Appreciating city’s virtues through jet-lagged eyes
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The delicatessen and kosher butchers of Kedzie Avenue have been replaced by Thai restaurants and Middle Eastern bakeries.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.
has today off.