There is a Jeni’s Ice Cream shop coming to my neighborhood.
When I discovered this, I screamed — for ice cream. If you know Jeni’s ice cream and live in my neighborhood or near it, you’re also screaming. It’s terrifying, all these screaming people, but it’s not like we’re screaming because we’re being chased by an axe murder or anything. We’re screaming for Sweet Cream Biscuits & Peach Jam, and Salted Peanut Butter With Chocolate Flecks, and Gooey Butter Cake, and Brown Butter Almond Brittle. There are others, and great tubs of them will soon arrive in the Gold Coast and I will commune with them.
This is not a sponsored post. In fact, it is I who pay Jeni’s Ice Cream for their goods and services. It doesn’t seem fair to pay a company lots of money (their product is not cheap) and then give them free marketing on top of it. But, since the ice cream-delivered dopamine hits I’ve enjoyed over the years have been made possible because of Jeni’s product, I suppose I owe them. For cold spoonfuls of Atlantic Beach Pie, Mexican Chocolate, Buttercream Birthday Cake, and Skillet Cinnamon Bun, I give, and give, and give, apparently. Pathetic!
Recently, Eric and I caught a matinee at the AMC on Ohio Street just off Michigan Avenue. When the movie got out, we walked north, toward home. Our route from the theater takes us past Connors Park, a tiny patch of land at the intersection of Rush, Wabash, and Chestnut Streets, and this was the location of my discovery. I know I’m giving you lots of street names, but I want to remember every detail, to mentally return to the scene of my future ice cream crimes.
And setting the scene is important because Jeni’s could open a shop in a ditch or serve customers through a subway grate and I’d still be happy about it, as long as that subway grate were 10 minutes from my home. But the decision to operate out of Connors Park? It makes this whole thing extra awesome.
I didn’t know that the tiny patch of land at the above intersection was considered a park; I thought it was just a very large curb. Indeed, the triangle-shaped island that is Connors Park comprises just .34 acres, bounded on all sides by a line of narrow shrubs. There’s an oak tree, three or-so benches, and birdbath-sized fountain, which is all that can fit around the biggest feature of Connors Park, a low, rectangular-shaped glass building plopped right in the center. I’ve always loved that building. It looks like a greenhouse. It was an Argo Tea for the longest time and I fondly recall several afternoons there, writing in my journal as the autumn leaves sifted down past the windows all around me. But the Argo Tea closed years ago — even before the pandemic — and the greenhouse sat empty.
Eric was saying something to me when I saw the banner hanging on the building. The banner showed pictures of Jeni’s Ice Cream and the words “Coming Soon!”
I stopped dead in my tracks. I clutched my husband and raised a trembling finger to point at the sign.
My husband makes noise about not liking sweets — “I’m a savory person” — but he is weak in the presence of Jeni’s Ice Cream. Most people are His favorites are Brambleberry Crisp and Buttercream Birthday Cake. My favorites are, in no particular order: Pistachio Honey, Atlantic Beach Pie, Mexican Chocolate, Green Mint Chip, Pineapple Upside-Down Cake, Salty Caramel, Cream Puff, and Savannah Buttermint.
I’m serious, those are my favorites. All of them are my favorite-favorites. I will say that Cream Puff is my main favorite right now but that’s only because Pistachio Honey, the first Jeni’s flavor I ever had, is no longer available for some demonic, cruel reason. You always remember your first, you know?
Anyway, soon there will be a Jeni’s near our apartment. It’s the best news I’ve heard all month and I just wanted to share the news — but keep your hands off my ice cream.*
*I hate this cheesy ending but I have to get back to work … eating my ice cream. I hate that ending even more. I hate it more than I hate it when my Jeni’s ice cream is gone. Help. I’m stuck in a bad ending loop. Maybe Jeni’s will open a location in the Loop.
This is the 14th installment in a series of 51 posts inspired by a list of writing prompts from the website Journal Buddies. If you’d like to know more, here’s where I explain what this is and why I’m doing it.
Since schools are closed, and I belong to the extremely fortunate demographic who doesn’t have to go “to” or “from” work right now, if I don’t take things in a different direction with this particular prompt, I won’t have much to say and we’ll all just be sitting around looking at each other until one of us starts crying or we start another card game, or we both start crying because we’re starting yet another card game.
I can’t let that happen, so I’m going to tell you about my favorite neighbor, Babs.*
Since Babs is the grandest of all the dames; since Babs is a force of nature; since Babs is the walking embodiment of a Babs in all the ways a Babs could possibly be, I can’t just dropBabs on you. I can’t just launch into Babs. One must be ready for a person like this; one must be prepared. Thus, I shall provide a bit of context, first.
One year ago this month, I collected all my belongings and moved them 2.5 miles to the north. I left Chicago’s scrappy, youthful, grimy-in-a-good-way South Loop for her crusty, gorgeous, fusty-in-a-good-way Gold Coast. It took fortitude; there were sacrifices. I went from having 1500 square feet of space down to 900; in the South Loop, I paid a wince-inducing HOA monthly assessment, but the assessment for this place is almost nauseating, especially with the mortgage on top of that; and if you asked me how much paint was peeling off the walls in my previous apartment, I would have said “none”, but if you ask me how much paint is peeling off the walls in this one, I will say “so much.”
So what. The place is half the size and needs significant work. But when you’ve got crown molding, parquet wood floors, bookshelves built right into the walls, and the original 1920 elevator with Art Deco brass details, you almost feel like keeping those paint chips in a pretty box on the mantle. (There’s a mantle.) And hey, when I scribble my signature on my check to pay the bills each month, I get to see my name on that check with my new address on it, and that helps me stop weeping long enough to tear the check off the pad and get it into the envelope.
In July, Eric moved here from Seattle. One day we decided to go for a walk.
“Most of the people in this building seem like they’re … older,” Eric said.
We stepped aside for Gordon (day doorman extraordinaire) to let in Mr. and Mrs. Ackerman, which took awhile. Outside, a man in a sweater vest with his socks pulled up was poking at a flower bed with his cane. He waved.
We waved back and Eric, who is 42, said, “Are we the youngest people in this building?”
It’s true: Most of the people who live in our vintage building might also be described as “vintage.” I won’t put my foot in my mouth and suggest a median age, but I will say that when there’s a notice on the desk in the lobby about a board meeting or a maintenance issue, the font is very large. This, to me, is an ideal living situation. People of a certain age rarely feel like putting on heavy boots and running back and forth on the floor above me; neither do they tend to listen to music loudly. If they do decide to listen to music loudly, it’s only every five years or so, and in this building you’re going to get Duke Ellington or Connie Francis or Beethoven if the person is brooding. Could be worse, right?
Eric wasn’t quite right about us being the youngest people who live here, though; down the hall on our same floor there’s a thirty-something couple and they are the youngest people here. Caitlin is literally a professional brain surgeon, which I think we can all agree is the best kind of brain surgeon. Her slightly younger French husband, Jean Luc, is a professional brain scientist, so these two are a good match. They got married in October. We had a little wine and cheese party up on the room last summer and Caitlin and I had more wine than cheese and it was fun because they are very nice people.
There are four apartments on each floor, and Lorraine and Alan live in the one directly across from us. Alan has been a university professor for absolute ages, and Lorraine bakes when she’s stressed.
“Mary, I’ve been stress-baking.”
We were chatting on the phone the first week of the official shelter-in-place order here in Chicago, which was somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 years ago.
“Tell me about it,” I said, scraping cookie batter off the sides of a mixing bowl.
Lorraine sighed and said the least she could do was leave some goodies at our front door. I told her she didn’t have to do that and she said oh it’s no problem, and I said stay safe and she said you too, Mary, and say hi to Eric. When I opened the door, I was super happy to find two fat banana-walnut muffins, which Lorraine stress-bakes in mini-bundt cake pans. They are so moist you have to eat them right away or they’ll go bad. The muffins were, as always, tucked inside a small gift bag with ribbon handles. It’s safe to say Lorraine has a big box of small gift bags with ribbon handles in the hall closet at all times, because you never know.
Well, I guess that’s it for my neighbors. An interesting group, right? I’m so grateful we landed on such a good floor with —
Sorry, what’s that? Oh, did I say there are four apartments on each floor of our building? Huh, that’s funny … who am I leaving out? Who could be — ohhh. That’s right. How could I forget … Babs.
The first thing to know about Babs is that I adore her. The second thing to know is that she is infamous around here on account of her rather mercurial personality. One doesn’t “meet” Babs as much as experience her, and lots of residents have had the Babs Experience because she has lived in this building for more than 30 years.
Babs is probably in her seventies, but it’s hard to say. For one thing, a lady never tells her age; for another thing, I have heard from several sources that she is heir to a kitty litter fortune and as such, has long been able to afford all manner of expensive creams, salves, and tinctures, so the woman could be a very well-preserved 90 for all I know. She wears French perfume and I’ve never seen her without lipstick.
The woman probably weighs 90 pounds soaking wet, but Babs would hate being soaking wet: It would ruin her hair! Her hair is a shimmery shade of light blonde appropriate for her age but let’s not ignore the fact that she is maintainingblonde and of course it’s always perfectly set, combed, and coiffed. Babs wears big, round dark sunglasses when she goes out and sometimes when she goes in: She waltzed into a condo board meeting once — fashionably late, of course — and kept her sunglasses on the whole time. She did remove her fur stole, however. I don’t know what animal sacrificed itself for Bab’s stole, but whatever it was, it was very soft and shiny. Babs didn’t say a thing the entire meeting and still managed to hold court; I could tell she was glowering at a couple people across the room who had somehow annoyed her. Believe me: It’s a rotating cast.
Babs has lived in Chicago all her life. When she was 16, she had a real-life coming out party. I’ve seen the pictures. She was a vision in silk gloves and the prettiest dress you’ve ever seen. Later, she ran her own boutique on Michigan Avenue. She’s buried two husbands and has lived alone for a lot of years at this point. I can’t recall just how long. A long time.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective drinker of white wine. Sometimes she has to call our building’s maintenance man to help her get a cork out. This call occasionally comes around two or three in the afternoon.
Babs is a voracious and extremely selective reader, too. Her library is wall to wall books, all neatly lined up on the wide shelves. It perhaps needs not be said that Babs’s apartment — larger than our fixer upper by a factor of two at least — perhaps led to the very creation of the term “tastefully appointed”. At this point I’m betting you can guess with great accuracy what Babs’s place looks like, right? Right: damask drapes with silk tie-back cords; crystal candy dishes; lacquered wood furniture; still life paintings large and small; striped wallpaper; various platters. There is no dust anywhere, on anything because Babs has a maid that comes every week. There’s a sitting room and a dining room and — oh, you get the idea. The difference between the apartment Eric and I are quarantined in and the one just down the hall is the difference between The Little Match Girl and the Queen of England; extra matches, extra pearls.
