Pre-Christmas in Chicago

Text by Michael Broschat, with Melissa Meier

23 December 1997

It’s the emperor’s birthday, but the train’s running anyway. No respect.

We got back on in Chicago last night, and met more interesting people at dinner. We’re getting to be old hands at this train travel. Even got some sleep last night. ‘Relaxing’ is certainly the operative word. The train can be early, on time, or massively late, and it doesn’t seem to make much difference to us riders.

We’re in Pennsylvania now. Or, maybe Maryland. Or, West Virginia. Perhaps there should be colored markers all along a train track telling you what state you’re in. Then again, maybe it doesn’t matter.

One of the advantages of going to Chicago when we did was that the Art Institute had a show (originating in Canada, I believe) of Pierre Renoir’s “portraits.” We joined the long lines waiting to get in at our appointed hour (when did art shows become such big deals? I remember a friend getting me into King Tut in Seattle at about 3 in the morning), and then entered this magnificent building. We toured the Renoir (probably my favorite Impressionist, although I have a strange affection for Pissaro), and then as much of the rest of the place as we could. There’s so much there. Room after room has paintings that are so famous they’re tools of mass media. For example, how many different take-offs on Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” have you seen (this is the painting of a man and a woman in a diner late at night in a downtown setting)? This painting is used in Starbuck’s advertising and decoration, as one example. Needless to say, it will take many more visits before we’ve even seen all this institute’s offerings, much less appreciated them sufficiently.

Oh, yes—the opera star. We really did meet her. I even hugged her. And, when you consider that she’d just hugged Luciano Pavarotti (she normally sings at the Met in New York), you could say that I was one hug away from hugging Luciano. If that turns you on. Wendy is a good Christian girl. Still. Nevertheless, there’s only one of her stories we can repeat in public. Her six-year old daughter is a kind of mascot at the Met, being the only child known to be allowed to stand in the wings during performances (which she does on the weekends). After a recent performance of Andrea Chenier (an opera), the cast gathered in Luciano’s dressing room, together with his rich friends, to celebrate his birthday. Wendy’s daughter being the cutie she is, Luciano wanted her to sit on his lap, but she’s always been a bit scared of him (she routinely spends time with Placido in his dressing room). He finally managed to win her confidence with the first (and largest) piece of his cake, and then as he held her, he took her to each of the people in the room, introducing her to them. At one point, he said, “And this is Mel Gibson.” Wendy, forgetting only for a moment where she was and how many people were in the room, shrieked “You’re really Mel Gibson?” Used to such outbursts, young Mel acknowledged same, and then took over child duty, he having six of his own.

The night we visited with her, she sang Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, to Catherine Malfitano’s Butterfly, and it was a wonderful performance. The Lyric was not the most impressive opera hall I’ve seen, but it was certainly grand. I’m sure my impression was colored by the fact that only one row remained between my seat and the back wall. The audience appeared to me to be the one most interested in experiencing the opera. Other audiences have seemed to have something else in mind—just being there, being seen there, etc. Anyway, it was a nice introduction to the city of Chicago. We were also blessed with cold but only barely freezing weather, and no snow.

At one point, killing some time before dinner, we chanced upon a small Bavarian village right there in the middle of downtown Chicago (which is different from any large city I’ve personally visited in being composed of way tall buildings). Evidently, the spot is normally a vacant square, used seasonally for different purposes. Here were a couple dozen tents of Christmas-related goods announcing their country of origin. Nearly all were German, with a Ukranian stall or two. As it was dark by then, and this place was so cheery and so contrasting with its surroundings, it was most impressive. I should mention that there was a skating rink right across the street, too, with its ice full of Chicagoans acting as New Yorkers in Central Park. Fun.

We had a good visit with Melissa’s sister and her family. The house is so large, I almost want to recommend it to you as a hotel, but it’s also quite a way from Chicago and anything civilized, so I won’t. A couple times, they dropped us at the local town’s train station, and we took our increasingly famliar means of transportation into The Big City. Pretty convenient. After stopping at Starbuck’s, of course.

A note on that—finding the familiar among much that is new. I’m proud of Starbuck’s, and not just that it’s from Seattle. I’m sure it has to do with my love of coffee and prior association with the company (before it got big). It also has to do with how the store feels, and how people react to it. It’s really fun to be in a Starbuck’s in some city I hardly know, and to see (often) many people enjoying its services as if it’s always been there. Hasn’t, and I feel this neat warmth when I’m in one. Melissa feels the same way about Nordstrom’s.

I’ve mentioned before in these musings that there is a scary sameness infecting America, which we’ve observed by our cross-country travel. Does my warmth at entering a Starbuck’s match that of someone else upon entering a McDonald’s? Where will it end, or will future generations be so familiar with the lack of distinctions that no one cares to buck the trend? Now, when something specific to a place is seen as valuable by others, it becomes franchised. Aunty Anne’s hot pretzels can be had in malls across America, as well as in the Pennysylvania countryside where the store originated. Everyone gets to share the goodies, but is it the same? Isn’t there something other than the goody itself that contributes to the enjoyment of eating it? For us, part of the charm of Starbuck’s is the fact that its employees don’t seem to lose their personalities working there. There are some strange characters in almost any Starbuck’s, and I hope they never leave. Personally, I drink Coffee Beanery coffee, having the choice of both across the street from our new house. It’s not the Starbuck’s coffee (which is fine), but something else that we like. Hope we all figure it out some day.

We’ve a few more hours before we arrive in DC, but I’ll close and enjoy the scenery. Happy trails...