Earlier this year Daniel Wegner spent several weeks collecting Chicago “things.” First he chiseled off a thumbnail-size piece of an original paving stone he owns from pre-Chicago Fire State Street. Next he gathered three leaves of ivy from Wrigley Field. Then he asked Marshall Field’s for four inches of a branch from the Walnut Room’s holiday tree and contacted a Lemont quarry for some limestone that matched the kind the Water Tower is made of. Unable to carve out a piece of bronze from the Marshall Field’s clock, he got the store to give him an old panel from an out-of-commission elevator that used the same kind of bronze. He also went down to North Avenue beach with an airline-size empty Jack Daniel’s bottle and filled it with lake water. And he bought a box of Frango mints.

He packed all of this up and sent it to the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory at Florida State University, where the stuff was photographed–micrographed actually–to determine the molecular structure of each item. Then it was only a matter of time until Wegner, the national merchandising director for Stonehenge Ltd., was pushing a new line of neckties based on what he describes as the molecular structure of things associated with Chicago. The only thing Wegner couldn’t figure out was how to get a fresh deep-dish pizza to Tallahassee. The problem was solved when he saw a billboard on the Kennedy that said “1-800-Call Lou.” “So I did,” he says. “It was reasonable–$25 to Fed Ex it–the one with everything. They loved it in Tallahassee.”

It’s a recent afternoon and men of all ages and walks of life are grabbing the neckties off two round, dark wooden tables. Scores of men are draping the ties–three, four, five at a time–over their forearms. Irwin Sternberg, president of Stonehenge, takes out his “brag book,” a scrapbook showing Molecular Ties’ other successful unveilings. He points out that Stonehenge has had several deals in which proceeds benefited good causes. For example, there was the Miracle Collection–16 ties based on the molecular structure of drugs used to treat rare childhood illnesses. Money was donated to Johns Hopkins University. With the Ben & Jerry’s edition, two flavors were “translated into molecules”–Wavy Gravy and Chunky Monkey–and the proceeds were used to help starving kids. Then there was the Cocktail Collection, in which the molecular images of drinks–white-wine spritzers, for instance–were imprinted on ties to benefit MADD. Sternberg looks at the book. He remembers the slogan for that campaign–“The only way to tie one on before driving.” For the Chicago Collection, Marshall Field’s and Stonehenge have donated $20,000 to the Chicago Historical Society.

A portly guy in his 60s is a couple of feet away frantically lifting up one tie after another. He’s a lobbyist–but he won’t say for whom. “Let’s just say I work for people who want to do business with the state,” he says.

“This whole thing is a lot of bullshit,” says a distant male voice. There is dead silence. Heads turn toward the voice. It belongs to a thin, handsome guy about 40. He picks up a Marshall Field’s clock tie–whose pattern resembles acorns–and carries it in the direction of the cash register. Everyone looks relieved.

“None of these ties fits in with my needs,” says the lobbyist. He puts down a State Street granite, which looks like a conglomeration of dripping paints, in favor of a Water Tower limestone, which looks like an array of smudged paints. “I’m more of a Jerry Garcia guy.” (Jerry Garcia ties–based on the musician’s artwork, not molecules–are also a Stonehenge product and are on a nearby table.)

“Now look at this ivy,” he continues. “It’s not bad. But it touts Wrigley Field. And the Cubs. That’s reason enough not to wear it. I’m a south-sider, can’t you tell?”

A Stonehenge representative picks up a deep-dish pizza and a Frango. “What really sells is a pattern,” she says. “The bottom line is a tie has to be a good-looking tie. But with these, you also have this great story to tell.”

The lobbyist picks up a lake water, puts it on his forearm, then on top of a white shirt, rubs it through his fingers a few times, and finally places it back on the table. “It’s just not me,” he says.

–Bonnie McGrath

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Daniel Wegner photo by Randy Tunnell.