Since Chicago’s greatest theatrical event went unnoticed by the Jefferson Awards Committee, we take this opportunity to commemorate it:
It all began, of course, in the swarming imagination beneath the frizzy red hair of Sally Banes. It began to take on a definite shape one day in January when Frank Gruber, the photographer, met Sally in a long line in a bank. He told her that he’d just finished putting together an exhibit of his work for Midway Studios but that he hadn’t thought of a name for it. She generously offered him hers; she suggested he use “A Day in the Life of the Mind.” She had in mind putting on some sort of production in the spring under that title but meanwhile he could use it. His could be Part One. Or he could call his Part Two and she could call hers Part Three just to keep everybody guessing. Frank Gruber’s exhibit did very nicely under the title of “A Day in the Life of the Mind: Part One.”
I first heard about “A Day in the Life of the Mind: Part Two” when Sally Banes called me the Friday before the performance. The Reader had given her my name. Would I come and see it? I had some objections. In the first place I couldn’t quite get her to tell me what it was. Was it theatre? Yes, and dance and photography and, well, sort of mixed media, you might say. I hadn’t seen Part One. That didn’t matter. It didn’t have anything to do with Part Two really. Did you say the whole thing takes six hours?? Six hours. Sally dropped off the tickets, the maps, and the instructions while I was gone. We’d never met. The map indicated that “A Day in the Life of the Mind: Part Two,” with Sally Banes and the Community Discount Players, would happen all over Hyde Park. A treasure hunt with the world’s most pretentious title?
At three in the afternoon on the last Sunday in May, a wonderful day, sunny and chill, I was standing in warm clothes and sturdy shoes with a growing knot of other people on the bridge over the lagoon behind the Museum of Science and Industry. The sheet of instructions headed “Clues” told us where to be. This part was entitled “Solipsism and Circles” and the instructions read “Look and Listen. Follow people/ events if you want to. At 4:30 leave … ” We had an hour an a half. I took a good look at those people. They had warm clothes and sturdy shoes on too. For the most part they seemed to be just lounging around, talking quietly. Several of them seemed to be dressed in monochromes. A coincidence? There were several black fishermen on the bank near the bridge. They glanced over now and then. Meaningfully? Several bicyclists crossed the bridge, sounding bells or horns to part the small crowd. Each one was carefully scrutinized. They stared back quizically. someone, was it me? started to pace off the bridge under the illusion that the instructions had specified the middle. They hadn’t. A girl who was dressed all in black put up a large black domed umbrella and walked the length of the bridge and back. I had a sudden flash of enlightenment. Famous paintings. They were giving us clues from famous paintings and we were supposed to identify them. The girl with the umbrellas was the Seurat at the Art Institute. But her shadow wasn’t distinct enough and there wasn’t a monkey in sight. Hope died. I began to think I’d been trapped into one of those peace-and-love humanistic endeavors and would have to spend six hours watching ordinary people. The theatre of life. Ugh.
Somebody showed up with a backpack that appeared to be a loudspeaker. Two round black cones struck over the shoulders like Mickey Mouse ears. A fellow in a striped caftan started fiddling with it and it began to emit the sound of small hand cymbals or bells, a sound that might accompany oriental chant or dance. Two girls emerged from a clump of bushes. They wore white dresses, straight, with a flounce at the bottom, and were festooned with seaweed as if they’d just come out of the lagoon. They had their arms around each other’s waists and began to walk in a circle on a grassy space beside the bridge. One of the fishermen got up. He started tugging on another one’s arm, looking over his shoulder at the dancers. The second man shrugged him off and he fled alone. The girls went on walking in the circle. They appeared to be talking. The bell sounds ended and one of the girls disappeared into the bushes again. The other girl, with lots of long, wildly bushy red hair, shouldered the backpack-loudspeaker. The girl in black and a fellow in white walked across the bridge under the umbrella. The backpack girl followed them. The backpack had now started wailing. It gave off a penetrating droning sound like an electronic crying. Everyone followed them off the bridge. Several other people all in white