Winnetka Way: Phil Walters

Gazette Article by: Phil Walters – Reporter, WMAQ-TV
Appeared in the Gazette: Spring 1995

Winnetka Way articles are written by guest columnists who have been asked to share their memories of an aspect of Winnetka that they remember fondly. Winnetka Way articles debuted in 1994 and continue to the present.

Observations from an urban refugee

What exactly is the Winnetka Way? I fear it is one of those “if-you-have-to-ask-you’ll-never-know” things. And I have to ask because my history here dates back to only August. That makes me more an anthropologist than historian; and having lived only inside cities for the last 30 years, I must be what ethnographers call the participant-observer—among you, but not yet one of you. It is a slow learn.

Consider the Solid Waste Paradigm. In my country, Chicago, the established ritual for disposing of, let us assume, old metal kitchen cabinets is to put them behind the back fence in the alley. By the next morning they have vanished, wheeled off in a stolen grocery cart by an immigrant entrepreneur. But here one actually must summon one’s Refuse Service and pay $10.00 per cubic yard to have them hauled off. Kitchen cabinets are only thin sheet metal but are constructed so as to be very many cubic yards and many ten’s of dollars. Why pay for the removal of something of value? How strange the mores and ethnocentricities of this new land. In the case of these particular cabinets (not at all assumed, but quite real), I took them in ones and twos in my car on the morning commute down the Kennedy, exiting at Armitage and swinging over to the scrap metal yard between Elston and Clybourn. There a caravan of pickups (which themselves would be considered scrap metal up here) is waiting to be weighed, laden with the gleanings of a hundred alleys. I ask if anyone would like more metal for his weigh-in, and my cargo is off-loaded in seconds. The next morning, another load; and the next, another. Hauling trash downtown piece by piece might seem as strange to the natives here as  paying to take away a tradeable commodity would seem to an urbanite, but consider: I have saved $100.00 or so with very little effort, the scavengers (who need the money far more than does the conglomerate which owns the local trash service) have made money, and the trash has come to them! Moreover, the scrap was recycled, while the trash service was planning to dump it in landfill because recycling it was unprofitable, they claimed. Besides, I was going downtown anyway. Ahhhh.

You see. Urban refugees bring with them ways of their own that might prove enriching to the indigenous peoples. Each learns from the other—the observed and the observer. That is the lesson of post-modern ethnography. And we immigrants ARE trying to learn. One is not born able to wield a leaf blower. And it may not come entirely naturally to us to pay someone else to blow leaves for us. Oh, there is so much to learn! From hockey rink etiquette (an oxymoron?) to the importance of plaid. And I fear that at the very least, the process, like language or roller blading, is best mastered when young.

But already I am learning not to honk when the driver in front of me, wanting to turn left on a busy street, refuses to pull into the intersection to wait for a break in the line of oncoming cars, assuring that I will be stuck on the red and have to wait another turn. I no longer even politely tap the horn and make a little nudging gesture with my hand for him or her to see in the rear view mirror. I have adapted. After all, if they should see me flailing pleadingly, my car filled with old metal kitchen cabinets and then meet me at the grocery the next day, what would they think of me? Ahhhh.

Perhaps that is it—the beginning of understanding The Winnetka Way. What would they think of me?

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