Whew. It's been nonstop the past few days, and the machine here has been off way more than it's been on. (You don't see that very often back home...) We've had a great deal of fun, but it's been very concentrated fun, and it hasn't been until this morning that I've been able to kick back and collect my thoughts, much less share them with you.
Thanksgiving dinner this year was at Carol's sister's house in Crystal Lake, and Kathy knows how to set a table like nobody else I've ever seen. The setting above may actually be a little spartan by her standards, because we had so many people to seat (along with one squirmy toddler in a high chair) that some of the fine touches had to be sacrified. The dinner itself was dazzling, with contributions from all corners of the family, including turkey, ham, mashed potatoes, gravy, green bean salad, rolls, corn pudding, heavenly hash (a sweet pineapple-orange-coconut mashup in a yogurt matrix, with fruit-flavored mini-marshmallows), lemon cheesecake, pumpkin pie, and three different wines, all of which went. (One of the wines, 7 Deadly Zins 2005 old vines zinfandel, did not meet my expectations, but we finished it anyway.)
A few days earlier, on November 17, we had Katie Beth's first birthday party. Katie is now not only walking but tearing around the house at flank speed, climbing stairs and getting into everything that isn't at least four feet above the floor or anything climbable. One of the perks of reaching her first birthday was the addition of wheat to her diet (pediatricians are staging cut-in of various food groups these days as a hedge against allergies) and we celebrated by presenting her with her first chocolate cupcake. After a hesitant exploration (she first stuck her finger in the cupcake and then in her mouth, considering) she decided that cupcakes were acceptable, and then proceeded to demolish and devour it, taking care to paint her face symbolically before making a suitable offering to the floor gods. Gretchen's cooking, as always, was wonderful, and nobody went home hungry, even (or especially) the floor.
But that was all relatively sane and peaceful compared to yesterday, when we decided to undertake an adventure we haven't attempted in literally decades: Hopping the Metra train (which I will always consider the Northwestern) to downtown Chicago on the day after Thanksgiving, to partake of what has come to be called Black Friday.
I'd done this before. In fact, in 1975 I was on the job wandering around the Loop on Black Friday, waiting for Xerox copier service calls on my pager, calls that never came. Most of the law offices and other legal/financial firms in my chunk of the Loop had the day off, and their staff were probably all out there on State Street, elbowing each other and frantically spending money. I met Neuitha Payton (the tech rep in the adjoining territory) for lunch, and then (with no calls on the board for either of us) she and I wandered around in the massive Marshall Field's department store, where at one point we found ourselves on the escalator immediately behind Illinois' governor Dan Walker.
32 years later, Carol and I did it all again. It was just as nuts as we expected, if colder. State Street was a mob scene, packed with cars and taxis as we recalled it—the State Street pedestrian mall was a huge failure and reverted to ordinary traffic in 1997. There were amazing street drummers every few hundred feet, using 5-gallon plastic buckets instead of drums, and a surprising amount of construction. Beside the Picasso we took in the Christkindlmarket, a German ethnic Christmas festival about which people wandered with little shoe-shaped ceramic mugs of hot gluhwein, munching bratwurst, strudel, and potato pancakes. The crowds were dense, and it was intriguing to watch Chicago police officers weave expertly through the chaos on industrial-sized Segway scooters.
A lot of stores and restaurants we had known 30-odd years ago are now gone: The Berghoff vanished in 2005. Carson Pirie Scott on State Street closed earlier this year, and Marshall Field's, as quintessentially Chicago as anything else you could name, was engulfed and devoured by tasteless New Yawk junkhaus Macy's in 2006. There is little left of the classic Field's except for Frango Mints and the Walnut Room, which Macy's retains mostly to suppress threats of rioting.
So it was a little sadly that Carol and I went from floor to floor in Field's, realizing that the once legendary toy department was now a poor colony of F. A. O. Schwartz, crammed up against three acres of bras. We looked for but could not identify their nun's lounge, and thus cannot reliably prove that it ever existed. The selection of fine china didn't seem all that fine, and cookware was dominated by merchandise branded by ex-con Martha Stuart.
At least we lucked into a table at the Walnut Room about 4:30, and I will readily admit that the food was as good as we remembered, especially after an egg nog brandy alexander. Our older nephew Brian joined us beside the four-story-tall Christmas tree, and we had a wonderful time catching up on things. (Brian is now an investment banker over on Wacker Drive. Things change.) After dinner we discovered with delight that Garrett's Popcorn is still there at 4 East Madison, and worked through the considerable line to bring home a bag of each of their three varieties. Carol, Brian, and I then wandered west to the plug-ugly Richard B. Ogilvie Transportation Center which (wretch barf) replaced the elegant Northwestern Station that was razed in 1984. We took the Northwestern home again and spent an hour with our feet up in front of the TV, decompressing and munching popcorn.
Don't get the wrong impression. We had a lot of fun. I grumble a little because I'm an architectural conservative, and much of the Chicago of my youth and young adulthood is now gone. We do intend to make the trip more often (at least next spring once the weather breaks) and see some of the more recent improvements to the skyline, including the quirky but striking main public library. We also want to see a few of the monumental local churches, like St. Stanislaus Kostka and the little-known but incredible St. Mary of Perpetual Help, where my parents were married in 1949.
In the meantime, once I caught my breath a little, I realized that I was thankful for many things, friends and family foremost among them, but also for having lived in such an interesting and pivotal era, and having grown up in what was and remains the most dazzling big city in the world. You win a little and you lose a little, and history is nothing if not full of surprises. Chicago may eventually cure the downtown infection that is Macy's, and we hear rumors that Carson's may rise again. We didn't fully understand how great they were until we lost them, but when is that ever not the case?