My life is a never-ending episode of ABC’s social experiment “What Would You Do?” If you haven’t seen it, it’s a full hour of bored producers staging controversial situations and recording bystanders’ reactions. Is that middle-aged woman going to interfere with that mom giving her toddler a Capri Sun? Will that high schooler stop that elderly man from buying a bootleg version of “Very Best of Cher”? It always involves some sort of commercial break cliffhanger, and it never fails to leave me on the edge of my seat. Damn you ABC and your quality programming.
Unfortunately, if I had a team of television producers following me around (call me?), they wouldn’t need to hire actors and write scripts to portray awkward, uncomfortable scenes of people in situations requiring a stranger’s interference, because that is my life. All day every day. Awkward. Intervention. Strangers. I can hear John Quinones in my head…
“What would YOU do if you saw a pale, 20-something mother with bad highlights spill her latte all over her Old Navy t-shirt while she tries, and fails, three times to plow her stroller over the front door’s threshold of her apartment building?” The answer is – nothing. You would do nothing.
“What would YOU do if you saw a young mom in loafers marketed for ‘active seniors’ walking back and forth, back and forth past you in the mall looking for the elevator, and when she realizes it was right in front of her and that she was making a scene, pull her phone out and act like she was looking for her husband?” Again, you would, and should, do nothing.
I don’t always get overlooked, though. There was a recent incident where a kind, old Latino man had to help me parallel park my car after I spent 15 grueling minutes accomplishing nothing but inching it further away from the curb, a curb that was in front of a yard hosting a family gathering. It was done more out of pity than a sense of duty, and because traffic had started to pile up.
I’ve realized since moving to Chicago a few months ago that this is perhaps a city in which I don’t want a stranger’s helping hand. New York City has the deserved reputation of being a tough, callous sea of anonymous faces, but I think we underestimated Chicago’s crime epidemic. I had heard stories of gang violence and drug raids, but for realz - this city is no joke! And while NYC’s crime seemed to be localized to a handful of neighborhoods, it seems that in Chicago we are never far away from the breaking news.
When we made the decision to move to Chicago, we decided that since the cost of living was somewhat cheaper than NYC, we would ideally like to cut our rent in half, socking the rest of it away in a savings account that would some day help us buy our first home. Great plan, right? We consulted a real estate agent in one of our target neighborhoods and he assured us that, regardless of our humble budget, he would absolutely, certainly be able to find us a nice apartment to rent. Fast forward a few months when we called upon this agent to help us secure promised apartment and his response was, “No way, your budget is too low and I will never, ever be able to find you a home for that much.” WTF, thanks for nothing dude. So we were understandably stressed this past winter when, on the single day we allowed ourselves to find an apartment and sign a lease, the appointments with realtors that we had set up were not producing any acceptable living spaces. Sure – the pictures were gorgeous! City living, popular neighborhood, renovated apartment right at our budget! Well…those pictures seemed to exclude the kitchen with no refrigerator, or the air ducts that hung so low in the living area that Steve had to duck to get under them. And then there was the one beautifully renovated 2-bedroom in Wicker Park that failed to mention that the second bedroom would also need to be the living room, because the only open space was turned into a kitchen. Oh yea, and we would have to trade our queen-size mattress for bunk beds. As that dreary day in December came to a close, we were FREAKING OUT, and seriously rethinking our decision to leave our spacious, comfortable and familiar NYC lifestyle. The realtor that we were with said she thought her partner might have a place available, had we heard of Albany Park?…follow her to the highway and she would text us the address. Once off the highway, we drove through tree-lined streets with well-kept single-family bungalows and the occasional large U-shaped apartment building. We were let into the second-floor unit and our eyes scanned the gleaming hardwoods, stainless-steel appliances and granite countertops. When she told us the price, we gave each other a knowing eye twitch and simultaneously shouted, “We’ll take it!” Within an hour we were turning over a cashier’s check and signing the papers.
We knew absolutely nothing about the area when we decided to live here, and there’s no denying the fact that we look different than most of the residents of this neighborhood – our zip code is known as one of the most diverse in the nation and hosts both the Irish American Heritage Center and the Cambodian Association of Illinois, among many others. We’ve always liked surrounding ourselves with diversity, though, and being able to walk down the street and not feel like we got caught in the middle of a casting call for the L.L.Bean winter catalog. Considering we found this place practically by accident, we consider ourselves very lucky. Within walking distance of our building, you can eat Korean, Vietnamese, Japanese, McDonald's (Americanese?), Chinese, Mexican and Cuban. You can get Starbucks coffee, smoke a hookah, learn to salsa dance or shop at a store that always makes me giggle called “Sexy Girls of the Hollywood.” It’s the freakin United Nations over here, and we’re enjoying experiencing all that our neighborhood has to offer.
While everyone in this diverse neighborhood has been kind and welcoming, I don’t know if they were ready for our particular brand of unique. I do view it, though, as a fresh new audience in front of whom I will surely embarrass myself on a regular basis. I’m proud to say that my daughter will grow up around kids from countless different countries and backgrounds, yet will always be known as the little girl with the kooky mom who forgot her headphones weren’t fully plugged in when she was blasting “Mmmbop” by Hanson. So what would YOU do? You would hopefully do nothing but mock me silently in the confines of your own mind, unless I also had spinach stuck in my teeth. In that case, please intervene.