Every Sunday morning in recent memory I go to Duck Inn right when they open at 10:30am. I sit at the bar with whatever I’m reading and my sketchbook. They put in my food order without asking: sunnyside-up eggs, grits, collards, and toast with butter, hold the jam. A couple bloody marys, one or two Tusk & Tempers (grapefruit juice, mezcal, Topo Chico, a few other ingredients probably), a lot of black coffee. It’s a written-in-stone routine. They mock-worry if I come in even a few minutes after opening time.
No Duck this Sunday. I’m biking to Lou Mitchell’s to meet a friend from out of town for breakfast. Sometimes people join me for my Duck ritual but it’s never quite the same. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for the company, but it becomes a different experience, a one-off, rather than the stabilizing/repeating thing I depend on to orient my week.
Nate is staying in the West Loop so I suggest Lou Mitchell’s. It’s a hundred-year-old diner a block from Union Station. I think a teacher in art school introduced me to it, so I’ve been going there over thirty years. It’s a go-to for out-of-towners, a place that doesn’t change but says something about the city.
Mallory and Bulent join us. They live here but have never been to this place. It’s packed. Midway through our meal a busboy bangs a cowbell to get the diners’ attention and one of the owners addresses the room. She thanks us for coming to her restaurant for a hundred years. Now we know what the birthday balloons tied up to the booths are all about.
The other reason I’m changing up the routine this Sunday is that this year’s Whitmanstide is this afternoon. I leave my folding chair jammed into a pannier by the hostess stand, where Amtrak travelers leave their luggage. There’s no room in the seating areas at Lou’s for it. This is an old place dating back to times when everything—people, especially—were smaller.
We say our goodbyes out on the sidewalk on Jackson. I start my trek north to Evanston. It’s in the 70s, at least ten degrees warmer than I ever want it, but still manageable. I try not to think about the hellish summer months ahead. Judging be the packs in Cubs gear, there’s a game this afternoon, so I avoid Wrigleyville. A lot of people out. They’re loving the sunshine and warmth, looking forward to more of it. To each his own, I guess.
I make it to Lighthouse Park in northern Evanston, just past the university buildings, a few minutes before the 1pm start time. Most of the faces are familiar from past readings but I don’t remember their names. We nod at one another or reintroduce ourselves. I find a spot on the outer edge of the receding shade while most of the others plant themselves in the sun.
The reading takes a little over two hours. I spend the entire time, except for my two turns with the microphone, drawing. I recall following along with the other readers more in prior years. Not sure whether I’m drawing slower now or what the difference is but the time goes by as if under trance. The only times the spell breaks is when I have to pull my chair back away from the creeping sunshine and for a couple bathroom breaks.
At Tony and Beth’s cookout afterwards, somebody asks me how I came to be part of Whitmanstide and I have to admit I never read “Song of Myself” before getting invited to the event a few years back when Tony was one of my editors at the Reader. I still sort of feel like an interloper. Most of the participants have been friends, neighbors, and coworkers for decades. But I feel as welcome here as any gathering. In other words, I fight the urge to bolt every few minutes.
I last nearly two hours. Close to a world-record. I must have had a good time.
I read a few pages from The Books of Jacob into a microphone. Mallory and I talk about Night Watch. See Reality, if you dare.
RIP Ilya Kabakov. Walking through his recreation of a Soviet communal apartment was one of the more uncanny art experiences I ever had.