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.
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.
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.
Many people who read the ol’ PG started coming around because we share an interest in quilting. You saw me on TV or online and poked around and hey, look: blog. You know by now I’m glad you’re here.
But there are other readers. The survey this summer (which you can still take if there’s nothing good on TV) showed me a goodly portion of people are here because we came in contact with each other via the world of Chicago performance. In 13-ish years in Chicago I’ve logged untold hours as a performance poet, I do a lot of “live lit” events around the city, and from 2006-2012, I was an active ensemble member of a theater company called the Neo-Futurists.
When I am dying — hopefully a long time from now, on a divan with comfy pillows, lipstick perfect — I will look back on my life and see plainly at that time — just I do now — that being a Neo-Futurist was one of the most gratifying and soul-affirming experiences of my time on Earth. More on that later.
Tonight, I want to tell you what’s going on with that company right now, for there is news. I aim to share the story so that anyone reading this blog, whether they’re Quilt Camp people or Chicago Performance Camp people, will come along. (And both of those things need to be actual camps.)
The Neo-Futurist ensemble was formed 28 years ago, back in 1988. The group became famous for a show called “Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind: 30 Plays In 60 Minutes.” I’m not going to describe the show too much here, except to say that yes, there were 30 plays, we only had 60 minutes in which to perform them, the ensemble wrote all the plays and the show changed every week. It was not improv (go to Second City for that), and the short pieces were always true to our lives in some way.
This is because the aesthetic, or guiding principle, for the Neos was — and still is — to never pretend to be something we’re not or be somewhere we aren’t. So if I do a cheerleading routine with two other girls in Too Much Light about how I had my colon removed and how it really hurt, the audience at a Neo show knows that what I’m talking about really did happen. (I did a lot of plays about my colon circa 2011 but I never did a cheerleading routine. That would’ve been awesome.)
The one other thing to know about Too Much Light is that it was a phenomenal success. There were three performances every weekend; people would line up around the block to get in to see this thing. Our 120-ish seat theater would sell out most nights. Too Much Light became the longest-running show in Chicago theater history. Twenty-eight years that show ran.
Until it ended, very abruptly, at the beginning of this month. Which brings me to the meat of my tale.
Though the show changed every single week, the 30 plays/60 minutes format was created by a man named Greg Allen. Greg founded the company and owns the trademark and copyright to Too Much Light and the concept of “30 Plays in 60 Minutes.” Every year for a lot of years, the company would pay Greg for the rights to keep doing the show.
This was a terrible situation for the company to be in. The “rights thing” became a rug Greg could whip out from under us at any time. It didn’t have to be that way, but it was.
This is because Greg wanted it that way. A corrosive figure who behaved abominably within the ensemble, Greg abused his position of power in the company as Founding Director over and over again for years in ways too numerous and varied to detail, positioning himself for personal gain (e.g., teaching opportunities, lecture gigs, etc.) while the ensemble made the art and ran the day-to-day operations of the theater. His misdeed are legendary; every ensemble member since the company started has horror stories. He antagonized or manipulated the board of directors; he harassed ensemble members; he offended everyone; he hurt people. My grandmother would have called him “a real rat fink.” My grandmother would not like to hear what I call him.
You needn’t worry that I’m getting petty or assassinating his character: This has all been corroborated in the papers over the past month. The Tribune, the Sun-Times, the Chicago Reader, TimeOut Chicago, they’ve all covered this story because in Chicago, it’s pretty big news, what Greg did. Wanna know what he did?
Greg used the election of Donald Trump as an excuse to pull the rights to Too Much Light.
For the rest of the despicable story, for more juicy details, for my best attempt at an explanation of this foolish person’s behavior, and for a whole bunch of beautiful silver linings, tune in tomorrow, my gorgeous ones.
My building takes up a quarter of a city block and has two different entrances.
