I dated a vaudevillian magician. Talk about confessions!
This was an astonishing eight years ago, before I got sick, before I got married and divorced, before all of that.
The Magician and I met at the Green Mill Cocktail Lounge, a legendary jazz club here in Chicago. If you are good at jazz, you work a long, long time to get to play at the Mill — all the known greats have done so, all the future greats will. But every Sunday night for the past twenty-five years, the Uptown Poetry Slam takes over the club and it’s “See ya later, jazz, hello, poetry.”
The show’s format includes a half-hour set from a feature performer. The night I met The Magician, he was that act. Usually it’s a poet in the slot, or on rare occasions it’s a music group, but because The Magician was/is a bit of a lyricist and, as he would tell you, a sesquipedalian, (lover of big words) he fit right in and his act was quite popular with the slam crowd. He wore a three-piece suit and he was in his thirties and he had this broad smile and a head of thick black hair and I was smitten. He saw me be a bloodsport poet onstage that night. I saw him pull a Queen of Spades from his shoe. We met and were laughing with each other in under twelve seconds. Et voila: le boyfriend.
One morning months later, I was lounging in his spacious apartment in Logan Square, beaming at him as I watched him rehearse. He was always rehearsing because being good at magic was his profession (it still is.) Magic is all that he does, work-wise, and he’s made his living doing it for over twenty years. I was admiring his dedication and also his jacket and tie; he always wore a jacket and a tie, always. He didn’t own bluejeans. I thought that was so cool.
“Would you like to see something special, Mary?” he asked me. I nodded and clapped and bounced in my seat. Watching magic tricks makes you seven.
He took a rose from his magic case. He kind of shook himself once to loosen up and focus. Then, talking to me sweetly while he moved, he tilted his head back and brought the stem of the rose up to the tip of his nose. That is where he placed it, the tip of the long-stemmed rose, right there on the end of his nose. And then…he let go.
He was balancing it. I couldn’t believe it. He made microscopic movements to the right, back, left, left, backforward, backright to keep the rose upright, right there on his nose! He had definitely stopped talking. I didn’t even breathe. This was not a fake rose, a trick rose. This was a rose rose, and he was magnificent, like a seal or a cartoon come to life. My boyfriend kept it there for fifteen seconds or so until “ah!” it tipped over and he caught it and bowed deeply.
“Wow,” I said, mouth hanging open. “That was so cool! Do it again! Do it again!” And he did do it again for me and many times after that. But I’ll never forget what he said when I asked him how long it took to be able to do it.
He said it took him about ten years.
“Ten years??” I pictured him practicing tilting his head back every day for ten years. All those roses!
“That’s right. Ten years of daily practice for ten seconds of your enjoyment,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. He turned back to his case and began to put away his tools. I sat and thought about the time it takes to really learn something, the years that we spend to get good at what we do, and how there are no overnight successes. Roses fall off noses for years and years and then, with a pinch of luck, we keep them up there. And someone sees.
And now, without asking for it and likely not wanting it, I present my grad school application essay. It’s a bit of a longer read, but it is essentially the story of how I was robbed in January and the story is pretty good. I labored so on this piece that my writer’s ego won’t allow me to let it gather dust in Google Docs forever.
Editor’s Note: WordPress doesn’t do footnotes, so I’ve cobbled together a blog version of the two I included; it should be clear. Also: I got into the program!
Fons Writing Sample University of Chicago MLA Admissions Spring ’13
“To philosopher and historian the madness and imbecile wickedness of mankind ought to appear ordinary events.”
– David Hume, Treatise of Human Nature
Kill a man’s family, and he may brook it, But keep your hands out of his breeches’ pocket.
– Lord Byron, Don Juan, Canto X, Stanza 79
For well over an hour I stood, arched over glass cases, chatting with the guys at the fancy pen shop. We looked down at the different models. I learned about barrels and nibs, the difference between this Italian manufacturer and that German one. I was shopping for An Official Pen, the first in my life. I had decided to become a woman of letters even if I was the only one who knew it and I needed the proper tool for the job.
I auditioned several before I found an Italian rollerball made of heavy white resin with gold details and a nice heft. It fit my hand just right and streamed ink onto paper with an almost wanton quality. This sexiness, mixed with the solemnity and significance one expects from An Official Pen, ended the search. I paid, tucked my purchase into my handbag, and my new pen and I sailed through the shop doors onto the street. I do write so many words each day; now the already pleasurable act was getting this insane upgrade. How was it possible to be so happy?
