Shining City

As I drove east into the maw of civilization, Mark was madly flipping through our AAA guidebook for places to stay in Chicago, dialing our old-school cell phone, and getting a lot of bad news.  Within the hour, he had gotten us the reservations we needed.  We got a great rate, with free parking (very rare), at a good hotel right on a direct subway line to downtown.  The city came into view, and we were about to take the experiences of the last six weeks and turn them inside out.  In Chicago, it is the work of people, not nature, that makes your jaw drop.

The glass, steel and concrete canyons of Chicago are the centerpiece of a proud city.  World over, architects compete to build their masterpieces there. In extravagant and meticulously planned display, the downtown is crowded with fabulous buildings.  Walking among them I was struck by how open it was, how inviting, despite the monumental scale.  Gorgeous parks amid the the massive structures lead to the sweeping shoreline of Lake Michigan.

We checked in and before I knew it, the unthinkable happened:

Call 911! Mark's ironing!

Mark prepared to Enter The City, like a matador donning his suit of lights, like a supplicant approaching the shrine.   Without a word, he found the iron and ironing board in the hotel room.  He took out his shirt, which had been jammed into a tight ball in the bottom of his duffle for six weeks, and pressed it.

When I came to, we set out to the urban trail head.

It was a hot and peaceful summer Sunday in the big city.  We threaded our way through downtown to Millennium Park.  The clouds, which had tracked us all the way from North Dakota, wrung out their sprinkles and downpours on families gathered in the splash pool.  Everybody was grateful for the cool – smiling, laughing, relaxed. As we walked towards the shore of Lake Michigan, we realized that a huge music festival was happening, right there in Grant Park, directly beside us.  Lollapalooza was going on – we passed three (I think there was a total of six) rocking stages.  Close to 300,000 fans stretched as far as we could see down the streets to our south.  It was utterly wondrous to us that Chicago could host such an enormous event, and easily accommodate a peaceful urban outdoor family scene, side by side.

In cities we live the collective life, the public life.  There personal identity blends with a kind of cultural self-awareness, openness and curiosity that defines cosmopolitanism. Here in Chicago public life has proud and central place.  The way that art – the play of imagination with environment – is woven into Chicago’s downtown is powerful and delightful.  It was best kind of sculpture park, really.  At the crux of all that design was the invitation to people – everybody – to come an play in it.  Making it all the more miraculous was the towering scale of it all.

Summer day, big city

The public art pulls you in...

Mark getting sucked into an alternate universe

A bloom of steel: Looking to downtown from Millennium Park

A giant marble run for people coming out of the city

A course through playful steel

Water spewed out of the image's mouth when it pursed its lips


The next morning, we took a boat tour of the dramatic downtown canyons.  Chicago’s downtown is a whole, a unified piece of architecture made up of hundreds of buildings designed by at least as many architects, constructed over 150 years.   A beautiful collaboration that continues to grow and move and change.

Coming in from the lake, a grand and formal invitation

Craning up to take in the shoulder to shoulder spires

Sheer, gleaming heights

Dizzy double daisies: Somebody thought, "why not?"

An early urban homesteading project that helped revitalize the riverside

Darth Vader wants his HQ in Chicago, on the river. Any objections?

After our architectural boat tour, we started off to the Chicago Art Institute.  On our way we were treated to a free concert by two soulful bluesmen at the outdoor theater in Millennium Park.  The acoustics were great, as were the chops.

Great acoustics, great chops

Did everything good come out of Chicago?  In short, yes.

Chicago is like the college town that everybody wants to stay in because it nurtures all the good things about grown up life, city life.  Think of comedy, and the lingering allegiance of the greatest, smartest funnypeople of the last many years, starting with the Second City crowd (a big, rowdy, jostling crowd, at that).  Think of journalism, science, educational philosophy, and my favorite kind of theater, corrupt politics.  Who brought us that household word, “Blagojevich“?  None other than Chicago.

There Will Be A Next Time

Our next trip to Chicago will be a blues pilgrimage.  I can’t think of Chicago without a piercing, heart-stopping jolt of love of the music that came out of it.

For The Love Of A Wolf

When I first heard of Howlin’ Wolf it was 1965. I was talking to a couple of boys at a party about the Rolling Stones, who at that time were basically a very hot hybrid blues cover band.   I’d seen them that year in Worcester, Mass. where they’d done a great version of “Little Red Rooster” .  The guys said that if I was into the Stones, I would love Howlin’ Wolf.  They’d just been to his show, and were red-hot excited about him.  I remember feeling a shiver at that magical, scary name.   A fifteen year old white girl living a suburban cocoon, I doubted if I was ready to handle going to see somebody who stalked the full moon, for real.  I found Howlin’ Wolf’s music eventually, but sadly, never did get to see him.  I did see Muddy Waters, I did see Willie Dixon, but no Howlin’ Wolf.

Wolf was a big man, a lion with a sharp, eerie growl. He claimed his songs, many written by Willie Dixon, in a chilling rasp.  He was an all-out performer, who’d get down on his hands and knees to make his point to you.  Check this out:  “Smokestack Lightnin’”.

He was born Chester Arthur Burnett on June 10, 1910  in Mississippi.  Wolf boasted that he was the only one of the legendary Chicago blues cohort – including Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Sonny Boy Williamson, et al – to drive up from the south to the city at the wheel of his own car.   He’d already made the big time as a performer on the Delta blues circuit when he came to Chicago to record for Chess.

He was also an attentive and tender-hearted husband and father to two step-daughters, and a boss who found a way to provide a decent wage and even benefits to his band.  Chicago made room for this big man, this cultural giant.  More than that, Chicago invited him in and gave him a home, a stage, a microphone, and a community of performers that took American music up a notch.  Howlin’ Wolf died on January 10, 1976.  He’s buried in Chicago.

There will be a next time.

A city that turns to face you, at every angle