Paul Andersen: Fair Game
November 13, 2011
O’Hare is a tumult of traffic and noise. The air reeks of exhaust fumes. Jets soar like flashing steel condors. I dial my cell. My cousin swoops in and picks me up in a shiny black sedan: “Take me to the woods, please.”
We pull into a forest preserve where stone steps rise up a short, steep, wooded bluff. Dozens of people are walking up and down. “This is where I get my workout,” my cousin explains. We walk up the stairs on what feels like the only hill in Illinois.
Next morning I ride the commuter train into the city. Grass and trees give way to parking lots, railyards, industrial buildings. The tops of skyscrapers punch through low, dark clouds. My train burrows into an urban catacomb and disgorges us. A human traffic jam plugs the passageway where huge train engines thrum. We stand like cattle, impatient for the light of day.
On the street, traffic pulses, horns blare, buses roar, taxis jockey. People surge along the sidewalks, a human river. Everything says “hurry!” Buildings wall in the noise and vapors. My sensory systems are attuned to nature. I lack the necessary filters. What am I doing here?!
“University of Chicago,” I tell the cabbie, and we’re off across the city. Wind blusters through the canyons. On the lake, whitecaps are lashed by gusts that tear the tops off in ribbons of spray. Trees whip in the storm. Rain speckles the windshield.
I’m let off at the campus, a mix of Gothic and modern. I find the elegant library where the collections are viewed in a quiet, clean, well-lighted room. I page through letters Walter Paepcke wrote 60 years ago, speeches by “Pussy,” programs from the Goethe Festival of 1949. I’m touching the source of Aspen’s cultural roots.
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At another table a young man of Vietnamese descent is bent over his work. We talk. He’s doing his Harvard doctoral dissertation on the influence of Beat poets during the Cold War. Over dinner at a Thai restaurant, he speaks with familiarity of Ginsburg, Burroughs, Ferlinghetti, Kerouac, Kesey, Whitman, Bukowski.
My college dorm room is narrow. A single bed stands in the corner. Wind whistles past the windows. The bathroom across the hall roars regularly with the flush of industrial toilets.
A second day in the clean, well-lighted room reveals the unusual personalities who infused culture into a run-down mining town a thousand miles away: Schweitzer, Hutchins, Adler, Borgese, Bergstrasse.
An old friend picks me up and we head north. The cityscape shimmers in glass and steel along Lake Shore Drive. In 40 minutes, I’m back where I grew up, my old street, my first haunts. A tree in a park bears a bronze plaque with my parents’ names. Memories crop up like weeds. I pull up one, and another sprouts.
The next morning, I drive to the city in my buddy’s loaner car, an old Cutlass with rust stains on the side panels. I find a parking space in front of Harpo Productions, Oprah’s turf. An elevator takes me to the loft apartment of Sydney Hyman – scholar, presidential speech writer, author of “The Aspen Idea.” Sydney is 98 years old. A venerable sage, he allows that Aspen, despite its flaws, is beautiful, that important discussions take place here, that the founders were human: “Great men are not always good men,” he smiles knowingly.
That night, my friend and I perch in the nosebleed seats at Harris Theater for “North River Dance.” On the distant stage, dancers appear like miniatures. Lithe and spasmodic, they move to a driving beat with incredible athleticism. A woman sitting next to me says she’s visiting from Colorado. “Where?” I ask. “Leadville.”
Sunday I drive back into the city. A radio newscaster reports a fatal stabbing over a bag of Halloween candy, an infanticide discovered in the trash can of a Chicago store. I hit the off button and feel suddenly claustrophobic.
At the Danish Old People’s Home, I present a bouquet of flowers to my aged aunt, my godmother. She’s in a wheelchair. Her legs are useless. Her left arm is inoperable. She smokes a cigarette using her only working limb.
We lunch on Danish meatballs, red cabbage, Carlsberg beer. Old people peer at my aunt, greet her in Danish. I shake their frail, brittle hands. Some remember my forebears. In a way, in a strange and unsettling way, I’m home.
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