The front door is manned by a doorman; the back way puts you out into the alley that runs between my block and the next one. The Green and Orange line El tracks run overhead the whole length of the alleyway, so when you’re back there and a train goes by overhead, it’s pretty loud — loud enough to do a terrific impression of Liza Minnelli when she screams with the trains in Cabaret. Not that I ever do that.
There is a conscious decision to be made when I’m coming or going as to which door I should take. Mostly, the circumstances of my arrival or departure dictate which entrance is best; the building is big enough that the entrances really affect travel time, depending on where you’re headed or coming from. My mood factors in, too. And lately there is another consideration which I’ll get to in a moment.
Reasons for coming/going through the front door may include:
I’m carrying heavy bags of groceries and need a hand
I’m headed to/home from the airport and am lugging two suitcases, a purse, and a totebag and my brain and need a hand
I’m going out on a date and feel like making a dramatic exit
I’m coming home from a date and feel like making a dramatic entrance
I wanna say hi to Stanley or J.C. (favorite door guys) if they’re working
I’m headed south or east
Reasons for coming/going through the back door, through the alley, under the El tracks may include:
I’m going to yoga (I shave about 4 minutes off the walk this way)
I need to pick up packages (the receiving room is in the back hallway out to the alley)
I’m not really wanting to chat with the doorman (even Stanley or J.C.) because I’m grumpy
The alley is pretty awesome in a gritty city kind of way
You may be thinking, “Hm. Big city alley. Loud train overhead… Are you sure you should be using the back entrance much Mar? At least at night, maybe you should take the front door.”
While you are nice to be thinking of my safety — and right to question it — in many years of living down here, I’ve never felt unsafe going through the back way. My neighborhood is a busy one with many college campuses sort of crammed on top of one another (e.g., East/West, Columbia College Chicago, Roosevelt, Spertus, and SAIC not so far, either) and there’s heavy foot traffic around the entrance to my alley most of the time. There are huge blocks student housing nearby, a 24/7 gym on the corner above the 7-11, a Peet’s Coffee not far away, and I’m not the only person who uses the back entrance, either; I often say hi to neighbors who are also lazy or anti-social.
But over the past month or two, something’s changed.
The beginning of the alley is the back of a Lou Malnati’s pizzeria. All the restaurant’s dumpsters are clustered back there, nestled in what could accurately be described as a cove. (In fact, let’s call it “The Cove” for the purposes of this story.) There’s a huge space between the actual alley street — like where cars drive through — and the entrance to Lou Malnati’s, and an enormous overhang shelters this area. It’s really hard to describe but trust me: There are many hundreds of sheltered square feet as private as a restaurant dumpster area in an alley can be. Put another way: If you lived on the street, this spot would be an excellent find — and I’m not trying to be funny.
Over the years, I have come to expect there will be people hanging around The Cove from time to time. Sometimes I see kids bumming around smoking cigarettes there, but usually it’s an older, sadder crowd: mostly homeless men or men who appear homeless and are certainly living far, far below the poverty line. Sometimes there will be someone sleeping there; sometimes there will be someone peeing there.
And not until recently did I feel that it was a drug spot. But I think it is, now. Something’s changed at The Cove. There are rougher-looking characters there and more of them at once: five or six people congregated instead of the usual two or three. When I pass, I really get checked out. No one says anything, but I am being scanned for sure: Am I a threat or not?
I can’t be sure there’s drug stuff going on, though. And it’s so cold. Tomorrow it will be -8 degrees in my city. People who live on the streets have to go someplace, don’t they? It’s a really good spot, I can see that. And no one at The Cove has ever made me feel that I was in danger, so I had major guilt when I thought about alerting the authorities.
Still, I had a bad feeling. I do get skeeved these days when I walk by. And anxious. What if letting the cops know about the increase in traffic back there could keep something bad from happening to me or someone else? And if these folks are in need of shelter, the cops could help them find a way better place than The Cove — a place with blankets and food that isn’t garbage. I looked up online what to do about such a situation and found great information from homeless coalitions and social services organizations who did encourage me to call 311.