Since this post is plenty long enough and there are card games we all have to get to, I’ll tell you more about Babs in the next post. But I cannot resist sharing one of many Babs gems before I go:
Five or six months ago, Babs invited me over for a glass of wine. It had become a kind of a regular thing at that point and I knew to drink slowly because every time I had ever said, “Oh, Babs, I think I’ve had enough for tonight,” she’d pooh-pooh me and take my glass into the kitchen for “just a little splash.”
That night, I was doing what I often do when I hang out with Babs, which is ask her a million questions about her life. Wouldn’t you? She’s as fascinating a person as I’ve ever met, and she also happens to be hilarious.
“Babs,” I said, knowing that at this point I can ask her anything, “Tell me about your husbands. Were you happily married?”
Babs gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “Oh, they were lovely men. I loved them, sure. But sweetie, I was terrible at being married.”
“I was always screwing around!”
[Babs and I will be back soon. Stay safe, everyone.]
*All names in this post have been changed, but none are as perfectly suited to the person described as “Babs”.
It’ll take months to get rid of all the dust. The linoleum in the kitchen is from the Pleistocene era. The paint is an inch thick in every room and is cracking so deep in certain places it looks like Chicago must have experienced a small earthquake at some point in the 1970s. I’ll remedy these things eventually; until then, I love my new home too much to care.
And, um, I live next door to a famous actress.
It’s so exciting! I’ve never lived next to a famous actress before. I couldn’t wait to tell you, but there’s good and bad news.
Bad news first: I can’t tell you the actress’s name. Peeps, I just can’t. It would be extremely uncool to move into this neighborhood and, in my public fan-girling of this epic, brilliant, hilariously funny, iconic actress, effectively share her address with the internet. Believe me, I desperately want to tell you. I wondered if I could just give you obvious hints so you could figure it out yourself, but then you’d guess right and her name would be all over the comments — which gives us the same problem. Any cluster or burst of internet activity about Famous Actress is going to alert Famous Actress’s team. They’ll check it out and see that there was all this chatter about her on some quilter-person’s blog and oh! Guess what, Famous Actress? Your neighbor is a creepy quilter-person and she telling a whole bunch of other creepy quilter-people where you live!
The good news is that this actress is every bit as cool and awesome in real life as you want her to be. That has to be enough for now. Mind you, I haven’t talked to her, but my third-floor bedroom window looks out over the gorgeous courtyard patio at the back of her house and I have obtained data by peering through the trees and catching glimpses of her here and there. The data I have gathered proves her awesomeness and no, peering through the trees to spy on people is not creepy at all. Here are a few of my observations of Famous Actress:
Famous Actress wears big, floppy straw hat while gardening
Famous Actress wears t-shirt and flowy skirt and Birkenstocks; looks comfortable
Famous Actress played the Talking Heads’ “Burning Down The House” twice this afternoon in the courtyard while she and her husband (?) were power-washing the patio and she was really rockin’ out
Famous Actress rolled out a yoga mat and laid down on it but did not appear to practice yoga
Famous Actress has a hummingbird feeder and tending to it makes her smile
I promise you I will try to meet this woman for real and become her best friend. Once we become best friends, then I can ask her if I can blog about her and she’ll say yes, of course, Mary, you can do anything you please because I love you so much and you’re such a good writer and and please write a movie for me to star in and please come over for breakfast lunch and dinner we’re all gathering in the courtyard patio and don’t you even think about bringing anything you silly girl but oh take this jacket I wore in that movie from the 1980s that you know by heart and also please take all of my old diamonds.
Remember last week, when I told you about 1001 Afternoons in Chicago?
I’m still reading it, meting out the remaining entries in Ben Hecht’s book so that the miracle will last as long as possible.
Last week, I shared an excerpt, and for tonight’s Sunday Evening Post, I’m going to share a full entry from the book. The piece is called Confessions. It’s one of the best things I have ever read, I think. The humanity, the specificity, the simplicity — it’s remarkable, at least to me. So I typed up the piece, just for you. I like to type up or write out longhand passages of writing written by far better writers than myself. Like a painting student copies a masterwork in order to learn how to paint, copying down other people’s writing is one small thing I do as a writer. It’s an interesting exercise because guess what? Great writers also have to actually write the word “the” in lots of places. They also have to decide, finally, how a piece should end. And begin. We’re all faced with the blank page. We’re all using the same words. We’re all human — right, Ben?
Maybe you think sharing another Hecht excerpt this week is a bit lazy. “This again?!” some of you might say, though I don’t think any of you will say that because you’re not the type. The thing is, it’s been a good but super intense weekend, I’m deep in preparation for QuiltCon (!), and I’m not feeling well. And so, I can either rest on the shoulders of giants and make us all happy, or paste together something mediocre for you and make us all sad. Not a tough call, really. I’m pretty sure I’ll post again this week; my sea legs are feeling stronger.
Confessions, by Ben Hecht, from 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, 1921.
The rain mutters in the night and the pavements like dark mirrors are alive with impressionistic cartoons of the city. The little, silent street with its darkened store windows and rain-veiled arc lamps is as lonely as a far-away train whistle.
Over the darkened stores are stone and wooden flat buildings. Here, too, the lights have gone out. People sleep. The rain falls. The gleaming pavements amuse themselves with reflections.
I have an hour to wait. From the musty smelling hallway where I stand the scene is like an old print — an old London print — that I have always meant to buy and put in a frame but have never found.
Writing about people when one is alone under an electric lamp, and thinking about people when one stands watching the rain in the dark streets, are two different diversions. When one writes under an electric lamp one pompously marshals ideas; one remembers the things people say and do and believe in, and slowly these things replace people in one’s mind. One thinks (in the calm of one’s study): “So-and-so is a Puritan … he is viciously afraid of anything which will disturb the idealized version of himself in which he believes — and wants other people to believe … “ Yes,m one thinks So-and-so is this and So-and-so is that. And it all seems very simple. People focus into clearly outlined ideas — definitions. And one can sit back and belabor them, hamstring them, pull their noses, expose their absurdities and derive a deal of satisfaction from the process. Iconoclasm is easy and warming under an electric light in one’s study.
But in the rain at night, in the dark street staring at darkened windows, watching the curious reflections in the pavements — it is different in the rain. The night mutters and whispers.
“People,” one thinks, “tired, silent people sleeping in the dark.”
Ideas do not come so easily or so clearly. The ennobling angers which are the emotion of superiority in the iconoclast do not rise so spontaneously. And one does not say “People are this and people are that … “ No, one pauses and stares at the dark chatter of the rain and a curious silence saddens one’s mind.
Life is apart from ideas. And the things that people say and believe in and for which they die and in behalf of which they invent laws and codes — these have nothing to do with the insides of people. Puritan, hypocrite, criminal, dolt — these are paper-thin masks. It is diverting to rip them in the calm of one’s study.
Life that warms the trees into green in the summer, that sends birds circling through the air, that spreads a tender, passionate glow over even the most barren wastes — people are but one of its almost too many children. The dark, the rain, the lights, people asleep in bed, the wind, the snow that will fall tomorrow, the ice, flowers, sunlight, country roads, pavements and stars — all these are the same. Through all of them life sends its intimate and sacred breath.
One becomes aware of such curious facts in the rain at night and one’s iconoclasm, like a broken umbrella, hangs useless from one’s hand. Tomorrow these people who are now asleep will be stirring, giving vent to outrageous ideas, championing incredulous banalitiies, prostrating themselves before imbecile superstitions. Tomorrow they will rise and begin forthwith to lie, quibble, cheat, steal, four flush and kill, each and all inspired by the solacing monomania that every one of their words and gestures is a credible variant of perfection. Yes, tomorrow they will be as they were yesterday.
But in this rain at night they rest from their perfections, they lay aside for a few hours they rest from their perfections, they lay aside for a few hours their paper masks. And one can contemplate them with a curious absence of indignation or criticism. There is something warm and intimate about the vision of many people sleeping in the beds above the darkened store fronts of this little street. Their bodies have been in the world so long — almost as long as the stones out of which their houses are made. So many things have happened to them, so many debacles and monsters and horrors have swept them off their feet … and always they have kept on — persisting through floods, volcanic eruptions, plagues and wars.
Heroic and incredible people. Endlessly belaboring themselves with ideas, gods, taboos, and philosophies. Yet here they are, still in this silent little street. The world has grown old. Trees have decayed and races died out. But here above the darkened store fronts lies the perpetual miracle … People in whom life streams as naive and intimate as ever.
Yes, it is to life and not people one makes one’s obeisance. Toward life no iconoclasm is possible, for even that which is in opposition to its beauty and horror must of necessity be a part of them.
It rains. The arc lamps gleam through the monotonous downporu. One can only stand and dream … how charming people are since they are alive … how caring the rain is and the night … And how foolish arguments are … how ban al are these cerebral monsters who pose as iconoclasts and devote themselves grandiloquently and inanely to disturbing the paper masks …
I walk away from the must smelling hallway. A dog steps tranquilly out of the shadows nearby. He surveys the street and the rain with a proprietary calm.
It would be amusing to walk in the rain with a strange dong. I whistle softly and reassuringly to him. He pauses and turns his head towardme, surveying me with an air of vague discomfort. What do I want with him? … he thinks … who am I? … have I any authority? … what will happen to him if he doesn’t obey the whistle?
Thus he stands hesitating. Perhaps, too, I will give him shelter, a kindness never to be despised. A moment ago, before I whistled, this dog was tranquil and happy in the rain. Now he has changed. He turns fully around and approaches me, a slight cringe in his walk. The tranquility has left him. At the sound of my whistle he has grown suddenly tired and lonely and the night and rain no longer lure him. He has found another companionship.
And so together we walk for a distance, this dog and I, wondering about each other …
Today, a book interfered with all the work I was supposed to do. I’ll have to get up very early in the morning to catch up, but I don’t care. There was nothing I could do. Today, there could be nothing in the world — thank God — but this book, the delicate snowfall, and the pub where I sat, in the window, reading for two hours. The barstool I selected was inside Miller’s Pub, est. 1935, a Chicago institution, shielded and admired by the el at Wabash and Madison.
