Down by the River | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Down by the River



I center myself on the bench by the river in order to center myself in my world. Spring raises the water level with the runoff of city streets. The water laps at the base of the ancient willow, at the doorway to a possum's home.

A branch has fallen or been pushed into the water near the bank, its naked branchlets, dipping into and straining the waters. After a week it has gathered up a cluster of river debris, Jewel bags, plastic sixpack rings, unidentified memorabilia of civilization. It moves me off center. I steady myself and try to free the limb. Coming closer I see that the catch includes a half-dozen condoms snagged and billowing like wind socks pointing downstream. Freshwater jellyfish, multicolored with reservoir tips. Maybe this is how life begins, with a membrane to enclose the nutrient-rich organic soup. The branch gives way and heads toward the Mississippi.

A dazed adult male human wanders the bank, pacing, cursing, and kicking up tufts of mud and weed.

"Whas-up? " I inquire, neighborly-like.

"Huh," he says, surprised, like the trees have spoken. "Dey took my lock and chain, man. Dey took it. You wanna go for a beer? "

"No. I don't," I say, taking in his squalor, slightly crossed eyes, and gray skin. "Are you OK? "

"Dey took my lock and chain! Wait 'til I fine 'em."

"Did somebody hurt you?

He looks at me, startled. "Dey were only about five years old, man. Dey were little. Dey took my lock and chain. Do you wanna go get a beer?"

He kicks at the dirt. "No, not me," I say. "You take it easy." I leave him grappling, trying to lift a half-ton boulder. Gives up. Kicks it.

Later I ride past the river on the way to fetch dinner and check if the fellow has damaged himself or any passing five-year-olds. A hefty woman with long permed blond tresses walks there with a thin mustachioed man. Friendly enough as we all seem, I excuse myself past them on the narrow trail with my bike.

"Hey," says Hefty, "ya wouldnt have an extra doober ya wanna sell, do ya?"

"All out, sorry," I say, trying to remember, What is a doober? I have two guesses. One: a doober is a condom; I wonder if I should suggest they retrieve the ones tangled on those twiglets. But that branch has probably made it to Division Street by now. Second guess: a doober is a joint, meaning they must think I look like a doper. I'm no help in either case.

I ride down another twenty yards and spot a large bird of prey, dead, crashed in the rubble of the bank. I stop and look, wonder what, and how...But I don't want to stop and look close because the couple behind me might want to share the inspection. They might poke it, kick it, throw it at each other for fun. I lean against a barricade and wait for them to go away. After a few dense minutes I realize they are waiting for me to go away.

I ride down the block and by luck meet my good friend, a riverbank bird-watcher. "Do you have a spare doober I could buy?"

"What kind?" she asks smiling, calling my bluff.

"Well it's not for me, it's for some friends on the river. You know what I saw? A large bird of prey, dead in the bushes on the bank."

"Yeah," she says, "we threw it there."

She sees the puzzled look in my eyes and explains, "We didn't have room in our freezer. It's already full of dead birds."

Tell me more things, my eyes must have said.

"They are road kill. We found it on the side of the highway coming back from Saint Louis. We put it in the trunk but the freezer was full. We use them to practice taxidermy. Don't wanna kill live birds."

My friend and I part. I retrieve my family's dinner from the Thai carry-out place. When I come back along the river, the bird is gone. New neighbor Bill leans over his fence. He has it in his freezer. He wants the talons for earrings, or religious purposes.

Hefty and Skinny are cruising down the alley in their pickup truck; they honk and smile, waving to me. They have found some centering and balance at the river, too.

One fine spring day the bank failed by Ms. Bauer's house. "I tote du whole haus vas gonna shlide in," she told us. Ms. Bauer's is a sanctuary for birds, mostly pigeons, which have whitewashed her roof with their limey doo. A dozen bird feeders hang leaning in the breeze, and flowers, flowers are everywhere. Her husband, before he passed away, seeded beds on the ledge of level ground just along the river drop-off, It's here that the terremoto happened. A 40-foot-long strip of earth--small trees, bushes, and weedy growth intact--scuttled down ten vertical feet. Startled, ghostly roots, grubs, and worms found themselves exposed with a river view. Refugee muskrats evacuated their collapsed labyrinth, splashing the water as if to say "What the heck?"

Satellite images of Armenia and the Philippines fresh in our minds, the neighbors came together as one.

"Shore up the banks," someone called into the gale, "or she's a-gonna give." And so the people acted, tossing bags of lawn clippings, old rugs, splintered drawers into the breach. Even a broken plastic kiddie slide Id left in the alley ended up at the barricades.

"Dat's my shyide," my baby son said as we peered over the precipice to view the damage. "I want my shyide." After a few days the landslide settled comfortably into its new position, anchored firmly with the plastic slide. People went back to cutting their grass and waiting for something to happen.

It was about this same time that I was waked from a delicious spring morning sleep by the evil drone of a chain saw. Sirens, el trains, cars honking for a pickup, these I can sleep through. But the chain-saw sound sets me on edge.