So I did. I chatted with the lady about the alley and told her how conflicted I was about the whole thing. She said it was the right thing to do to let them know and that they’ll keep their eye on it. I told her I give to the Chicago Food Bank but other than that, I feel pretty helpless about the homeless problem in my city or in any city. She agreed that it’s really hard, especially in winter. We hung up. I felt like I had tattled to the teacher or something. I felt weird.
Actually, it’s underfoot — and it’s time to blow this thing wide open. I’ve been intending to write this post for months. Here we go.
Every time — and I mean every single time — I enter or exit the southwest entrance to the Red Line subway at Harrison, fresh, multicolored chalk is present on the stairwell down to the trains. These crumbles of chalk are fresh: Without fail, random, chocolate chip-sized chunks of yellow, blue, pink, purple, and/or white pieces seem to have been (very) recently crushed into the tiles in different spots on the landing between the two flights of stairs to and from street level, every time I come or go.
Yeah, it’s weird. I know. But I’m telling you: Someone is regularly dropping colored chalk on the Harrison Red Line subway stairs.
But who? And why?
Maybe the delay in sharing this peculiar discovery with you is due to my embarrassing — okay, delicious — fear that these chalk droppings (ew) are some kind of sign or signifier for a secret society and by noticing it and then cracking the case, I’m essentially making myself a character in a Dan Brown novel: The innocent blogger heroine plunged into the sick, twisted world of…something weird.
The novel — the first in the series, of course — would be called The Chalk Leaver and I would be very, very beautiful i this novel and in grave danger, having poked my nose and my laptop into places it does not belong! There would be a smolderingly attractive, precocious-but-mercurial young man who has crucial information that could be the key to everything — but he’s trapped in the receiving room! I would be on the run from this secret chalk society and at some point, me and the mercurial young man would be trapped in an elevator together and probably kiss. The end of the book would end with me and the mercurial young man in Tuscany, seamlessly blending into a crowd on a piazza. We wear Ray-Bans and…a map. Or something.
The second book would be titled something like Chalkduster and this book would go deep into my psyche as a character but also we’d get a lot of information about the secret society that marks its paths — its secret paths! — with chalk markings. Someone would die. I’m not sure who. Not me. Actually, the main villain would die but it would be revealed that he wasn’t even the baddest baddie and now that he’s gone, the real bad guy emerges in a cliffhanger for the third book!
The third book, Chalk Is Cheap, would be the best one yet, according to the New York Times. I’d definitely almost die. There would be a new love for sure, maybe a tall German…doctor. Something like that. And some of it would take place in the Sahara so that I could wear gorgeous khaki items and Isadora Duncan-y scarves and a pith helmet. There would be something about jewels and stolen art in this book. I would definitely be able to fly a Cessna in this one.
Seriously, though, I am really curious: What’s up with all that chalk at the Harrison stop? Has any other person in Chicago who uses this stop regularly noticed this? It’s kinda driving me crazy at this point; I do want to know. It’s weird, that fresh chalk all the time.
I would like to close on a dramatic note in the spirit of the Dan Brown novel series that is clearly good enough to option for a movie by this description alone. You’re going to help with this. Please imagine me in some kind of physical peril, like… Picture me dangling off of some craggy precipice — or at least imagine me very thirsty and underfed. And I look really good and I have lipstick on. Got it?
Okay, your line is:
YOU: Why, Mary? Why did you ask about the chalk? Just… Dammit, Mary! Why did you have to go looking for trouble? You could’ve just — (You turn away and put the back of your sleeve to your face , ashamed to let me see you cry.)
ME: (Smiling, sweet and frail.) Never stop looking at your feet, darling. You know that. You never know what you’ll find if you don’t look down. I think… I think it’s time to look…down at the world, now…
YOU: (Whirling on me, you shake me; I”m losing consciousness.) NO!!!
