Walking to work this morning I stopped, as I always do, at the corner of Chicago and Paulina and waited for the light to change. I saw a young woman standing across the street, waiting to cross in the other direction. I know exactly who this woman is, I’ve seen her a couple times a week for over two years now. She works at Mr. Taco, a fine purveyor of burritos and potato and cheese gorditas where I frequently buy lunch. I also know roughly where she lives – I’ve seen her watching me out the window of a red brick three-flat on one of the back streets I park on when my usual spot is closed for street cleaning – it’s on one of the great lakes south of Chicago Avenue, I don’t recall which - either Erie or Huron or Superior St. No, I’m not stalking this woman, I just live here. It’s hard not to know who she is, she’s like four foot ten with a wide smile and a sunny disposition. Also she was one of my main coffee suppliers while I was on the juice. But I’ve never had a real conversation with her, not even about the weather or the Cubs (why oh why didn’t they go after Magglio?).
Now that I think about it, all the times I’ve been to Mr. Taco I’ve never seen small talk in English. With Spanish-speaking customers they chat away, but in English there’s not much conversation. Obviously with this woman her Spanish is much better than her English, and I don’t speak Spanish at all (practically a disability in the neighborhood, it’s like being blind), but that’s not the whole story. She seems fluent enough to discuss snow in English, if not Kerry Wood’s nagging shoulder troubles.
I wonder if it’s a class thing. Chicago Avenue is a notable boundary street on the Near West Side. North of Chicago was a middle class/skilled working class enclave of former Soviet-bloc immigrants along with an increasing number of more successful Latinos. South of Chicago (the Great Lakes plus Ohio and Grand) was more downscale working-class and solidly Spanish-speaking. The last few years have seen an explosion of condo development North of Chicago as professionals have taken over the East Village, but while you’re starting to see more new construction to the South (West Town) it’s still predominantly working-class and Latino. The light changes, and we both cross the street without making eye contact, even though we clearly recognize each other.
Why don’t we say hello? Is there some unspoken rule about these things, or is it just me? If you live in Chicago you’ve noticed by now that the service industry consists disproportionately of white customers being served by Latino, and increasingly Asian, workers. Whites (including many European immigrants) work mostly at the trendier, high-tipping locales in the Loop, Lincoln Park and Lakeview. African Americans are rare in retail and food service, although very common in public services (City workers, the police, childcare, the postal service, teaching). Recent immigrants are the plankton of Chicago’s food chain. My own spin on why I don’t know the people who wait on me all the time is that part of me is embarrassed about being waited on all the time. So is it a class thing, or is it me? Does anyone else experience the same thing?
My brother would know Ms. Taco by now. I can remember taking a trip to Illinois for Christmas when we were both living in parts east. At the time we were running from place to place and were really not looking forward to going somewhere else and having to explain again what we were (not) doing with our lives. We stopped at a gas station late on Christmas Eve to buy coffee and stretch our legs. The convenience store was called Welsh Mart. We stayed there for half an hour or so while my brother flirted with a girl working late Christmas Eve at a gas station in Indiana. I was amazed by this behavior mostly because I’ve never done anything like that in my life. (Aside: it’s weird how my memory is so tied to objects. I think about this story often because up until last week I still used the Welsh Mart to go cup almost every day. This is why I keep so much clutter around.)
Today I didn’t go to Mr. Taco. Not just because I wanted to avoid awkward human contact, but also because the food is not healthy and I shouldn’t be eating it at all. Instead I went to an Asian place where the young waitress spoke more Thai than English. With this morning still on my mind I made sure to ask how her day was when she asked, pro forma, about mine. She seemed genuinely surprised. I guess there are rules about these things after all.
I sat down to what I hoped would be a pleasant half hour of cheap Thai food and reading about the latest triumphant news from the world of Illini basketball. Unfortunately, an older Asian woman at the next table spent the whole time holding a loud conversation on her cell phone. She sounded more like California than Bangkok and used lots of ditzy psychobabble like “toxic” and “passive aggressive.” Which, coincidentally, exactly described the mood she put me in. I was relieved when the call ended and she began a new conversation in German, which I don’t understand and can more easily ignore.
When I had a coughing fit a few minutes later, the waitress came over and suggested I eat all the hot chilies. “Good for cold,” she said. I did – they seemed to help. Almost as good at numbing my itchy throat as Chloraseptic, and much cheaper at the corner grocery (once I ran down to the corner to buy a chili I needed for my chili – and spent exactly 14 cents. Cheapest shopping trip ever.)
Usually when I post I have some idea what I think it all means, but in this case I don’t. Is there an unspoken rule about excessive social contact with the “help?” Would I feel more comfortable making small talk if these were white American women? Probably not. Pretty girls make me nervous and always have. It’s like walking by a house with a big barking dog in the yard, there’s a little voice in my head saying “don’t go there.” Yet we became very friendly with our waitress at Darwin’s while we were regulars there. Is that because Trope is better at meeting people? Or because our server was really an art student and independent filmmaker who is paying rent by tending bar, not really working class in the way a young mother working at a taco stand so inescapably is.
Or else it’s just me. The strange thing is, I don’t feel middle class. I was certainly raised that way, but in many ways I feel more the grandson of a steel worker than the son of an executive. For one thing, I’ve worked in factories for a living. I’ve sorted trash, too, for what it’s worth (I was the only white boy in the plant the day O.J. was acquitted – a story for another day). And while I have a “college job” now, those experiences change the way I see things when I walk down the street.
So am I ashamed of these asymmetrical social relationships? Is that why I don’t speak? I don’t know. I feel like I need a good reason, or at least an excuse, to talk to people I don’t already know. I’m not sure why. Maybe that’s some kind of class thing, too. What a sad life it would be if everybody else felt like they needed an excuse to speak to me.