Saturday, April 29, 2006

White City

It's 6 a.m. and I am in my 26th floor room staring out across Lake Michigan, up Lake Shore Drive, and into the apartments of the rich and possibly famous who live across from Doubletree Suites. If Oprah still kept her guests at the Drake, I'd probably be staring into their rooms too.

Chicago really is my kind of town. It has water. It has great architecture. It has green space designed by Frederick Law Olmstead (see Park, Central). It has Pearl and Papersource--two excellent art stores. It has the 'L.' It has great food, great entertainment, and this big city Midwestern sensibility that agrees with me more than New York or L.A. or any of the other cities we are meant to think are 'best.' (I've always been partial to second best.) I like a town where you can dress up if you want to or commit to a life in sweatpants.

My mother and I came up to see the wife and children of Gerry, my second cousin once removed, from County Galway. (Did you catch that?) His Mary was here visiting her family, so she and Catherine, 13, and Brendan, 12, and her brother and his wife met us at the Museum of Science and Industry yesterday. I've seen them more in the last six months than I've seen most of my first cousins who live five miles from me. They're lovely people and I fell a little in love with Mary's brother Michael. But don't be alarmed--there are very few Irishmen I don't fall in love with. He was shaped the way I like a man to be shaped--kind of roundy, but not fat, kind of baldy, but not bald, but most importantly, hilarious. And also, I love the way Irish men interact with children--I've seen all the movies and read all the books where the men of Ireland are abusive, alcoholic assholes, but so far, I have not met one. And the visible pleasure he expressed when I gave him a spare "Hillary in '08" button with which to torture his Republican wife was priceless.

Before they arrived, Mom and I decided that we'd rather be outside than inside the museum with the teeming throngs of children hellbent to be the first to traipse through a facsimile of a coal mine. I like this museum a lot, but not because of the Apollo lunar capsule, submarine, perpetually hatching chicks, or walk-thru human heart. It's not even Colleen Moore's Fairy Castle/dollhouse. No, I like it because it is the only remaining building from Chicago's 1893 Columbian Exposition, the World's Fair to end all World's Fairs, when an entire white city was built in order to convince the rest of the world that Chicago had more going for it than hogs. It was the only construction built to last--the rest of the buildings just had to hold it together for the year-long run of the fair. It was an exciting time in human history and a turning point for Chicago.

So, Mom and I walked around the perimeter of the building, through the grouds which were also designed by Olmstead (and to whom Chicago owes a great debt for his understanding of the importance of and preservation of the lakefront) and I tried to imagine what it was like more than a century ago: the other gleaming buildings, the canals, like a Neoclassical Venice, the people, the excitement about a future as bright as the city itself.

Well, it's all an awful lot to take in. And that's not even mentioning flashes I had of America's first serial killer who used the Exposition as a sort of dolphin-safe tuna net to gather victims, which was written about in the National Book Award finalist _Devil in the White City_. My copy has gone missing and I'm tempted to buy another. It's that good.

Of course this isn't the only dark side of Chicago. Last night at Borders I was loaded down with a stack of books I wanted to thumb through, and when I went to sit down on one of the couches--the only available one--the handsome guy in the chair next to it who looked to be reading something terribly important, gave a wry smile and shook me off. Initially, I was ticked--clearly he was saving it for some attractive, cosmopolitain friend of his.

Then I took a whiff.

Someone had taken a dump on one of the cushions. I'm still trying to imagine the scenario in which that seemed more convenient than taking the escalator down two flights to the basement toilet. If I were a better person, I'd be filled with compassion for whoever was physically or mentally ill enough that they couldn't prevent such a thing. But instead, I was just annoyed that a perfectly good seat had been wrecked, and basically, for me, wrecked for all time. I'll never be able to sit on that couch or possibly any other without wondering if it recently has been disinfected and anti-bacterialized. Another thing I'm pondering is why the handsome guy was just sitting there, next to the stench of it. Seats are at a premium in Borders on a Friday night, but even loaded down with books on Joseph Cornell and What Not to Wear, I couldn't have made that choice. Part of me admires him for being so engrossed in his book that he could sit there concentrating on it. Part of me wonders if he wasn't the offending party.

The day is yawning and stretching in front of me. Maybe I should get dressed.

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