Tag: community

Old Town

A Stoop Story

By Aly Rumel



Early in the pandemic, about the same time that the snow melted off the trees in May, I simultaneously realized there would be no “return to office” in 2020, I bought an $80 bistro set on the internet: A wooden table and two chairs.


Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

I had been taking my laptop and my coffee out to the front steps in the mornings, working remotely from my “stoop office” any chance I got. After three months of quarantine, I was like a withering house plant, desperate for sunlight, fresh air, and any reminder that there was life outside the walls of my little two-bedroom apartment.

The bistro set, a welcome upgrade from the cement steps I’d been sitting on, was a bit of a long shot considering I had no actual outdoor space for it except for the (very public) sidewalk in front of my first-floor apartment. But I would do anything for the chance to reclaim even the tiniest daily connection with nature, with people, or with anything that wasn’t my own mental chatter.  

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

My parents said it would be stolen in a week. “Not locking it up? Not bringing it in at night? You’re too trusting,” they said. “This is Chicago, not the suburbs!”

I suppose we could have brought the table inside each night. Maybe it was lazy, maybe it was naïve, or maybe it was just blind optimism amidst the uncertainty of a global pandemic. In any case, my roommate and I decided we’d leave the table outside.

In one way, my parents were right.

This is Chicago.

My particular piece of Chicago is a tiny strip of historic walk-ups in Old Town, just magical enough to make you wonder if you really are still in the city, after all.

Flanked on either side by sacred spaces, a Buddhist temple to the north and a Catholic church to the south, the street itself hums with a cozy conviction, a warm and humble reverence.

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

Time-honored neighbors like Twin Anchors and Marge’s Still make you feel like you’re somehow part of the legacy of this neighborhood, even if, like me, you’re just the latest twentysomething renting on the block, a fleeting guest to the homeowners who have lived in this secret sliver of Old Town for decades.

Before the pandemic, or rather, before the stoop, I sometimes felt lonely from this sense of transience in such an established, deep-rooted community. I envied the neighbors who called out to each other by name and stopped to check in on one another’s families, pets, and projects. At twenty-six, I had lived in a different apartment every year for the last eight years.

My pre-pandemic, pre-stoop lifestyle was nonstop. I loved my Old Town apartment and neighborhood, but I treated it more like home base than home. I blitzed around the city at lightning speed, flitting between work, social events, travel, and everything in between, returning to my home base only to briefly recharge before I dashed off to do it all again. My nonstop schedule created a constant flurry in the snow globe of my life, shaking things up so perpetually, I realized later, that I never even knew what it looked like when the snow settled.

When the pandemic hit, the flurry stopped. I was forced to let the snow float down, finally, to stillness. By no choice of my own, my life was, at last, settling around me, and my only option was surrender.

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

Those first few nights after purchasing the bistro set, I would peer anxiously out the window each morning as I opened the blinds, holding my breath until I saw the wooden table, solid and solitary there on the sidewalk. I’d smile to myself, silently cheering that our little stoop survived another night. After the first week, we decided the table just might make it after all.

I was out there morning, noon, and night – always with a beverage (coffee or wine, depending on the hour) and more often than not with a plate of snacks. I pet every dog that passed by, and I came to recognize the human owners by their dog’s names: Sophie’s mom, Dakota’s dad, Duncan’s parents, Finn & Rosie’s family, Frankie’s mom.

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

The more time I spent out on the stoop, the more I learned about the neighborhood and the people in it. I learned that the real reason our potted plants were thriving was that my sweet neighbor Brita watered them every morning when she watered her own window boxes. I learned that Nancy across the street liked fancy lattes as much as I did. I learned that Allen was an author, Carla was a nurse, and Kevin ran an e-commerce business. I learned that Don rode his bike to our street on Wednesdays and helped out around the block. I learned that Kelly and Abe were expecting, and Susie’s boys were home for the summer.

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

On the weekends, especially early in the pandemic when the city was still completely shut down, my roommate and I made extravagant breakfasts (pancakes, bacon, homemade chocolate croissants…) just for the two of us and ate them in our pajamas out on the stoop. I bought a bucket of chalk and we doodled on the sidewalk all morning, popping inside every so often to refill our coffee and mimosas when they ran low. The little boys next door still talk about the elaborate chalk mosaic we made that summer.

