#885: Finding Mercedes

February 5th, 2018

She was a South American beauty, body born for the beach.

She cast her head around as her dark eyes scanned the room. All eyes were on her sleek form, the swivel and sway in her walk.

And her lateral nasal supraorbital gland used to expel bloodstream salt accumulated through the repeated ingestion of sea water as she pursued her diet of squid, krill and cuttlefish? Dang.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I met a penguin. Her name was Mercedes and she loved me, or at least my pants.

I had sprung for a penguin encounter at the Shedd Aquarium as a belated birthday present for my then-girlfriend, now-wife. You and a crowd of children get to go in the Shedd’s back corridors and they bring you giant rubber boots, oodles of dead fish and a Magellanic penguin. Gentle, trainer-monitored stroking of the penguin follows.

Pro-tip: If you ever do this, be sure to be randomly wearing the same color pants as the Shedd penguin-handler uniform. That bird could not get enough of me.

But as pleasant a memory as it was having a penguin repeatedly snub children in favor of me, it was a memory. Over the weekend, my wife and I decided to recreate the experience.

We went to the Shedd to find our bird.

As a non-native of Chicago, I consider all museums, aquaria and other field-trip destinations my purview. I don’t need to maintain the city-dweller’s code of “Never go there until family’s visiting,” so that (and a generous sister who has given me a year membership to a different one the last few Christmases) has kept me a semi-regular visitor to the Field, Adler, Art Institute, Shedd, MSI and other spots usually only seen by yellow buses full of yelling kids and dates of couples still early-on enough they’re trying to look deep.

I love the lofted ceilings, the faux-classical architecture and massive marble pillars used as status for early 20th-century millionaires. I love the squeak of kids’ sneakers on the floor. I love the slight billowy echo among collections so massive even the smallest side object crammed in a corner — painting, fossil, meteorite or bulge-eyed seahorse — would be the centerpiece and talking point of your entire home.

But the city is rife with museums beyond the Big Five. The Oriental Insitute, the National Museum of Mexican Art, the DuSable Museum of African American History, the Chicago Cultural Center, the Stony Island Arts Bank, the International Museum of Surgical Science, Chicago History Museum, Chicago Children’s Museum, Museum of Contemporary Art, Hull House Museum, Chicago Maritime Museum, Intuit, Perry Mansion, the Money Museum and a dozen dozen more about neighborhoods, niche art, local history, ethnic history and other topics someone loved enough to make these secular temples to.

The Shedd is a gorgeous lakefront building once used as an exterior shot for a clown circus in one of the weirdest movies I’ve ever seen. The doors open up and you’re in every watery biome on the planet, surrounded by shimmy tropical rays, disturbing deep sea crawlies, lizards, frogs, seahorses, octopodes and quite literally a planet’s worth of fish.

Corridors down take you to the open air tanks where dolphins, otters, belugas and sea lions do their sunlit dances. Corridors down take you to the lower areas where you can see the tank bottoms where the belugas get some me time and the children run amok in a mock yellow submarine. And corridors then take you to the penguin tank to hunt down Mercedes-who-loved-my-pants.

After the penguin encounter two-and-a-half years ago, the children, my now-wife and I were given a card with Mercedes’ color code on it. Each penguin has three beads zip-tied around their flipper so the trainers can tell them apart and, as a side bonus, the encounter kids can come back and track down their penguino. Mercedes’ bead colors were brown-black-blue.

It’s hard to find an artsy, descriptive word for the Shedd’s penguin enclosure that isn’t also literal. The watery tank and mock-stone-beach enclosure was simply swimming with penguins. It was awash with them. It was, in fact, an ocean of penguins.

Magellanics like the girl we sought slipped down a towel-covered slide, dove, swam, waddled on the mock South American stone. Rockhoppers with the twin orange streaks zipping back across their heads like Dagwood Bumstead tapped foot and hopped, hopped, hopped over the way.

Outside the tank, children ran and shrieked “penguin!” in a dozen languages. Pingwin! ¡Pingüino! البطريق طائر!

Among this and through water-splashed glass, we were to spot three small beads in dark, boring colors on one of dozens of identical black-and-white seabirds.

We did.

We found Mercedes.

There wasn’t another moment where the bird looked deep into my soul with those beautiful dark eyes as if to say “Friend?” (I realize she was really saying “Fish?” but let me have this.) She was waddling among her waddling friends, just close enough to one corner of the glass we could spot her beads. She faced the other way most of the time, occasionally craning her neck to look here and there, spot things of interest to cold-water bird. She still had that sway when she took her steps — all penguins do — but this time all eyes weren’t on her, but divvied between the other swimming, waddling, diving, hopping remarkable birds.

Museums are special places, with thousands of paintings, fossils, meteorites or penguins who loved you lodged in a single spot. Any one would be the talking point of your home. Any one will stir your soul if you study it long enough.

Meet a man building an art museum in Englewood

Meet SUE at the Field

Meet Meresamun at the Oriental Institute

Meet an Art Institute ogre lodged by the elevator doors

Meet the Harold Washington robot at the DuSable

Meet Mr. Canoe at the Chicago Maritime Museum

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You are currently reading #885: Finding Mercedes by Paul Dailing at 1,001 Chicago Afternoons.

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