appeared. Some had been among the crowd on the bridge with coats or jackets over their white clothes. The path from the bridge branched to enclose a small grassy clearing and then met again. All along it the people in white stopped, singly or in pairs. One fellow took to a tree and sat on a low branch chirping while a girl sat below. Sometimes he stopped chirping and they sang duets, things like “In the still of the night,” badly out of tune. Occasionally they refreshed themselves from a wine bottle. One boy stood in the clearing between the paths between to do very slow beautiful motion exercises. They involved moving the arms and legs rhythmically but never advancing, bending or sitting. He stared fixedly ahead of him. Further on a couple stood under a bright umbrella looking soulfully into each other’s eyes and murmuring quietly. They didn’t appear to notice or mind being approached. It was necessary to get very close, to get under the umbrella with them to hear what they were saying. They told each other long erotic stories full of descriptive detail but with no apparent plot or point. They never moved but just kept gazing and murmuring. Where the paths converged again another couple was rolling around on the grass. There did not seem to be much form or point to this activity. Sometimes one would take time out and just sit there and the other one would roll around alone. Near them on a folding lawn chair sat a white haired woman dressed in white. Her hands were folded in her lap. I hadn’t seen her arrive and I wasn’t sure that she hadn’t been there all along, refusing to be disturbed by the activity around her. The fellow in the striped caftan seemed to be taking photographs incessantly. He went from group to group snapping closeups, long shots, cast and audience alike. The whole crowd of people, spectators? mill around, walking from one performance to another. The girl with the loudspeaker walks around and around among the onlookers. She has a mirror in her hand and one on her cheek. She looks ineffably sad. The loudspeaker moans incessantly. I run into the girl in black and her companion in white now and then among the crowd. They are talking together in German. I’m not convinced enough that they’re still part of the performance to get under the umbrella with them and try to make out a few words. A police van pulls up at the furthest point of the performance. The two policemen do not get out. It is impossible to read their expressions. The girl with the droning loudspeaker sits down beside the bridge and puts on and takes off a pair of white pants several times. Someone points out to me that across the lagoon from her there is a dining table set up with a cloth and candles. Several people in colored leotards are dancing beside it. Something someone says provokes another flash of intuition. The seven deadly sins. The diners across the lagoon represent gluttony, the low-motion dancer is sloth, the erotic couple under the umbrella, lust of course, the girl with the mirror and moaning sound, melancholy. I can’t remember any other good sins so I let it slide. I recall my mission and begin to take notes, first under my poncho, but that being singularly unsuccessful and beginning to attract comment, I pull out the notebook and stand to one side of the path. Immediately a girl approaches and asks if I’m a performer and starts impudently reading over my shoulder. I guess that makes me a performer so I tell her yes. After she nods significantly and goes away I decide to skip the notetaking. I begin to be less convinced that there’s some tricky answer, like in The Last of Sheila. I start to make the circuit again, past the chirping man and the slow-motion dancer. Someone tells me that they’ve noticed that the photographer has been photographing me. A lot. I begin to watch for him, trying not to look too nervous. He is under the umbrella with the erotic couple. He ignores me. Nevertheless I begin to suspect that I am the only member of the audience, the target.
4:30. The performers get up and leave. The clue sheet instructs, “Walk very slowly down 57th Street, noticing everything, to … ” The audience straggles down the street, bemused, paranoid. Loud music is coming from a ground floor apartment. Suspicious, we glance in. We are pelted with something that, on closer scrutiny at a safe distance, proves to be roasted soy beans. The street signs have been changed. Dry Gulch Road, Sea Island Drive, Balboa. Several boys come down the street at a fast trot. They are barefoot, in bathing suits, and carry a surf board aloft. We are still looking after them when several girls come past, chasing them, giggling, wearing very colorful shorts and halters. Very California.
