A bright Friday morning, 9 a.m., the rush of commuters to the Metra and the Green Line having already subsided, the day’s commerce begins. With a half hour to “kill” and an hour remaining on my meter, fortified by coffee, I take a window seat at Lea, the restaurant on Marion Street that specializes in “French street food.”
It’s not France, but I can imagine it from here, French cafes being famous as sanctuaries from the mainstream, a harbor from which to watch the world flow by. Across the street is Sugar Fixé, another establishment with French pretensions. And this is Vision Fixé, my global positioning fixed point on the left bank of Marion.
The late-March morning sun bastes the buildings across the street, tree-branch shadows spider-webbing the walls, waving to and fro in the breeze.
The beat cop ambles up the block. Garbage trucks barrel past at a healthy clip, which can’t be healthy for the brick street, shining with sunlight reflected off storefront windows, the tessellation pattern of the bricks mirroring the display of rolling pins, resting on metal latticework against Lea’s back wall as if they were being turned out of the ovens along with the brioche.
Out on the bluestone sidewalk, workers with day-glo vests trundle back and forth with wheelbarrows piled high with mulch for the trees and plant beds. A Turano Bakery truck parks across the street, which surely can’t be making deliveries to a French restaurant, and can’t be supplying Prairie Bread Kitchen, either, which presumably makes its own. So its presence is the morning’s first mystery.
In front of Munch, the vegetarian restaurant nearby, a staffer sweeps away debris from the front entrance. The broom plus the wheelbarrows, the cobbled curbs and brick street, and the white glass orbs atop reminiscent lamp-posts create an old-world air, a Disney-like Main Street simulation from another era. Quaint.
What will someday be echoed from our era, legible awnings?
Traffic builds. Errand-runners pass in a self-confident flurry. The pace quickens. Quicken, that archaic term for stirring life. Commerce is another. People quicken and tree buds thicken. Birds flit and … well, watch out below. The temperature and the heavy coats of passersby say one thing, but the sunlight tells another story.
It’s spring. Thermometer be damned. Full speed ahead.
A patrol-car cop shoves a ticket under the windshield of a BMW. Another satisfied customer. King & I Thai Restaurant has a “DK For Lease” sign attached, which tells the tale. Next door, Edible Arrangements posts a “Now Open” sign under its bright red awning. Fitzgerald’s Stationery did not stay stationary and now occupies what formerly housed the hat store. Comings and goings, the nature of life, the artifice of commerce. Only Luo’s Peking House is forever. So much changes, so much doesn’t.
And suddenly I find myself back in Amsterdam in 1973, having arrived the wintry night before. By the next morning, March 21st, spring had arrived, perfectly punctual, a day that looked just like this, except for the canals. It felt like this anyway, a beginning, like every layer of accumulated film that makes us see life indistinctly has been stripped away, revealing the world in its unpolluted and clarified state.
Forty-five years ago, I was 20, studying abroad, on spring break, wandering about Western Europe, a lifetime ahead. The past and the present in equal measure, old world and new world and the longing for both, living momentarily in peaceful co-existence. The freshness of then and now, memory and perception, two shining worlds co-habiting springtime’s annual miracle of refreshment, replenishment, and renewal. Morning’s daily revival, the world rinsed new again, another triumph of hope over experience.
Here and Now, There and Then — a tug, not of war but of friendly give and take.
And I am the rope.
As it happens, on this day 55 years ago, the Loyola Ramblers won the NCAA basketball tourney. I was 10, listening fervently on the radio in the kitchen. My dad’s alma mater. My future alma mater. Red Rush and “the Gonnella scoreboard.”
The present is a busy intersection.
The women behind the counter are oblivious to the echoes. They can’t see the street outside as I have — once paved, with diagonal parking; once malled, for pedestrians only; and now bricked, a traffic-calming bump in the middle. They have no way of knowing what a busy street this is in my mind’s eye, busy beyond all traffic-calming.
The sunlight on this March morning tells two stories, of better times ahead and better times back then, united under the glow of our great pilot light in the sky, rising every morning to our occasion.
Global positioning indeed.