I slip on clothes and run off to the river. Here I see a crew, eight men strong, the most unpredictable of all pack-running mammals, armed and ready. Their convoy includes three trucks and a chipper. One guy has a chain saw and two fellows are holding weapons that look like the axes of the guards employed by the Wicked Witch of the West. These incredible tools seem effortlessly to whack three-inch-thick branches off riverbank trees. But the big gun is in the hands of the crew boss. The chain slices through box elder like a knife through Parkay. It groans pleasurably, responding to his insistent pressure on the trunk of a 20-year-old maple.

"What are you doing?" I ask one friendly little pumpkin of a guy.

"Clearin' off dis overhang here. Trucks can't get through. We had a complaint. Got gangs hiding down dere."

"There are no gangs hiding down there. Gangs of geese maybe. Trucks can get through. Just take it easy. OK?"

He humps his shoulders. "Oh yeah. We're just gonna trim it back a little."

I walk away slowly, uneasy. My neighbor is watching too.

"They really gotta trim back those trees. That willow down there too. There were kids playin' on that one branch. They should really take that branch off, clean up that bank a little."

"Man, if we don't watch out they'll asphalt the whole thing."

"Naw, they wouldn..."

Now my attention is caught by the shriek of the chain saw, already six feet past the barricade and down the riverbank. Clear cut. Down comes a maple.

"Yo," I call to the tree surgeon. He rolls his eyes and throttles the saw down to a blubbering idle. "You don't need to cut those trees. Those trees hold up the riverbank. There's no reason to cut those trees."

"We got a complaint about this overhang. Gangs hide down there."

"There aren't any gangs down there. We need those trees. Who complained?"

"We got a work order from the city to clear this passage here. If you say it's OK, it's all right by me. Why don'tcha do me a favor and have someone from the ward superintendent's office come on out here and sign off on the job."

"I'll do that. But don't cut trees from the bank."

"OK. Well just trim up around the barricade." my neighbor groans, "they could take down a few of those branches. At least that one tree. The squirrels are always using it as a bridge to get to my son-in-law's roof. They cause a lot of damage. He's always havin' to trim 'em back. And there's carpenter ants, too. A big problem with carpenter ants."

By now they've revved up the chipper, a reptilian piece of equipment like some frenzied monster from a planet weirder than our own. It shrieks, sucking in the cellulose flesh and spewing out fusillades of chipped wood.

I call the ward office and they say they don't know anything about it. They sent someone out a month ago to trim a branch that got in the way of a garbage truck.

Back outside the crew is still ripping, hacking, chipping, and raking with incredible diligence, moving against the untamed gang-hiding shrubbery. A city jeep pulls up. A tiny lady with bleached, pin-curled hair steps out and confronts the crew.

"Thanks a lot boys, but you've done enough. Pick up your stuff and go. Just leave this place as it is." Turning to me she says, "Sometimes enough is too much."

"Who you work for?" she asks the crew boss.

"Water Reclamation. They got a work order. Said there was a complaint about these trees."

"We already responded to that complaint. Thanks, but you can pick up your stuff and go. If you need work, I got other places you're welcome to."

All this riverfront drama finally pushed some of us to convene a meeting of neighborhood people who were interested in protecting the narrow, fragile biome of river and bank. There are a lot of different people with a lot of different points of view. One neighbor says, "I don't want anybody to change anything. Just leave it like it is." But change just happens. Like Heracleitus said, standing by his own river, you can't dip a stick in the same river twice, or even once. Whatever we might personally want, plans big and small, long-range and spontaneous, are in the works. From free-access walking paths to kitchen-plaster dumping. Another neighbor (guess where he lives) believes that riverfront sections should be ceded to the closest property owner, sort of an eastern-European-style wholesale privatization of collectively owned property. "Who would take care of things better than a property owner?" he says to me through the ten-foot-tall barbed-wire-topped fence that dead-ends the chipped riverside path at his lot line.

Simple proximity to the river, a portal to the wild in the middle of the urban desert, tends to bring out the innate folksy wisdom in people. "This bathroom lath is just what's needed to fight soil erosion," thinks one dumper. "Grass clippings [piled week after week] provide nutrients and habitat" (for anaerobic bacteria), thinks another. Everybody cares, to some extent. But there is just a lot we don't know.

We need to know. And we don't want to be surprised one morning by riverboat gambling barges, yahoos on skiddoos, a bank stripped of trees and held up by concrete bastions. Ironically, an improvement in river water quality that might bring about a biological comeback could also bring overuse and misuse of this tentative, unlikely habitat.

We're going to learn about all this river life in order to protect and extend this natural foothold. Our neighborhood group can act like that willow standing by the water's edge that sends out its millions of rootlets to hold up the banks and shelter the creatures. Most of all we need to study the habits of our most ubiquitous and bizarre species, humans, who seem uniquely capable of sustaining the most contradictory impulses.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.

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