Ap­pre­ci­at­ing city’s virtues through jet-lagged eyes

Chicago Tribune (Sunday) - - NEWS - Ron Gross­man rgross­[email protected]­bune.com

Af­ter three weeks abroad re­cently, I raced around Chicago for days, fu­eled by a mor­bid fear that nooks and cran­nies I cher­ish had van­ished dur­ing my ab­sence.

My wife and I had been in Italy, which we vis­ited reg­u­larly be­fore my leg went bad. Yet I hadn’t been anx­ious about that coun­try chang­ing since I was last there, six years ago. That’s why we love Italy: It gives you the feel­ing of be­ing in a time warp.

In Florence, we at­tended a con­cert in the Sig­no­ria, the city hall where the Medici plot­ted their ri­vals’ doom. We walked cob­ble­stone streets where, eight cen­turies ago, Dante po­et­i­cally be­moaned his pas­sion for Beatrice, the un­ob­tain­able love of his life. Whereas our home­town poet, Carl Sand­burg, pro­claimed Chicago: “Hog Butcher for the World” — but now the Union Stock Yards is long gone.

Ru­mi­nat­ing and jet-lagged, I drove to Bishop’s Chili on Archer Av­enue. Once its kind dot­ted the city: sim­ple places serv­ing no-non­sense fare. The menu gave you two choices: with or with­out beans.

I re­mem­bered an old song about soap bub­bles, of all things.

They fly so high, nearly reach the sky, Then like my dreams they fade and die.

The lyrics were still haunt­ing me when I had break­fast the next morn­ing at the Bridge­port Restau­rant at 35th and Hal­sted streets. It, too, be­longs to an en­dan­gered species: a cof­fee shop in the pre-Star­bucks sense of the word.

A short-or­der cook flipped pan­cakes on the grill, the wait­ress hav­ing asked: “You want a short stack?” She called me “honey.”

It might have felt like time stood still in Chicago, too, if I hadn’t just been in Rome. Its sewer cov­ers are in­scribed “SPQR” — an ab­bre­vi­a­tion for “Se­nate and Peo­ple of Rome,” the seal put on pub­lic doc­u­ments in Julius Cae­sar’s day.

Here life is dif­fer­ent. A Tri­bune col­league told me she bought a condo in Al­bany Park. The word didn’t ex­ist in the neigh­bor­hood’s vo­cab­u­lary when I grew up there. We rented a “flat.”

The del­i­catessen and kosher butch­ers of Kedzie Av­enue have been re­placed by Thai restau­rants and Mid­dle East­ern bak­eries. Pre­vi­ously I would have mourned that.

But Chicago looked dif­fer­ent when I was sleep-de­prived, days af­ter land­ing at O’Hare air­port. With my in­ter­nal clock still op­er­at­ing on Euro­pean time, my mind’s eye com­pared splitscreen im­ages of Rome and Chicago.

Rome is an ideal tourist des­ti­na­tion. Not to worry if a tight sched­ule rules out vis­it­ing the Coli­seum and Vat­i­can City. Both will be there next year.

Chicago, though, is con­stantly sub­ject to re­vi­sion by bull­dozer. Like a soap bub­ble, the beauty of its streets is fleet­ing. What you see one day can be gone to­mor­row.

That gives it a bit­ter­sweet fas­ci­na­tion that I couldn’t quite put my fin­ger on, un­til now. The Kedzie Av­enue of my youth is gone, but its pass­ing opened up an ex­ot­i­cally new bit of cityscape to be ex­plored.

Chicago is sus­pended be­tween past and present. That re­al­iza­tion was un­der­scored by a re­quest I re­ceived af­ter I’d un­packed.

A friend had told a direc­tor of a Span­ish-lan­guage theater group that I’d crossed paths with the French writer Jean Genet. Could I speak to the troupe dur­ing a re­hearsal of Genet’s play “The Maids”?

Hal­sted Street con­nects Old Town, where I live, and the group’s South Side theater. It took me past the Ran­dolph Street pro­duce mar­ket where I had been a florist, and Maxwell Street, the im­mi­grant neigh­bor­hood where my father was born.

Pass­ing them, I felt dis­com­bob­u­lated. Gen­tri­fi­ca­tion in­truded on my mem­o­ries. But my des­ti­na­tion made me feel at home, in a site I could scarcely have imag­ined. The theater was in an in­dus­trial build­ing on a street in Bridge­port dom­i­nated by fac­to­ries.

See­ing half-fin­ished scenery, I had a flash­back to a raked stage I’d built for a long-gone theater group in Hyde Park. On the faces be­fore me, I saw a fa­mil­iar ex­pres­sion. They were ask­ing them­selves: Does our tal­ent match our dream? Old friends had pon­dered the ques­tion when launch­ing the Sec­ond City com­pany.

I told the cast and crew of the Genet pro­duc­tion that they might want to think about this when try­ing to ex­press the feel­ings un­der­ly­ing his words: Genet was openly gay when such was be­yond the pale, and he trav­eled widely to stand in sol­i­dar­ity with marginal­ized peo­ple. I met him when he came to Chicago to join the demon­stra­tors protest­ing the Viet­nam War.

I can’t say what the young peo­ple got out of our en­counter. But when I left them I was tin­gling with ex­cite­ment at the won­der of Chicago. Where else on Earth have so many dreams been launched? And by dream­ers speak­ing one lan­guage af­ter an­other?

Some are re­al­ized, oth­ers are crushed. But lis­ten care­fully to the din and con­fu­sion of joy and sor­row. You’ll hear faint echoes of that old song:

I’m for­ever blow­ing bub­bles, Pretty bub­bles in the air.


Chicago is a place where de­mo­li­tion and re­birth are con­stants, un­like many of the an­cient places in Italy.

John Kass

has to­day off.

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