The book, A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, started as a column in the Chicago Daily News 1920s. The author, Ben Hecht, is a name some of you might recognize, but if you do, I’ll bet it’s because Hecht achieved screenwriting stardom in Hollywood in the 1940s, writing or doctoring scripts a whole bunch of classic films. But before he decamped for Hollywood, Hecht was a dyed-in-the-wool Chicago newspaperman. He started writing for the dailies here when he was just 15, and he was good at what he did. What he did was write well about stuff that happened in the city he dearly loved.
Some years before the column began, Hecht left the News to work in publicity. He wanted to make more money and get away from the grind of reporting round the clock, so he went for it. He hated the publicity business, though, and was quickly miserable. His editor wanted him back and had an idea of how to get Hecht and keep him interested. He asked Hecht if he’d like to write a different sort of column for the News, one that explored the people of the city, but this time with a decidedly narrative tone. Hecht could interview people as he usually would, but then, rather than file a Q&A or a “This happened and this happened” piece of reportage, he’d have license to make the vignettes almost … poetic.
For years. In the preface to the 1922 book containing dozens of these “afternoon” characters — this is the book I couldn’t put down this afternoon — I learned that Hecht loved writing this new column so much, he’d do it when he was sick, tired, traveling, depressed, etc. He called the column “A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago” (a Scherezade riff, obviously) and he filed a column every day.
The humanity in these pieces is almost agonizing. Page after page of poignant, funny, achingly true portraits await you as the author tells Chicago through its people: prostitutes, auctioneers, homeless people, businessmen, shop girls, tattoo artists — this is all in the early 1920s, remember, but every single word is as true today as it ever was. People lose jobs and lose their families, they hope and dream, they forgive — sometimes they die, too. I was crying at the bar, trying to hide my face from the nice couple sitting to my left who were in Chicago for a nice weekend. I’m glad they didn’t ask me what I was reading; I would’ve rhapsodised and scared them away.
The book is funny and beautiful and I want to share an excerpt with you.
If you know me, you know I love Michigan Avenue. I walk up that grand boulevard and walk it all the way back down as much as I can and much more lately, since some days I just don’t know what to do with myself. On those days or any day besides, Michigan Avenue, from 9th Street to Delaware is my spinal column and it keeps me upright. So, imagine my rapture when I turned the page of Afternoons to find Hecht vignette about my street that was so right, so brilliant, so true, big, fat tears plopped onto the page as I read. There is no comfort like the comfort that comes when you see that you are known by someone who knew you before you were born.
Here is an excerpt from the “Michigan Avenue” piece from A Thousand and One Afternoons in Chicago, by Ben Hecht, 1921.
I have squandered an afternoon seduced from labors by this Pied Piper of a street. And not only I but everybody I ever knew or heard of was in this street, strutting up and down as if there were no vital projects demanding their attention, as if life were not a stern and productive routine.
[There] was no sign, no billboard to inspire me with a sense of duty. So we strutted—the long procession of us—a masquerade of leisure and complacency. Here was a street in which a shave and a haircut, a shine and a clean collar exhilarated a man with a feeling of power and virtue. As if there were nothing else to the day than to decorate himself for the amusement of others.
I begin to notice something. An expression in our faces as we drift by the fastidious ballyhoos of the shop windows. We are waiting for something—actors walking up and down in the wings waiting for the their cues to go on. This is intelligible. This magician of a street has created the illusion in our heads that there are adventure and romance around us.
There are two lives that people lead. One is the real life of business, mating, plans, bankruptcies and gas bills. The other is an unreal life—a life of secret grandeurs which compensate for the monotony of the days. Sitting at our desks, hanging on to straps in the street cars, waiting for the dentist, eating in silence in our homes—we give ourselves to these secret grandeurs. Day-dreams in which we figure as heroes and Napoleons and Don Juans, in which we triumph sensationally our the stupidities and arrogances of our enemies—we think them out detail by detail. Sometimes we like to be alone because we have a particularly thrilling incident to tell ourselves, and when our friends say good-by we sigh with relief and wrap ourselves with a shiver of delight in the mantles of imagination. And we live a charming hour through a fascinating fiction in which things are as they should be and we startle the world with our superiorities.
This street, I begin to understand, is consecrated to the unrealities so precious to us. We come here and for a little while allow our dreams to peer timorously at life. In the streets west of here we are what we are—browbeaten, weary-eyed, terribly optimistic units of the boobilariat. Our secret characterizations we hide desperately from the frowns of window and the squeal of “L” trains.
But here in this Circe of streets the sun warms us, the sky and the spaces of shining air lure us and we step furtively out of ourselves. And give us ten minutes. Observe—a street of heroes and heroines …
The high buildings waver like gray and golden ferns in the sun. The sky stretches itself in a holiday awning over our heads. A breeze comingfrom the lake brings an odorous spice into our noses. Adventure and romance! Yes—and observe how unnecessary are plots. Here in the Circe of streets are all the plots. All the great triumphs, assassinations, amorous conquests of history unravel themselves within a distance of five blocks. The great moments of the world live themselves over again in a silent make-believe.
The afternoon wanes. Our procession turns toward home. For a few minutes the elation of our make-believe in the Avenue lingers. But the “L” trains crowd up, the street cars crowed up. It is difficult to remain a Caesar or a Don Quixote. So we withdraw and our faces become alike as turtle backs.
I recently attended an unconventional conference — an “unconference”, as they call it.
The event was like nothing I had ever experienced and fostered both intellectual bliss and psychological discomfort. Thankfully, the bliss eclipsed the agony — but it was a close call there for a minute. Would you like to hear more? Excellent, because I have prepared more.
The conference was hosted by Google and some other very Google-y companies with which I am intimately familiar, but solely as a consumer. Before the conference, such companies were essentially faceless to me. I don’t have a cousin that works at Facebook, for example. I didn’t go to kindergarten with Elon Musk — and thank goodness, because I know he would’ve eaten my paste!
This year marked the 11th year of this thing. The 350 people who attended hopped on planes and trains and came from all over the country to get to Google’s Chicago headquarters. But those 350 people weren’t just any 350 people, oh ho! No, no: We were all on the list. Oh, yes. There was a list. Because whatever you want to call it — conference, unconference, think tank, nerd camp, slumber party for geeks — is by invitation only. First, you have to be nominated by someone who has attended in the past, then you have to apply, then you have to be selected. If all that works out, you can get your groovy nametag and it’s on like Donkey Kong.
Speaking of Donkey Kong: I think I met the guy who invented Donkey Kong.
It’s possible. Because that’s the kind of person who goes to this thing. The whole place was swarming with top brass in the fields of gaming; government digital operations; linguistics; neuroscience; the internet … There was a guy who owns and operates a yo-yo empire. I met a woman who makes the Chicago Botanical Garden the Chicago Botanical Garden. I was in a discussion group with the host of a very, very, very popular network reality television show. I attended a talk given by the UK’s leading war correspondent. I went to an “Ask Me Anything” session about the Chicago transit system hosted by the guy who is literally in charge of Chicago’s transit system. In the mix were scholars. Writers. Thinkers. Artists. Doctors. Comedians. Lawyers.
And one … whatever I am.
There were numerous occasions when I had to swallow hard and try not to cry. And I know, I know: You’ll say that I was in the room because I qualified to be in the room! Logically, I knew that. But emotionally I couldn’t get there. No matter how you slice it — and though every single smartypants person was so friendly and awesome — these people were intimidating. Many of them are also exceedingly wealthy, so there was that inadequacy going on, too. I wasn’t in my comfort zone, sister. I was in my “uncomfort” zone which does seem appropriate.
In a few different sessions, I said things that just didn’t come out right. Afterward, I would tell myself, “Fons, don’t talk anymore, just listen in the next one” but then I’d go to the next session and get so excited about the topic that I’d raise my hand and say something and that sounded stupid, too. The session I lead went okay, but okay wasn’t enough: I wanted it to be amazing. At lunch or in the hallways between sessions, I was nervous. Surely there was lipstick on my teeth. Surely I had toilet paper sticking to my shoe. I bit my cuticles so bad I drew blood — twice. I had to put a band-aid on, which made me feel like a gross weirdo with a band-aid on.
In my defense, it was a lot of stimulation and sensory overload. The conference is objectively stressful and the organizers warned all the first-timers that it would be. When I shared with my “homeroom” leader that I was freaking out, she couldn’t have been nicer and confessed that the first year she came, she left after the first day! However fancy-pants it may be, being thrown into a room with 350 strangers is a lot for anyone, she said, especially if you work from home or with a small team. I told her how I was in a pretty fragile state, too, from some life stuff, and that maybe that was affecting me. She gave me a hug and grabbed my hand and we went and got schmancy coffee from the coffee bar. Things got way better after that. I learned more in three days than I thought was possible.
And the stress is a distant memory, now. I’m eager to volunteer to host the monthly salons local attendees put together between conferences, and, if I get to go again next year, I’ll be the first on the list to volunteer to help out newcomers. As soon as I get my nametag on, I’ll wing my way through the crowd, eagle-eyed, looking for any girl with a fresh band-aid.
The funniest thing just happened. Well, it was funny to me, but I am surely in the minority on this.
So it’s Independence Day — a happy one to you all — and I’m home in Chicago. I live downtown, close enough to the lake so that I can hear the fireworks going on over ‘dere, as well as some firework action to the south and the west. I’ve lived here for the better part of six years, so I’m used to the sounds of the city on July 4th. One should settle in for many hours of whooshing and popping and banging. There will be the occasional ruckus at street level, mostly just woos! and shouts. This soundtrack is not something I’d like to deal with every night, but it’s festive once a year.
I wrapped up some work this evening and had a bite of dinner. The sun had all but set; it was close to 9 p.m. I could hear booms far off in the sky and I perceived ruckus-ing on the street below. Here we go, I thought, and after I ate some butter pecan ice cream that Nick brought over the other day, I made myself unpack the rest of my suitcase from my trip to … I couldn’t quite remember but I packed perfectly!
As I hung up a pair of pants I heard a terrific crash. Wow, I thought, they’re really cookin’ tonight. Another crash, and then a whoosh and a rumble. Something sounded weird, though. The booming wasn’t sharp like a fireworks boom. Could it be … rain?
To the window I ran, sure that I was wrong, that I would see explosions of red fire as I looked out toward Indiana or a geyser of white-gold showering over the planetarium, but alas, this was not the case. It was absolutely pouring rain. I couldn’t believe what I was looking at. There were people running everywhere down on 9th Street as the thunderclaps broke and the rain splashed onto the pavement.
