Writer Karen Brenner sees friendship in Chicago's melting pot

August 30, 2011

Produced by Eight Forty-Eight

(Flickr/Zol87)
Writer Karen Brenner reflects on the friendship of two very different young neighbors.

Writer Karen Brenner no doubt heard Arabic and many other languages in her Northwest Side neighborhood. Everyday, her neighbors remind her that Chicago is the ultimate melting pot. She shared notes on her neighbors on Eight Forty-Eight.

Two very different families live next door to us on our street of two flats. One family has a young daughter with hair the color of the sun; hair that streams across her face so that she is constantly pushing it out of her eyes and mouth. Upstairs lives her best friend, who has hair the color of night; hair that hangs down past her knees when it is not gathered into a long, thick, braided rope.

During the bitter winter months we barely see them. Now that it is summer, they are constantly out of doors, riding their bikes, or playing in the little garden that their families share.

The girl with the dark hair has a large family. They have planted strawberries and tomatoes in their side of the yard. We give them some of our bean plants; they give us a kabob hot off the grill, dusky with spices. Her family cooks out almost every night, accompanied by smoke and laughter.

The girl with the blond hair has only one little brother. Her family gives us pirogues, fat with sweet, mild cheese or pillowed with potatoes. We give them bouquets of roses. To both families we smile and nod over the fence to say, “as-salamu alaykum” or “dzien dobry."  Those are the only words we can speak to our neighbors.

But the little girls switch effortlessly from one language to the other. When their mothers call them, they answer back--without missing a beat--in the staccato of Arabic, or tongue-twisting Polish. Then they turn to each other and continue their conversation in the broad, flattened-A of Midwestern American English.

They call to us as they fly by on their bikes--best friends; bold adventurers. Their hair streams out behind them--one the color of sun; one the color of night. They wave and shout, “Hello neighbors!”  

We wave back, smiling, watching what is special and wonderful about America ride by.  Here, in this great city, in this good land, there is a child of the Middle East and a child of Europe who daily cross the cultural chasms of religion, world view and language with complete ease and grace. As we watch their bikes disappear into the distance we know that they carry with them the promise of our country and the legacy of our city; the world comes here and becomes our neighbors, and sometimes our best friend.

Music Button: Second Sky, "Hourglass", from the album The Art of Influence, (Rhythm & Culture)