Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Sixth Entry on a Long Journey

                               "The Bean" Reflecting statue in the park by the Art Museum.
                                 See the guy taking the picture!

                                           Please look only at the name on the shirt!

                                Gertrude Spangler with her nephew along Lake Michigan.
                                                Photo by her daughter Anne Hollenbeck

                                Like any urban area, Chicago has its homeless but shelters are
                                insufficient and often dangerous.

                                  Elevated train on a quiet afternoon in the Loop. Note the proximity
                                  and architecture of the adjacent buildings.

                                One of the three Chagall windows at the Chicago Art Institute.

Years ago, while in Tanzania, a local fellow admonished me, that I, like most tourists, mainly took photos of the poor or of tribal people because they looked exotic and interesting. The pictures, he claimed, were useful as fodder for conversations about vacations and as an avenue to obtain praise from friends for my adventuresome bravado. Rather harshly, he concluded, that neither I nor the viewers gained any real insight about what it was like to live under the conditions as seen in such snapshots. He compared such photos as to those taken by a tabloid journalist of exotic animals on a trip to the zoo. To be at least fair to his country, he suggested that, if in fact my true purpose was to inform others what his country was really like, I should publish a number of boring pictures showing the majority people in their daily Western attire going about their business. Also I should include scenery of common places that could be almost anywhere in the world. Otherwise, I was consciously doing a disservice. Keeping this in mind, any attempt by me to describe Chicago carries a similar risk of distortion. In fact, my overriding feeling is that the task of transmitting a decent image of Chicago is too large and complex for me to express succinctly. Less accurate than a blind man who pokes his cane at a haystack and believes he has felt a bush, my brief experience in Chicago is limited to having "grasped a few straws." Even the proverbial Hillel who, it is said, was able to reduce the meaning of the Torah to one sentence while standing on one leg, would have been blown over if he had tried his luck at describing the Windy City. So keeping the above admonition in mind, the following is my feeble attempt.

During the week following the day of my arrival, various cousins and family gave me tours of their turf. They took me to the Loop (downtown), we walked along the lake, viewed the art museum, gazed at the city and Chicago River from a son's condo, gorged ourselves at eclectic, fashionable restaurants, listened late into the night to music at a  famous city jazz club, drove through ethnic neighborhoods, and relaxed at the assisted living facility where my 93 year old aunt lived.

My routes crisscrossed the city and suburbs which contained, according to recent figures, a staggering 9.5 million people, making it the most populous metropolitan area in the Midwest. Sometimes it felt like I was traveling down the rows of an urban version of a giant cornfield composed of brick stalks  filled with human ears of varying colors and size. The people that I observed seemed proud to be Chicagoans and well adapted to living in this mass of humanity. They resided in brick and wood frame houses, apartment buildings, many condominiumized, in subdivisions in the suburbs, stately mansions on the North Side, and in massive high rises along the lake. It felt like there was a busy upbeat tempo in the air, not a nervous sound, but a modern jazzy rhythm from the clicking of heels on pavement, the shutting of cab doors, the somewhat muted wheels from the el, and the voices laced with Midwest accents. There was an overriding sense of movement as well. Commuters recite subway routes and station departure and arrival times like they were practicing their times tables. They jam the Expressways called the Eisenhower or the Stevenson, or cruise the historic Lake Shore Drive or drive on Michigan Avenue for business or pleasure. The newest fad for transportation is to use bicycles, which the city supplies with the swipe of a credit card and which are attached to colorful docking stations at many corners throughout the metropolitan area.

I found it hard to conceive the massive amounts of financial and natural resources and manpower that are necessary to make the city of that size work and flourish. Just imagine the public sector's challenge to provide an adequate number of police cars, fire engines, school teachers, case workers, jailers, street sweepers and even aldermen that are needed to provide basic services. Guess the the amount of water, gas, electricity and sewage required to meet the demand. Speculate on the dollar value spent by the private and public sector on basic products such as food clothing or supplies. Look at the amount of dollars earned in commerce from offices, businesses, stores, and factories. The image is monumental. It blurs the mind. That is the case with me. For those who live in rural areas, or haven't visited a big city for a long time, it is hard to grasp the social and political implications such a metropolis has, let alone absorb the daunting realization about the number of people in the world.

The pictures  which I have chosen to share indicate that I have not adequately learned the lesson of Tanzania. These are selected frames that tell some aspect of Chicago, but omit many key elements. They are like random flowers plucked from a gigantic vase. They are shots from an amazing world and are meant to encourage viewers to plan to see the city on their own. On another note, I wish to thank publicly, my cousin Anne and her husband Stan Hollenbeck, my cousin David and his wife Bonnie Spangler, their son, Benjamin, and my cousin Ron and his wife Toni Ellis, for their gracious hospitality, kindness and love.


  1. A wonderful and very moving post, Lee. Thank you for sharing what seems to have been an equally wonderful and moving visit to Chicago. Stay safe.

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  3. The second picture from the top: Living proof that sometimes it does NOT pay to advertise. Aside from that there isn't much to say about it, except to convey the tremendous relief I feel that despite the name on the shirt, that most definitely isn't you!

    The third picture from the top: MUCH better!

    I think you're being too hard on yourself by trying to apply the advice you received in Tanzania in Chicago. It might be true and applicable anywhere else in the world, but your birthplace isn't anywhere else in the world and never will be. What you're trying to convey in words and pictures isn't the sense of "foreign and exotic" but the sense of home. Even if it's "home that's so different now from the way I remember it" that's still a whole different thing. What I mean is that you are already taking that Tanzanian guy's advice even if you aren't conscious of it.

    I'm too tired right now to know whether I'm making any sense or not, but I hope you understand what I'm getting at anyway.