“Oh, no!” I cried, and I really felt terrible. All the preparations! The cute hair! The bratwurst! Oh, poo, poo, poo. Poor everyone. It was really a gully washer out there. Not too many people were going to see fireworks in Chicago tonight, between the rain and the wet everything. I hope it was fun for awhile and maybe even fun to run through the rain?
I left the window and finished unpacking. I did find it pretty amusing that for a good 10 minutes, I was listening to a wild thunderstorm and thinking it was 4th of July fireworks.
I’d like to finish the rest of that ice cream. Maybe it’ll turn out to be salad!
Google Maps tells me I live .7 miles from Lake Michigan.
That doesn’t seem very far, but it’s not a straight shot. I can’t lean out my window and see the lake. I can lean out the window and see over to Grant Park (when the Cubs won the World Series, I leaned out a lot) but I’m not rich enough yet for a close-up lake view.
But every once in awhile — it doesn’t happen often — a seagull from over at the lake will wing its way over to my block and sail through the sky past my 16th floor windows. The bird is bright white against the gray and brown and glassy blue of the mid-rises and the high-rises here in the South Loop. If a seagull comes through up here, I notice, even if I’m not looking at the window at all. The contrast is remarkable enough to catch the eye.
Just because you finish a degree; just because you decide to mention you’re seeing someone; just because you’re working a job you love — nothing is set. Ground shifts; it shifts again. In your case, maybe I should say that the air current changes and changes again or the rain stops, then it starts again. My point is that no matter where you fly, there you are, and just because you wanted the city to be different than the lake, that doesn’t mean it will be. I hope you find what you’re looking for, but like …
When I am not in my fair city of Chicago and tell someone that I live in the fair city of Chicago, they always say one or more of the following things:
“I love Chicago!”
“Oh, no! But it’s so cold there!”
It’s interesting just how often folks will say the second thing. About the cold. I mean, Chicago is a city recognized for genius architecture, the best restaurants in the nation, a literary history so rich the streets are practically paved with books. But what do people reference?
Sometimes this is tiresome because it’s not that cold in Chicago. I mean, yeah, it’s cold in winter! It’s the Midwest! We’re not on the Equator! We have four, somewhat recognizable seasons! But are we any colder than any other place in the Midwest? I grew up in Iowa and I remember snow drifts that engulfed Mom and Dad’s old Volvo and, I was in junior high, an ice storm that coated the trees so heavily, my sisters and I cowered together in the living room and listened, horrified, as branches all over the neighborhood splintered off their trunks. That was something.
“But the lake!” a person will cry. “Doesn’t the lake make it colder?? And the wind??”
To some extent, yes. “Lake effect” weather is actually a thing: Due to the ocean-sized Lake Michigan that makes our entire eastern border, Chicago gets some funky, quick-change weather, sometimes. And … FACT FLASH! The “wind” in our “Windy City” nickname was not coined as a result of some constant weather condition; in fact, the “wind” referred to the hot air of Chicago politicians, as I understand it.
Anyway, we don’t have that windy a city, however we got the name. I was in downtown Minneapolis a few years ago in February and I remember saying very, very, very bad words into my scarf as I made my way from the parking lot to my hotel, battered by a truly malevolent icy wind.
The past few winters haven’t been that cold around here, so I have felt fussy at times with people who bring up the whole, “Chicago is so cold! It’s so cold in Chicago!” thing.
In the past week or so, it’s barely topped 35 degrees. Y’all, it’s so cold. I forgot my gloves the other day when I headed out to school and I said bad words into my scarf again. It’s cold. Winter is getting a little tiresome and I am feeling the need for a green shoot or bud, somewhere.
Do you ever have so much work to do, so many bills to pay, so many errands to run, so many people to get in touch with, so much reading to do for class, and so many chores you cannot get to, you get sort of glassy-eyed and spend the day re-organizing your bookshelves, deciding once more that you definitely, seriously, no-kidding, need an entirely new apartment?
No? Just me?
I don’t know what’s going on with me. I’m so restless. I need a new view!
Getting antsy like this feels familiar. It’s a thing with me. My family and longtime friends — and certainly a few boyfriends — would all attest that yes, Mary needs to reinvent, flip the script, change the mood from time to time.
My need for a literal and figurative fresh coat of paint is evidenced by my fondness for fashion and by the many different things I have done with my hair over the years. Need a new perspective? Get a new pair of shoes! Want a different view? Go blonde! Trust me, everything looks different when you go from brunette to blonde — at least for awhile.
I guess I feel like life moves so fast and everything changes so quickly, I’m hardly the same person I was even just six months ago, let alone seven years ago, when I bought this place. Remember New York and Washington? Love fueled that adventure, but if I were a person who didn’t like to change her view, I wouldn’t have gone. You’d better believe I was looking for a change of scenery as much as I was looking for the love of my life. It’s just how I am.
Now that graduation approaches, now that I see (and am over-the-moon excited by) the work before me in the quilt world and beyond, I look around at my seven-year-old couch and my aren’t-they-awfully-tiny windows and my kitchen floor that I never finished and my damned dishwasher that now needs to be replaced and I think, “Fons, you’ve outgrown this place.”
And I can’t get a dog here. It’s a no-dogs-allowed building. So my lil’ Philip Larkin can never be, as long as I live here. (I hereby promise to give you all a Philip update within the week; there are several things to discuss.)
The only way it could work is if I found renters for this place whose occupancy would cover the costs of anything else I’d move into. I want a new view bad enough to poke around online and dream about such things, but this is nothing that can happen right now, I’m afraid. First things first: Graduate from school. Start paying loans. Go from part-time work to full-time. Deal with whatever it is inside of me that I don’t want to deal with so instead I’m looking to live in a different apartment. Do that first.
Remember Quilty? Like, original, vintage Quilty? Good times, my friends.
Jack C. Newell, my brother-in-law, directed Quilty for the five glorious years we made the ol’ girl If you loved the show — how it was lit, the pace of it, the edits, the music, the mise en scene, the sound — that was Jack’s work you loved because Jack called the shots on Quilty, literally. It was an honor and a pleasure to make that project with my sister Rebecca and Jack, who were dating at the time but not yet married.
Well, I’m thrilled to tell you that my brother-in-law is becoming kind of a big deal in the world of motion pictures. He’s running the Harold Ramis Film School at Second City, which is like, seriously huge. He’s winning awards for his films: feature-length; short; documentary — he does them all so well, these crazy opportunities keep coming his way. He’s being screened at major film festivals, and though Jack said I can’t spill the exact beans about a big thing that is coming soon for him/the world, he gave me permission to say “big things are coming.”
The “big things are coming” comment may or may not have to do with his latest doc, “42 Grams,” which is now available to watch on Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo, and Google Play. All of those links will take you to a page where you can watch the trailer and then the film, however each site handles that. (You know I only link to outside things when it’s really worth it to me/you. It’s worth it.)
The movie follows the meteoric rise of Jake and Alexa, two Chicagoans who started a restaurant out of their apartment a couple years back. The restaurant, “Sous Rising,” had critics and diners in Chicago and beyond freaking out all over the place. I actually remember hearing about this “underground restaurant” that was the best place to eat in the entire city. Well, that was just the beginning of this truly entertaining, truly suspenseful, truly heartwarming story …
… that my brother-in-law got on film. Jack was there with Jake and Alexa for years, documenting one of the most exciting, stressful, you-can’t-write-this-stuff time of their lives. That’s what “42 Grams” is all about and it is a gorgeous movie. You don’t have to be a “foodie” to love it, but if you’re into food, you’re going to love Jack’s movie even more.
And now you can watch it on real-life screens! Like, right now, after you read this interview! Yes, we’re so proud of Jack around here, Pendennis and I interviewed him for you. It has to be done! How often do you get to talk to a real-life director about making a real-life movie? I mean, Pendennis has that kind of access. But he’s family.
Interview With Jack C. Newell, a Big-Time Movie Director Who Is Also My Brother-In-Law
PG: I have to know … You made a documentary about an incredibly talented Chicago chef: Did you eat amazing food all the time?
JN: Yeah, I got to eat stuff pretty regularly. The way that this level of cuisine works, when [the kitchen] makes meals for, let’s say, 10 people, they’ll have enough components for 12. If the color isn’t right or something’s a weird shape, it’ll go onto a little plate and thrown in back.
PG: And it was Jake’s food that started the whole thing off, right?
JN: Yes, Rebecca and I went to eat at Sous Rising.
PG: You guys were dating at the time and now you’re married!
JN: That is true, yes.
PG: I just thought I’d point it out. Tell me more about how the documentary project began.
JN: I was just wrapping up a feature film — a fictional story — titled “Open Tables.”
PG: Which is also available on iTunes, Amazon, and Vimeo.
JN: That’s right. “Open Tables” took place in the food/restaurant worlds of Chicago and Paris. Because of that project, I had eaten at some of the best restaurants in the world. Then Rebecca and I went to Sous Rising and this guy was turning out better food out of his apartment kitchen than some Michelin starred restaurants I had been to. I thought: There’s something here.
PG: Was it ever awkward? Was Jake ever looking at you guys with like, dagger eyes to get out of his way?
JN: The point of documentary is that it captures humanity, and not all of life is sunshine and flowers. You have to be there for all of it. You can’t look away when it gets hard/bad/weird/awkward.
PG: Pendennis is very sad that life is not all sunshine and flowers.
JN: Sorry, Pendennis.
PG: You told me that from the time you had the idea till now, when the movie is debuting everywhere, it’s taken three years to make.
JN: Documentaries. Take. Forever.
PG: Feature-length films, like talky-picture-movies are faster, right?
JN: That’s fair, yes. Talky-picture-movies?
PG: Jack, I’m wondering … Why make a documentary? Why not turn this into one of your feature films? It sure is a great story.
JN: No one would believe this story if you made into a fiction film.
PG: Let’s see: “Young, struggling couple in love start restaurant out of their tiny apartment and become the toast of Chicago …” Yeah, it’s too perfect to be true. Except that it is true. That really is amazing. Were you just marveling that you had this tale unfolding before your eyes? And it was real?
JN: I have to say that I’ve fallen in love with making documentaries. It takes so long and is so hard because you’re totally out of control. But when you capture a real human moment, or bear witness to something amazing, or you can illustrate an idea and you can deliver that to an audience I think that’s really special.
PG: Pendennis would like to know how many people it takes to make a film like this. I think he’s interested in working with you again. [Pendennis was a fixture on the Quilty set bookshelves, as fans will recall.]
