VIEW FROM AFAR- Sidewalk super-intendancy is a gift

Being a self-appointed sidewalk superintendent is taking up an increasing amount of my time in Chicago.

Sidewalk superintendents snoop around construction and remodeling projects. They stand on sidewalks watching slack jawed as cranes hoist beams for high-rises, they amble through alleyways for a fresh perspective on deck and garage construction.

Sidewalk superintendents stand on tiptoes to peek through plywood barriers at construction sites and find the tiny tear in the paper on remodeled storefront windows to peer inside.

Even when they have neither the means nor the intent to buy anything, truly committed sidewalk superintendents show up when realtors offer an open house for a new home or remodeled condo.

Being a sidewalk superintendent is both an art and a craft. Curiosity is the foundation. Curiosity only kills some cats-others are fat and happy because they found new mouse holes.

In humans, when curiosity ends, their souls are nearly dead. We are alive because we are curious about things that are none of our business and that do not benefit us in the least.

Curiosity did get me in trouble recently when my friend Doug and I were speculating about a large hole at the side of a new house. We walked and looked into a basement window. It turned out the house was already occupied. The owners came to the door and, “May we help you?” sounding more like, “Please get out of our yard.”

Second, a good sidewalk superintendent speculates. “I wonder if they are really going to build a brick garage?” “This can’t be a single family home-it has to be a condo.”

Then one returns to see if the speculation is right.

Third, a sidewalk superintendent laments. “I remember when it used to be cheap to build here-what is the world coming to!” (Lamenting is the art of overvaluing the past while fearing the future.)

My neighbor Andy is building five-story single-family homes on the tiny lots on my block and actually installing elevators in them. “Hey, I no build cheap. These cost almost $two million,” he tells me in his Polish-inflected English. (He may be an immigrant-but his sense of enterprise is all-American.)

Sidewalk super-intendancy has a long tradition. In Marion County, merely excavating a foundation will bring a steady stream of cars around sunset– just driving by to see what is happening. When framing is underway, they stop and park for a minute.

Of course, one can stop and ask the obvious. “You building a house here, eh?”

The older rural origins of being a sidewalk superintendent are drives to the country to check on the wheat-or milo or corn. You don’t own it. You can’t do a dang thing about it-be it bumper crop or wiped out by hail. You just go see.

Of course a tornado or fire can cause a mild traffic jam the next day. One is not there to help-merely to verify.

Yet in a crazy way, community exists because we tend to things that are none of our business. Sidewalk superintendents and gossips have much in common.

We know we live in a community-half-loving, half-meddlesome simply because people are attending to things that are none of their business. Or the business is merely to be in community.

Being a sidewalk superintendent is nearly a lifelong vocation. But, at a certain stage of life, one moves on to standing at the corner and waving at cars as they pass by.

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