Less than an hour later, my purse was stolen. Just like that, my pen was gone, and I went from bliss to panic. For a time I was inconsolable, but in the hours and days that followed, I considered an argument that challenged my reasons be upset. According to this argument, no one had actually taken my purse: in fact, there was no such thing.
* * *
Had he been at Panera that evening, 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume would’ve patted a hysterical me on the shoulder and asked me to consider the lily.
Hume made many significant contributions to the world of philosophy, but the one that concerns us here is his controversial ‘bundle theory.” Bundle theory is the ontological assertion that there really is no such thing as a lily. What there is is your sense of smell, your perception of flowers, your memory of previous “lilies,” atoms of water and carbon, your understanding of height and weight and how such things are measured, and so on. In other words, a lily is no more than a collection of its properties; without all of these pieces sliding into place, a lily might as well be a hippopotamus, or a war missile, or Greenland, or nothing at all.
There in the cafe (better: there in a square space delineated by slabs of brick and mortar wherein one conceives of ‘soup’ and ‘sandwich’) my purse had been deleted. None of its physical properties were available to me any longer; I had only a memory of them — a pretty flimsy “property,” if you ask me. And though I believed I was adequately describing the purse over the phone to the police, there was so much adrenaline pumping through me at that moment, even the picture in my head was shorting out. Perhaps to the thieves “my” purse still physically existed (was it “theirs” now?) but to me, my beloved handbag was suddenly nothing more than a concept — an expensive black Italian leather one that held the contents of my organized life. What was a handbag? What was any object that could be so empirically with me one moment and gone the next? Do handbags exist, Mr. Hume? Mine certainly didn’t, not anymore. The bundle had left the building and was probably halfway across Chicago at that point.
It wasn’t until I applied Hume’s theory to my situation that I began to feel even slightly better. If the purse was a concept now, it was a concept an hour before the crime as well; I just felt more comfortable with it back then. There was another purse I had yet to encounter that would be attractive to me as a replacement. The pocketbook, the keys, the day runner, the phone — these were all just bundles of properties, I told myself, not items of true substance that existed on their own, certainly not items that I could feel real affection for. (Full disclosure: the Chanel lipstick was tough — I loved my “La Somptueuse” very, very much and of course that particular shade has been discontinued; in the end I had to admit that lipstick is only pigment, water, and sexual possibility; nothing more and not anything less. It’s hard to be actively devastated when you decide to bag emotion and consider objecthood instead. An hour later I stopped crying and straightened up.
My purse never existed. My purse never existed. My beautiful, beautiful purse.
Though I was somewhat less distraught after considering all this — calling my mom helped, too — my inquiry into the nature of material things wasn’t quite finished and now threatened to disturb me more profoundly than the theft itself. In terms of causing long-lasting trauma to a person, I do consider the battle of petty crime vs. metaphysical crisis an even match. As I walked up Michigan Avenue the next morning carrying exactly two personal effects (1), I felt positively weightless. Weightlessness is a feeling with a good reputation, but actually it’s awful. This is because it defies one of the the most fundamental properties of all material objects: gravity. Even if they are all just a big bundle of this and that perception, even if we’re making all this up, blink by blink, material objects (e.g., apples, purses, small dogs), are spooky if they suddenly start floating in the air.
Everything on my body seemed subject to fling off at any moment. I fully expected to be robbed again, was anticipating it, bracing myself for another thief who might divest me of my coat, even the shoes on my feet. My glasses weren’t a given: they might pop off my face and go flying into the sky. What, exactly, was keeping them from doing just that? Wasn’t everything else gone? Hadn’t my fellow man betrayed me once? My previous relation to objects and other humans (more objects!) was now absurd. We believe we own things, that we “have” them, that they exist because we see them; after the purse snatching, these ideas flagged and dropped. Not a very good place from which to go to the D.O.T. for a new driver’s license, but I went anyway, brow furrowed. (2)
* * *
I have replaced my pen.
