Pilgrimage through Chicago

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
— Carl Sandburg, Chicago

20170710_124921Sandburg also called Chicago the City of Big Shoulders. We climbed into those arms and clambered onto those shoulders this past week to take a look round at the marvelous views, sample the tastes of comfort and home, and walk among the canyons of glass and brick.

For me, this was a tour with two hats — three if you count the actual purpose of the visit, an excellent writer’s conference run by the good folks at GCLS. (I returned with a suitcase full of editing tips and bursting with new Facebook friends, cheers, all!) I went both as tourist and former Chicago resident. I went to school at the University of Chicago, as my bio notes. Like everything else with Chicago, it was a time of cognitive dissonance. I hated the experience; yet, it was highly necessary and garnered me more money and better jobs throughout my career. I appreciated the city’s architecture and art, but I loathed the weather and the B-School atmosphere. I reveled in the local food but gained 25 of the 100 pounds that I would later battle to lose and gain, over and over. As we toured the city, enjoying every nuance and cranny until we were repeatedly exhausted, I was resurrecting buried memories and trying to give the town a proper send-off in contrast to the grab-diploma-and-get-out-of-town that was my June 1985.

So this is a “travel” post, and I do recommend visiting Chicago if you have not done so. But it was also a pilgrimage for me.  I did find pleasure in the echoes of my youth (or yout’ as Joe Pesci says in My Cousin Vinny). I also found that even the most unpleasant memories are now funny rather than painful. Mostly, I found a lot of feelings of home.

The Art of the Buildings

We trolled down the Chicago river on an architecture tour of the city. My 30-year recollection is that the river wasn’t cleaned up enough in the ’80s to enable this. Now, it is a must if you are downtown. As the tour guides will tell you, the 1871 fire and 1893 World’s Fair provided opportunities for constructs of strength and beauty. American architects Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mies van der Rohe all made their mark with buildings in Chicago. Once styles developed, from Sullivan’s skyscrapers to Wright’s prairie style to Van der Rohe’s black box “Less is More” vision, they all wanted to make their mark in Chicago.

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On the river tour, I also couldn’t take my eyes off the scalloped shell of the twin Marina City buildings, designed by Bertrand Goldberg in 1964. The “corncob” shapes still stand out from the rectangles around them, as curiosities in a landscape already full of irregular shapes. For me, it represented my social anxiety at its highest. In full skirt suit and heels, I braved a chilly wind walking from the L to the 300 North State Street address on a November evening in 1984 to a cocktail party for business school students. Therein, I learned that such events are not the best way for me to convey my particular talents for analytics and team-building and I struggled to meet my goal of talking to at least five people. I think I managed six. I developed an especially deep allergy to wearing name badges. For years, I would shudder to think of it but passing by on a riverboat this week just invoked a nostalgia for a fuzzy memory. It’s now just an amusing anecdote.

I did journey on a pilgrimage out to the university. From our O’Hare hotel, the trip took 90 minutes on the L, Blue line and Red line, and a #55 bus that passed from the poorest section of town through the invisible force field that runs down South Cottage Avenue, turning crumbled sidewalks and check cashing stores into tree-lined streets fronting Gothic architecture. It was miserably humid and, just as I remembered, a long expletive deleted walk to get from one end of campus to the other. I took a selfie at the School of Social work where I typed behavioral modification grant proposals for a sharp, funny, very organized professor, Dr. Elsie Pinkston, who almost made me want to change my major.

I took another selfie at the flippin’ other end of campus in the nondescript building where I lived, 1307 E. 60th St, a brown rectangle that would be on no architect’s list of accomplishments.  Another selfie was captured at ivy-covered Ida Noyes Hall, where I had classes on the Random Walk, Black-Scholes, and Statistical Marketing. Built since I matriculated, the new Booth School building behind Ida Noyes is a glass and concrete monstrosity which has ironic “Break the Mold” sayings in the cafeteria — I think they meant to say “Invent the Mold.” But! enough bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you snarkisms from me. I would rather talk about my other fondest memory, working in Frank Lloyd Wright’s masterpiece, the Robie House.

The architectural prairie style that Wright pioneered is low and flat, designed to blend in to the landscape. The entrance hall is purposely low-ceilinged so that when you walk up into that long rectangular living room surrounded by windows, you feel the space opening and your heart lifting. The fireplace suspended between living and dining room on opposite sides and the striped window panes that echo the tall striped chairs were marvels just like I remembered.

This other work-study job I had involved collecting checks and logging expenses for the alumni magazine while working in a cubbyhole in what was the garage of the famous house. The whole garage/office has been converted to a gift shop, and as I bought a ridiculously overpriced T-shirt and chatted with the students working their summer job, they looked at me blankly when I described what the garage used to look like.

My other fond memory of the Robie House was leaving work one day and passing by Professor Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar as he was strolling with his wife. He had just won the Nobel prize in physics a few months before so his newspaper picture had been well distributed. I had studied his work on the structure of stars, though at Berkeley and not in Chicago. I ogled at him like a teeny bopper looking at Justin Bieber. He smiled.

The Building Filled with Art

In our B-school orientation, the tour guidebook we were handed told us to enjoy shopping on the Magnificent Mile and pub-hopping. Penniless and a teetotaler, I could appreciate neither of these pleasures.  I still marvel that the guidebook didn’t mention the most important place to visit when in the city: the Chicago Art Institute.

