Christmastime in Chitown


When I told Ty that I had never been to Chicago during Christmastime, he rolled his head back and groaned with a sort of nostalgic ecstasy.

"Ooooooh. Oh. Oh, man. We're going. Yeah, we're definitely going."

A week and a half later, we found ourselves on State Street, whose sidewalks were bedecked with evergreen clippings and red berries. The Macy's—which we referred to as Marshall Field's, of course—displayed its holiday finest. Inside we went, to the Walnut Room and to the Great Tree, which sparkled and twinkled red, purple, blue, green, silver. Inside, too, was Santa's workshop, and Frango Chocolates, and multi-colored lights and Christmas music and shopping bags and heavily-perfumed air. Outside, the holiday windows were crowded, and children pointed at the scenes, pressed their noses to the glass.

We visited the Christkindlmarket, too, on Daley Plaza. There, we bought mugs of spiked cider, and cups of goulash, and plates of potato pancakes. We were like sheep; tightly packed and unable to move, unable to balance our plates of salty goodness anywhere but above our heads. It was wonderful.

In the afternoon, we met Ty's dad and younger siblings at Lincoln Park. We quickly jaunted through the conservatory before heading into the zoo itself. As night fell, the park became an illuminated wonderland. Trees were outlined with thousands upon thousands of little colored bulbs, and Ty and I squinted at the enclosures, just barely outlining the humps of a camel, the legs of an ostrich.

Chicago has been on my mind quite a bit, as of late. Finishing Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City just before our trip put me in a "Chicago mood" as well. I wish I could explain how, and why, it is so easy to fall in love with Chicago. (Even when you miss two Metra trains in a row and end up staying in the city three hours longer than you expected.) For now, I leave you with the words of Larson himself:

" … I knew little about [Chicago] until I began work on [The Devil in the White City]. Place has always been important to me, and one thing today's Chicago exudes, as it did in 1893, is a sense of place. I feel in love with the city, the people I encountered, and above all the lake and its moods, which shift so readily from season to season, day to day, even hour to hour. I must confess a shameful secret: I love Chicago best in the cold." [1]















































[1] Larson, Erik. The Devil in the White City. New York: Random House, 2003. Print. Page 432.

Poinsettia Show at Garfield Park Conservatory

The conservatory was warm, and humid, and it took several minutes for the lens on my camera to clear. My glasses, too. Almost immediately, I felt my skin dampen beneath my winter coat. The coat, plaid and woolen, was perfect for outside. But inside, in a balmy, bright paradise, it was suffocating. I wore it nonetheless, and never bothered to unbutton it as I strolled past orchids, palms, air plants, and poinsettias. The conservatory was bedecked with red and white lights, the strands weaving through shrubs and flowers, and up and up and up the trunks of trees. An older man sat in a chair near the waterfall, monotonously watching the koi and nodding off. A young dark-haired woman sat on a bench near yet another pond, scribbling in a black leather journal. There were a few children among the plants, pointing and yelling, "Look! Look! Look!" Most, though, were in the conservatory's front room, where a tall tree and hundreds of poinsettias were arranged with frosted delicacy. Here, the children pointed at small trains and tiny villages, candy canes and elegantly wrapped gifts. I wished for their innocence and eagerness, and reached into my pocket, searching for a peppermint to calm my nostalgia. I found but a cough drop and, shrugging, unwrapped it anyway. 'Tis the season. 

















A Saturday in Chicago

Ninety five stories above the streets of Chicago, I and eleven other Instagrammers sat around a large, round table. Scattered atop the table were drinking glasses and finished plates, iPhones and cameras. Remnants, really, of both our Instameet and our meal.

We’d spent the last couple of hours wandering around downtown, from Connors Park to the historic Water Tower, to Chicago Avenue and Fairbanks. We’d stopped at a coffee shop whose name now escapes me, but where I had, for once, purchased a hot beverage. I stationed myself in a corner armchair, my toes numb, cheeks rosy, and eyes open. I drank in my surroundings, sipped my cocoa.

The coffee shop had tall windows and was a clean-looking sort of place. It was white, too—but not the sterile white of hospital sheets. No, it was the fresh white of an art gallery. It was purer. Industrial. Shiny.

