Thursday, August 13, 2009

tall order

Like so many who moved back and forth between small places and big New York City type places, I have had a wildly fluctuating attitude toward skyscrapers.

Think of it: I moved from a village in Poland to Warsaw, where in the 1950s the highest building was 34 stories high and it towered over the rest of the capital. Then on to Manhattan, where everything was beautifully, monstrously tall. And back to Warsaw, where I retreated from loving the tall stuff to enjoying wide avenues and quiet parks.

Along comes New York again and once more I am in love with it all – from the top of the 666’s where I have my first grown-up coctail, to Rockefeller Tower, from which I can see that other perfect pencil of a building, the Empire State. I live on the eight floor, then the eighteenth floor and it all seems cool and very very adult.

After, I’m in Chicago, where, of course, I come face to face with the newest tallest giant – the Sears tower. (Though personally, I prefer the Hancock. Something about that curve that appeals to me.) Moving to Madison to raise a family feels very anticlimactic.

But then comes September 11 and, of course, my love of tall buildings is shaken to the core. Madison, with its skyline of pea-sized structures suddenly feels gentle and soothing.

Still, while I am plowing through Wisconsin winters and pedaling along its country lanes in less harsh seasons, the city just to the south of me buffs and polishes the steel and glass structures of its downtown, throws in some splendid new ones and comes out looking quite nice, in a Chicago sort of way.


I’m here for just two nights and this time I am staying downtown. My daughters, ever savvy in the ways of the urban world, point me to the Wit (see photos above) – a wonderful hotel with the sound of birds in hallways and the El just outside, and with tall windowed walls in all rooms, looking out over the city beyond and below.



And I have to say, I am taken in by it all – as if the city, which has held for a while now sentimentally bittersweet memories, is coming back in another shape and form – the place where I can come back and watch my daughters perform their adult lives (one held a summer job here and the other is a frequent visitor, for work and family reasons).

Last night, we ate in the west of the Loop neighborhood, in a wonderful new place that is as steely glassy as the best of them (Province) and again I feel the pang of cool city life, as I stare at my terrific softshell crab and wonder why Madison’s restaurant foods have to be so repetitive (the menus in my sweet home town rarely change and hardly ever innovate).


After the early meal, we do what we have so often done in the past – go to hear the talent of Second City. A dozen years back, my daughters would be the youngest in the audience. Now, I feel like tapping them for an explanation of that line or the next one. They are suddenly the ones who are in command, tuned in to the nuance of the wit, while I trail behind, laughing with just a touch of delay.


The show ends at a decent hour and even though Chicago is the Midwest, it is the new urban Midwest, so that walking back alone at midnight seems hardly different than if it were four hours earlier. I remembered the night smell of a city, and on this warm summer walk, when the moon is as beautiful as it so often is back home, I remember how once, the city mesmerized me thoroughly and I swore I’d never move away from its squalor and magnificence.


This morning, I look out my 20th story windows and watch the sunlight do its weird city thing of moving into the narrow tunnel between tall buildings, only to disappear and show up elsewhere.


For the first time in a long long time, I like this place. I forgive it its grit and grimy past. I’m remembering that a huge part of me was fed round the clock city air. The taste for it has come back now. In small amounts, but it’s there. Like the candy bar that you go back to after a prolonged stray toward better foods.



Technically, I did not fit the post into the hours that, when piled together in a 24 unit heap, constitute Wednesday. I know that. As I made the call to walk from a late night stand-up comedy show to the downtown Chicago hotel where I'm staying, I knew I'd lose a "day" of posting. And I knew that Ocean readers are accustomed to this: I have been late in my posts before.

But I'll add this further injustice: I wont put up my story for the day until tomorrow. I owe you a better text than one I can compose now, in the wee hours of the night.

In the meantime, I'll put up just one photo -- something that I snapped with my little camera as I finally crossed the river - during the last quarter mile on my long walk home to the hotel.


It all seems so darn twinkly and bright and this just really goes to show that, in a city, the texture and feel to a set of blocks can change very very quickly.