We reach the destination indicated by the clue sheet. This part is entitled “The Phenomenology of the Apartment.” The instructions say, “This is the residence of Nadja Sabe, the intellectual. Make yourself at home. Look around. This is your chance to be nosy. You have plenty of time … ” In the living room there is a section roped off by heavy velvet theatre ropes held up by chrome pedestals. Inside sit the red haired girl and the white haired lady. They are chatting quietly. I listen for a while. The older woman is explaining some unfamiliar game. The rules are very complicated. The red haired girl wants to know the object. The walls are covered with photographs. They are all of the same girl doing thing, ordinary things. The girl in the photographs looks familiar. In one corner of the old persian rug a girl is gardening. She is wearing striped overalls and canvas gloves and is using clippers and a water can. She plants and weeds and trims and waters the carpet. Nearly every item in the apartment is marked with a small, neatly typed museum tag identifying its composition and dating and numbering it. In the library there is a stack of mimeographed catalogs of the exhibition. It lists the tagged items in numerical order. I consider checking them all for accuracy but don’t. The hall is full of billowing plastic sheets making progress difficult. The kitchen seems to be normal but several anomalies are revealed on closer inspection. One of the pantry shelves contains nothing but tomato paste. A spice rack is full of cinnamon. Dishes of roasted soy beans are marked “eat me.” Small notebooks lay on the table. “Read me.” I do, a little. It is a self-conscious little diary. Everywhere are the museum tags. “Windowsill. 1941. White latex over green latex on wood.” In the library were more photographs of the same girl, Nadja Sabe no doubt. The plants on the windowsill had their composition duly noted. Back in the livingroom someone tipped me off, sotto voce, that they’d discovered the script. Feeling guilty and little disappointed to think that the mystery was soon to be cleared up, I surreptitiously lifted the metal sculpture of a modernistic bird on the mantlepiece and slipped out a sheaf of papers. I read … a very matter of fact account of the events I’d just observed. Everything was there pretty much as I’d seen it but nothing was explained. I was relieved. Feeling elated that the thing hadn’t been spoiled by some tedious interpretation and feeling well aware that I’d been more than a little had, I replaced the document beneath the metal bird, making sure that I looked very furtive and that at least two people noticed. As I headed for the door one of them was making nonchalantly for the mantle. The clue for this part continued, “Go out through the back steps … ” out the back door was a small porch with stairs leading up to the porch above and down to the alley. The place was alive with colored people. An orange girl was sitting on a low roof across from us peeling and sectioning oranges. A blue man was perched on an oil drum by a fence rolling cigarettes. Cigarettes? A red girl leaning against the porch railing combing her hair. A green? girl sat scribbling in a notebook. She would put down a few words and then tear out the page, crumple it up, and drop it. She was surrounded by a pile of crumpled paper. On the porch above a fellow whose color I forget was chopping nuts which he would then put into a covered pan. He lowered the pan to a black man on the porch below who ate them and then sent the pan back for a refill. Down below we discovered a blue girl working on an abstract crayon drawing, a purple man carving a bar of lavender soap, an a green girl playing Bach on a flute between the buildings. Every person who came down went, without exception, to the blue man on the fence to see what he was rolling. He was less professionally poised than his fellow performers. He couldn’t help smiling and once was heard to remark, “You think I’m crazy or something?” His calm was completely shattered when one girl asked him tenderly, “Are you felling blue today?” It was clear that the audience was starting to fight back. Across the alley a girl who was a perfectly regular color for a girl was washing out tights in a little pan and hanging them to dry. She did it very nicely.
The clue sheet next directed everyone to go to the Blue Gargoyle for dinner. Nothing bizarre about hot dogs and beans. A welcome interruption. The music was loud and many people, cast and audience alike, danced. Some, however, appeared to lapse into a coma. The photographer in the striped caftan came over to chat. He wanted to know if I was a bona fide audience member or if I’d had something to do with the production or what. Without a pang of conscience I told him that I was the purest audience. I’d seen an ad in the paper. He pumped me for my reactions and I pumped him for information. He was Frank Gruber. The red haired girl with the mirror cheek was Sally Banes, the mastermind. The girl who had read my notebook came over and wanted to know if I recognized her. She had played Nada Sabe. So she wasn’t audience either. I was beginning to wonder again who was.
