Young, idealistic people opening up a coffeeshop in a “bad” neighborhood is an evergreen human interest story. I’d been meaning to check out the new one in Back of the Yards for a while but the article in the Reader sealed it. I took the Halsted bus south to 47th Street, then stood waiting among the dirty snow mounds with a few others for the bus west.
I’d barely settled into my seat when the driver punched the gas and we hurtled forward. A few blocks west past Halsted, 47th becomes industrial, rows of train containers stacked imposingly on either side of the road. From spending so much time on CTA buses, I can gauge when they’re going too fast without even looking up and this one was flying. I made eye-contact with an older man across the aisle just as he was shaking his head in disapproval. “This driver’s in a bigger hurry than any of us,” I said. Just then, the driver squeezed to the right of a long line of backed-up traffic and gunned it along the curb. Approaching Ashland, we heard a loud thud and saw the right-side rearview mirror fly off after it clipped a light pole. That slowed him down a bit. He announced it would be his last stop a few seconds later. Everyone on that bus was grateful to walk the rest of the way.
It was bumper to bumper the last five blocks so I was doubly glad to get away from that death-wish bus. My main point of reference for this neighborhood was the time I drove mentally-impaired young adults from St. Rose’s on Hoyne as part of the Mobility Direct program. Cabbies were hired to pick up the slack from handicap vans. I lived on 24th Street, a couple miles north, so I often started my shift with a ride from St. Rose’s. If I was early, I’d sit a block north of the center and draw the view out the window.
The fares were flat rates which started at $10.40 for rides ranging from a couple blocks to a couple miles. In the best case scenario, I’d get a short one first, then speed back to pick another kid a few minutes later. Several lived in Back of the Yards. In the early aughts the neighborhood was not one which would appear on any tourist map. While dropping passengers off, I had to be mindful of idling double-parked cars and young men scanning their blocks for customers and enemies. Because the people I was driving were mentally and often physically impaired, I had to make sure they made it into their houses, sometimes walking them to their doors. I never had any problems but often felt eyes on me.
Walking west up 47th now, thinking back to ten, fifteen years before, I wouldn’t’ve guessed I’d be coming here to try out a fancy coffee joint. The sidewalks were full of people shopping or coming home from work. Many signs were in Spanish, as were many of the voices I overheard. I turned south on Hoyne and saw the shop. There was a brand-new looking school and library across the street. None of this was imaginable in the years I drove here. Inside the shop, Edison bulbs and repurposed wood made it look like a place which could be in Logan Square or the West Loop or Portlandia, for that matter. I ordered a pour-over and a ham-and-cheese sandwich called Decima Musa. I wanted to ask if it was a tribute to the shuttered bar in Pilsen or just the 17th Century nun and poet, but doubted the young girl behind the girl would know so I didn’t ask.
I sat down at a little round table and took out my book but ended up just eavesdropping on the counter girl and her coworker, a high-school-age boy. I didn’t catch much of their banter but they were definitely flirting and it sounded like a thing which had been going on for awhile. I wanted to ask how long the school across the street had been open, whether St. Rose’s was still open up the street, how the neighborhood was these days, but just watched night fall out the window instead. “What time do we close?” the girl asked the boy. I bought a bag of coffee beans and walked out.
Neither the 47th Street nor the Halsted bus drivers tried to kill me or anyone or thing else on my way home. The route skirted the former stockyards. I guess Bridgeport, where I live, could be thought of as Front of the Yards. They’ve been gone a long time but retain some magnetic force. Passing them is not unlike passing a cemetery. The absence is palpable.
I hope the next time I return to Back of the Yards Coffee I won’t just sit there and think about the past. Nearly six years have passed since I drove a cab and almost a decade since I last picked a passenger up at St. Rose’s. It’s time to make some new memories about this part of the city. I hope I’m not too old to do so.
—I wrote about Gertrude Abercrombie’s sad, creepy paintings and interviewed the show’s coordinator for the Reader.