JN: Our crew was myself, my director of photography, editor, and sound [engineer.] Nick “Takénobu” Ogawa did the score. For this particular film, shooting in close quarters like this, small is sort of mandatory. And I don’t like having a large crew when it comes to documentary, because I want to try to be as invisible as possible when filming so people feel comfortable. If there’s all these people standing around and taking up space, that becomes hard.
PG: I have to ask you about Alexa. Jake is the superstar chef, but man, Alexa is amazing.
JN: Without Alexa the film wouldn’t work. She acts as a foil to Jake as a normal, non-culinary genius entry point for the audience member who is not a world class chef. She also provides a lot of the pathos.
PG: On opening night of the “real restaurant,” it’s seriously tense. As a viewer, I was really on the edge of your seat.
JN: It’s a roller coaster ride. We really take you on a journey. I think the first 30 minutes, when Jake and Alexa are “underground,” you’re like, “Wow, this guy is sorta … crazy.” Then we see him create a menu and it’s like, “Wow, this guy is crazy talented!” But then the cracks start to appear and it looks like, yeah, he’s got the skills but can he keep it together?
PG: Exactly! You did such a great job with this whole film, Jack. “42 Grams” is so cool.
JN: It’s incredible we were able to document this story. When you watch the film you get to go on this journey with these two passionate people who have a dream and you enter the film at the dream state and it goes from there all the way to the end. I can’t really spoil the ending here, but it’s a very special thing to see something full circle, I’ll say that.
That picture of a teddy bear has nothing to do with this post. It’s just that there’s pretty much one decent picture of a condominium on Wikipedia and I used it the other day, so why not go with an affable-looking stuffed bear, instead? That’s what I said.
On Thursday, they shut off the water in my building from floors 9 through 21, starting at 9:00 in the morning and going till 5:00 or so. This wasn’t arbitrary. It’s not like the management got pushed too far and said, “We’ve had it! No water today!” or anything like that. No, it was just that maintenance needed to be done on the pipes or something and that’s how it goes in a mid-rise condo building.
I took a shower real fast (it was 8:44 a.m. when I remembered this was happening) and filled up two bowls of water so that I’d have it if I needed it later, which I absolutely did because I ate chips and had chippy stuff on my fingers. When I rinsed my hands in the sink with my water reserves I felt very Boxcar Children and congratulated myself for probably being the kind of person who could survive against all odds.
The whole temporary-water-shut-off thing got me thinking about how some people who live in a house or in a smaller apartment building might not know what it’s like to live in a condo building like mine, smack dab in a big city. After all, I don’t know what it’s like to own a whole house in the country. I have questions about that, like, “What’s it like to have a basement?” and “How often do you need a new roof?” and “Is it illegal to not cut the grass if you just don’t feel like it for 20 years?”
Therefore, just in case you’ve always wanted to know, here’s a list that maybe gives you some idea of what it’s like to live in a mid-rise condo building (mine = 20 floors) in downtown Chicago. This is not a complete list and I’m going off my own experience in this building, of course.*
1. You have to wait for the elevators, sometimes.
2. There’s a rooftop patio or deck, usually, and you can go up there and hang out and look at the sky and the city.
3. If you have doormen, they are your friends, hopefully. (I have doormen and they are my friends and their names are Stanley, JC, Roosevelt, William, and Victor.)
4. There’s a receiving room. And a smaller room with all the mailboxes. If you’re really, really lucky, there’s a mail chute.
5. It’s really stinky in the alley behind the building where all the dumpsters are from your building, the ones next to your building, and the pizza place and the 7-Eleven.
6. You have a programmed fob on your keychain that opens a series of security doors. The fob looks like a disk and it makes the locks go from red to green when you wave it over the thingy and then you can open the door.
7. Sometimes the water gets shut off for maintenance. (See above.)
8. There is a maintenance staff and they are usually men but not always. (All the maintenance staff here are men and they are all my friends, too, just like my doormen, and their names are Leo, Miguel, John, Richard, and one guy whose name I can never, ever remember, ever.)
9. There’s a garbage chute on every floor. Honest, I still get a thrill when I take out the garbage because I get to use the garbage chute. It’s magic.
10. I pay an “assessment”, which is on top of a mortgage. An assessment is a fee that covers the doormen, the maintenance guys, the on-site management stuff, the whirlpool cleaning, the elevators, etc., etc. The assessment in my building is really high. I can’t talk about it.
11. There are bike rooms. My bike is down there, safe and sound, and Claus has a bike down there, too, because he moved back to Germany and couldn’t take his bike. Anyone wanna buy Claus’s bike?
12. You don’t meet the vast majority of your neighbors, but if you live in a building long enough, you meet a few of them.
13. There’s a vending machine in the basement!
14. There’s a fitness center down there, too, but it’s scary so I don’t go in.
15. It’s wonderful to live in a condo building, if you’re into that sort of thing — and I absolutely am.
**I don’t write about things that don’t interest me, but I’ll admit I was surprised just how fun it was to write this. It was simple. Simple and physical. Perhaps what’s surprising is that no matter how many times I learn and relearn that “simple” and “physical” is the best kind of writing, I have to learn it some more.
My heart was tugged hard today, walking up Wabash Avenue.
There’s a Dunkin Donuts-cum-Baskin Robbins on the corner of Wabash and Polk, here in Chicago’s South Loop. It’s funny; I’ve never been inside. In over five years of living in this neighborhood, I’ve never gone inside and I don’t understand how this is possible, seeing as how I like donuts, ice cream, and coffee that tastes like ice cream — which is the only kind of coffee they serve at these places and really, the only kind of coffee one should order at a donut shop that sells triple-dipped waffle cones with sprinkles and hot fudge.
So I’m walking north to an appointment with my shrink* and I see two city characters engaged in an important moment. I believe I was seeing a businessman interacting with a homeless person. This is only conjecture, but the businessman-looking guy was clean-shaven and wearing a tie and a button-down shirt and he had clearly taken a shower within the past two hours, so I think it’s a safe bet he was some kind of professional-ish person.
The other guy was too thin. He was wearing soiled clothes. I don’t suppose he had eaten a hot meal or had a bath in awhile. Again, this is all hypothetical. But the interaction I witnessed, that much was clear:
The businessman came out of the donut-ice cream shop and handed the other guy a cup of hot coffee (large) and a paper bag full of probably four or five donuts or maybe a couple-three breakfast sandwiches. As I walked past the two of them, I heard the businessman say, “Here you go, buddy.” Then, I heard the homeless guy go, “Thank you, thank you so much. God bless you. Thank you.”
So a guy, headed to work, went into Dunkin Donuts for his breakfast. As he went in, he saw a guy who needed a breakfast. He bought himself a breakfast. And then he bought the needy man a breakfast. And I got to see the hand-off. And I blinked tears back all the way to Congress Avenue.
Obviously, there are very good reasons to live in a small town. And there are innumerable acts of charity and goodwill happening every second of every day in towns of all sizes across this country and around the world. But there is a particular brand of brotherly and sisterly love that takes place, and takes root, in the city.
It’s not all cement and traffic. It’s donuts and coffee, too.
Fine. I moved five times. It felt like many thousand more times.
And hey, remember back in D.C. when I thought I wanted to try being a writing tutor for high school kids and I aced the interviews and the tests but I didn’t pass the background check because of all that moving around??
Actually, I don’t believe I did tell you, but yeah, that happened. Oh, the poor woman who interviewed me. We were besties by the time I left her office, so I can just imagine how disappointed and weirded out she must’ve been when she read my background check report-thingy. I can see her, shaking her head, saying to her receptionist with a heavy sigh, “I just don’t get it, Cynthia. That nice woman. I wouldn’t ever have guessed she was on the lam. Guess you never can tell.”
Thunk. Recycle bin.
When I finally got back to Chicago — still not sure how I managed that — I swore I’d never leave again and I won’t, not ever. I belong to this city; Chicago belongs to me. So when I say I’ve been fantasizing about moving again, rest assured: I’m talking about moving across town, not across state lines.
‘Cuz there’s this one building.
The Fisher Building at 343 S. Dearborn Street.
It’s strange to have a crush on a 20-story building. It’s hard to explain to one’s friends and family, especially one’s mother. But this is love. The Fischer is my heart’s delight. What’s not to love? It was commissioned by Lucius Fisher, the famous paper magnate. (I love paper!) And who built the place, you ask? Why none other than D.H. Burnham & Co., back in 1896. (I love 1896!) If you know anything about architecture in America — especially Chicago — at the turn of the 20th century, you know ol’ Danny Burnham was kind of The Dude. (I love Dudes!)
The Fisher’s spindly, golden, neo-Gothic beauty takes my breath away every time I’m near it and I try to be near it a lot. I squeak with glee every time I see the sun glinting off its broad windows; the whole structure looks like it’s beaming golden light. And oh, the facade. There are extravagant carvings in the terra cotta: aquatic creatures (fish, crabs, etc.), eagles, dragons, and other mythical creatures! Could you die?
I want lots and lots of money. Because there aren’t condos in the Fisher; only apartments. And they’re like $2,500/month for a two-bedroom — and at this point in my life, if I’m paying $2,500/month for a floor and a roof, I’d like to be slowly owning that floor and that roof, you know? So this is all just a fantasy.
Lord, I want to live in the Fisher Building. Because if I lived in the Fisher Building, everything in my life would be perfect. Nothing bad could happen. I’d be The Woman I’ve Always Wanted To Be. I’d be an adult, someone who’d never eat a liiiitle more Red Velvet Cake Ben & Jerry’s ice cream while I’m blogging, even though I put it away 30 minutes ago like a virtuous person.
I do not live in the Fisher Building, though, and I can’t, probably not ever, and I am not virtuous.
An author I admire a lot once said, “The best thoughts are conceived while walking.”
Ain’t that just the way? It’s certainly an encouragement to go for a stroll. Because even if you don’t think up anything good while walking — I spend a lot of time thinking about jokes and snacks, for example — you’re bound to at least see some stuff.
Which counts for a lot.
On Friday, I was walking up Wabash, headed to the newspaper office** and I saw the sweetest thing. It wasn’t anything remarkable, but it was worth the walk.
A woman was with her son. She was in her late thirties, maybe; her little boy was eight or so. They had stopped on the sidewalk because there was a problem with the boy. He was so cute, but he was not happy: There was something in his eye.
Obviously, this was not an emergency; if it had been, this would be a very different post. No, the blinky eye in question was plagued with an eyelash or a no-see-um gnat or something minor. But shorty was so grumpy, whatever it was, it clearly hurt. A gnat is big when your eyeball is small.
