There’s a loud rapping on the front door that interrupts my breakfast. I look through the curtain, and then open the door.
“I clean gutters”, the sun-tanned man in a sleeveless tee and baggy pants tells me, in a thick Middle Eastern accent.
“Two hundred dollars.”
“No. Not today.”
“Two hundred dollars, I clean all gutters today.”
“That’s too much,” I say, thinking about my fear of heights, and the green-things growing-up and out of the gutters I can see from the street.
“One fifty,” he counters.
“No… Okay, come back Thursday, I’ll give you a hundred.
“One-fifty, I do today. ”
“No. Thursday. 9 o’clock. One-twenty, cash.”
“Ok. Thursday, 9 o’clock. One-twenty,” he concedes.
He leaves in a white sedan with an extension ladder strapped to the roof the long-way with bungee cords. Thursday morning he arrives at 9:00 on the nose.
“How long will it take?” I ask.
“1 hour, 30 minutes,” he replies.
“I do everything”.
Ten minutes later there’s a rap at the door.
“You have hole in gutter – come look”
I climb out the second floor window, waving away the hand he offers. He shows me a hole the size of a baseball in the corner of the roof, and extending up side of the house, and into the new siding. “Maybe squirrels,” he says…
I flash on a short-story I shouldn’t have read a few years back- about a couple who were so overcome by squirrels nesting and chewing in their home they lost minds. The insurance company tells me they don’t cover squirrel damage, (they’re “rodents,”) but if I think it’s a wild animal (code for “raccoon”), I may have a claim. They’ll send someone out.
Last summer the little boy next door told me they had 13 ears of corn “almost ready” in their backyard plot – five for his family, and two for me. A day later all the corn was gone. “Squirrels got ’em”, he reported sadly.
This week, his Dad and I share stories of raccoons in the alley, rabbits birthing in vegetable gardens, possums feasting from the grapevine, and where we’ve seen coyotes of late.
Five days, 2 thunderstorms, 2 days of 90º and 2 days of 50º later, I’ve a quote from a roofer, and a small check from my insurance company for damage from a wild animal.
“Not much you can do”, the insurance claims agents says, as he hands me the check. “Just make it tough for them to stick around, and hope they’ll move on to the next place. This will at least replace chewed-up asphalt tiles, and help you fill the hole”.
This weekend NPR aired a segment on the menace of raccoons, warning they’ve become a part of urban life in the city and we’d better get used to it.
When I was in Junior High School in the 70s, the state of Illinois held a contest to name the state tree. It had already been determined it would be the oak, but we got to lobby for which variety – the burr, pin, black or the white oak. At the school assembly, and in posters plastering the walls, we campaigned for our favorite with scribbled slogans, and pieced-together facts about the singular shape of an acorn, or the shade of brown-color the leaf became before it fell. The white oak won the competition and is still the Illinois state tree.
There’s a city park half a block away from me, with an on-site botanist who posts signs and laminated pictures of the prairie plants and flowers she and her volunteers have meticulously planted along short trails of wood chips.
Near the handful of baseball diamonds, weeping willows raise their branches in the wind, pulling focus from the flooding below. A half-a-million dollars into a drainage project, the Park District’s still learning how to work with Mother Nature.
On a recent walk through the park, my brother tells me ours is considered one of the country’s greenest cities – ahead of the curve – with our rooftops gardens, rain barrels and bike paths – and a grand plan for its future. The city is recommending planting trees that will, “remove pollutants, help manage heat, absorb stormwater, and can tolerate expected climate changes,” into 2050.
Eventually, other varieties of trees will replace the glorious, sturdy oaks that have long provided the best climbing-branches for reading books, and shade for a lovers’ picnic.
Some summer days I go to a nature preserve, where the oak savannah winds around a modest wooded path and fallen logs grow moss among the ferns. There’s a tiny meadow where milkweed feeds monarch butterflies, and deer leave impressions in the high grass. The sites and smells are like the place where I grew up – near a lake – outside the city limits of a small town.
Mid-summer, the singing of the red-winged blackbirds, frogs, and crickets deafened our ears, as my brothers and sisters and I walked along the marsh on the way to town. Afternoons, we swan in the freshwater lake, and looked for wild raspberries along the fences of the lake houses on the walk home.
Those were long and sleepy days, slow and uncomplicated by today’s standards.
In late spring the cottonwoods perfume the breeze here, shedding tufts of white, and littering the sidewalk. For a long time that sweet smell awakens the hole left by first-love, where the death-do-us-part promise was severed, and I lost my footing.
As time moves on, though, on days like these, I’m in another time and place. Standing alone on a street corner at midnight in the early ’90s, at Irving and Clark, on the edge of the old Graceland Cemetery, in a complicated and grand city.
There’s music on a boom-box playing a sultry mambo, its melody whispered on muted trumpets, crisp guitars and slick vibes – with lyrics about lost men and brown-eyed women – drinking, dancing and sleeping on the hot sand.
The cottonwoods sway. Through a hole in the branches, I see the moon.