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Auto d'Art

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In postindustrial Pilsen, west of the artists' fashionable rehabs, debris accumulates faster and deeper than anywhere else in Chicago. Some of it comes from the neighborhood drunks and joyriders; after every weekend, empty beer, pop, whiskey, and wine bottles stand upright on the curbs of Avenida de Blue Island, buoys to mark their passage. But most of the garbage seems to come from nowhere. It just lands on the sidewalk in front of my house, with no apparent contiguous cause: newspapers, used diapers, crushed cigarette packs, unspooling ribbons of cassette tape.

One day it occurred to me that a car's tires had been wedged tightly against the curb in front of my house for going on--what? Three months. Engulfed by dirt and flowing refuse stood the chipped rusting green-and-white striped hulk of a 70s model Ford Elite without license plates. The vinyl top, in shreds, declared the texture of a brooding contemporary painting.

Its hubcaps were gone. Only a bumper sticker ventured optimism: "Yo (heart) American Airlines."

An abandoned car is the ultimate garbage. This one had not been moved in a long time.

I was surprised one afternoon to find my neighbor peering inquisitively into the trunk. How did he open it? Was this heap his? He slammed the trunk in a flash. "Nope--just scoping. Somebody ran off by the looks of it. Maybe got a serious look at himself at the wheel."

"You mean a reflection," I said. "Yeah. I woulda got scared too." It was an evil-looking piece of work, sinking into decay with that undersea seaweed kind of green.

Yet somehow--it's hard to explain--the vehicle's monstrosity grew amiable with passing time. I could never predict what special kind of garbage would blow up to my residence daily, but the Ford stayed put, familiar.

Weeks after the neighbor incident an idea came. I approached the Elite and draped the hornlike projections of its rear bumper with white freezer bags that had landed against my chain-link fence. It was easy--just punctured holes in the plastic and slipped them on.

Delighted, I peeked out my window and saw the sacks fill up with wind. The green Ford became a reef, animation seeming to break out all over it.

I decorated whenever the mood struck. Fastened strands of yellow plastic on the aerial. Stuck ad circulars inside door handles. Bottles on the rear deck. Always using found objects, brought by the wind or dropped by a human hand.

On Saturday night I came home late from the Blues Festival and my on/off parade float was gone. All that was left was the tide of dirt that had swirled beneath it.

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