I’m watching the blue tide that continues to roll through downtown Chicago. My perch: The second floor of the Sharp Building, prime School of the Art Institute real estate in the Loop. Where is the geographical “heart of Chicago”? You could make an argument for this spot.
No one is at work today and if they are (or if they were) they weren’t. Kids all over the whole state skipped school. The teachers skipped school. On the news this morning, one of the reporters said, “Um, I literally just saw my kid’s school principal in the crowd near Wrigley Field. We’re good.”
If you did go to class, if you did have a meeting, the static electricity in the atmosphere scrambled everything in the best possible way. Whatever you were supposed to be doing, however you were supposed to be doing it, the usual Friday schedule for millions of people got booted when those kids won the game and it didn’t matter — still doesn’t matter — if you don’t care about baseball. This isn’t about baseball anymore, remember? It’s about astonishment and relief.
Now, the folks who work in shops and restaurants downtown have their work cut out for them, but I worked in the service industry for a long time and — though Christmas is really the only day I can think that comes close to the feeling down here —I know how it goes on a day like this: If you’re a waitress, you’re gonna make a killing because people tip better when they’re happy. If you’re in retail, the hours are gonna fly because everyone’s so amped. If you’re slinging lattes at a coffee shop… Well, I haven’t ever done that job, exactly, but I imagine inside all the cafes and stores it’s as much of a party as it is outside on the streets. Sure, people are drunk and there are some weirdos out there, but that’s every day in the city, baby. There’s just less confetti most days.
The parade started at Wrigley this morning and then came downtown on Lake Shore Drive to get to Michigan Avenue. I was listening to the radio and doing things around the house when I realized that they were almost to my cross street! I ran to the window, threw open the shade, slammed the screen up and stuck my head out the window really far — so far I actually got a little woozy when I glanced down — and I could see them! I could see the buses with “CHAMPIONS” emblazoned on the side! Right there on Michigan Avenue! Some little kids up on the 20th floor of my building were out on their balcony and they cried down to me, “Hi! Hi! Go cubs! Up here! Up here! Wave to us!”
I realized at that moment that I was only in my bra and underpants. I squeaked out a “Hi there!” and ducked back in to put on some clothes. Don’t worry: no one was scandalized. It’s just that kind of day.
Because all day long I’ve been thinking that when I’m an old lady and people ask me about stuff that happened in Chicago when I was younger, I’ll be able to say, “I was in Chicago when the Cubs won the World Series in ’16. That, my holographic friend, was cool.”
(I figure there will be a holographic element of our digital lives at that point and that it will be entirely pointless but really fun, like Snapchat.)
I hope my memory lasts a long time because I don’t ever want to forget last night or the feeling of lightness and joy in Chicago today.
Just in case I do forget, I’m going to write down just how it happened; that way, if someone asks me where I was when the Cubs won in ’16, I can just read this.
I was at a theater earlier in the evening watching my friend Susan Of The Wonderful Laugh in a big storytelling event. Even with the big game going on, the Athenaeum Theater was full. The show’s emcees kept the audience up to date on the score throughout the show because even though people at the theater were obviously not die-hard Cubs fans — if they were, they were dying, hard — we were all buzzing, tense. Because the World Series this year ceased to be about baseball weeks ago. The Cubs being so close to winning was about chance. Change. Obstacles and overcoming. The Cubs at the Series was about universal stuff irresistible to any audience of any kind, anywhere.
By the end of the show — not that anyone was surreptitiously checking her phone during curtain call — the Cubs had lost the lead. The teams were tied 6 – 6. Just like that, the confidence the audience had allowed ourselves during the show was gone. It was a dreadful, wretched feeling.
Susan and her friends offered to drive me to the train after the show, but I declined. There was something I had to do. Deep in my heart, I felt it: I needed to get on a bike and bike home.
