Tres Chic(ago)

I head home today from Chicago. While the conference I’m here for is in the Palmer House Hilton, I’m in the “overflow hotel,” the W Chicago. Eurostyle, or so I’m told. I’ve only been to Iceland, which is technically North America. Or so I’m told.

My plane leaves this afternoon, and I’ve got one last conference session this morning, so I’m hoping to pack up later. It’s early, and I haven’t been sleeping well. I open the hotel guide, but it contains nothing as mundane as a checkout time, at least that I can see. The indexing tabs say Yum, Wish, Wired and Show. Where’s Leave?

I want to call the front desk, but there is no such button on the phone. There is a Whatever Whenever button. I hesitate, then press “0” — downstairs (I hope), a phone rings.

A woman’s voice, young, joyful and vaguely French, says, “Thank you for calling Whatever Whenever. What is your wish?”

Do I get three? A waffle-maker. Hot coffee. And the check-out time.

It’s been like this: My room is the last room on the 12th floor, near the fire escape and train tracks. It’s IKEA meets Sinatra inside, grays and dark browns; textiles, wood and stainless, with odd flourishes like a high gray leather headboard, and shadow boxes on the walls displaying a silver hip flask, Zippo lighter, and lipstick case. On a shelf in the bathroom is an insistent message from management: “What can we do for you? (Anything. Just ask.)”

Each elevator ride is a rave or a fashion show, depending on who you’re with. The holographic multicolor gemstone wall coverings, the über-chic clientele from the upper floors, and the pounding house music make the close confines feel like an absurdly short runway; the same music in an elevator full of land-grant college folks like me has the lack of eye contact and close, bouncing discomfort of a club packed with strangers.

You spill out into a lobby lit like perpetual midnight, and the music changes: ’70s cop show. The registration desk is a series of glowing podiums. The walls are lit with giant projections of colorful flowing liquids, a two-story bottomless cocktail. The lobby doubles as a trendy bar, with leather couches that meander and curve so that you face everyone and no one at all and divans unsuitable for anything expect perching bird-like on the edge or passing out.

The cocktail nymph would glow in black light — a pale-skinned, dark haired beauty with icy eyes. Her thin smile says unattainable, but she has thoughtfully chosen to wear a form-fitting black polo shirt as a dress. Very whatever whenever

Upon This Strange Rock …

When it comes to work, I don’t travel well. Mostly I can’t sleep. The train outside doesn’t help.

But I do like certain things, like driving into a new city at night, or encountering interesting people. I also like going to church in strange places — I love finding a quiet oasis in the midst of the honking hustle, where people pray the same way I do at home.

Last night I went to Mass at St. Peter’s in the Loop — the closest Catholic church to my hotel in downtown Chicago. I walked in the general direction, ignoring landmarks and counting streets — and suddenly there it was before me, gray and obvious, a solid block of stone tight between buildings. Petros. The Rock.

I entered to find a smiling, white-haired and -bearded Franciscan floating about the baptismal fount, greeting the arrivals. I smiled back and said hello, crossed myself and chose a short pew on the right side, midway up; knelt, prayed, then looked up and around. The church broke open like a geode: its hard gray exterior belied a glowing creamy marble interior, still a rock, but a very different rock.

The musicians were rehearsing at the front of the church — “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go into the house of the Lord.'” The quartet was a jazzy number, however; vocals, upright bass, keyboard and drums. The singer could sing — beautifully — but her soulful rendition was tough to follow at times. The bassist and drummer were two hep Catholics in black sweaters and jeans; the bassist’s sandy hair swooped skyward, and the drummer’s dark locks hung straight down, below his ears. At the keyboards sat a Francisan who looked shockingly like a slouching Kelsey Grammar. Beneath the hem of his robes were frayed jeans and black sneakers.

I felt my insides hardening to judgment. I looked elsewhere.

To my left, and slightly behind, the pastor had slipped quietly behind two teenage girls to ask them to bring forward the gifts. One appeared to be latina, with long wavy black hair and an open and friendly face. The other was much darker, beautiful, with a glittering white gemstone in the side of her nose. Her mood was a mystery until she turned to the priest and smiled.

A black couple enters. An Asian family of five? six? — they keep moving around! — with a diminuitive mother showing her imminent intent to increase her shining brood. Men in suits. Women with shopping bags. Students in sweatshirts with ball-caps and backpacks. All seeking peace at The Rock. The haggard and cold people, and the beautiful people. Front and center sits a tall and well-dressed couple, his bald head polished to a sheen; her dark hair in a jaunty pony-tail, better to see her hoop earrings dangling with stones. Periodically her the rocks on her hands wink at me from a dozen pews or more away.

