Flyer Man.

Coulda been worse, right?
As a rule, street flyers are to be avoided. Especially this one.

If you’re in Chicago in the early evening, any time of year, walking south on State Street just past Monroe, you will be offered a flyer by a tall black man. This is not an omen: it will absolutely happen, I can almost guarantee it.

This is because there is a dude that stands there at State and Monroe and hands out flyers. He’s always there. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night* keeps this guy from hanging out at his spot. I have passed him countless times in the past two years and said, “Nah, not today,” when he tried to give me his handbill. But in a city filled with hysterical street preachers, insane/vocal itinerants, and the jingling cups of a thousand beggars, here’s what’s interesting about this guy:

– he’s well-dressed
– he can’t be over 30
– he never says anything
– I’ve gotten tiny glimpses of the content on his flyers and have never detected hate speech, “Repent Now!!!” stuff, etc., which is typically the only content covered in such tracts.

Still, I never took what he offered — until tonight. My choice of evening was not great. I was walking with way too much stuff to carry by myself. It was eight degrees. I was hoping I could make it to the bus stop before the bus did, but it didn’t look good. I passed the dude and said “No thanks, man,” as usual, but I noticed he was offering a thick, perfect-bound book, not just the usual 8×10 photocopy. Hm. I walked a few paces, stopped, turned around, and went back.

“Hey, man. You know, I’ve been passing you for like two years, now, and never taken your stuff.” The plastic bag in my hand was about to rip open and was full of bedding that surely weighed twenty-five pounds if it weighed an ounce. The dude started to speak but I interrupted him. It had to be done. Remember, it was eight degrees.

“Wait, wait. The book. Is it full of religious stuff? Like, a lot of God stuff? I really wouldn’t be into that, so just tell me now.”

Up close, the guy did not in fact appear insane. He said, “Okay, well, there is God in there, I mean, but I write about all kinds of things.”

“Okay, cool. How much?”

Here was the pitch, which was to be expected. “The original price is $19.95,” he said, “But I’m selling it for ten right now.”

I hauled my bag over the other shoulder and dug into my purse. I opened my pocket book. I had exactly seven dollars. I showed him. “I got seven bucks, man. That cleans me out. Will you take seven?” He gave me dirty look but acquiesced. I gave him the dough, he gave me his book, that was it.

It’s pretty bad. For example, in the appendix (?) he talks about his process and says the following (all sic):

“The time inbetwee epipanies and lyrics will represent concentrated thought…absorbed by the reader and can be extracted or deduced or deconsentrated. For example, they would wonder what made you go from this idea to the next…This is how I write some of my literature.”

You see what I mean. But there’s heart, and in the dedication the guy thanks his elementary school teachers, saying that they, “did the best they could with whatever resources they had, to give us a quality education.” He also thanks his mother for her “constant home school lessons” and ends with a solemn and sincere, “This book wouldn’t exist without you all.”

Keep writing, man. I will if you will. And stay warm out there.

*Some may recognize this language; I’ve annexed the gorgeous U.S. Postal Service creed, which goes: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Stunning.

Welcome, Members!

"Rick, this is Mary. Mary, Rick. Oh, and there's Dave! Dave, this is Mary, and this is Rick. You see Gina or Rob? I think they're here. Mary, Gina and Rob are..."
“Rick, this is Mary. Mary, Rick. Oh, and there’s Dave! Dave, this is Mary, and this is Rick. You see Gina or Rob? I think they’re here. Mary, Gina and Rob are friends of Rick’s. They’re here from Cincinnati — Rob is hilarious! Who wants shots?!”

I live within spittin’ distance of Chicago’s legendary downtown Hilton hotel. The Beaux-Arts-style building takes up a whole city block; there are over 1,500 rooms! It has some neat history, too: every U.S. president since 1927 has stayed there, and someone recently told me that when the riots broke out during the 1968 Democratic National Convention, so much tear gas was used by police on the protestors in Grant Park that the gas made its way inside the Hilton, where Hubert Humphrey was taking a shower. Sorry, dude.

The sky-high lobbies inside are gorgeous, especially this time of year; the whole place is festooned with pine bunting and poinsettias and twinkly lights aglow. There’s a towering Christmas tree inside the main entrance, too. Yesterday, I saw a kid nearly fall over backward while he looked up at it.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been working over there during the day. I’ve found an even better spot: downstairs, in front of the lounge fireplace. I go over each day and the first thing I do, the very first thing, is go to the hotel event screen. This is the big screen near the bank of elevators that tells what conventions are being held that day at the Hilton. (Though there are two hotels in the city with more rooms, nobody has more meeting or event space than my Hilton.) Nothing but nothing entertains me more than looking at a list of what people congregate to talk about. Here’s who’s meeting at the Hilton this week:

E & J Gallo Winery
Customer Supply Chain Connection, University of Chicago
The Mid-American Competing Band Directors Association (MACBDA)
Thompson Holiday Event

I love it! I love to think about a band director literally bumping into a wine salesperson in the long line at the interior Starbucks. She spills her latte on him, he’s nice about it, they laugh about holiday craziness and bam! They fall in love. Years later, at a party, they recount the tale to their friend Julie. And now, a short play.