It’s a ways from the Athenaeum to the South Loop. But I needed to make contact with the night. I wanted to hear people cheering from the bars — and if they cried or wailed, I wanted to hear that, too. I wanted to breathe the night air, the electric air in my city. The need was overwhelming to experience the rest of the evening in that particular way at that important moment. There was a bank of bikeshare bikes outside the theatre; I’m a card-carrying, devoted member. I bid adieu to Susan and her friends, checked out a bike, and began my ride.
All the way down Lincoln, the humanity was almost too much to bear. In every single bar there were people packed inside, faces upturned to screens, watching with anguish and untenable expectation. I saw people praying. I saw people literally biting off their nails.
Near Oz Park, I came upon a huge number of bike cops who had all put their bikes down and were crowding around a pizza joint and a bar and a falafel place, all trying to get a view of a screen. Not too far from them I came upon another pack of cops. I didn’t understand at first but then realized, oh, they’re mobilizing for the end of the game. Win or lose, it’s gonna be a hell of a night. I can’t tell you how tense everything was, how dead the streets were, how every tree and traffic light felt invested in the moment.
I rolled on, peddling faster, now; I needed to park the bike and see for myself what was going on. But I didn’t want to get stranded anywhere. Why wasn’t there more noise? Shouldn’t the Cubbies be scoring a point? Why weren’t people cheering, shouting?? I started doing ridiculous, magical thinking in my head: If I get this green light, they’ll do it. If I sing a song. No, no, that’s silly. The lesson here, I thought as I crossed into the Loop, is to let it go. Just let it go. It’s out of your hands. It’s just a game. Even if they don’t win, they got so far. It’s baseball. It’s baseball.
By the time I got home, I knew something must have been horribly wrong. It was well past 11 p.m. I had biked seven miles in about 39 minutes. The city had not erupted in cheers, in 1,000,000 ticker-tape parades. I docked my bike and ran to my building, stabbed at the elevator buttons, and finally got to my unit. I turned on the radio just as my sister texted me, deeply troubled. Tenth inning. And the rain delay.
The radio announcers seemed to be in almost physical agony. My muscles were tight. I poured a little gin but couldn’t even drink it. I turned on my sewing machine and made Log Cabin blocks while I listened. And waited. And didn’t breathe.
And then it happened.
The city broke open.
The South Loop erupted all over with joy. My windows were open and the moment the Cubs won, cars in the streets below honked and honked and honked and people shouted, “Hurrah! Hurrah!” and “Cubbies Win! They won! They [BEEP] won! Yeaaaaahhhhhhh!” and “Woooooooo-HOOOOOOOOOOO!” Fireworks — real fireworks! — from three different places in the immediate area began to go off. Pew! Pew! Zeeeee-pew! Shouts and laughter, whoops and hoopla, beautiful hoopla all over town. It was bliss. It was every Christmas morning, I swear, that feeling of yes.
I was making squeaking and yipping sounds, hopping and jumping in my apartment, texting my sister furiously and then I’d just burst out laughing with happiness and excitement for the pure joy of long overdue change and victory! I stuck my head out the window and joined the chorus of voices across the mid-rise buildings: “Yaaaaay! Go Cubs! Go Cubs! Yay! Yay!!! Yes!!!” The guy one floor up from me was calling out, too, and we laughed and called to each other: “Go Cubs! They won! They won!”
Did you know there are 108 stitches in a baseball? Did you know?
While I was away last year, singing in the pool at my rawther glamorous residence and getting pooped on by birds, a not-high-rise-but-higher-than-my-mid-rise condo building was going up kitty-corner from my building here in the South Loop. It was in the last stages of construction when I moved home; I would see the crane and the workers, the construction cones out in front of the main entrypoint.
Over the summer it was completed. You know how in Ghostbusters, when Zuul blasts away that chunk of the apartment building in Manhattan where Sigourney Weaver lives? There’s a chunk carved out of this building kind of like that, except that it’s on purpose and paid for by developers and they’ve put a garden in there! Or is it a park? It’s what cityfolk call “greenspace” and I have a great view of it from my windows! Way cool. Gardens come to me, baby.
