As buildings begin to replace trees along the Edens Expressway, I watch for familiar signs that we’re getting nearer Papa’s store.
Up ahead, on the right, stands Nickey (with a backward k), a giant, winking, smokestack of a man urging motorists to take the next exit for their very own, souped-up Chevrolet. The first downtown-bound sentry means twenty minutes more.
Further along the constantly changing horizon, the magnificent, cherry red, neon lips of Magikist – 80 ft. high and puckering up for passersby for years – appears on the left, dazzling and hypnotic. Garishly separating the suburbs from the city; the quiet and conventional, from the wonder and the chaos.
Fifteen more minutes.
At the very edge of the highway, around the next bend, looms the monster of a Morton Salt building and a great expanse of roof (almost level with the highway) painted with it’s iconic logo. I like to count how many seconds its takes to pass this massive, salt-filled warehouse.
And the girl in the yellow dress, with her big umbrella and box of Morton’s.
One-one-thousand, two-one-thousand, three-one-thousand…
… until it disappears from the smudged rear window.
Ten minutes more.
Taking the next exit, we’re no longer speeding past the inner-city scenery. No longer isolated from the purposeful sprawl, but entering the industrial grime of Ohio Street’s massive warehouse district, desolate and dingy; where faded ads cling to crumbling brick walls and vast stretches of soot-stained windows lay dark and broken along shadowed streets, gray, cracked and worn from the Windy City’s daily grind.
I sink in my seat and cautiously scan the familiar but frightening streets for signs of trouble. My uneasiness arising from the barely discernible (except for the simultaneous “click” ), but habitual practice Mom has of locking the doors before the first red light.
Only after old brownstones and young professionals replace storehouses and seedy-looking characters, do I straighten up and welcome the city outside the window.
The constant beep of car horns trying to hurry along traffic below the tall buildings and shadowed streets. The constant movement of people of all types – not just well-off and white.
The dingy beads of water from the elevated tracks and platforms that plop, trickle and disappear down the window of the station wagon and tell me we’re very near.
Dressed in our Sunday best, fermenting with the pent up energy forty-five minutes in close quarters guarantees, our restless tribe is led in a disorderly row, through the perennially cold, dark, parking structure and onto the city streets.
One block down and around the corner, to Michigan Avenue, I know to look for the red and gold awning (between the fancy shoe store and even fancier department store). As soon as I spot it, I pick up my pace until reaching the revolving door of Papa’s store, Celano Custom Tailors.
Squeezing my way into the pie-shaped divisions and forced to spin a circle and a half – by a sibling pushing the rotating door too fast – I stumble onto a sea of cardinal red carpet.
Impeccably clean. Incredibly lush.
At the end of the long, narrow showroom, past smartly dressed salesmen and bolts of rich fabric, stands Papa.
Waiting to give his warm, well-pressed, fragrant hugs to each of his progeny.
After which, he gently, but hastily, scoots all five of us to the back of the store. Away from the immaculate glass cabinet displays of silk ties, colorful ascots and men’s colognes. Away from the meticulously stacked cashmere sweaters, and roll after roll of expensive Italian wools, French cottons and Irish linens. Keeping us well clear of the handsome, silk robes neatly hung on racks with red, wood hangers, custom-stamped in gold.
Most of all, we are whisked away from his well-to-do clientele in their very expensive, custom suits, custom shirts and spit shine shoes.
But my interest lies down a narrow set of stairs, in the windowless world below; where little men, with measuring tapes hung around their necks and giant scissors in their hands, bend over large, long work tables, spread with dark wools and shimmering silks.
They always stop and smile, exclaiming how much we’ve all grown, but my attention is on what’s behind the glass partition where Papa’s bookkeeper works, and in the bottom drawer, at the side of her desk, piled high with ledgers.
As soon as I reach her side, she bends toward the drawer with her piled-high hair.
Casting a shadow over her bookkeeping.
And from it she takes out a full box of Turtles – chocolate and caramel and pecans in a gooey, luscious mound.
Papa’s favorite. And mine.
In our silent ritual, I smile and thank the bee-hived bookkeeper and choose a turtle from the box, before being pushed by an impatient sibling next in line.
Permitted back upstairs only after all hands have been inspected, we’re led to Papa’s office, where Jim plays boss with the many-buttoned telephone on the large, leather- topped desk. Until he dials the storefront and annoys the staff and Papa appears with playing cards and store stationary, and a gentle warning.
With Mom and Dad still shopping, we begin to take turns spying on the front of the store, watching the elegant dance of silent footsteps, hushed tones and controlled smiles in full-length mirrors. Making me feel as if I’m witnessing something sacred in the tending of well-to-do gentleman.
As if an ascension.
Until Jim discovers the stereo and starts pushing buttons.
Shattering the sober storefront with an unexpected symphony.
Instantly paroled from our conference room confinement, we race along the heavily padded, red carpeting, past the quiet clerks and perfect displays, and bolts and bolts, of dark, rich fabric.
Past Papa, who flinches when our many-footed exit shakes the cabinets.
And ruffles his clients.
Michigan Avenue is an eruption of motion and commotion, of which we’re swept up in, until we find ourselves among the tourists and the toilers at the base of the very new John Hancock Center.
Pressing my hands and body against its cool, black steel, I look skyward, trying to see the skyscraper’s top. Struggling to keeping my balance.
It makes me dizzy and suddenly anxious to see the red and gold awning.
And the thick, red carpeting.
And Papa’s outstretched arms, for one last hug, before returning north.
Past the giant girl in the yellow dress.
Past the giant, neon lips, now lighting the early evening skies with its rosy red glow.
Past the smokestack man disappearing in the dusk.
To the quiet woods.
To the dark skies.