The shop guys gave me a YPT (“You Poor Thing”) discount and two free ink refills, which was awfully sweet of them. The argument that there is no such thing as a thing, a concept I might not’ve considered at such length had I not been unceremoniously divested of many precious things, did help me cope. But bundle theory, like arguments for or against deism, does kind of end up in a similar, dare I say impotent spot: either there is a god or there isn’t; either there are substantive things or there aren’t; we still have to pay the electric bill. We still have to pee. We still have to make sure we’ve received and read through a particularly strong graduate school applicant’s materials thoroughly.
Are you sure you have everything?
(1) Passport, mint.
(2) A final dispatch from ground zero: As I passed WGN, it seemed the most natural thing in the world that the radio would report the story.z “Popular Chicago resident Mary Fons was robbed yesterday. Police say her Marni handbag, itself valued at over $1500, was stolen at a cafe at Congress and State around 4pm. Cafe staff assisted Fons in placing calls to cancel credit cards, including Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, and Citibank. A report was filed with Chicago police. “They made me call 311 because this is a non-emergency,” Fons said, “But as a woman’s brain is located in her handbag, I may require an ambulance.”
Get a coffee at the Pret a Manger on Saturday morning. Drink half of it, then resolve to drink less coffee, more water. Make this resolve every single day for seven years and keep doing it until notified otherwise.
Pay your money. Sign the insurance release for the Segway tour. Marvel at how you always first write, “Sequay.” Wonder genuinely if you have mild dyslexia, because it’s always been like this with the “q’s” and the “g’s” and the “b’s” and the “p’s,” a little dimple in your composition, strawberry jam in the gear shift. See pods of marathon runners and whirr past them, carefully but not without the sniff of a cool kid.
Think about Nike (human engineering) vs. Nike (Greek god.) Decide it’s an even match.
See the city from A Beautiful Spot and marvel with your best friend how lucky you are to be alive and breathing. Get hungry “after all this Thoreau-ing.” Go to the new pizza bar; fuel up.
Have six great ideas before you even leave the pier.
Finding a home for your hair is no small task in the big city. Salons grow like weeds in every neighborhood from Cicero to the lake and stylists pour like water out of so many beauty school faucets. (Note to self: check and see if “beauty school” is derogatory.)
But two years ago, I found my spot. It is Charles Ifergan on Oak St. and it is a magical place. If you don’t live in Chicago, you likely won’t know that Oak St. is one of our poshest roads. There’s a Lanvin store there, if that tells you anything, and if you need to be told something else, there’s a Harry Winston, too. (Note to self: check and see if anyone’s ever coined the euphemism, “a Harry Winston.”)
But my salon, while not a bargain, isn’t outrageously expensive simply because it’s near a shop that (successfully) sells purses for $35,000. In New York or L.A., this proximity would automatically mean that your hair — just a trim! — would be upwards of $400 bones. But this is Chicago. You can’t charge $400 for a haircut. You can try, but most people will laugh at you and then you will go out of business. We eat bratwurst here. So Charles Ifergan is competitive but not gouge-y, so I can give them a sane amount of money and feel very, very fancy without going bankrupt, which is where I would go if I gave my money to nearly any other place of business on Oak.
The elevator up to the fourth floor is entered into from the actual street, first of all, and that’s just rad. The first time I had an appointment, I got in and the doors shut and I was whisked up in that elevator; okay, it actually heaved me up — not a new elevator. It’s okay, because when the doors opened to the salon, it was love at first sight/smell.
The noise of dozens of hairdryers, at least a dozen stylists, and the chatter of every client in the place nodding heads full of highlight foil created a marvelous clatter and whir. Someone was calling to someone else and a handsome woman was tapping a foot with a high heel at the reception desk. The smell was intoxicating: chemicals, botanicals, mists of Avalon and sprays like waves on a beach. The layout of the salon is circular, which makes it feel like more of a beehive than it already is.
George does my color. I think he’s Greek? He has a lovely accent. I found him — and the salon — because a “Best of Chicago” report in Elle magazine called him out by name. I said, “Well, I like the best, so… To George!” And the mention was well-bestowed: my haircolor has never been more lovely and George, I think, truly sees me as one of his clients now. You do have to prove yourself, you know. It’s still the big city.
Phoenix cuts my hair and does my blowouts. He is an adorable creature. He’s hella smart, too, and friendly, and we cackle and commiserate while he works his own magic.
This is not a post that I was paid to write. It’s just that I’m composing this at Charles Ifergan at this very moment, getting my roots done and then seeing Phoenix for a cut and style. I have a good weekend planned and one must always be prepared.