A woman walks past and curtsies — there is no other word — casually toward the tabernacle. A while later, another woman does the same. The first woman’s beau arrives, a big cannon-shot of a man in a dress shirt and vest, with curly black hair slicked back and a single gold earring, like a pirate. I do not see him genuflect; he sits and throws his arms across the back of the pew. His girl nestles in close.

Again I feel my heart harden. I pray silently.

Just before Mass begins, another Franciscan comes up the aisle, genuflects, and kneels prayerfully in the pew in front of me. Beneath his robes is a fighter’s frame, his face is dark — maybe Hispanic — and serious, with a boxer’s chin and nose, and a scholar’s dark-rimmed glasses. His folded fists are like round river rocks. I remember the words of Christ: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

The opening hymn. She gestures for us to sing, but who can follow her slides and trills? Frasier can really tickle the ivories, and the rhythm section is swinging. My newfound Petros and I sing softly to ourselves.

Father haunts the sanctuary like an over-friendly ghost, at times praying in a quavering cry, other times speaking in loud and joyous commonality. The reader, a thin and white-haired woman with a drawl, and the acolyte, an older Asian fellow, perform their duties with understated precision.

We reach the Gospel. Our diva is channeling Billie Holiday and getting slipperier by the verse — even the Alleluia is a tough act to follow. Petros closes his eyes and offers his own. I follow suit.

I feel badly that I’m so distracted by the things I don’t like here, and I try to focus on the common elements. When we pray, I pray intently, as if I’m trying to wrest what control I can from the people around me. My conflict is my own, however — Petros remains a rock.

We sing the Lord’s Prayer together, and the singer plays it straight. It’s beautiful. We offer peace, and Petros turns to me, unfolding both his hands to enfold one of mine. His grip is firm, but soft and warm. What looked like a fighter’s profile is now a broad and friendly smile. Another geode: stony on the surface; glowing inside.

I’m feeling better by the moment. I pray silently, and it occurs to me that Jodi and the kids were planning to attend 6 p.m. Mass back home. I smile to myself. We’re praying the same prayers across the miles.

We come forward, then return to our pews and pray. The Eucharist is warm inside me. Petros bows his head and closes his eyes. So do I.

The final song is the one the combo rehearsed at the outset. At least I know what’s coming. We sing as best we can together, one verse, two. The priest, reader and acolyte recess. So many people are leaving already, but not Petros and me. We sing the third verse, and the musicians are feeling it. They begin the fourth and final verse, and Petros closes his book and ducks out.

I realize I’m not sure he genuflected. Must have to get to the doors to wish people well as they depart, I justify.

The music stops to scattered applause. I emerge onto the cold street. The pastor is shaking hands. No sign of Petros. I feel it again: the hardening inside. I turn toward the hotel … then shake my head at myself and smile again. So St. Peter was imperfect — who am I to judge?

Blue-Collar City


Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders …
Carl Sandburg, “Chicago”

The flight from Minneapolis to Chicago is not long. Barely time to level off and serve drinks before the flight attendants buckle down for descent. But I did a double-take out the window as we broke through the thick dark clouds over Minnesota. To the west were thin layers of crimson, red-orange, yellowish-green and blue, with a single gleaming star beckoning from the heavens. Below the plane was not earth, but ether — blue-black and undulating, like a sea in slow motion …

Chicago is not like that. Nothing ethereal about it. The fellow hailing taxis outside O’Hare has big shoulders to bear up his chip; he’s polite to us, but harsh to the cabbies, who never seem to be in right place, or to ask the right questions, or to “listen to what what I’m trying to tell you!” The drivers seem quite capable on their own, but in his presence, they are reduced to nitwits.

We drive into the belly of the beast. I like riding in a cab into a city at night: the lights, the people, the unknown sights and unexpected turns. I’ve said before that Chicago seems somehow more friendly that New York, more real somehow. We turn a corner, and directly in front of us is the Chicago Board of Trade building, standing like frontier justice in the middle of the road, looking down on as with an amiable grin and wary eye. Sandburg spoke the truth: it’s a blue collar and muscular town; on evenings cold like this one you can watch the steam rise off its sweating brow. In the morning you’ll hear the great city crack its knuckles, see its broad shoulders roll and stretch as it limbers up for a new day.