Essays

The Format has Changed

Thumy Phan

My neighborhood used to be 70’s top 40 with a splash of jazz. The streets once buzzed with haunting bohemian melodies. The spirit of progress was its heartbeat. A mix of races, backgrounds, and incomes comprised the lyrics. The college town energy made you feel anything; everything was possible walking along the hubbub of 53rd Street. Bestselling hardcover books stood proudly on tables, upright, spines unbroken at Kroch’s and Brentano’s.

The same books shelved together with lesser known titles all with spines broken and pages turned frequently lived a few blocks south up the street and down the stairs, where membershiped patrons sat for hours just reading, not drinking cappuccino or listening to music or talking on cell phones…just reading.
Wise men played chess in Harper Square.
The grocery store was co-operative.

Organic frozen yogurt and fresh vegetables juiced in tiny black box storefronts decades before we knew what organic really was and long before yogurt froze on every corner or juices Jamba-ed.

Africa had windows, artifacts, and artwork from the mainland for purchase or just for perusing. Dr. Wax had tracks and tracks of vinyl. There was a newspaper stand on the corner, and Big Jim’s smoke shop under the viaduct, sold assorted hippy paraphernalia…rice papers, hemp papers, papers with a wire running through so fingers would not burn when handmade cigarettes were smoked to their absolute ends. I saw the train zipped above the viaduct. It was the way to really fly long before we called it Metra.

Yellow mellow crepes served on Sunday morning with fresh-squeezed mimosas or beef bourguignon on Friday nights with Kir Royales. Parakeets lived in the trees. Enormous green birds made their home hiding in the stellar regions of the park with the call and response of Coltrane tales. Sure they squawked relentlessly and chewed the electrical wires and peppered cars with their droppings…

But the mayor – the real mayor, the best mayor, the Black mayor, the only mayor, who lived across the street from the lawn they called home, liked them, so nobody messed with them. We all got the point. We all went to the Point. The farthest point of land jutting out into the water accessed by peddling along the lakefront’s edge or by strolling across the bridge arched overhead the lake shore’s drive.

It was alive. The thump thump doo doo doooo do…thump thump doo doo doooo do! Chhh ta chhhchh ta chhhh ta chhhcha ta….

But the format has changed. My neighborhood is now on auto tunes. Pandora has opened her box. The big small town independent bank on the corner, once anchoring it all, has fallen by the way of the other banks now merging with another bank. Even my statements look different each month. Not just the balances they report but even the paper they are printed on, now flimsier, lesser. The university once lending its college town vibe has become a greedy monster devouring all the land in its path.

You do the math. Northshorians upside down in homes they couldn’t afford to begin with are flocking to my 70’s top 40 with a splash of jazz village turning it into a techno-synthesized diatribe with no soul. Clarke’s used to be well-made shoes you could buy in the mall on 55th Street. Now Clarke’s is a 24-hour diner with lousy food, lazy wait staff and leftover baked goods spinning on a fluorescent-lit carousel that needs to be Swiffer-dusted. The record is scratched.

The parcel of land on the southwest corner was a parking lot except for the few weeks of the year when it was a Christmas tree lot. The music began changing when the lot became a Border’s books. I read my books at 57th Street and considered the new neighbor an insulting passing fancy that wouldn’t last-an intro to the next song. I was right.

But now, I’ve just thrown my hands up, in helpless what-the-hell-ever-ness now that the space has been replaced by made in China plastic shoes and plastic purses and plastic pants and plastic people selling them all. I don’t like the new song playing. It has no beat, no melody, no lyric– just noise.

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