Set vivid against the little soft cities

When people ask me where I’m from, I usually say I’m from nowhere.

We moved a lot. My parents weren’t in the military; they were just adventurous, or following their careers — or restless.

Along the way from my birth to junior high, there were stops in rural Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, urban Chicago, suburban Chicago, and, finally, Lexington, Massachusetts, where we stayed until my sister and I graduated high school.

Now that I’m grown up and home is where Michael and I choose to make it, I’ve had the chance to visit most of the towns of my youth, all but Chicago, the city that holds some of my firmest childhood memories.

Bright, sunny morning

Then, a couple months ago, my enterprising sister captured us dinner reservations at Alinea for my birthday and suddenly a long-weekend trip to Chicago was planned and booked.

Alinea

The dinner — and the city — were glorious. It was a whirlwind of both familiar and new tastes, sights, and smells. We’d round a street corner and the sight of an old familiar building or sculpture would blow me back in time 30-odd years.

Wrigley Building

In the Museum of Science and Industry, somehow grown even bigger and more spectacular than I remembered it, several ancient exhibits of my childhood remained: the Coal Mine (which we decided to skip because of the long queue); Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle; the Great Train Story; the Whispering Gallery (where Hyla sang an aria); Yesterday’s Main Street (where we treated ourselves to ice cream sundaes); and, tucked into a small corner, much diminished from its previous incarnation, Farm Tech, where we discovered the best birthday surprise I could have asked for.

Mold-A-Rama

Those of you familiar with the Mold-A-Rama will instantly know why I actually — and without shame — ran across the room to touch it. It makes things like this:

Tractor

Little toys, freshly molded out of a waxy-plastic that is still warm (really, hot enough to burn) when it comes out of the machine. It’s a plastic that gives off a unique, childhood memory-triggering smell for as long as the plastic stays warm. When we were kids, my sister and I had dozens of plastic animals molded from similar machines sprinkled throughout the Brookfield Zoo (I’m happy to read that they still have many Mold-A-Rama machines at the zoo! I’m also somehow both surprised and not surprised to learn that we’re not the only ones with fond memories of the Mold-A-Rama).

We made two tractors, and carried the warm little toys near our noses all afternoon, sniffing them and marveling in a smell that we never thought we’d come across again.

It was a day that could only be capped by an over-the-top, fabulous, 25-course birthday dinner at Alinea, culminating with a dessert that was intricately constructed on our table, before our eyes, by Chef Achatz himself. He talked to us! He also has the ability to drip melted chocolate from a spoon to form squares. The man is a force of nature.

Alinea Grand Finale

I could go on and on about Chicago and tell you about the Greek feast we had our first night there with our friend Kelsey; the treasures we discovered and rediscovered at the Art Institute; the other feast we had at Morton’s with our nephew, Joe; the foggy days and then the dazzling sunlight of our last morning there; the perfect bowl of oatmeal we found in a little coffee shop; the view from the top of the John Hancock Observatory; and the view from the top of the Navy Pier Ferris Wheel.

It’s hard not to love a city that seems so confident and assertive and ready to shout out that it is what it is, like it or lump it. A city that boasts larger-than-life-sized urban sculpture; a Whitman’s sampler of architectural styles; union rallies on street corners; tacky gift shops and a fashionable high street; kitschy coffee shops, kicky cupcake bakeries, and Michelin-rated restaurants; and some of the friendliest strangers you’ll ever meet.

There’s too much to say.

Instead I’ll just leave you with some of my favorite images of the city “with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.” I’m a country girl through and through, but Chicago, you still have a piece of my heart.

Museum of Science and Industry

"The Bean"

Climbing 2

Lions

America Windows 2

Rally

El tracks 1

Early evening lights

View from Hancock - Straight lines

6 thoughts on “Set vivid against the little soft cities

  1. and just when the cold had seeped through my bones long enough to make me question why i ever left the caribbean, and i’d been away from mountains long enough to start to resent the flatness of the midwest, you remind me how lucky i am to be in this city of the big shoulders…

  2. Thanks for sharing all these pictures! We are going to Chicago soon for a wedding (though, being as it’s for a wedding, we likely won’t get to Chicago much). It’s my kind of town, though. (ha ha. I’m sorry).

    • Thanks for the link to your Alinea post. Nice job! It was a dazzling experience, wasn’t it? I was tempted to document the whole thing, but opted instead to just immerse myself in the experience (aside from the one photo). I want to go back… 🙂

      And, yes, the mold machines! The ones I knew as a kid were all zoo animals from the Brookfield zoo, so animals and not machinery. I may have even had a dinosaur, but that would have been from the Field Museum, I guess?

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