Setting aside that there might have been a wee bit of communication confusion to the Lyft driver over the Illinois Institute of Art vs. the Chicago Art Institute, the visit to this museum was a highlight of the entire trip. It was a highlight in 1983, 1984, 1985, and in 2017. A visit to CAI is like a visit to home, to childhood, to a world full of ancient and modern visions.

First, there are the iconic paintings. I hope most of you have seen the pointillist masterwork below at some point in your life. If you can, also see Stephen Sondheim’s musical Sunday in the Park with George; if you can, see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, just to watch Cameron experience this painting. I loved seeing the huge crowd mill around the huge work, taking selfies, peering at the dots close up, all of them smiling.

Sunday in the Museum with George

Secondly, copies of the artworks were in our house on the walls and on the covers of books and magazines littering my mother’s office when I was growing up in Sacramento. She taught Humanities at Cal State Sacramento, specifically the arts, specifically the American arts from 1850 to 1950, with an emphasis on interdisciplinary. I knew who Jackson Pollock was before I’d ever heard of Napoleon and when we toured the southwest, we spent as much time at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West as we did at Disneyland.  When I walk by a Winslow Homer or a Gaston Lachaise, I think of mom.

Gaston Lachaise, Elevated Woman

Finally, the other joy of any museum, aside from viewing old “friends” on the walls is in discovering new delights. My good friend from Chicago, Dar, told us to find the Thorne miniature rooms in the basement that she had spent hours examining in her yout’.  There are 68 of these amazing rooms that depict Romanesque cathedrals and modern New Mexico patios, Georgian dining rooms and Tennessee hallways. The detail in them is elaborate to say the least. If you had not visited this room as a child or if I did not tell you it was a foot in depth and two feet tall, would you have guessed? New to me, but nostalgic to my friend. Another kind of home.

Thorne miniature room, California living room @1850, 12″x29″x23″

A Taste of Chicago

You have to get….

Garrett’s popcorn, Lou Malnati’s pizza, Portillo’s Italian Beef, the real Chicago dogs, the pastries at Allegretti’s Bakery in Norridge…

–native Chicagoan, Dar

Every native has their favorite, and some even rank them. Favorite deep dish pizza. Favorite place for Italian beef. Favorite pastry. This is neighborhood food, mostly hole in the wall places, although some are so well-known now that they ship their wares over the internet and display signs for online ordering or apps to jump the long lines on the weekends.  We happened on Miller’s Pub downtown and swooned over the sauerbraten and the lamb sandwiches. Even the Chicago dogs at the hotel luncheon were head and shoulders above ballpark fare.

The whole week, we ate Chicago. The Taste of Chicago festival was on, but we didn’t even need it (oi! those crowds!) because the food was right in front of us everywhere we went.  We ate, we ate, we ate, and it’s hard to explain why we kept eating when we were always so full, except that it was like having grandma’s cooking everywhere. Not full of MSG or corn syrup or plastic cheese, this was delicious real food with real ingredients even though some of them were lard and full-fat mozzarella and real parmesan.  At the Hofbrau, there was a potato pancake smothered in applesauce and sour cream that disappeared so fast off my plate that my friends wondered if the waiter forgot to bring it.

I can’t eat deep dish pizza like I used to. We had Giordano’s sent to the hotel and sampled Lou Malnati’s and found both worthy and almost too heavy to lift. Personally, deep dish for me always evokes a very specific memory from neither Best Of pizza place. My one friend at university and I would meet for dinner once a month at Medici’s at 57th and Kenwood. It was nearly the only time I could connect with a real human being among the Ruthless Sheep, and I looked forward to it with desperate eagerness. On one Saturday, there was one of those real Chicago snowstorms where I learned the true meaning of a thirty below wind chill. I was as bundled as could be with nothing exposed but the tiniest opening for my eyes as I crossed the Midway, and I remember that icy breeze cutting through my five thick layers like they were crepe de chine. But I wasn’t going to miss that dinner for anything, so I slogged on, taking about a half hour to walk five blocks. The melted cheese and tomato-smothered crust was one of the top ten greatest things I have ever experienced.

Lou Malnati’s
Portillo’s dipped Italian beef

And, ah, Kringle which was new for me. Take a Danish, slather it with raspberry jam, and fold it over about seven times, squashing it flat. How could I have spent two years there and never experienced kringle?

All the Comforts of…

Heading home, I am now a little desperate for greens. I look forward to dipping my fork in salad dressing or eating brown rice. I have turned orange trying to munch on enough carrots to balance out all the cheese. But you know how it goes…a week of egg white omelettes, sauteed spinach, and fat free yogurt “desserts,” and I will be longing for the streudel and kringle once more.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Sky Above Clouds

We’ve been on the road now almost three weeks solid, from the graduation in San Diego to the cruise in Alaska, and now finishing this conference in Chicago. I’m happy to finally slog my suitcase of dirty laundry and new memories upstairs for the last time.

Our plane will fly backwards into time zones, where heading west the sun will set over that Georgia O’Keeffe sky, and set and set and set. But it seems appropriate as an end to this journey that bridged past and future for me. I can box up the new/old recollections of the soaring towers and paintings of my heart and bury them all together like a time capsule refreshed. All better now.

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Robie House of the author’s yout’– @1984

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