Friday, April 30, 2010

The Scavenger to Capitalism

My supervisor at the children's museum asked me if I wanted to end the assignment a week early so I could have time off before my full-time job started. I said I'd had plenty of time off, and we decided to take my last week (which is only Monday-Wednesday) on a day-by-day basis and see how much work was left to be done.

Over the weekend I attended CPR training at my new job, and was so taken by the fact that I'll be able to walk to work - in a part of Chicago that's so pretty it doesn't even look like itself, that I was loathe to get out of bed Monday morning to make the shlep down to Navy Pier. I told myself Monday would be my last day, but there was enough work left to bring me back Tuesday, and Wednesday too. I could have just punked out, but they'd been so nice to me there (they even gave me two trays of miniature cupcakes on Administrative Professionals day, can you believe it?), and it's always good to network with people who might be able to help you out down the road, so I came in for the full three days.

Wednesday morning I dragged myself out to Navy Pier one last time, savoring the view from the #82 Kimball-Homan bus as it coughed and farted its way south. This time of year the buds on the trees lining the avenue burst forth in a bright chartreuse, and I felt nostalgic knowing that this would probably be the last time I'd see them from the height of the #82. Just below Addison, the bus driver got into a yelling match with a car that was trying to make a right turn into the parking lot of Home Depot in front of her. Finally she let him go, saying "well, go on, before you tear somethin' up!"

I descended the bus onto the uneven and potholed intersection of Kimball and Belmont, and ventured underground to catch the blue line train. At the Grand Avenue stop I exited the accordion-doored subway car and ascended the stairs to the turnstiles, where a blue uniformed CTA employee stood, as he did every morning, greeting commuters with a wave, a smile and a genuine "good morning". Aboveground again, I waited for the #65 Grand Avenue bus, and rode it one last time as it wound its way east on Grand, then onto Illinois, underneath Michigan Avenue, and finally docked itself at the end of the line at Navy Pier. I wound my way through the maze of the children's museum, using my key card three times to gain access to both service entrance doors, and the door to the office suites above the third floor of the museum. At my desk I set to work on moving some electronic files onto a new server. The computer I was working on was unbelievably slow, I had to restart it several times because it kept freezing up, and I finally went to the food court to get some coffee while it rebooted.

I got in line at Starbucks (the only place to get coffee at Navy Pier, unless you count McDonalds) behind a group of students who looked like they were in the 8th or 9th grade. The kid in front of me, a doughy boy whose head bore an asterisk of hair circling the spot where his head had, until recently, been resting on his pillow, ordered an iced venti machiato. This struck me as the most ridiculous thing a 13 year-old had ever ordered - an opinion I firmly held onto until the kid behind me ordered a double chocolate mochachino. "I am not going to miss the atmosphere of Navy Pier" I thought, and mumbled something to that effect out loud as I added cream and two packets of turbinado sugar to my perfectly sensible 12 oz. coffee while the young machiato addict waited for his confection.

It was a gorgeous day, my computer kept freezing, and by noon I could restrain the urge to goof off no longer. I got my timesheet signed, faxed it over to the temp agency, and headed to Michigan Avenue to do some shopping.

After a year of self-restraint, I anticipated a full-blown shopping spree, but my habit of not spending turned out to be one that I couldn't shake. I browsed the shoes at Nordstrom, but just couldn't bring myself to spend $70 on something I could probably get online for half the price. I tried on a pair of dark-wash blue jeans, but couldn't justify the expense. In the end I bought things for M, since he hasn't gotten many gifts from me over the past year, and if anyone should be shopping on Michigan Avenue on a Wednesday afternoon jut for the hell of it, it's him. I bought him some fancy shaving products and some very expensive chocolate, and then, longing for a familiar anchor keep me from floating away in a vast sea of consumption, I headed to the Chicago Cultural Center.

A calmness came over me as I walked through the familiar doors of the mighty edifice, which was once the original home of the Chicago Public Library, and features - among other things, the world's largest stained glass Tiffany dome. The building has served as a resting point for me when appointments and interviews draw me downtown, and I'm so familiar with it at this point that I know where the best bathrooms are (2nd floor), I have a favorite table in the reading room (against the western wall, next to the display of Chicago Publisher's Gallery books), and I know the view of Millennium Park from the second floor gallery windows by heart.

You really can't beat the Chicago Cultural Center; they have free film screenings, free wifi, free art exhibits, and the only bust of a city planner I've ever seen - that of Ira J. Bach, 1906-1985, with the inscription "In developing a general plan, we must look at the city as if it were going to be entirely rebuilt, because a healthy city naturally rebuilds itself in the long run." You'd be hard pressed to find a more sensible, down-to-earth inscription on a bust. Mr. Bach's pinched face and stern molded haircut is not one that will ever be recognized by school children, or appear in profile on treasury-issued coins, but it makes me happy to know that his years of service (noted as 1940-1985) will forever be on display in this enclave, this quiet space on a sprawling avenue in the middle of America's 3rd most populous city.

I walked through the reading room, noting the admonishing word "Silence" that hangs on a wood panel one wall, and the anagram "License" that hangs on a wood panel directly across from it. I had some time to kill before meeting some former colleagues, so I walked up the double staircase to the second floor to see the current art exhibit: Christine Tarkowski's Last Things Will Be First and First Things Will Be Last. Her work included a dome inspired by Buckminster Fuller, and a room covered in broadsides made to look as though they had been printed long ago in obsolete fonts. "Thirsty woman," one began, "If you drink this water you'll never be thirsty again!" "Magic bullet faith cafeteria style 'service' I wanna eat from your buffet," decried another. "Praise the scavenger to capitalism bio/wind/hydro/solar the garbage man is the rational hero," said a third.

My mind settled on the message of the scavenger broadside - was this what I had become? Over the past year I've learned to make do with less, and have developed money saving habits: I get my hair cut for $16 by students at the Aveda Institute; I go bowling on Mondays, when it costs $1 per game at Diversey Rock 'n Bowl; and I'm a card carrying member of the Kerasotes five buck movie club. Shopping on Michigan Avenue made me anxious, it's basically against my religion at this point. I'd found my way back to a space where the only things for sale are a few trinkets in the gift shop, and the goods in the cafe on the first floor. In the corner of the room a 45rpm record spun on a turntable playing the same song over and over, a recording of people singing the words to the thirsty woman broadside. I stayed in the room for a few minutes reading posters, listening to music, and thinking about my near future.

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