To my right stood several Chicago Instagrammers, individuals I had met earlier that morning. They chatted about design work, photography, weekend plans and movies, their hands curled around coffees and cappuccinos. Steam unfurled from the cups and curled upward, where it swirled with soft voices, quiet hustle, and teaspoons against china. I felt encompassed by these sounds, ones familiar to downtown coffee shops. You know, the ones in which the young arhythmically type on their laptops and glance out the window, where they watch the breath of a hat-clad pedestrian rise in a petite frozen cloud.



True enough, it was unnaturally cold for November. In the days leading up to our Chicago visit, we’d heard the words “polar vortex” used more than once. In preparation for a day in the Windy City, I’d layered jeans over leggings, my wool coat over a sweatshirt. And though I hadn’t necessarily been freezing, a cup of hot cocoa was quite welcoming. Its warmth was as smooth as the silky, peppermint-scented water with which you draw a bath.

I took a sip and leaned forward, for I was sharing my chair with Steven, one of the three Indianapolis Instagrammers with whom I had traveled. We had caught the 6:00 a.m. train to Chicago, and had dashed through the chilly darkness to the station downtown. Steven and I had sped across the sidewalk, with poor Lizzy practically sprinting to keep up with our long legs and fast strides. We had made it, though. With cold fingers and shortness of breath, we had made it to the station, where Raina had been waiting. United, the four of us began to document our adventure with selfies, both serious and awkward. In the early-morning darkness, we had red eyes and blurry faces, sure, but we had eager hearts, too.





I found my first train ride to be incredibly relaxing; Raina and I sat together, talking of historic buildings and of Instagram and of our respective work places. Steven had fallen asleep across the aisle from us, his lanky form curled against the window. Lizzy, meanwhile, had nested under her coat on the seats in front of us, deeply asleep. As the hours passed, and as the sun rose and the fields of Indiana turned gray and blue and purple and pink and, finally, a radiant gold, the four us found ourselves joking, talking, and asking questions. Lizzy spoke of her siblings. Raina talked about her last trip to Chicago. Steven asked me about my former relationship, about my engagement, and about the wedding that had never happened.

“You know what? No. I’m sorry I asked. Never mind.” He shook his hand in my direction.

“No, no, no! It’s okay!” I exclaimed, looking up from my cross-stitch project. “Really. I don’t mind. I’m okay now.”

I took a breath and divulged. “Canceling our wedding was the single-most heartbreaking and embarrassing decision I have ever had to make,” I said, completing a stitch, “but it was the best decision for us. I didn’t want either one of us to foster resent.”

We talked.

I stitched.

The train snaked north.

And I realized that these three souls, who had grown up in different states, and with different backgrounds, were more than “Instagram friends.” They had transcended beyond my phone and into my life, shaking me and filling my days with cat photos, euphemisms, and bubbly, infectious laughter. We were all still learning about each other, sure, but I realized that they knew more about me than I had previously credited them. They knew what would make me laugh. And they had checked on me during my darker days, when I was tearful and lonely. No, they weren’t “Instagram friends” anymore. They were real people with whom I had built true friendships.













Back in the Signature Room, I stood at a window, numb to the sounds and chatter of nearby tables. One thousand feet below me were the people of the city. I watched them—the locals, the tourists, the transplants—and theorized that there were millions of tiny alternate universes. Most of them were small, I assumed, but could overlap.

As I watched the cars below me, I thought about the people in them—some were smoking, I was sure, and others, I imagined, were singing to the radio as they inched up Michigan. I watched the cars stop and go, stop and go, change lanes, and turn west. There were people racing to mid-afternoon meet-ups, and people shuffling shopping bags and packages, and people flagging down taxis which other people were driving, day in and day out, and there were people with headphones and iPhones and hats and scarves and gloves and there was me, forehead pressed against the glass, living my own universe ninety five stories above them.





I turned from the window and returned to the table where Raina, Steven, and nine Chicago Instagrammers were seated. (Lizzy and her sister had opted for pizza.) I sat down and looked, in turn, at everyone. We were of different backgrounds, and of different ethnicities, and of different upbringings. We had different stories, and different music preferences, and different favorite foods and we each had our own reason to be in Chicago that day, that year, that lifetime. Around that table, our worlds kaleidoscoped into the most colorful of Venn Diagrams.

Maybe, to an outsider, we didn’t have much in common. But at that moment, we had the Signature Room. And we had Chicago.

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