The Hilton Made Me Love You
A play by Mary Fons (c) 2013

(A party.)

SUE: Darling, why don’t you tell it?
CHARLES: Tell what?
SUE: How we met. Julie wants to know.
JULIE: Tell, tell!
CHARLES: (beaming at SUE.) Well… We were in Chicago.
JULIE: I love Chicago!
CHARLES: We do too, don’t we darling?
SUE: Oh, Charles!
CHARLES: I was there for Gallo. Sue was there for MACBDA, if you can believe it.
SUE: Back when I was still a band director! Isn’t it incredible?
JULIE: I’m so glad you moved into aeronautics.
SUE: Me too. Go on, sweetheart.
CHARLES: We were in line at the Starbucks and Sue bumped into me. She spilled her entire latte all over my shoes. It was an absolute disaster.
SUE: (swatting him.) It wasn’t the whole latte!
CHARLES: It was an entire latte.
SUE: Oh, you!
CHARLES: We got to talking. Sue actually got on her knees to wipe the milk off my shoes and we started laughing… Honey, that was the first day of the rest of my life.
SUE: (with a wink.) Room 1423?
JULIE: (gasps.) You didn’t!
CHARLES: Thirty years later, you’re still the girl of my dreams.
SUE: Charles, you’re my hero.

(CHARLES and SUE embrace, kiss. End of play.) 


Soup So Good, I Laughed.

Try me.
Try me.


I once ate something so delicious, I burst out laughing.

It happened in Paris; so many glorious moments do. Was I twenty? Was I blonde? I think I was twenty and blonde and I was in Paris on the back-end of a trip to Provence to visit fabric manufacturers with a murder of quilters.*

I entered a cafe on that end-of-June day. It was any cafe, every cafe. The sun was setting over Paris; Paris, that jewel-encrusted dot on Planet Earth. I was full of Paris but my stomach was rumbling and I remembered what Hemingway said in A Moveable Feast: “…the pictures do look better when you are hungry.” Sure they did, and I was ravenous. I ordered a large chicken (prepared) and ate with gusto, the only person in the cafe actually having dinner. Parisians seem to eat nothing — and they eat late. But I didn’t care; I had sacrificed real shoe leather exploring the city that day. I had earned my supper.

I also earned my dessert.

The snooty waiter — straight out of central casting — handed me the dessert menu. Rhubarb soup. That was on the menu, rhubarb soup! I had not had rhubarb soup. Growing up in a town of 5,000 people in rural Iowa, you don’t get many opportunities for these sorts of things.

The soup came chilled in a shallow, wide-lipped ceramic bowl. There was maybe three-quarters of a cup of this impossibly delicate, translucent pink wash. Floating on top were slivered strawberries and a few green springs, which I determined to be mint.

“Et voila,” said the waiter, and he sashayed away. I took my spoon and dipped it into that cold little lake, swiped a touch of the cream on the top, and delivered the spoonful into my mouth.

Float. Moment.

It was like drinking water that had made love to a strawberry bush. It was like sucking a peach. It was like having a crush on a boy.

I burst out laughing. “This is so good! Oh, it’s so good! Oh my god. Oh my god. Oh my god.”

And I just sat back and laughed. I was like Sarah in the Old Testament, except that she was a really long way from Paris. It was absurd, this bowl of chilled rhubarb soup. I had never eaten anything like that in my life and to be honest, I haven’t since. I’ve had some fine food in my day: ’tis no small praise to say it was the most marvelous thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.

Turns out this is a Norwegian dish? My internet research tells me so. It’s called rabarbrasuppe and the recipe is as simple as can be. My people are Norwegian on my father’s side. We’re fierce Vikings to be sure, but I like to think of my Thors and Vals sitting around slurping rabarbrasuppe between battles, holding onto their horned helmets as they laugh out loud at impossible things: death, losing a battle, and chilled rhubarb soup.

*The most compelling choice for a group of quilters is not a gaggle or a flock (what are we, peahens?) but a murder, as in a murder of crows. We’d get a little more street cred.

Swan Lake.

Swan Lake, book cover. Prague 1970.  Illustrated by Ludmila Jiřincová.
Of all the pictures I found, this one captures the light right now the best. Swan Lake book cover, Prague 1970. Illustrated by Ludmila Jiřincová. 

I am watching swans.