There’s also a pool on the other side of this new building and I can see just a slice of it from my perch on the sixteenth floor. It looks like a great pool. I should try to make friends with someone over there so I can scope out what my windows look like while swimming.
What’s really fascinating is that for some months I looked over at a tall, dark, glass thing…and now there are people living there. I can see their glowing TV screens. Someone has a bright red couch and in the daytime, I can see it. I mean, it’s right over there, right there across the sky.
Who are they? Are they excited? No matter who they are or where they came from, they all have one thing in common: They just moved in.
Today was a “Guess what happened to me on the train today” day. Citydwellers know what I’m talking about.
I got on the Red Line train around noon and took it north. I had an errand to run: Daniela, a preternaturally talented esthetician finally cleared up my skin last winter and I had to pick up a bottle of her witches’ brew. (If I found out that stuff is made from the tears of baby seals I’m not entirely sure I would stop using it, that’s how effective it is and how grateful I am to this woman.)*
After transferring to the Brown Line, I got off at Montrose. When I was at the stairs to go down to the street, a man stopped me. He was with his family: wife, toddler, and baby, this last in a ginormous stroller. No one in the group spoke English. Zero. I think “Okay” was the one word he got out and “Okay” is a word that exists in 90% of languages on Earth. They might also have been on the mute side because all of them were clearly spooked and sad. They were lost.
The father offered me, astonishment of astonishments: a printout from Google Maps. I smiled and nodded and took a look. They were nowhere near where they needed to be. They’d have to go back south on the Brown, transfer to the Red, then head back north. The mistake had taken them at least 30 minutes and would cost them another 40, depending on train times. As I looked at the sheet of directions, I shook my head in wonder. The numbers, the stops, the directions, the names of the El train lines — I know them backwards and forwards because I speak English and I’ve lived here, more or less, for fifteen years. But to these people? Gibberish. And they’re trying to get someplace. With kids!
I tried to imagine what I would do if I was lost on the train system in Beijing, for example. The mere thought made me shudder.
We figured it out. I did something just short of an interpretive dance for the father, communicating they had to go down the stairs (I literally did a “I’m going down stairs” pantomime) and over to the other platform (I flapped my arms to say, “OVER THERE, WAY OVER THERE”) and then I said, “Red train. Red.” I pointed to my fingernail polish and said, “Red?” The man understood, nodding vigorously.
The coolest thing ever is that picking up my unicorn serum took less than five minutes. By the time I was back at the Montrose station, the family was there on the platform, waiting to go the same way! I was able to go all the way to the transfer point with them and I made sure they got on the right side, on the right train. It felt great, and I think the woman just about cried she was so glad I was there.
World travelers often say, “Getting lost is half the fun!” I have never understood this. You get lost. I’ll help you. Deal?
Here’s what the Humanities Council says of this program:
“Our Road Scholars Speakers Bureau invites Illinois authors, artists, and scholars to share their expertise and enthusiasm with people in communities throughout our state. It also enables local nonprofit organizations to present compelling, free-admission cultural programs to their communities at little cost to them.”
How cool is that?? This is a tremendous opportunity because it does exactly what I was talking about yesterday: It gives me an opportunity to answer the question, “What can a quilt do?” for an entirely new audience.
The lengthy application was due in June and I only heard yesterday evening that I got in. Apparently, the competition was extra fierce this year and stuff just takes a long time. I pitched a talk called “Quilts: America’s Greatest Creative Legacy” and now I get to do it! For money! At venues that will be packed (hopefully) with both quilters and non-quilters who will see quilts in a new light. Maybe those people will be inspired to make a quilt of their own; maybe those people will at least find new love for the quilts and quilters in their lives. There is no way under the sun this Roads Scholar Speakers Bureau is anything but a win-win-win-win for all.
Thought I’d share the good news. And for all my friends in Illinois, I think you can request me? I’ll be doing orientation and on-boarding stuff in the coming weeks. I’ll see you on the Road!