The instructions read, “At 7:45 leave. Walk up University Avenue to … ” For the first time all day I dared to disobey. I left a little early to take a walk ended up, at the appointed time, at the scene of the next part, “Behind the Library.” Naturally I’d missed something. A row of girls in white slips ha been seated in front of the library burning incense or something I was told. I vowed never to stray again. The instructions said, “Stand behind the railing and face the library. Watch the windows.” The University of Chicago’s Regenstein Library is a huge fortress of wrinkled grey limestone. Large masses overlap each other unrelieved, for the most part, except for small strips of glass like elongated gunslits. But in the middle of the front and back faces there are three wider vertical areas of glass and from the back of the library you can see that each of the six floors that face this glass has a group of comfortable chairs near each of the three windows. From the outside we could see people sitting in these chairs reading. There was a large sunken grassy area directly in front of these windows with a low railing around it on ground level and we all leaned on it waiting for whatever was going to happen. People kept straggling up and slowly the group swelled as it had done on the bridge at the beginning. Someone was heard to ask, “Why 7:45?” and someone else informed him wisely, “That’s when the sun sets.” They were right. The sun, behind us, cast a glow on the windows of the library making them temporarily opaque. Then as the sky darkened, we could see a little better. A man I recognized as the blackened man who had been eating nuts on the balcony went off to one side of the railing and began to sing. The sunken grassy place and the wall of the library made a sort of impromptu echo chamber. His voice was clear and resonant. The little crowd was still growing. Now and then we could see the readers in the chairs pop up to have a look. People going by behind them did double takes when they caught sight of us. We in the audience began to enjoy ourselves immensely. We were no longer just the audience, the worst off. Compared to the bewildered inhabitants of the library we were pretty much in the know. They began to collect at the windows. Some of them made signs to us. The singer was just going into “Swing Low, sweet chariot” when the campus police pulled up. They mosied up to the railing and saw the singer and all of us looking up at the windows of the library where little knots of people were looking back. They stayed around a few minutes listening to a beautiful a capella version of “Swing low” and pushing back their hats the way cops in the movies do when they are baffled. As they headed back to the squad one of them wailed plaintively, “Can anyone give me a reason for all this,” but he kept walking, clearly not really expecting an answer. The city cops pulled up as the campus ones were leaving. Whatever comment was traded between them will never be known. Of course, this transaction drove the library people into a frenzy of curiosity. For us, it was like looking into a cut-away section of an ant hill and the ants were becoming increasingly excited. Small groups of them began to come around the corner of the library. They had to know what we were looking at. I heard someone tell them that if they’d started at three in afternoon they’d know. At one of the windows a dancer appeared. She was doing the slow body movements we’d seen earlier. Tai chi, someone said. Dancers began to appear at one window after another. This seemed to increase the discomfiture of the library people. For the most part they only glanced surreptitiously at the dancers as if they feared they were students gone berserk from too much study. Eventually five of the six floors had dancers in all three windows. There was something indescribably ravishing about the sight. The monumental nature, the audacity of the entire conception was nearly overwhelming. The people on the floor without dancers were more baffled than ever, enraged by our rapt concentration on their windows. Cars stopped on the street behind the library, and the passengers kept shouting, “Hey, what’s happening?” More people came from the library to see. One girl asked artlessly, “Is this spontaneous?” The crowd now contained performers from the previous parts, the photographer, still snapping madly away, the original audience, among all of whom a sort of camaraderie had developed, and the new audience of passers-by. At nine o’ clock the dancers disappeared.
Our clue sheet directed us to The Woodlawn Tap, familiarly known as Jimmy’s. The instructions read, “Drink some beer.” It was our last order and we weren’t going to disobey it. The six hours were up. At Jimmy’s I introduced myself to Sally Banes and apologized to the photographer for not telling him who I was earlier. Sally said they’d been wondering about me all day. Who I was. Whether I was there. That made us even. Frank had taken over 200 pictures. Everyone drank some beer.
Later we went to someone’s apartment where the punch was orange-flavored vodka. A large plastic garbage can full. I got to know why they call it punch. Other delectable party items were plentiful, too, and the music was loud. Too loud. Two policemen came to the door in the hush that came over the apartment announced that they’d had a complaint about the music. They didn’t come in. We didn’t ask them. Then they went away. We marveled that they hadn’t noticed the smell. We led a charmed life. A latecomer arrived and said he’d met two cops in the hall who asked if he were going to the dope party upstairs. They’d said it looked like a lot of fun. A charmed life. Of the Mind. Superficially, I guess it was a pretty commonplace party. But a sort of euphoria prevailed from a day of shred and bizarre experience. I scarcely knew a soul but I felt curiously at home. After all, it was a cast party.