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Bughouse Square

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Bughouse Square

Why Bughouse Square?

Bughouse Square has a long history as the most famous open-air forum for free speech in the country.  It is also the oldest ‘small park’ in Chicago, having been established in 1842 as a gift to the city to foster open discussion on community issues.  Bughouse Square is on the National Registry of Historic Places. Conveniently for me, it is right across the street from the renowned Newberry Library, where I am spending a year researching and writing.  The Newberry continues the tradition of fostering free speech by sponsoring the Bughouse Square debates annually.

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Newberry Library from  Bughouse Square

Living for a year at Bughouse Square, aka Washington Square Park, Chicago, offers me the opportunity to usher the Bughouse Square discussions into the digital age.  Poets, artists, intellectuals, political radicals, and hobos all participated in the historical Bughouse Square debates.  My aim is to engage in free speech, reflect on these new intellectual surroundings, and write about things that interest me.  So hang on to your hat–you will read about everything from my deep attachment to the Big Lake and passion for Renaissance texts and images (the Newberry is full of them) to my new interest in the Chicago Cubs.

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View of my building from Bughouse Square
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Coffee at Bughouse Square

Life has recently consisted of a lot of coffee—and serendipity.

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Lazy Bones at Mariano Park

 

The vortex of coffee and serendipity actually begins in Sweden.  For example, meeting old friends and even making new ones in cafes. Talking for hours. My old friend from Uppsala specializes in traditional Swedish cafes and we visit a charming one there in May.

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Uppsala Cafe

Some years ago he also introduced me and a friend to Cafe Vete-Katten in Stockholm. When she and I later return for a conference and a few days of research, finding this cafe becomes a real quest. Two extremely determined women focusing their internal global positioning systems to find the co-ordinates of the cafe, whose name we don’t know. We find it! Since then Vete-Katten is on speed dial.  Much to my great good fortune I have been able to find my way there since.

So it’s not too surprising that the first order of business at Bughouse Square is to find coffee.

My first discovery is Bow Truss Cafe at Mariano Park, a narrow sliver of city between Rush and State Streets on Chicago’s Gold Coast. The coffee is wonderful, and the service is excellent. After only a few visits the baristas know my preferences: please serve my espresso in a real cup.  One of two very nice young men normally makes my drink:

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Note the heater!

At Mariano Park you can vehicle watch. A valet service for high-end automobiles  is along one side of the park. Ferraris, Lamborghinis, and Bentleys are regularly sighted, as well as the chopper below.

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Customized Bike at Mariano Park

You can also people watch here. Much more interesting, there is a lively mix of regulars and tourists. People who live nearby, and those who live very far away.

Among the regulars: a group of men well past retirement age. They are there most afternoons in a variety of constellations, engaged in animated conversation. I half expect to see Jack Lemmon there.

Always tourists: I hear  Chinese, German, Italian, Russian, Spanish, and a couple of languages I can’t identify.  The outdoor cafe with its fountain is perfect–day or night!

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Everyone needs coffee.

In autumn readers come to the cafe, too. Soaking up some sunshine, reading a bit, having a caffeine blast. One regular is a rather stern-looking fellow who always has his face in a very large book—usually a biography. And sometimes me . . .

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Another regular is June Bug, who is also a Cubs fan.

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Her owner is having a conversation with a construction worker who does not entirely observe the usual social boundaries when talking to strangers. June Bug’s human and I exchange a glance. This is right after the election, our thought bubbles clear: are we going to get a tirade about “nasty women” and “elitists.” Please spare me.

The man in overalls asks about our respective jobs. So I  say “I do research at the Newberry Library, just around the corner.” He asks if the Newberry is a public library, and tells me what he has been reading lately. Quite impressive. Learning that the Newberry is a research library, one of the best in the country, he asks if I do research “like the kind lawyers do.” I explain that my research is about the age of Shakespeare, only in German literature. Suffering from acute election fatigue, I expect  a political outburst. The guy looks upon, smiles broadly, and switches to German.

Knowing that all three of us are strangers, the guy in the reflective vest asks: why can’t it always be this nice? Some coffee, a little dog, a pleasant conversation. Some books, some German. While I have seen June Bug since that day, I have not since seen the German-speaking construction worker. It looks like that particular building site is winding down.  Another life lesson at Bughouse Square.

Kaffee?? Need a coffee???   Oh, do I!    A call, a text, an email: coffee anyone?  Do not become “depresso.” Get yourself a coffee. If possible, call a friend. Have a little conversation. Let it “be nice.”  Even if it is December 8 and there is snow in Chicago, you need a coffee.

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Chicago Cubs and 2016 Election

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Daley Plaza, 24 October 2016

One might well ask: what do the Chicago Cubs have to do with the 2016 presidential election? Since when does a professional sports team model good behavior for the masses? Since when do people cringe when a candidate for the highest office in the land hurls increasingly obscene insults in public? Uses language that the NY Times does not consider ‘fit for print’? Since when is presidential speech miles below that of professional athletes on the scale of public discourse?

Enter the Chicago Cubs. When they win against LA, they enter the field with one of Joe Maddon’s signature t-shirts: RESPECT.

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People, imagine Aretha at this point: R-E-S-P-E-C-T !

The narrow meaning of the motto encourages the players to respect the 90 feet between home plate and first base, for fans to respect the team and forget all that nonsense about the curse of the billy goat. Come on, give the team a chance.

The broad meaning: respect each other. Treat people with dignity. Have a little respect. Everyone in Chicago needs more respect. Imagine success. A win.

The white flag with a blue ‘W.’ Fly the ‘W.’ Win. That’s all. Forget the diatribes. Simply focus on winning.

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What is the Cubs’ “fight” song? Steve Goodman’s little ditty “Go Cubs, go!” No talk about defeating the enemy, smashing the other team, hailing the victors. The words focus on getting your own team lined up for a game well played. Go Cubs, indeed.

As the buses pulled away from Wrigley Field to start the long day of celebrations when the Cubs won the World Series, a camera caught a small act of kindness with a huge impact. Behind a fence sat an eight-year-old Cubs fan. In a wheelchair. Kyle Schwarber, the  player who had only recently rejoined the team after a crippling knee injury, saw the wheelchair bound Noah Perez.

Who knows? Maybe Schwarber remembered his own recent time in a wheel chair and convalescence. Maybe he considered his own good luck to have recovered, to walk again, to play ball again. To be up on that bus. Whatever his thoughts, in the few seconds before the bus passed, Schwarber signaled to the boy, removed his Cubs cap,  and threw it to Noah. To a boy with MD, who can’t climb up on a bus, who can’t play baseball. The cap sailed over the fence to his young fan.

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Kyle Schwarber (in white) at back of bus — without his Cubs’ cap!

The contrast between Kyle Schwarber’s random act of kindness and Donald Trump’s gratuitous mimicking of a disabled journalist speaks volumes.

We all need respect, we all need a win.

Go Cubs, go!

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View from Grant Park