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

Sometimes, we’d drag out a few extra kitchen chairs from inside and crowd around the little bistro table with friends or family, each with a cold beer or glass of wine. We were all still quarantining and didn’t feel comfortable having people inside the apartment, so the stoop gave us a safe space to spend time with loved ones. It felt almost normal.

When it got chilly in the fall, I bundled up on the stoop in my grandparents’ old wool Pendleton blanket, the one I used to wear on the porch up at their cottage. Sitting on the stoop one crisp morning, bundled in my blanket with a steaming cup of coffee, I looked up and realized that the tree in front of our apartment was the prettiest on the block. It was the very first to change color in September, and if I looked straight up, I saw only golden leaves against the bright blue sky.

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

Finally, when it started to snow, I begrudgingly folded up the set and stacked it in the back stairwell for safe keeping over the winter. I bought a real desk and worked from my bedroom for a few long and gray months. I saw neighbors occasionally, when we dug our cars out of the snow or if we crossed paths on a walk, but for the most part it was a solitary winter. I’d often find myself alone in the apartment listening for the smooth song of church bells, a reminder that the neighborhood was still out there – even if we were all burrowed inside for a few months. (As I write this now from my kitchen table, the church bells just chimed.)


As she often likes to do, Chicago teased us with a few fake springs before finally warming up enough to bring out the stoop table in good faith. In March, somewhere near the one-year mark since the world had shut down, I dusted it off and lugged it back out to its home on the stoop.

Unfolding the stoop table that second spring was like opening back up into myself, into my community. I sat out on the stoop, my coffee, laptop and I all reassuming our usual positions, and in some ways, it was like I had never left. In other ways, though, it felt like I was experiencing my community for the first time. I called out to each neighbor by name, greeting them after the long, solitary winter. When they stopped at my stoop table, we smiled and caught up with one another, checking in on each other’s families, pets, and projects.

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

I finally understood what it meant to really be part of the neighborhood. Nancy invited me to dinner. Shel offered to promote my cookie business. Kevin swept the leaves off our stoop and Susie brought over homemade sourdough. Don stopped by one day just to say he appreciated my friendship. The boys next door knocked on the window and played peek-a-boo with me all afternoon long. Kelly and Abe walked by with their beautiful baby girl, now almost one. I started babysitting for the sweet family on the corner. Brita continued to water our thriving flowers.

At the start of the pandemic, I think I feared what I would find when all the snow settled in my snow globe life. Who would I be if I wasn’t keeping busy every minute of every day?

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

The stoop was a soft place for me to land and bear witness as the pieces of my life slowed to a complete stop around me. It offered a space to be still, and in my stillness, I found a connection with myself and my neighborhood. I smiled in sweet disbelief every time these people, these friends, and neighbors who were strangers less than a year ago, went out of their way to be truly thoughtful. Each little thing felt like a small reminder from the Universe about the sweet depth of connection that’s possible when you finally stop the swirl and simply let yourself settle.

Even today, when I feel myself being swept back into the bustle of daily life as the city reopens, the stoop is a place where I feel rooted. I listen to the church bells and smile at the neighbors on this sweet strip of Old Town, where the pace is just a little slower, the sun just a little brighter, and the people look out for you as one of their own.

Photo Credit Nicole Nagy

It turns out that’s what a community is, after all: a place where, when all the dust settles and you show up as your most vulnerable self, you belong. I’m so grateful to my stoop, for giving me space to simply show up, and to my Chicago neighbors, for meeting me here.

How to Write Your Book



By Judy Carmack Bross



Scott Blackwood

Writing the book that convinces readers to stay up all night to find out who did it, using food to evoke memories in a class entitled “Mangoes & Cotton Candy” or how to tell your story in 750 words–there’s something for all writers at the Northwestern University Summer Writers’ Conference to present online seminars July 30-31.