As I approached, I saw how sweet the boy’s mother was, helping her child steady himself while he frowned and scrubbed at his face. She tried to get at his lil’ peeper with a thumb; I heard him say, “I can do it! Ow!”
There were but a few seconds to take in the scene, but I saw it all: pure tenderness and kindness coming from the mother, pure trust from the boy, who knew he was safe, even if it hurt. Suddenly, I recalled Aesop’s fable when the mouse taking the thorn from the paw of the lion.
Now that I think about it, it’s precisely that mother-son moment and consequently thinking of Aesop that is proof positive the best thoughts are conceived while walking.
After I passed the scene, I remembered how the health foods store a block away used to stock these maple peanut butter bar thingys that I love. Mm. If I turned right a block early, I could swing by the health food store and then grab a coffee to go with it before going into the office.
See? The best snacks are conceived while walking.
**Did I tell you I got promoted? I got promoted to head-editor-in-charge of the school paper! I’m sharing the position with the brilliant and beautiful Irena, because we both were in the running for the job this coming year and decided that life, school, and working at the paper would be far more enjoyable/productive if we shared the duties of managing editor. Divide and conquer, that’s what we said, and we clinked glasses and went into the Publication Board meeting for our joint interview, which we nailed. We’re a terrific team and I’m in heaven, being a top-dog editor again. I really love being an editor. I might have to be one again, for a long time. I’ll keep you posted.
I’ve been thinking about buying a proper hat for some time, now, and today was the day I put my money where my head is, which is directly above my neck. (In case the location of my head wasn’t obvious, you can now locate my head easily, what with the hat on it.)
You might be wondering what I mean by a “proper hat” because you are smart and curious. Indeed, I should clarify here because not everyone will agree upon what a proper hat might be. I mean, for some people, the only thing a woman should wear on her head is a bonnet. To those folks, a bonnet is a proper hat, even though really it’s a bonnet and isn’t that more headwear? Other people would consider a proper hat to be a straw boater — but those people are usually the three other guys singing in your barbershop quartet in Boston in the 1930s.
For me, a professional woman/grad student in the second half of her thirties living in downtown Chicago, a proper hat is one which:
can’t be balled up and stuck in a drawer
has been fitted for her by a Person Who Knows About Hats (such people often work in a hat shop)
is appropriate for the season
is stylish but not trendy (e.g., huge cloth flowers, extreme brims, hardware of any kind, etc.)
can be repaired if need be
comes in a hatbox
serves a functional purpose
This last thing was the clincher. Until recently, I never saw hats as serving a purpose, exactly — not for me, anyway. They always seemed to be a fashion thing, an accessory, and sister, I got enough to worry about without some new wardrobe component to manage. I skipped hats because like, who needs ’em? Like, who actually needs them?
Well, me, when a few months ago, what used to be unequivocally good became slightly menacing.
I’m talking about the sun.
For most of my life, the sun on my face felt fabulous, just warm and good. Most people have this experience with the sun. And besides feeling great, the sun looks good on me! My anemic, Norwegian/Scots-Irish, pasty complexion gets an upgrade when I “get a little sun.” In the summer months I usually get some freckles, which lend me an air of vitality and sportiness (as opposed to the “19th century fainting couch” thing I’ve usually got going on.)
But freckles are not what I want anymore. At all. Maybe that whole “woman/grad student in the second half of her thirties” description of myself is the key, here. At 20, you can lay out, go to tanning beds, slather yourself in baby oil and who cares? Sun damage? Whatever! Grab the bucket of Coronas — let’s hit the beach! But when you’re thirty-something, such behavior is definitely no bueno. Sun damage starts to show up on a girl’s mug at my age, especially if she’s extra pale, though it’s hardly just my appearance I’m concerned about: Skin cancer is a very real thing I do not want in my life.
So. A couple years ago I began using a good daily sunscreen. The only time I’m tan is when a person sprays me with tan-colored paint. But sometime in late April, waiting to cross the street on a very hot, very bright day, I had my Hat Epiphany: A hat is practical because it will keep the sun off my face.
And, just like that, I began to make moves. Hat moves. I did research. I consulted sources. And today I got my hat at Optimo, the most glorious store, hat or otherwise, in all of Chicago — seriously. I wore my hat out of the shop and discovered that a proper hat affects your feet: It makes them skip!
My hat totally works, too. I know because the sun was shining.
Walking through and around the Chicago Loop and its immediate vicinity makes me feel connected and strong. I want to walk here for a long time.
I see many beautiful things: a group of teenagers cavorting in front of a 7-Eleven, their youth crackling in the air; a seagull, flown in all the way from the lake, perched on a sign for the Washington Blue line station; the sun when it dips behind a Willis Tower. The city flowers in their planters. The cornices of the Harold Washington Library. Women smiling to themselves.
This last one keeps coming up.
Lately, I have seen many women in the Loop who are up to something good. They’re smiling like they’re in love. Or lust. Perhaps it’s their spouse. Maybe a new lover. Maybe it’s just a crush. (“Just”!) Maybe they’re smiling about last night — or this morning. Without question, it’s good.
It happened again this afternoon. I was walking east on Van Buren toward State. At the front of the crowd of people coming from the other direction was a woman, about my age, Korean, I think, smiling to herself. I glanced at her as we passed each other. She did not notice me at all because she was not particularly aware of anyone, or even that she was walking on Van Buren Street in Chicago. She was somewhere else, thinking about someone. It was obvious, even in the 2.2 seconds I had to read her face.
Maybe she was thinking about a text message or a flirt session with the object of her desire/affection. I’d like to think the corner of her mouth went up because she thought about she got the best kiss of her life this weekend.
Whatever it was, it was fresh. Nostalgia is not present in the smiles I’m seeing. These are the quiet, beautiful smiles of women — ranging in age, ethnicity, and physical appearance — in whom spring fever has manifested. I guess. That’s got to be part of it, right? There are countless ways to smile, countless reasons. What I’m seeing is particular.
Part of my happiness in witnessing this phenomenon is understanding how they feel. I’ve been that woman. I’m not right now, and I can say sincerely that it’s okay. I’ll be that woman again. As sure as the El curls to the west at Lake; as sure as the pigeons love the red Calder sculpture outside the post office on Dearborn; as sure as my tea in the morning, I’ll be walking through the Loop someday soon with my head in the clouds and a smile on my lips because of him.
In a few minutes, here, I’ll walk up the real-life Michigan Avenue to the real-life Tribune Tower to sit in the real-life spinny chairs in the real-life ground floor radio studio and be a real-life guest on Rick Kogan’s radio show!
The “real-life” qualifier has to be stuck in there to keep me from thinking I’m dreaming because the following things are beyond dreamy to me:
The Tribune Tower
Spinny chairs (well, this one isn’t that special but still special!)
Being a guest on a radio show
Rick Kogan is a Chicago broadcasting legend and I get to be on his show tonight. The show is from 9-11 p.m. I’m not sure when I’ll come on, if I’ll be on for a little while or a long while. But I’m gonna talk about quilts and stuff and if you want to listen, WGN is at 720 on the AM dial. I think the show will be streamed online but I don’t know how so I can’t link you! It might get posted later.
It has just occurred to me that I don’t know if I will get a copy of this after it’s over. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’ll just be a dream come true and then I’ll wake up.
Tune in if you can. See ya on the radio!
Postscript: Here’s the link to the show. It was so, so fun. I adore Rick Kogan and you’ll see why. Looks like he’s gonna do a follow-up article and have me back real soon. Hurray!
There’s a neat bookstore called Selected Works in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue, halfway between home and school. (I’ll talk more about the Fine Arts Building another time; that gorgeous building needs its own post!) My friend Justin said that all the books at Selected Works are half off right now, so after we were done at the newspaper office, Justin, Sophie, and I made our way over to check the stacks.
In the craft and home decor section, I found a copy of Shared Threads: Quilting Together — Past and Present by Jacqueline Marx Atkins, a title I definitely needed for my quilt book library. It seemed Atkins’s bookwas the only quilt-related selection on the shelves but then I spied a sweet-looking, tattered little volume called Homespun Handicrafts. As I lifted the other books out of the way to get at it, I thought, “I’ll bet that book is pretty old. And I’ll bet there’s a chapter on quilts.” I was right on both counts: The book, written by Ms. Ella Shannon Bowles, was published in 1930 — and there is a terrific chapter on quilts.
I was right on both counts: The book, written by Ms. Ella Shannon Bowles, was published in 1930 — and there is a terrific chapter on quilts. Here are the chapters, which I will list because they are great:
I. BASKETS, AND BROOMS [sic]
II. HER HANDS HOLD THE DISTAFF
III. THE WHIRR OF THE WOOL-WHEEL
IV. THE THUMP OF THE BATTEN
V. THE CLICK OF THE KNITTING NEEDLES
VI. HONEST STITCHES
VII. MY SAMPLER SPEAKS
VIII. AMERICAN EMBROIDERY IX. THE ROMANCE OF OLD-TIME QUILTS
X. FINE WORKS
XI. FOLKLORE IN HOME RUG MAKING
XII. THE ANCIENT ART OF NETTING
XIII. LACE LORE
XIV. CANDLE-DIPPING DAY
“Her Hands Hold the Distaff” is almost the best chapter title ever written, but since the quilt chapter gets the word “romance,” I’m gonna say it’s ours by a nose. The book is not a how-to; it’s an account of “pioneer handcraft…which lent so much grace and homely joy to the struggles of the colonists.” (I think/hope “homely” meant something less negative in 1930?)
Isn’t it great to find new old books? Isn’t it cool to go to a used bookstore and find something that you never, ever would’ve known to look for in a library but is exactly what you needed to find?
Tomorrow, I’ll excerpt some wonderful stuff from the quilt chapter; for now, here is an excerpt from the forward:
The study of old-time American handicrafts is a trail winding on and on into delightful bypaths and unexpected turnings. It is difficult for an enthusiast to cease telling the stories connected with these homely arts of our ancestors, so I have limited myself to describing those crafts in the development of which women have played an important part.
It is my earnest wish that this book may serve not only as a guide to the old-time arts, but that it may stimulate the reader to understake the serious study of the development of the crafts of our foremothers as have such workers as Mrs. Atwater, Mrs. Sawyer, and Mrs. Taylor.
I sincerely believe that knowledge in craftsmanship will add beauty to everyday living. Laurence Sterne once made a statement as true in the twentieth century as it was in the eighteenth. He said, ‘What a large volume of adventures may be grasped within this little span of life, by him who interests himself in everything, and who, having eyes to see what time and chance are perpetually holding out to him, as he journeyeth on his way, misses nothing he can fairly lay his hands on.’