We’re here at the Island cottage to enjoy Thanksgiving. We call our place Sunrise Cottage because it’s on the easternmost side of the island and the house is all window on its east side, so when the sun comes up over Lake Michigan, the house is bathed in gold and white palomino sparkles. There is pecan pie on the counter this morning, there is a turkey brining in the dining room, but it has been snowing through the night; there is no sun.

There is instead a steely, ice crystal sky that blends with Lake Michigan at the horizon so that the whole world is just a big bowl of winter. And I am looking out at all of it from the sun porch, swaddled in jammies and a robe, a down comforter and two quilts piled on me. I’m a soldier this holiday: I took the couch on the porch so that the friends who joined us this year could have their own bedrooms. My seemingly selfless act is really not, though. Even if I have to wear two pairs of socks out here, this is the best room in the house. 

I woke up pre-dawn and made a pot of coffee. As I was drinking it, looking out, the world began to lighten and I sat up in my nest. There were huge white birds out on the water, swimming between the ice floes that had formed already. Were they…? No. They were geese. Surely. They couldn’t be… Mom had gotten up by then and was in the next room, but there are many people still asleep in this house. I called, softly:


“Yes?” she called back, also softly.

“Mama, do we have swans?”

“Yes.” Mom padded onto the porch. “Are they out there?” I nodded and pointed, and we looked out at the white-gray world, at a pair of the devastatingly elegant birds floating along, languidly inserting and re-inserting their necks into the freezing water. Breakfast comes to Door County.

“They look like ice,” I whispered.

“They look like pillowcases,” Mom whispered back.

This Thanksgiving, my family is up here in a snow globe. We’ve got love, victuals, a collectively wicked sense of humor, liquor, and freaking swans. I’m happy. It is my fondest wish that you feel happy today, too.

Word Nerd: Boo

posted in: Word Nerd 1

Blame it on Halloween last week: I got “boo” on the brain. Not the go-to ghost word “Boo!” but the slang term for a quasi-girlfriend/boyfriend, as in “I love my boo” or “It’s just me and my boo. I think boo is the best thing to happen to the English language since chortle.**

Doing research on the Internet is great and all, but from time to time it reveals its limitations. To truly get to the bottom of the etymology of boo, I would need to speak to a linguistics professor or a cultural anthropologist — the web didn’t help much. I found the following possibilities for the existence of boo:

– it’s from the French beau (pronounced “bo”) meaning “boyfriend or male admirer,” which found its way into Afro-Caribbean language through French colonization
– it’s a Southern-bred, derivative term of endearment, lineage going something like this:
poppet –> poopsie –> boopsie –> boo
– it’s just short for “booty”

Who can say? Well, Yahoo question boards can try (boy do they) but I’m not sure about any of these answers and that last one is straight up dubious. I feel confident that boo is a word born in black culture, though. The first time I ever heard it used was in that song “Dilemma,” by Nelly and former Destiny’s Child singer Kelly Rowland. The chorus went: No matter what I do/All I think about is you/Even when I’m with my boo/You know I’m crazy over you. Tsk-tsk, children. But until I meet a cultural anthropologist at a cocktail party whose studies include American Ebonics, it could be a long time before I know the true origins. I can still love the word, though, and I sure do.

I love boo because it names a real thing and it’s phonetically perfect for what that thing is. Let’s say, hypothetically, that I have a boo. You and I are having lunch and you ask me what I did over the weekend. I say, “It was me and my boo, just hanging out.” You could infer that my boo was male, because I am straight. You would know that this fellow is involved with me romantically, but you also know I don’t have a boyfriend. So is this person just a random, um, date? (We’re speaking hypothetically, remember.) No, boo implies a tenderness and a familiarity that elevates the subject into something more special than a frivolous fling. I mean, I wanted to hang out with him all weekend, so he must be worth hanging out with.

So I like the word because there do exist these kinds of relationships in the world: something not official, but not pointless. Something important, but not call-your-mother about it. My boo, my boo, my boo.

And then there’s the darlingness of it, the baby-like sound that the word is. It’s close to “goo,” as in “goo-goo, ga-ga” and close to “baby” and it’s also slang, which means you feel pretty street when you say it. I don’t know many people who wouldn’t respond positively if their partner, spouse, lover, etc., affectionately put their arm around them, pulled them close, and said, “Hey, boo.”

Try it. Don’t try it on someone you don’t have genuinely tender, romantic feelings toward, though, because it would be way too familiar. Kinda like calling your 60-year-old Spanish teacher in high school “senorita,” it just makes everyone a little antsy. And to all the boos who had good weekends together, hats off to you.

(But put your pants back on.)

** The word “chortle” did not exist in the English language before Lewis Carroll wrote Jabberwocky in 1871. A hybrid of “chuckle” and “snort,” it is but one of almost two dozen entirely new words introduced in that legendary poem. Now that’s a writer who can write. Check it out. 

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