Friday, August 14, 2009

a city day

It is again near midnight and I am riding the El from Addison up north, to Clark and Lake – the stop for my hotel. I am reminded of the tail end of my college years, when I rode the midnight subway in New York after closing down the bookstore where I worked the late retail shift. The noise of the train, harsh during daylight hours, isn’t grating now. At nighttime, nothing matters except getting home to bed. I close my eyes and think of myself moving closer to the many pillows and the cool, cotton white sheet. Mmmm…

Summer in the city. If you live there, you want to get out. Paris in August empties so quickly that it sometimes feels like someone took an eraser to the city and wiped the residents out. Stores are closed, cafes shuttered. New York on a summer week-end is the same. Walking down an avenue, you can hear your cell phone ring, it’s that quiet.

Chicago is different. Oh, I know, it’s not the week-end now. The Loop, that rectangle of office space and lunchtime retail trade will look less vibrant if I wait until tomorrow. But I’m not waiting until tomorrow. And I’ll bet anything that the places we walked through yesterday and today, will feel equally delicious tomorrow. Full of people looking to unwind in the heat of a summer day in the city.

This is what I find most thrilling about Chicago: in the last ten years, it has thrown a lot of resources into creating wonderful public spaces. For this alone it deserves the 2016 Olympics. Not convinced? Read on. And tell me if any other urban center on either side of the ocean has done anywhere near as much to change and improve the nature of communal outdoor life.

I’m waiting for my wee family to join me downtown. They’re poky and so I meander through the Loop in search of a good cappuccino. That part is easy. But what do I eat with it?

On the Daley Plaza, I happen to find the Thursday Farmers Market. It’s different than our downtwon Madison market: fewer vendors, larger quantities in each stall – that’s predictable. What’s funny to me is to watch the buyers. I'm in a city. Yes I am.




There's a Picasso at the plaza. The Picasso. It’s so fitting: a gift of steel (that would be Gary, Indiana steel which in itself is fitting). Looks like… it’s not clear what. No one seems to know. The artist’s wife? His Afghan dog? Today, it serves another purpose.


And in front, the Chicago Park District has set up a boxing ring. Welcome all, we want to present the young boxers of Chicago! The 70 pound class! The future champions of the 2016 Chicago Olympics!


I eat my oat and peanut butter baked bar (like in Madison, bakers are popular at the market) and sip my coffee and watch.

The sky is a deep blue. One isn’t accustomed to seeing a clear sky like this in a city, but Chicago rarely gets the hazy pallor of a New York summer sky. The air is dry and warm and I’m ready for a brisk walk.


I’ve not done the River Walk before. I haven’t much time now, just enough to take it toward the lake and back.

I pass by the love it or hate it Trump tower…


… and, further down, I stroll by cafés and strips of green grass where office workers take their noon break. At the “river’s” edge, the Park District has set up a fishing tent. Come learn about the fish in our waters. We'll lend you a rod. You’ll catch something for sure.


Kids sit in life vests, dangling bait in the aqua waters of the canal. Surely this is a catch and release thing? Or do they take it home? Guess what I picked up downtown!

It’s my lunchtime now and I meet my family at Pastoral – a place where sandwiches and salads to go are as good as in a Provencal café in southern France. We pick up a bag of food and take it to the Millennium Park.

The Millennium is the most glorious contemporary public space of all time! When I lived in Chicago some thirty years ago, the area was a wasteland of old rail tracks and concrete blight. The 24 acre park that grew out of it is a jewel of art, concert space, gardens, fountains – all inviting, telling you to shake off your mad rush to nowhere and exhale.

And splash in the Crown Fountain reflecting pool, in front of digital images of Chicagoans.




And see yourself reflected in a different way in the Cloud Gate (or “the Bean,” the Kapoor sculpture inspired by a drop of mercury, but made to loom large, so much so that it is one of the biggest sculptures, anywhere, ever).


Each time I am here, something else about it strikes me as remarkable. Today, I take a photo from the “mouth” of the Bean, looking out, so that my horizon meets the Bean’s upside down image of it.


You know, I could do pages on the Park. But, Ocean is just a snapshot on a mood, so I have to move beyond it, past the Buckingham Fountain…


...past the Field Museum, where I deposit daughters for a short while. I’m not ready to give up on the late afternoon summer sky. I walk along toward the Shed Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium – places visited by us many times as daughters moved from young toddlerhood to childhood to teenhood. Now that they’re adults, there is nothing to explain, to clarify. No cautionary scold out here by the water either – be careful! Don’t get too close to the edge! Other parents can now take up these words (and they do!). Me, I’m focused on the fantastic skyline. Or, I'm staring at the sails out on the gently breezy waters.



And now we turn around and head back toward the Loop.


Whereas evening comes slowly back in Madison, so that you hardly notice when it stopped being daytime, in the city, it is an obvious and quick change. Shadows take over the narrow strips of sidewalk. The rush hour comes earlier here than on the east coast so that by 6, the crowds start to thin.


My daughters suggest the rooftop bar in my hotel for an evening drink. The rooftop here is, they tell me, a hot pick for young professionals. Indeed, there is a line that weaves around the block just to get in. As a hotel guest, I am allowed to go straight to the top.

This is a new world for me. I explain to them that I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have been to a cool city bar. And I don’t need all my fingers for the count. This, in spite of the fact that I lived in cities for many many years. By the time I joined the ranks of the professional world, I was no longer young and I had two kids waiting for me at home. The drinks I learned to mix had things like fruit and honey and yogurt in them.

Being on the young side of motherhood (at least as measured by the demographics of the urban professional set), I get to now savor the Rooftop with daughters at the helm. And they tell me what to order and how to regard the social dynamics that unfold before us.


Some readers here may counter that a glass of rosé at a café on the other side of the ocean (which I have savored more times than can be counted on the fingers of many hands) counts as bar hopping (especially since my daughters are now are asking the bartender for a glass of rosé), but I think that at café-bars, the people watching is of the world outside, where as here, I get the sense that people watching is within.

They tell me that, as measured against similar venues out east, this is a friendly, nonthreatening place. (Meaning, I think, that the patrons don’t cut each other up visually) I am mesmerized. Aided by the delicious lime-cucumber-ginger something or other. Oh, and toasts with eggs and just a hint of truffle.


Feeling utterly urban and very professional, I linger and listen and occasionally take a photo, so that the bartender asks if I am with the press. No, just with fantastic daughters and my little Ocean somewhere out there.

Dusk is now quickly merging into an evening darkness that makes the city looks extra wonderful.


We walk back to the El and head north to meet up with their dad for a late dinner at a superb neighborhood Italian place (Terragusto). The crowd is boisterous and the food is so fresh and honest it hurts to finish it. Swiss chard in custard with a mushroom ragu, inky black pasta with shrimp, mascarpone cheesecake with summer fruits.


A day in the city. Nothing more than that. But could it be more perfect?