I’ve recently come home from Chicago and there are a few things about that city that have stayed with me, things I can’t escape. It’s been five days since I’ve returned and I still hear and feel the echos of that town. I haven’t traveled extensively so my experience is limited but when I encounter a place that is historic, that has a personality, that evokes a distinctive feeling, I carry it with me long after planes have landed and hotel room numbers are forgotten.
I’ll never think of city planning as a boring municipal issue again. A hundred or more years ago, the people in charge decided that the shores of Lake Michigan belonged to the citizens. And it became the law of the land. Because they understood that from the dawn of time, people need to be near water. They need the clean air and the blue skies. They need parks and beaches. To put one’s feet in cool water feels as good today as it did ten thousand years ago. So for twenty-six nearly uninterrupted miles, the people of a huge city have access to a Great Lake. It makes a difference.
Design. Everything in Chicago is about design. When the city burned to the ground in 1871, it became a blank canvas and those who were tasked to rebuild it were unencumbered by that which came before. It was the Second City. Some of the best and most influential architects in the world had free reign and the results were immediate. And standards were set. Once beautiful buildings were built, once innovation and creative industrial design became the norm, it became unacceptable to aspire to anything less. And for a century, that has been the standard. Just as you won’t survive as a mediocre blues player or as a bad steakhouse in Chicago, there isn’t room for unimaginative architecture.
There are two people from Chicago who I’ll remember for a long time. They are both old black men. They are both musicians. And they are both blind.
My wife and I went to the legendary Green Mill Jazz Club on the north side. It’s been open for a century and became notorious in the twenties and thirties as an Al Capone hangout. His preferred booth is still there, the one that has a view of the front door and the back exit. It’s close to the bar where there is still a trap door to an escape tunnel. Now the busboys use that tunnel to fetch more liquor or store cases of empty beer bottles.
My wife and I went there on a Sunday night because we were too tired to go on the Friday as we had planned. When we walked in, there were no musicians on the main stage, the stage that I remembered from twenty five years ago. Instead, they were set up behind the bar. A three piece band. Guitar, drums and Hammond B-3 organ. Initially, I was disappointed because I wasn’t going to hear any horns, and jazz guitar has never been my favourite.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
We ended up sitting at the bar, not more than eight feet away from the band. The guitar player was perhaps the best guitar player I’ve ever seen. And I’d never heard of him. And no one I know has ever heard of him.
The organ player, Chris Foreman, was something else. You know the feeling when you have the revelation that you are extremely lucky to be where you are, both physically and in a moment in time? That’s what it was like watching these guys play. Chris sat with us between sets. I don’t know why. Maybe he liked Valerie’s voice or perfume. But he stopped and asked if he could sit with us. We chatted about music and other things. He’s a sixty year old professional musician who has been blind since birth and he is probably among the best players of his instrument in the world. The bandleader said that Chris’s left hand was the best bass player in Chicago. And on a quiet Sunday night in a neighbourhood bar on the north side of a city, far away from the tourists, we experienced some of the best musicianship we’d seen in our whole lives. For five bucks. For the price of a cup of coffee. Like the buildings and the shore, Chicago decided long ago that music was important.
When I wake up in the morning and when I lay down to sleep, I hear one song. It’s four words long. I think the melody has three quarter notes followed by a whole note. It goes like this: Have a Nice Day, Have a Nice Day, Have a Nice Day…. A block or two from our hotel, on the way to the bridge to cross the Chicago River, in the shadow of the Trump Tower, was an old black man. He stood on the corner, blind, and he had a 7-Eleven cup filled with the coins that he had collected and he shook it in rhythm to his song. Have a Nice Day, Have a Nice Day…I never spoke to him and I know he never saw me. But he’s stayed with me. I don’t know his name and I can’t possibly know his story. But he’s stayed with me. If I had to guess, I’m fairly certain that I’ve never had a chance encounter with someone, however peripherally, and that person would remember me a week or a month or a year later. Somehow, in some way, I wish that man knew that I remember him. That I think well of him. Someone in another country, in another time zone. I still sing his song.
So long, Chicago.
Have a Nice Day, Have a Nice Day, Have a Nice Day, Have a Nice Day…