Yesterday, I drove almost to the Iowa border to give a lecture for a lovely audience in Morrison, Illinois. The lecture went great, I met 116 wonderful people, and I very much enjoyed my time on the road. Driving 2.5 hours there and 2.5 back, even though it rained almost the whole way, gave me some much needed thinking time. It’s hard to multitask when you’re driving; you just have to cruise. It was nice to cruise.
The car I was driving was a rental. I’ve mentioned before, I don’t own a car, because unless you absolutely have to have one, if you can avoid owning a car in the city, you should probably avoid it. But by the time I got back downtown, the Hertz location was closed. This wasn’t a surprise: Carmen told me I’d have to return the car the next morning.
I parked my little red Ford Focus in the lot near my house and paid the overnight parking fee. My voucher would expire at 7:27 a.m., so when I went to bed last night, I set my alarm for 6:30 a.m. to give myself plenty of time to have some tea and get down to the lot to purchase either a new voucher or get the car moved to a different parking spot until it was time to take it back to Hertz. This was the plan. (See what I mean about having a car in the city? Bleh!)
But because I am behind on sleep, I hit my snooze button…multiple times. When I finally realized it was way past time to get up, I did not have time to make my tea and have a cup of it before I needed to go down and deal with Little Miss Focus. This made me very, verygrumpy. Usually when I wake, before I do anything — before I scratch my ribs or yawn or rub the sleep from the ol’ peepers — I roll out of bed, stand up, and go directly into the kitchen to put the kettle on. I don’t use the bathroom. I don’t check my phone. I don’t even look out the window to see if the world fell down while I was sleeping. My first impulse is make sure tea is on the way. Once the burner’s on, other things are possible. Barely.
Yeah, well, that wasn’t gonna happen this morning. With grunts and protestations that could put your grumpiest, orneriest Grampa to shame, I hollered and shoved my feet into my sneakers, stabbed my arms through my jacket, threw my wallet into my pocket, stuffed my keys into my pocket and went down the elevators and out the back of the building to deal with the (blinkin’) car.
I got down there and got right inside because it was raining, of course. I sat there. I took some deep breaths. I thought about how I was about to pay $12 for more of parking only to turn back around in a couple hours and take it to Hertz. I sighed and thought about how my Tea Moment was already sort of ruined. I thought, “Fons, why not just take the dang thing back right now?” And I decided, after rubbing my forehead a little while, that that is what I would do. I could get some tea at the Peet’s across the street and just be done with it. I didn’t have makeup on. I hadn’t showered. But as long as I didn’t see anyone I knew, it was the way to go.
After dropping the car off, I stepped out of the Hertz parking garage and found the rain had stopped. It was just barely 8:00 a.m. The city was so…calm. I had a nice cup of tea in my hand and — this is important — I didn’t have a purse or anything with me. My wallet was in my pocket. I had my sneakers on. It was a straight shot down State Street to my home. (Later, when I looked it up on Google’s map, I learned it was a 1.4 mile walk. Nothing, really.)
I sort of cocked my head and went, “Hm!” And I just walked home. In the morning, with nothing but my thoughts and the wwwwsssssssshhhhhhhh of the occasional street sweeper on a cross street or the trundle of the El trains crossing the river. I saw the homeless folks on State sleeping in the doorways; it was still quiet enough for them to stay in their strange nests. I saw a couple joggers. I saw some cops. It was beautiful to be there, unfettered, in my city.
When it happens that I am up and out and walking in the morning — it happens when I have, say, a rental car to return — I am reminded how much I love to walk in the morning. I did it on New Year’s Day, actually, and I swore then I’d try to do it more.
My tea ritual is so ingrained. It’s rote. I love my morning tea. It’s been my morning thing for a good ten years. Ten years! But the sweetness of early ambulation, the freedom and perspective of the walk down State Street this morning, it’s stayed with me all day.
And so, to you, I am going to make a promise: Starting tomorrow, for one week, I am going to take my tea outside in the morning. I’m going to walk, you guys. Half-hour or so. The weather is nice enough to try. Let’s see what happens.
I met with my Fiber & Material Studies professor to discuss my research project — and she loved it. My research is good enough to be entered into the Textile Resource Center’s database! I’m over the moon about that. I’m a contributor to the study of patchwork at the School of the Art Institute! How cool is that?? And yes, I’m looking into how I can post my investigation as a free download; it’s got too many moving parts to just post as a blog entry. Talk about a good feeling.
Okay, it’s event announcement time.
Guess what’s happening next month in my very own town? Why, International Spring Quilt Festival, that’s what! Yes, on April 6th, 7th, and 8th, the fine folks at Quilts, Inc. will descend upon the Windy City and bring all manner of quilt gorgeousness, classes, exhibits, vendors, and friends to the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center. The venue is out by O’Hare; it’s a nice place, the food is actually pretty decent and.. There was something else that I was going to tell you about but I just can’t rem — wait! I know what it is!
I’m going to do two book signings and two tours! Of the “Beauty In Pieces” scrap quilt exhibit that I co-curated! I knew there was something. Here’s the scoop:
On Friday, April 7th and Saturday, April 8th, I’m going to do a book-signing and meet n’ greet from 12 p.m. to 1:30 p.m. Then, at 1:30 (both days), I’ll lead a little tour through the “Beauty In Pieces: Scrap Quilts for the 21st Century” exhibit. The tour will run 30-45 minutes, I imagine, but as I’ve never done it before! That sounds about right.
As to where this will be, I’m pretty sure the table for the books and things will be inside the quilt show part of Festival, but I know for sure that your show program will tell you exactly (and any of the helpful show people will help you find me, too.)
Will you come see me? I’d love that. This lil’ Quilt Scout will sign a book for you, we’ll take some selfies. And load up your phone with pictures of your quilts because I love to see quilts on phones. Seeing quilts on phones is like, my favorite thing. I’m 100% serious. Quilts are perfect for modern technology.
Maybe I’ll even bring Pendennis! Woah. He’s never come with me on something like that… I’ll do it. It’s a local gig. He can handle the trip. And if a cloth monkey can get his tushie to Festival, certainly you can, too.
My bag is being packed for my trip to Berlin and I said I was going to tell you about some of the mail that has started to come in, but I realize that I need to do this first!
This year, I have the distinct pleasure of speaking this year for the kinda-sorta legendary Creative Living Lecture Series in Woodstock, Illinois. I’ll be there next week, January 19th. There are 400 seats in the theater and I have learned that they are almost sold out for the show! But there are still tickets left to come see me next Thursday, so if you can make it, get yourself a ticket and let’s hang out. Here’s where you can get the ticket online, or you can call or go here:
WOODSTOCK OPERA HOUSE BOX OFFICE INFORMATION Phone: (815) 338-5300 Hours: Monday – Thursday, 10:00 AM – 4:00 PM,
Friday and Saturday, 10:00 PM – 6:00 P.M. and 2 hours before performances.
(Visa, MasterCard and Discover accepted.)
The phenomenal Creative Living Lecture Series has been running since 1964 and is organized by the Woodstock Fine Arts Association. Reading through the history of that group is to read the story of incredibly passionate, dedicated people who had a vision for their town and also for the historic opera house where the series takes place alongside lots of other terrific productions throughout the year. The opera house is on the historic register and guess who performed there once? My husband across time and space: Paul Newman! Did you know that I am actually single because I am and have always been and will always be married to the most perfect man who ever lived on the Earth, Paul Newman? Orson Welles also performed at the Woodstock Opera House but I am not married to him. Just Paul Newman.
Creative Living has featured incredible speakers over the years, including: Dr. Temple Grandin, Maya Angelou, Billy Collins, Charlie Trotter, Beverly Sills, Martha Stewart, Dr. Joyce Brothers, Rick Steves, Studs Terkel, Joseph Epstein (one of my favorite writers!), Ann Patchett (one of my mom’s favorite writers!), Rick Bayless, Bill Kurtis, Gene Siskel, and so many other people that are amazing that I can’t believe I’m going to be a part of such a neat event. I get to breathe that air, man! Wow.
My talk is about my journey in quilting and I will also speak about the history of the American quilt and about designing fabric. I’ll have quilts to show, of course, and there will be books for sale that I will happily autograph.
Come to Woodstock! I can’t wait to be there and see you.
Heaven knows why I remembered this the other day but there it was. Gather ’round, and I shall tell you about the time a man named Python made me calf’s head soup.
It was 2003. I was living with my friend Will on Winona and Broadway, working as a brunch waitress on the weekends and trying to get my freelance writing career off the ground. I was at the Green Mill poetry slam every week, doing high school poetry gigs here and there, and basically hustling, as 24-year-olds do, to make ends meet while trying my best to have some fun. I managed the first thing okay and boy did I nail the second part. I was a wild child that year, for better and (mostly) worse.
At the restaurant, I worked with Norma. One part Rizzo from Grease, two parts Anita from West Side Story, twice my age and fond of Misty ultra-slim cigarettes when she took her break, Norma was the best part of my job. I adored her. (I wrote a poem some years later about her and the mischief we would make when we went out on the town.) One Sunday, Norma and I finished our shift and met back up at a bar around the corner from my place. The Lakeview Lounge closed years ago, but it was a tiny, crummy, hole-in-the-wall staple in Uptown for many decades. There was a minuscule stage behind the bar where — and I say this with love — crusty burn-outs — would play Lynard Skynard while they sipped warm Michelob and chain-smoked Camel hard pack cigarettes. Because of course in 2003 in Chicago, you could still smoke in bars. Heck, maybe the Lakeview closed down after the smoking ban went into effect. That place was 10% furniture and people, 15% alcohol and 75% pure cigarette smoke, both fresh and stale. Without any smoke, maybe it just ceased to exist.
Anyway, that night, the bartender brought over a round of drinks. “From the gentleman over there,” he said. The bartender’s beard was scruffy but not in a sexy, scruffy-bearded bartender way; it was just scary. He jerked his thumb over to a man sitting at the far end of the bar nursing what Norma and I would learn was a generous shot of Jameson’s and a Budweiser back. The man was forty-something, we guessed and wearing a fisherman’s jacket that may or may not have contained fishing lures and/or bait.