Hats off, Mr. Ifergan…because you’re worth it! And I will accept a coupon, but no biggie.
We have never met. Would you like to have lunch? A salad and a latte? A slice? What do you like? It’s my treat, I know lots of good places, and yes, we should definitely have dessert.
Ms. Fons, I am Mary Fons, and that’s weird. It’s weird to be me, yes, but it’s also weird that we share a last name. You are a Fons! There aren’t that many of us in the big scary world. In fact, I only know of six others and their phone numbers are in my speed dial. Are we related by blood, Emily Fons? If we aren’t, please pretend that we are. Because here’s what I know about you:
1. You’re an opera singer
2. You’re a very good opera singer
3. You’re super pretty (see photo)
4. Your website is lovely
These are all good signs. Here’s what you should know about me:
1. I am not a stalker
2. but I am coming to see you when you perform at the Lyric next month!
3. that does sound creepy
4. seriously, I’m cool
What do you say, Fons?
God, that feels good! I never call anyone “Fons” except my sisters and it’s boring by now — we’re all adults! We’ve been doing this for years! We need fresh Fons! Be that new Fons smell, Emily. We’re really fun — the whole family! We’re educated, we like word games, we store top-shelf liquor, we support the endeavors of one another (a few boyfriends have gotten the stink-eye, but they probably deserved it) and we are almost dangerously creative. You’d fit right in, maybe? A little?
Email me. Comment. Tweet. You can find me. I’m 100% serious about all this. I’m pretty sure you’re in my town and I think we should have lunch. And the only thing you’ll need to worry about in terms of creep factor is that you might catch me staring at you like a weirdo a couple times. Just a couple. But I’ve never known a real, live opera singer — or a Fons I didn’t know.
In a big city like Chicago, you have to kiss a lot of frogs to find a great salon. When you finally do, you wrestle with wanting to tell every woman you know and wanting to keep your delicious little secret forever and ever. The rest of the time you’re just hoping they won’t go out of business.
I found a killer waxing spot two years ago. It’s the place. They do unbelievable work, you can always get an appointment, they’re open from 8am to 8pm, and the prices are fair. I’m clearly a devoted customer, but only now does the receptionist call me by name. You gotta earn it over there. They know what they’ve got.
When I went in yesterday for detailing I was told I’d be with Julianna and I did a little mental air-guitar. Julianna is the best of the whole crew. A 50-something Polish lady who I swear wears a girdle, Julianna could rip every last hair off your body in under 10 minutes. It wouldn’t hurt any less, but it would be over quickly, and that is the mercy of Julianna. But she doesn’t come without strings. Julianna likes to visit while you’re on her slab, and there’s only one thing she’ll talk about: Jesus Christ.
“You know, sveetie, I say to all ze girls: you must open yoor heart, give to Christ Jeezoos. He is way to happiness, He is way to evverlasting trooth. We are all seeners; I am seener, you are seener. Dis is truth.”
“We must believe in ze Bible as true word of God. So many people, so, so many people lost in ze world and they don’t care! They say, ‘Oh, I am fine, I am leader of my own life, dis and dat, whatever.’ But when they burn in evverlasting fire, they see the error of their wayz. Eet’s too late. That’s it.”
It’s possible to reach an ecstatic state over the course of a bikini wax. The whole thing is absurd, for one thing. You’re putting hot wax where? On purpose? And then ripping the — oh, sweet mother! You’re naked from the waist down — also absurd. And it hurts so much. There you are, staring up at the ceiling, waiting for the next strip of agony, and you go into a happy headspace where nothing can harm you. There are bunnies and stars there. Add to all this a large, 50-something Polish woman delivering a constant stream of Catholic admonishment and salvation, and I’m telling you, it’s downright trippy. Six minutes into my appointment yesterday, I connected to victims of the Spanish Inquisition on a kind of time warp mental plane:
INQUISITOR: Is there a God?
INQUISITOR: Hot wax!
(Rip, rip, rip. MARY hollers, thrashes.)
INQUISITOR: Will that be cash or check?
MARY: (pause.) What?
INQUISITOR: It’s $85 today. Cash or check?
MARY: Oh, sorry. Cash.
