Like ghosts they moved across the ‘L’ platform. Spectral figures all in white, from the women’s summer dresses and hats to the men’s perfect ivory slacks and button-ups.
It was a crowd of about 30 to 40, in matching outfits, walking across the northbound train platform, some carrying chairs and large brown baskets.
Of course I sprinted of the southbound train to ask.
The Armitage Brown Line station is a two-platform affair, high above the shops and bars of a ritzier shopping section of the ritzy, shopping-filled Lincoln Park. The neighborhood hogs a lot of the greenery along with the finance. The tops of trees rustled at eye level from the platform.
Down the stairs, the crowd milled about, the glut of white splitting like an amoeba in mitosis into lines to get out of the station. I approached two young women, one hauling a basket, the other a folding chair.
“So what’s all this?” I asked the woman with the basket.
“Dîner en Blanc,” she mumbled, hurriedly looking away.
“Dinner in Blah?” I asked, moments before we went through the twin revolving cage doors that let them out onto the sidewalk by the station.
“Dîner en Blanc!” she said, taking an immediate left after the revolving cage door to avoid me.
“Dinner in Blonk?” I mumbled to myself.
I approached a mid-40s man with a white trilby and a short-sleeved button-up with stitching that made him look like he was running a dominos game outside a cigar shop in Havana. (In all fairness, I was also wearing a short-sleeved button-up with stitching like I was running a dominos game outside a cigar shop in Havana. Mine was light blue, though.)
“So what’s Dinner in Blank?” I asked.
“Dîner en Blanc,” he said.
“Dinner in Blonde?” I asked.
“Dîner en Blanc.”
“Dinner in Block?”
“Din-ner… en… Buh-lahnk. French. White,” he said, tugging at his shirt front to demonstrate.
“Oh!” I said. “Dinner in Blanc!”
He turned his head as if my stupidity were a high-voltage spotlight in his eyes. I approached a young blonde couple.
“So where’s this ‘Dinner in Blanc’ headed?” I asked, quite in the know.
“The zoo, I’m guessing,” the male of the blonde pair said, smiling so genuinely I could almost forgive the two of them for being so relentlessly attractive, wealthy and happy.
“Oh, you don’t know?”
The blonde man’s blonde companion chimed in.
“They give us meeting points throughout the city, then someone directs you to the next one,” she said.
“How did you find out about it?”
“Internet,” the man said.
Le Dîner en Blanc, the group’s Facebook page would later tell me, is an event in which “Thousands of people, dressed all in white, and conducting themselves with the greatest decorum, elegance, and etiquette, all meet for a mass ‘chic picnic’ in a public space.”
You don’t get many Oxford commas on FB, I’ll say that much.
The Facebook post went on to explain that the diners “enhance the function and value of their city’s public space by participating in the unexpected” and Le Dîner itself “recalls the elegance and glamor of court society.”
“There are no disruptions: no car traffic, no pedestrian traffic, except for the occasional amazed and astonished looks from passersby at the scene unfolding before them. And we, as they, wonder whether it’s all not a dream…”
I’m sort of making fun, so I’ll say that the photos look pretty, the prices are surprisingly reasonable and I’ve taken part in the World Naked Bike Ride, so I can’t get all judgey about flash mob events that make strange demands of your clothing.
And, like the WNBR, they have Le Dîner en Blanc events around the globe.
After hurriedly recording notes into my phone (I pretend I’m taking a call when I do this), I walked into a Lincoln Park kitsch shop on the corner. It was one of the many North Side rich-mom shops selling Danish-designed corkscrews, greeting cards in which 1950s clip art ladies say sassy thing about alcohol, nostalgia toys from nostalgia days and the vintage Chicago CTA maps that caught my fancy through the window.
“It’s like a pop-up dinner,” a woman in jogging clothes was explaining to a female shopkeeper in flowing linen.
“Oh, the ‘Dinner in Blanc’ people?” I cut in, still misspelling it in my head.
“Yeah,” the woman in jogging clothes said, smiling kindly and a tad conspiratorially. “That’s about all I got out of them too.”
We watched through the window as men and women clad in the purest of white glided silently past the store.
“Well, they look like a cult,” the shopkeeper said, turning back to her store.