It felt like the last day of the school year. Students and educators show up for an hour to be officially released from the familiar routine, assured finally that deadlines have been met, data recorded, obligations satisfied. It was that sense of walking out into a depressurized zone that she recalled as they left the escrow office. As they crossed the parking lot, the gentle warmth of early July in the Northwest washed over her face and bare arms, a kindly farewell assuaging any latent misgivings about departing their home of thirty-five years.
Neither sadness nor delirium accompanied them as they set out on State Route 18 toward Interstate 90: up and over the Cascades, across the Columbia River, through the Rockies and her birthplace, Butte, Montana and then, dropping down to the Great Plains and at last, the State of Illinois and the vast expanse of metropolitan Chicago. On July 6th, 2007, they pulled into his brother’s driveway in Batavia. No gentle caresses from July here: Midwest summer panders not to the finer emotions of its sweltering minions.
The following day, July 7th was her birthday and her only desire was to go to the Loop and visit the Art Institute. From Geneva they took the Metra, detraining at the Ogilvie Station. In truth, despite all of their fantasies and a few previous trips, they were in foreign territory. Rather embarrassingly, they experienced a few moments of confusion, but soon found themselves amid throngs of people heading east. She stopped abruptly in front of an iconic Chicago restaurant and watering hole.
“I thought this was closed!”
The shuttering of the Berghoff was national news. She had sadly read the story in the Seattle Times. Her friend, Valerie, had taken her to her father’s restaurant many years ago, in the late ’50’s. She had never forgotten standing in front of the massive mahogany bar. Nothing in her experience- certainly nothing in Sioux Falls- was comparable to this place; the size, the energy of proprietors, waiters and patrons, the murals on the walls. In her recollection of that visit, she saw herself as a small child, overwhelmed by the ambiance. In fact, though, she was about 19 years old-no doubt affecting an air of savoir-faire.
They went inside and ordered a beer and corned beef sandwich.
Back out on Adams Street, the Art Institute was in sight. Their objective wasn’t to tour the galleries- too travel weary to give the Great Masters appropriate time and consideration. She simply wanted to walk up the steps flanked by the venerable Masterpiece guardians- a sort of ritual of inclusion. As of that moment,this magnificent place was part of her city. They went into the crowded gift shop to buy a pair of earrings: a niece’s birthday gift. The clerk who wrapped the purchase, applying the requisite Art Institute sticker, suggested that they go across the street to Grant Park, where a festival was in process. It was, they realized later, The Taste of Chicago. They wandered around, listening to a couple of local bands, which were pretty good- however, there are several cultural manifestations where Seattle has set the bar- like coffee and rock bands. The two of them tend to be a little judgemental about things like that. Besides, it was very hot. They drifted off, further south. She was hoping to find the Lincoln statue before returning to the train station.
They came upon it, without realizing right away that that’s where they were. The St. Gaudens Lincoln sits in a semi-circular area with granite benches fitted into the curve. It is a place, on a hot summer afternoon, where a gentleman can rest, taking comfort, perhaps, from a brown paper-bag encased bottle. A grove of lofty trees gives shade and a breeze off the lake can find its way to that spot. As they approached, a stocky black man, sitting with his arm slung over the wall greeted them. She noticed the plastic wrist band like hospitals put on their patients. She asked him if he was O.K., not yet having observed that “How are you doing?” is Chicagoese for “hello”. (Actually, it’s “Howya doin'”- a rhetorical question not intended to elicit a chronicle of one’s aches and pains.)
So, he just smiled, responding with the aforementioned greeting. They introduced themselves as Bob and Mary; he introduced himself with a rhythmic alias. Their ensuing chatter was polite, innocuous- the weather, the crowds, and then, she mentioned that it was her birthday. An enumeration of the many opulent gifts showered upon his lady was forthwith required of her bemused husband. A trip downtown and a corned beef sandwich was not an acceptable answer. She came to the rescue by explaining that they had come to find a home in Chicago, and on Monday, they would be shopping for her real birthday present.
“So, you’ll be going up north to buy a house,” commented their friend.
“Oh, no!” she replied, somewhat ingenuously. “We’re moving to South Shore.”
He reached for her hand and placed it on his large walnut colored palm. Tears were welling up in his dark brown eyes.
“Dear girl”, he said, “If you are kind to everyone you meet there, they will be kind to you.”
“Oh, I know that”, she said, brushing off what she took to be bromidic, “we always try to live that way.”
But when she looked up into his broad, genial face, she saw something that brought her up short. There was a benevolence: an intense kindness that startlingly changed the complexion of a casual encounter.
She clasped his hand in both of hers and looked straight into his eyes.
“What is your name?” she asked.
“Joseph” he answered.
She thought of the St. Joseph statues and the St. Joseph candles which she believed had helped get them this far. It didn’t take long for her to feel that they were getting some special guidance as they proceeded south.