Monday, October 8, 2007

Forty Percent in the Loop

In the early seventies, when I was about ten, my parents and I visited my mother’s Uncle Jake in northern Indiana. My mother grew up there, but had come to my father’s home in upstate New York when they married at the end of the war.

Thirty years before, during his time in the Army Air Corps, my father passed through Chicago many times. He was fond of Chicago. I suspect it made him fond of my mother when they first met. Having grown up on a horse farm in small-town New York, Chicago was the first big city where he walked the streets alone…his own man on the town.

The downtown Loop was - he told me as we sat on the morning commuter train from Ogden Dunes, Indiana - fast-paced and exciting. We were on the train into Chicago to have breakfast in the Loop. Already I knew my father, and I knew the kind of coffee shop Dad had in mind, slightly greasy but with a friendly waitress and hearty food. I knew he would be disappointed if he couldn’t find it. It was fun to be riding my first commuter train into a big city, but I was afraid he wouldn’t find what he was looking for and everything about the day would be spoiled.

Once we arrived at the station, I followed Dad among the commuters as he tried to spy the perfect restaurant. Finally, with mumblings like “I remember a great place just down Dearborn Street when I was between trains one time on my way to Camp Blah Blah,” we ventured into a nondescript coffee shop. It didn’t seem too special to me. It reminded me of places he took me to back home, places with dusty individual cereal boxes high on a shelf and short-order cooks with gravelly voices. We ordered eggs and corned beef hash from a busy waitress. Dad’s coffee arrived and, from my vantage point across from him, I could see a tiny bit of someone else’s scrambled egg adhered to the underside of the saucer.

“Isn’t this swell,” he said, smiling and relieved, as he lifted the coffee cup. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the egg.

During those years between 1972 and 1976, my parents and I made several trips to Chicago. There had been a tragedy in my mother’s family, the death of a young beautiful woman from breast cancer, and my mother, for a time, reconnected with her interesting Chicago cousins. 

A few times we drove into North Chicago to stay with her cousin Harry. As we sped along Lake Shore Drive, I admired the city’s skyline and one skyscraper in particular, (which I now know is the Lake Point Tower) Until I grew older and visited more cities, I assumed that all major cities enjoyed architecture as fine as Chicago’s. To find, at 11 or 12, that you could love a building is a wonderful thing.

Until two months ago, besides connections at O’Hare and a work conference in 2000 when I snuck in a quick evening with a much older Harry and his wife, I’d never been back to Chicago.

Driven mostly by the availability of good tickets to see the Boston Red Sox play the Chicago White Sox, my husband Scott, our two sons and I ended up there for a short vacation in July. We stayed in the Loop and discovered there's something about that part of the city, despite the Wendys and CVSs, that makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to my father’s mid-century Chicago. Strangers and hotel and restaurant people are helpful and friendly, and it  feels like the businesses haven’t changed their signage since 1926. Then there are great, large-scale works of art all over the place. And the museums! The Art Institute, the Science and Technology Museum, the Field Museum, and the Adler Planetarium are wonderful.

Each evening before dinner we left the boys in the room to watch TV and went downstairs to the bar for a drink. We snagged a high top by the plate glass window and watched the world go by. The El was just above us, and we watched a train zoom by every few minutes. As we sat there one evening, enjoying the time together without the normal, daily pressure of home weighing upon us, I realized that the fifth anniversary of my father’s death was the day we would head home. In another essay I’d written:

The departure of my father, an inscrutable personality who managed to be both impossible and adoring, has left those of us remaining in a calm eddy that we can't quite work our way out of. It's wonderfully still, but sometimes it gets lonely.

Frankly, I was being kind when I wrote that. He was inscrutable and adoring, yes, but he was also difficult and he couldn’t handle alcohol and he held a wicked grudge and he was outrageously sensitive about his feelings while being callous about others. He could be careless and flippant and flighty. But, all that being true, that profoundly imperfect person loved me a great deal. I was lucky enough as a girl to have someone adore me, and it has made a great deal of difference in my life.

So as I sat with my kind and adoring and sometimes flippant husband drinking a beer in a bar at the edge of the Loop I said, “I wish Ed were here. He would love this.”

“He’d have liked that steakhouse we went to last night.”

“He’d have liked that art deco-y place we went to breakfast this morning.”

“I wish he were here too,” Scott said, looking down and smiling, no doubt thinking of the many plumbing and carpentry misadventures they shared over the years.

Then I thought of him sitting with us and ordering a second or third drink. “I wish maybe 40 percent of him were here,” I revised.

I thought about the visit Dad made to us when we were first married and living and teaching on the Micronesian island of Saipan. We lived in a three room tin shack and he was game enough to stay with us. Early each morning he would take off on the mo-ped to get coffee and a donut from Herman’s Modern Bakery. 

One evening as we were leaving for the teppan-yaki restaurant at the Hyatt with my childhood friend Carol, also a teacher there, I slammed the kitchen door shut and locked us out of the house. A small disaster. We went around and around with the problem for a few minutes before we decided that a door we never used because of its rottenness and gargantuan spider webs could be forced open, if someone was inclined to actually touch it. Dad, then over 60, volunteered to kung-fu the bottom of the door from the outside. I, feeling compelled to match his bravado, climbed through the hole to grab the keys. 

Later after dinner we danced to a Filipino pop band playing for the Japanese tourists in the hotel lounge. Winded, Scott and I sat down at a cocktail table to watch Dad and Carol dance. We looked at each other. What fun Dad was having. What a grand adventure.

When they came back to the table, Dad wiped the sweat from his brow and smiled his handsome smile.

“Isn’t this swell?” he said.

And we all agreed that it was.

Heidi Shott
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