A Civic Fussbudget Meets his Match in Oak Park's Mean Streets
Suburban tidiness means urban realities
June 24, 1992
Another bit of facetia. Everything in it is true, by the way. I did not have the space to explain that I sling-shotted the Postal Service-regulation rubber bands I harvested from the sidewalks at noisy English sparrows that tried to nest under the gutters outside my studio windows. My line of fire cross the window of a fellow tenant; what he made of rubber bands whizzing past I never learned.
It's a full life, really, being a civic fuss-budget. There are the magazine racks to be tidied every day at Kroch's, of course, along with the customer tables at the bank. When I have a few minutes to spare, I stop by the library to replace books shelved by clerks who clearly regard the Dewey decimal system as advisory, or to erase the underlining and marginalia left in books by patrons who haven't figured out that one can be a vandal with a pencil as well as with a can of spray paint.
Kicking the lava rock back under the neighbors' shrubs after a rain can add as many as ten minutes to my walk home from Val's. Along the way, I pick up all the rubber bands dropped by mail carriers on the sidewalks; as I once explained to friends back home, most Oak Parkers are liberal on race, but they are bigots when it comes to litter.
I am not too shy to say that I have become quite good at this sort of thing. Once while hurrying home past Lake and Marion, I pushed an overturned Tribune vending box back into place with my right hand and then, turning the corner, I reached out with my left to shut off the drinking fountain that had stuck in the "on" position—all without breaking stride and while dodging an au pair girl with a pram who seemed to be daydreaming about the homeland. It was the sort of move that Ryne Sandberg might have made if he had chosen to become a civic fussbudget instead of a second basemaen, and I confess my disappointment that no bystanders rewarded it with applause.
Nobody understands the game anymore.
I realize that none of these gestures toward civic improvement is on the scale of donating a wing to a hospital or even buying toothpaste at an Oak Park Walgreen's instead of F&M. Apparently, however, doing good is not enough in Oak Park. Two weeks ago, I was walking along Chicago Avenue when a boy of ten or so came careening down the sidewalk toward me aboard his 20-incher. The sidewalk was narrow, the parkway very muddy, and one of us was going to have to give way.
It wasn't going to be me. If civilization has taught me anything it is that pre-teen boys should ride their bicycles in the streets next to all the trucks and buses. The cowards and incompetents are thus culled form the herd, so to speak, which at least would reduce the number of Presidential candidates we would have to endure in the future.
A look of alarm flitted across the cyclist's face when he realized that I was not going to step aside, and he skidded to a halt. In tones that were firm but caring, I informed him that riding in such a way as to imperil the safety of people old enough to be his bail bondsman was a misdemeanor under the laws of any advanced community, that vehicles are properly driven in the streets built for the purpose rather than on sidewalks and about other aspects of the concept of right-of-way that are too subtle to be discussed in a weekly newspaper.
I expected to get an apology delivered with eyes downcast, or at least a “thank you'' for having added to his wisdom about the world and its ways. Instead, this pimple in human form looked me in the eye, and said, "What are you, a lawyer?" and rode off with a contemptuous laugh.
I brooded on this encounter for days. I have often volunteered advice ad hoc to little boys engaged in thoughtless or prankish behavior, when I was certain they were unarmed; not until I did so in Oak Park were my credentials challenged. I had thought that merely being older and wiser was enough; it never occurred to me that one has to be a lawyer to lecture the young misdemeanant-to-be in Oak Park.
Since that day, I have refrained from kicking lava rock back under people's yew bushes for fear a homeowner will challenge my lack of certification by the American Society of Landscape Architects. In Forest Park, any citizen fool enough to bother can take a stick and unclog a clogged storm sewer drain, but for all I know in Oak Park, it may be a job for a civil engineer.
I really must find which village department handles the licensing of civic fuss-budgets, to see if I qualify to practice in Oak Park. It's only been a few weeks, and the place already is starting to look pretty messy. ●