#42: A Walk in the Park

August 3rd, 2012

Millennium Park is how people in the 1960s imagined the future.

It’s Starfleet Command, where a multi-ethnic group of happy people wander among shiny buildings and modern arty looking things made by space aliens (or in this case, Frank Gehry). Even the guards travel around by Segway, a machine the producers of Logan’s Run would have considered a little over the top.

Here, we look at giant silver beans and listen to music in a wad of crumpled tin foil. Children dance in the spit-streams of two-story faces. Here, you walk around and realize we do in fact live in the future.

So why does this make me think of the past?

In the 1920s, Ben Hecht would sit and people-watch in Grant Park, the top of which was eight decades later chopped off to make Millennium. At one point in his 1001 stories, he wrote a grim, rather ponderous piece about how the men who laid in the grass on summer days were waiting.

“That was it. He had found the word,” Ben wrote of himself in the annoying third-person guise of “the newspaper reporter” he sometimes adopted.

“‘Waiting.’ Everybody was waiting… The only difference between the men lying on their backs and people elsewhere was that the men in the grass had grown tired for the moment of pretending they were doing anything else.”

Men still lie on the grass in Grant Park, albeit not in the numbers of the past. Air conditioning and wireless have taken away a bit of the impetus behind staring up at the clouds on a hot summer day. But families do stroll and look at The Bean and marvel at this mix of old and new in Chicago.

It is the old and new that makes Chicago marvelous. Post-fire terra cotta mixes with glass and steel along Michigan Avenue. Even the ground we walk on in Hecht’s Grant and my Millennium is from the past, quite literally landfill from the Great Fire and dirt from the Chicago Tunnel Company’s later wormpath through town.

I’m getting as ponderous as old Ben here, but we’re always poised between the past and the future. Without the past, we have no meaning. Without the future, we have no point.

So, sure. Maybe we are still lying in the grass waiting, me writing these lines a full 90 years now after Ben wrote his.

But that doesn’t ring true to me. Ben’s piece ended with “the newspaper reporter” and his grim assertion that “Life is a few years of suspended animation. But there’s no story in that. Better forget it.”

That’s not true, just 1920s popular fatalism. I know this because Millennium and Grant aren’t just Chicago’s past and future. They’re mine.

When I think of Grant, I think of a day I spent on the grass with a woman laying her head on my tummy. I thought I would never be that happy again. I think of walks and talks and the old boat tours I used to give where I would sneak in a quote from Ludwig Wittgenstein before the Married With Children fountain shot off its nightly display.

My Millennium past includes that same woman and I seeing the newly minted Cloud Gate statue, better known as The Bean. It contains that classical concert just a few weeks ago where some friends and I all thought we were the ones bringing the wine so we got very drunk indeed. It holds a sad memory I wrote about before. The link will be below.

But my future’s there too. In both parks I wonder who the next woman will be with whom I share this place. I think about future concerts where hopefully I don’t get as plowed. I think of summers tomorrow where I’m older, grayer, fatter and, if all goes according to plan, as happy as a clam at high tide.

Maybe Ben thought about waiting in the park with a cynical edge. I don’t think about it that way. We’re always killing time between the past and the future. What better place to kill that time than in a park?

Here’s the sad memory I mentioned

Here’s Ben’s version of the story

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You are currently reading #42: A Walk in the Park by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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