Julianna, we have ideological differences. But we’re good. We both agree on the importance of grooming. You like tips, I like to give tips. You call me “sveetie,” you usually tell me you like my hair, and you always make time to do my eyebrows, even if you’ve got an appointment right after me. In the city, these are true gifts.
The Master’s of Liberal Arts at the University of Chicago is a degree tailed for professionals who need classes at night/on the weekends. It provides a curated buffet of (magnificent) everything rather than focusing on just one discipline, e.g., aeronautics or French philosophy. Candidates take biology classes, humanities courses, physical science courses, etc. I applied and was accepted earlier this year. When I had my interview, I realized just how different grad school at the University of Chicago would be compared to my previous college experience. That experience was great (B.A.,Theater Arts, University of Iowa, ’01) but this seemed instantly to be a world apart.
The program’s director, upon welcoming me into his office, offered me a chair and then looked out the window. Then back at me. Then back to the window.
“It’s a lovely day. Let’s take a walk.” My heart sank. Surely I hadn’t gotten in.
Mr. Ciaccia put on a hat and a trench coat and I collected my purse. We walked across the beautiful Hyde Park campus; he pointed out buildings and houses of note. The sun was shining after a rainstorm, and we skirted puddles as we talked about architecture, the gods, music. It was so grad school-y, I almost giggled about six times. I think he used the word “epoch” a couple times.
Turns out I did get in. By the time we rounded the corner to the building where we began, I had to ask. “So… Mr. Ciaccia, did I get in?” He looked at me with a warm smile.
“Yes, you did.”
I squealed and jumped up and down. (I’m a nitwit like that.)
Last semester I took a class called “The New Cosmology,” which was all about space, particle physics, dark matter, etc. It was so mind-blowing, so awe-inspiring, I got misty a couple times in class. This semester, I’ll be in a class called “The Problem of Evil.” Check it:
“This course will consider the theological problem of evil, starting with the Book of Job. We will next investigate the problem from the perspectives of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, for whom evil was the major, stumbling block in the proof of God’s existence. At issue will be the question of whether the view of evil initiated by Augustine as the “privation of good” represents an adequate explanation of evil. This pursuit will lead into the problem of theodicy: can–or should–God’s ways be justified to human beings? We will look at theodicy in selections from the works of Hume, Bayle, Voltaire, Leibniz, and Kant. We will then study several fictional treatments of the problem of evil, including Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Melville’s Billy Budd, and the Coen Brothers’ movie No Country for Old Men, based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy.”
For a geek like me, the prospect of starting this class in a couple weeks is like sitting in a mink coat on a generous tuffet as someone brings me an entire pecan pie a la mode, a spoon, and a note from a doctor who has ordered me to put on a few pounds. I’m excited.
It’s been this way for awhile. Now the city has a bike-sharing program and I’m more hopelessly in love than ever. Meet le Divvy.
I’ve tried to write a poem, a paean, to my town many times. I’ve started poem after poem — entitled, of course, “Chicago” — and I fail horribly every time. It’s simply too difficult to express my feelings on the greatness of this city. I mean, Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir went on dates here. Together. And she was cheating on Sartre with him! They like, had a beer at the Green Mill. I’m paralyzed. Every line I attempt is a fart in the wind. I know my place. I’ll just keep reading books, maybe.
Let’s get back to that bike up there.
Chicago has implemented a bike-sharing system. There are banks of bikes all around the city. You pay a yearly membership ($75) to get a fancy square key and then you can ride the bikes. All the bikes. Whenever. You punch in a code to unlock a bike at Street A. You ride your bike (a gorgeous and hearty and smooth bike) to Street B, find a dock where you can lock it back up, and bam. Welcome to your life.
I didn’t jump on a Divvy right away. After all, I have a bike of my own, and what if I looked dorky or something? (I told you — my brain is full of farts.) But the moment I got on my first Divvy, I was hooked. More than that. I was mega-hooked. Let me tell you what freedom is, comrades: walking to a bike, unlocking a bike, riding a bike, getting off a bike, walking to your door and NEVER THINKING OF THAT BIKE AGAIN. It’s like I was taken to my destination by angels. It’s as though I had wee winged feet.
Anyway, thanks Chicago. I love you. I will ride your bikes. I will still love my favorite bus lines and you can’t be the Brown Line on a rainy day in the Loop. But those blue bikes are the best idea you’ve had since Millennium Park and we all know how that turned out.