Norma and I raised our glasses to thank the man; he raised his glass back. And because that was how things at the Lakeview Lounge worked (and that’s how these things work everywhere, I suppose, if certain conditions are right) over the course of the night, Norma and I got to know Python. His name really was Python. He was from Transylvania — as in Transylvania, Romania — and he was a world-famous pinball designer. Only in Chicago, baby, and maybe only if you hang out with me. Unusual things do tend to happen in my life; hanging out with a celebrity pinball designer from the place where Dracula was supposed to be from could be considered unusual, right?
I liked Python. He was funny, strange, and a real b.s’er, kinda like me back then. He was also the most talented illustrator I had ever met and he really was famous in the pinball/early video game world; if you remember the arcade game Joust — the one with the knights on ostriches — then you know Python. He was one of the lead artists on that game and many other famous ones that gamer geeks admire a great deal. He hung out at the Lakeview and Norma and I (sort of) hung out at the Lakeview and so over the course of the next few months, I got to know him and he would draw little drawings for me. We became friends and talked about art and politics. He told me about the horrors of living under communism; I recited poems for him, which he loved. He never tried to take advantage of me and even though he was much older than I was, I was never creeped out by him. In the spring, he asked me if I wanted to spend the weekend at his ranch in Michigan and I said I’d love to go.
This is the sort of thing, by the way, that makes me feel okay about not having children. I mean, how did my mother survive me literally saying following sentence: “Hi, Mom! I’m going to spend the weekend in Michigan with a guy twice my age from Transylvania. His name is Python. His accent is really terrific. He designs pinball games. See ya!”
But the weekend was great. Python was a real outdoorsman, so I got to shoot a bunch of guns. I ate bacon straight from the smokehouse he built on the property. There may have been live chickens, but it was a long time ago, now. And on Saturday morning, Python asked me if I had ever had calf’s head soup. I said that no, I had not had the pleasure. He got very excited and said that he happened to have a calf’s head handy, so dinner was settled. I felt very scared for the first time that weekend but I helped chop carrots and celery, anyway.
I would learn later that calf’s head soup is also called mock turtle soup and that it’s not so crazy to eat if you live in certain parts of the world (e.g., Romania) or if you were fancy and lived at any point during the Victorian-era in England or the U.S. when it was all the rage among the upper crust. All I knew at the time is that there were chunks of a dang cow head boiling in broth all afternoon and that the clock was ticking: I was going to have to eat the stuff at some point and eat it, I did — and more than just the head meat, too. You see, Python insisted I eat one of the eyes.
“Oh, that’s okay, haha,” I said, feigning an eyeball allergy. But he wouldn’t let me off the hook.
“It’s the best part of the animal,” he said, holding the thing up on a spoon. “Just eat it, Mary. It’s so good for you! You will feel like Supergirl! More Supergirl than you already are.”
I can be brave when I want to be. So I did it. I ate the eyeball. And wouldn’t you know it: I felt like Supergirl. It was all the phosphorous. And yes, it was really, really gross. It was like a hard-boiled egg except that IT WAS AN EYEBALL.
I’m sorry to say that Python died a few years ago. I can’t remember how I learned of his death; we hadn’t been in touch in a long time. He had cancer. An article I read told about how all his friends and fans from the pinball and illustration world rallied around him to raise money for his medical bills. I hope he felt all that love when he was sick.
Remember me, Python? That poet girl? I’ve come a long way. Thanks for the snack.
I’m writing to you from inside the grand, achingly beautiful Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago. Have you ever been to the Merchandise Mart? Do you know about it?
“The ‘Mart,” as it’s affectionately known in Chicago, is truly a marvel of architecture and city history. When this art deco masterpiece was built in 1930, it was the largest building in the world. The whole world! Because it comprises 4 million square feet. Four million! (When I lived in New York, Yuri and I had something like 840 in total, fyi.) The Mart had its own zip code until 2008 when some lame thing changed. This building had its own zip code!
Wanna know who built it? Why, Marshall Field & Co.! Yes, the department store guy.
(Hey, did I ever tell you that my grandparents on my father’s side met in Chicago and they would rendezvous under the Marshall Field’s clock when they had a date? They’d set a time and meet under one of the clocks at good ol’ Marshall Field’s. That’s pretty cute.)
And guess who owned the building for like half a century? The Kennedys! Yes, the Kennedys! Isn’t that interesting?? I love learning things.
The Merchandise Mart has been a place for commerce since it was built; it’s mostly wholesale showrooms for interior decorating and design and lots of offices and there’s a bunch of other stuff in here that I would love to know about but what is most exciting — perhaps the most exciting thing that has ever happened to/at the Merchandise Mart ever, in 85 historic years — is that there is now a post office box in this place that will take your PaperGirl mail!
I got a post box in the Merchandise Mart! For you! For us! For mail!
It’s high time this happened. I get requests for my address frequently because someone found a wonderful pencil they need to send me, for example, or because someone wants to donate to the blog (or maybe buy Pendennis lunch) but doesn’t use PayPal. Totally understandable. Also, this holiday has brought several gifts via my mother or the Iowa Quilt Museum (hi, Tammy!) and while it’s interesting to think about the journey of such things, let’s make this easier on everyone!
There is a post office much closer to my home than the one here inside the Mart and this branch has limited hours. But there is no other place worthy to receive your correspondence. I mean it. I wish you could see this place. It’s magnificent. Even the sign for the post office on the first floor is beautiful, set in an art deco frame with sconces around it, throwing this golden light upon it, saying, “Welcome, Mail!” The wide, marble floors in the gilded halls (currently draped with holiday garlands and bunting) are polished to a shine. The squeaky clean picture windows look out onto the city that I love so much, that I shall never take for granted.
So please, send me mail! Of course, yes, you may send donations if you like. The box cost $166 for the whole year if I paid it all at once, so I did. If everyone sent in a penny — wait, wait. That’s not funny. Please do not send me pennies. You don’t have to send money. Send me letters or drawings or stories or chocolate or other items of interest. I would like to start sharing your mail on the blog. (If you don’t want me to, of course I won’t — just let me know.)
The address is shown up there in the photo, but just in case you can’t see it, ahem: Mary Fons — PaperGirl, P.O. Box 3957, Chicago, IL 60654-8777.
The photo also shows the third page of the application. I actually listed Pendennis as someone authorized to pick up the mail. Pendennis does not have fingers, nor can he take the train. But just in case, he’s official.
I’m so excited. I love mail so much. Let’s have fun with this. Let’s put the “paper” in PaperGirl.
Okay, you back? Good. Did you change your hair? You look great. Here’s a tray of light refreshments and a beverage. Where was I? Ah, yes. Hand me the pecans. Okay.
In 2011, the Neo-Futurists suspended Greg from the company. Put more simply: We kicked him out. Remember, this person’s behavior over the decades — decades! — had been destructive and poisonous, but it hit a crisis point that year (and if you want details, just google “neo-futurist greg allen tml closing” and you’ll get all the news stories and at least some of the awful details.) Calmly, firmly, the ensemble informed Greg that he was not allowed to be in Too Much Light for awhile and that if he wanted to play again, he would need to petition the ensemble to come back and then be a better person. He never petitioned.
The show went on. I went “inactive” in 2012 because of Quilty and Love of Quilting, a divorce, more health problems, a move downtown, etc. And while the show was going on and I was doing my thing, it appears that Greg was plotting revenge. This is my theory. This is only speculation. You come to your own conclusions when I tell you what happened next.
One month ago, the Neo-Futurists got a surprise. After being in negotiations with the company about how much they would pay him for the rights to perform Too Much Light, Greg went quiet — and then came a press release.
In the press release, Greg said that he was pulling the rights for the Neos to perform Too Much Light after 28 years running because of Donald Trump. If you’re scratching your head, here are a couple highlights from the press release:
Faced with the pending inauguration of Donald J. Trump, Allen has decided to let the existing Chicago Neo-Futurists’ license come to an end so that he can rebrand the show with a new diverse ensemble that embraces a specifically socially activist mission.”
“[The new Too Much Light ensemble] will be comprised entirely of people of color, LBTQ+, artist/activist women, and other disenfranchised voices in order to combat the tyranny of censorship and oppression.”
“I could no longer stand by and let my most effective artistic vehicle be anything but a machine to fight Fascism.” [Greg quote.]
Oh, the trouble with this. There are almost too many problems to list. But let’s try!
The current Neo-Futurist ensemble is made up of all kinds of folks, many of whom fit the description of the “new diverse” company he wants to build. So this can’t be his main goal.
By doing this with no warning, Greg instantly put around 12 hard-working, low-paid-but-paid artists out of work. How is this being visionary?
There is a New York City company and a San Francisco company, both of which also pay Greg to perform Too Much Light. He did not yank the show from them, only from Chicago. Interesting.
The Neos have always done interesting, highly-political work — and there were a variety of political opinions expressed on the stage, at least when I was around. And all kinds of people who fell on different places on the political spectrum came to the show. To make an ensemble that exclusively makes theater about one perspective on Trump/his cohort, this is not going to create conversation. This isn’t even going to sell tickets. I hope Greg is shopping for choir robes for his new, uber-progressive ensemble, because whatever show they make is going to be a lot of preaching to the choir.
So that’s all the bad stuff. Guess what? There’s good stuff.
The good stuff is that the Neos have been working so, so hard to get a new show up in the next few weeks. They’ve been raising money and have almost reached their goal of $50k. (I wouldn’t be a good Neo if I didn’t ask you to consider putting a buck or two in the hat; it’s easy and you’ll feel good knowing you’re…fighting fascism?)
And the other amazing thing is that when the news came out, all the alumni from 28 years of Too Much Light and the Neos, we circled the wagons, we lit the flares, we came together in support of the current ensemble and we’re doing a big benefit show for them on New Year’s Day. It’s the most extraordinary thing. You can’t get tickets because they sold out in five hours; I posted a note on Facebook and within minutes, it was too late. There are dozens of Neos, some coming from far away, to be in the show and be together, to remember, to play, to laugh, to cry. All that stuff.
We had a rehearsal on Tuesday and will rehearse all day Sunday leading up to the double-feature that begins at 7 p.m. The oversold house and the enormous cast, we will be proof that you can’t stop art — you can’t even contain it, can’t make it hold still.
By the way: New York and San Francisco? They quit. After hearing about all this, they didn’t opt to renew their rights to do Too Much Light. They’re standing with Chicago. Greg’s plan backfired.
As I said yesterday, being part of that company and being lucky enough to get to do TML for those years was like finishing school for my soul. I worked with people so talented it was almost embarrassing. We were rock stars. We were friends. The best art I’ve ever seen or made for the stage was the art I saw or made for Too Much Light and the Neos.
Too Much Light is dead. Long live the Neo-Futurists.