Award-winning authors will offer seminars on how to generate dramatically rich scenes, evoke memories through metaphors, and layer your writing with suspense.  Successful writers will get down to the business of selling your work with tips on attracting agents and publishers and entering contests. Sponsored by the Northwestern University School of Professional Studies MA and MFA in Prose and Poetry programs, the Conference welcomes authors at all levels.  

Being virtual, the Conference has attracted top participants joining in from across the country.  We loved previewing some of their tips.

Juan Martinez

Colombian fiction writer Juan Martinez titles his seminar “Dirty Tricks” and will offer five elements of fiction that are guaranteed to make your stories more exciting.  We loved this one:

“A lot of British writers from the 19th century and then more recent authors have tried this silly but useful trick:  add an animal character to your book.  A cute dog goes a long way.  Dickens and Shakespeare knew this.  Vladimir Nabokov, and Elizabeth McKenzie in her wonderful book The Portable Veblen, brought in squirrel characters with obvious success.”

Martinez, whose wife also is a writer, lives in Versailles, Kentucky, and recently competed in a commissioned story in “a strange window of time between 4:30 and 6:20 a.m.” when his two-month-old daughter naps and an older brother wakes up.  We can’t wait to hear his other four tips which Martinez, whose stories are widely published, promises will be wildly useful.

We spoke with Donna Seaman, essayist, Booklist adult books editor, professor, advisor to the National Writer’s Museum, and author of Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists.  Seaman and award-winning journalist and writer Natalie Moore will discuss “Interviewing as an art form, tool, and political act.”

Donna Seaman

“Inspirational, that’s what this Conference can be for all participants.  It is so important to feel supported and understood as a writer and to be part of a community.  The instruction is on a very high level and all the teachers and writers are committed to the deep enjoyment of literature and this year since the Conference is virtual, some of the very best in the field can participate from around the country.

“In the workshops, you get lots of specifics.  The leaders talk crafts, how to write and re-write, and that all-important advice on how not to get discouraged.  Writing offers you so much, including the ability to play with words.  It is an alternative reality where you have control.”

Seaman says that she has “two goddesses” in the writing field:  author and conservationist Terry Tempest Williams and Chicago author Sandra Cisneros.

“I am always astonished by Williams’ depths of courage, warmth, and spirit. Cisneros is just so nimble.  She is so caring in both her poetry and prose and deeply focuses on her joy and freshness.

“Anything in the world that you care about you can find someone out there who cares about it, too and has written about it. You can reach out to them by reading.”

What are a couple of her interviewing tips?

“Always be totally ready in your research and be prepared to abandon your prepared questions.”

We asked Seaman about her work.

“I love writing essays about books and about places where you find books like libraries and bookstores, how it feels to be in a book-rich environment.” 

The Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago is marking its 60th anniversary this year by introducing several initiatives, including the imprinting of Ode Books, which celebrates book spaces and the book industry.  Seaman is one of the authors under contract for the project.

Texan Scott Blackwood whose novel See How Small won the 2016 PEN USA Award for fiction, will teach the nature of Suspense–making things appear when you least expect it.

“Think Hamlet.  Think Breaking Bad. If characters speak in ominous terms about a ghost they have seen or heard about in the first sections of a story, we have a desire to see the ghost appear in a scene. The catch? We want it to surprise us. We want its appearance both to reveal and conceal elements of the story, to create a tension between our appetite to know and the temporary frustration of not knowing. This is suspense, the engine that drives the story, and it works on both the macro (plot) and micro (sentence) levels of storytelling.  Complicating things is my favorite approach.”

The Austin, Texas resident was just hired as Distinguished Professor of Creative Writing at Hollins College in Roanoke. He teaches creative writing at Northwestern this summer.  We asked what he tells his students to do if they encounter writer’s block.

“Often MFA and Ph.D. students stop taking chances with their writing.  You have to take chances, push yourself beyond, get into speculation and let your imagination leap.  The filter that I use in all my classes is risk-taking and I push my students to do this.

“A favorite book is 2666 by Roberto Bolano which we study in a class I teach on experimental literature.  He takes every chance to make it just right.”

For more information about the rich offerings for the 2021 Northwestern University Writers Conference which could make your writing “just right,” go to sps.northwestern.edu