or even if they were legal, because to do otherwise would have meant giving up their identity. The Catholic church on Oakley and Augusta has multiple services: Ukrainian, Polish, and English. In the big cathedral 2 blocks south, the priest says mass only in Ukrainian. On schooldays, the children come by in clusters in their school uniforms, speaking Ukrainian, on their way to the parochial school behind the cathedral, where they may learn English as a second or third language, but all the rest of the instruction is in Ukrainian.

We do our best to coexist. We are not effusive, overfriendly. We don't ask what it was like before they came here. We don't expect them to welcome us, or to treat our American lives as models for their emulation. Our presence breaks down their community, and the best we can offer is to move through their midst as if we were ghosts, or foreigners there on sabbatical or assignment.

The wasp has left. He has settled somewhere among the books, the guitars, amplifiers, computers, scanners and printers. I didn't try to kill or capture him.

I am out here after spending the early afternoon removing everything from the shelves of the cupboard and the larder, washing each cast iron skillet, casserole dish, springform pan and carafe, and then vacuuming up the mouse droppings and wiping down the plain wooden shelves. When we arrived last night, tired and exhilarated after the 15 hour drive through rainstorms and construction zones, we found a container of cornstarch knocked to the floor, its white powdery contents strewn around it, marked with small pawprints. The Woman doesn't like the field mice-- that is to say, she thinks they should stay in their own place and not come into ours, stealing and messing and making work for us when, in the spring, they once again leave the house for the hayfield. I am not so sure just who is host and who is guest, who the native and who the foreigner sojourning temporarily here. When I find the wasps' nests, I will probably knock them down and crush them. But not without disquietude.


  1. "I am not so sure just who is host and who is guest, who the native and who the foreigner sojourning temporarily here."

    This has been beautifull said. I loved your articles very much. Please, keep posting more of them.

  2. Priviet from Crimea, Ukraine, from one of those for whom English is the third language