Art and Maxwell Street Polish Make One Great City

Go on adventuring, changing, opening your minds and eyes, refusing to be stamped and stereotyped.

Virginia Woolf

I took my daughter and two of her friends to the Art Institute of Chicago yesterday. Thursday nights are free to Illinois residents. On the drive into the city, I soured at their cluelessness about the city. They talked about Chicago and guns and crime and bad neighborhoods, never connecting the violent city was part of the same metropolis that berthed the Art Institute and dozens of other cultural gems. Most conversations like this, I hear Bridget pipe up and say, my mom used to work in that neighborhood, or my mom grew up in that neighborhood, or my Grandpa was a fireman, or my uncles work for the city … Last night I followed her lead, and I stayed quiet, too.

I can’t impress on them what it was like to grow up on a city street, with 60 plus kids that seemed like a city on its own.

Nor can I make them understand what a parish is, with a congregation of more than 5,000 families that all live within a couple square miles.

They have no idea of the magic and mystery that materializes with children at play in gangways and alleys.

Nor do they know that garbage cans are called cans because they used to be made of metal, not plastic and wheels, and looked like monstrous Campbell’s soup cans made for the BFG.

They would likely grimace if I asked them what a fieldhouse or hothouse is?

They might be in awe or freak if they knew the freedom that I once had. And that at 12-years-old I would take the Western Avenue bus north to Archer Avenue, and then take that to State Street to shop downtown without an adult.

They don’t know that the bad neighborhoods that they spoke of are typically good places where bad things happen.

They nary an idea of the decades of public policies that made once thriving communities impoverished or what white flight, lace curtain Irish, or blockbusting mean.

They are pretty clueless.

So I let them loose. When we walked into the Art Institute, my daughter asked to go to the Gift Shop, to which I replied you’ll see the art before you buy the postcard. I told them they were on their own. My daughter was startled, her one friend gasped with excitement and the most sensible of all of her friends volunteered to be the mom friend. Without hesitation, I let them go.

I didn’t say where we should meet, or when. Nor did I tell them I wouldn’t even consider leaving before 7 p.m. There were cameras, there was security, they had cell phones, and I knew they would or someone else would find me eventually.

I got to explore the galleries and nooks and crannies of this special and spacious institution, without distraction. I covered sculpture, Chagall’s windows, the old Chicago Stock Exchange, Indian and Japanese art, and more. I reran over previous tracks and made some new ones. I studied the smoothness of the marble and bronze, that sculptors chipped, scraped, sanded, shaped, molded, cast and buffed until the stone and metal formed to their pleasure. Time and again whether through figures, sketches, trinkets, tapestries, upholstery, carvings, locks and entries, lights and glasses, facades and yes, paintings, too, I reveled in my freedom to explore, study, and appreciate the gifts there unencumbered. Having spent more than half my life in the city, I proudly walked through the corridors, staircases, and galleries. I earned this privilege.

My favorite part of last night? There were many. I loved Mounira Al Solh: I strongly believe in our right to be frivolous. The simplicity of the portraits, the sincerity, and empathy with which they were created was touching. The unison of portraits of Syrian refugees and others lined the walls, their faces formed on pages pulled from yellow legal pads, composed of the ink of from a ballpoint pen, the color from a marker, the paint from a brush, the lead from a pencil. No matter what angle I stood in the gallery, their eyes followed.

When six eyes found me studying a sculpture of President Lincoln, I sent them off to explore China for another hour, after which I drilled them on all of their travels. When I was satisfied with their answers, they begged to leave and to stop at Portillo’s for chocolate cake shakes, the thought of which made me want to vomit. I kept waving them off, telling them we are in the city, and we aren’t leaving until we eat some real food. When thunderstorms stopped our exploring during the Chicago Architectural Foundation’s Open House last fall, Bridget, my mom and I stopped Jim’s Original, off Roosevelt near UIC, at 1250 S. Union. So, I hopped onto Congress, over to the Ryan, then off at Taylor, before we stopped. There were no Google maps or Waze, I didn’t need them, this was my city. The girls were skeptical, but Bridget assured them that her mom knew what she was doing and that the food was really good. One Maxwell Street Polish, one hot dog, two cheeseburgers, brown bags of french fries and four pops later, the silence from the back seat was broken with “this is the best burger ever”. Not bad for Chicago, I thought.

They munched on the fries on the way home, talking about boys and the other things that seventh graders talk about. Bridget streamed her music, an eclectic mix (a lot of my stuff) that impressed her friends. They hopped out of the car as I pulled into the garage, saying thank you and shifting into sleepover mode. We were back in the burbs, shielded from the guns and violence in a city with great art and polish sausage.

5 Thoughts

  1. What a perfect outing!
    I tell my boys often that there are things we did that we didn’t dare let them do at the same age. Weirdly, I might have let them but they never asked to.

    Liked by 1 person

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