Every year on Thanksgiving and Christmas, the city of Chicago celebrates what I like to call antiholidays—with most businesses closed and few cars on the streets, the town seems to be shunning its own people, demanding that we let it have some peace and quiet for once. The antifestivities usually start around midevening the night before the holiday and continue for about 36 hours. Stand on almost any aboveground el platform during that time and you can see the city sleeping for miles in any direction. Some people find this eerie (I’ve often heard the spectacle compared to a postapocalyptic landscape), others find it calming. I belong to the latter group.
Every city is filled with lonely people who’ve grown used to being anonymous in a crowd. Though a mass of people can make one’s solitude feel more pronounced, it nonetheless provides a certain solace—no one can look down on your isolated existence if there’s enough bustle around to distract them. But on the antiholidays, when the city’s briefly drained of its bustle, the lonely urbanites get free reign of the neighborhood streets. The mollifying crowd may be gone, though its absence can feel even better. With plenty of breathing room, you can walk beside your loneliness instead of having to bottle it up inside you. Sure, you can go to the movies and stay warm, but the movies will always be there, and the city looks plenty cinematic when it’s depopulated. The buildings seem taller, the streetlights brighter.
My wife had to work this Thanksgiving, and at night no less. She got paid triple overtime, so we weren’t too upset (and, for the record, I was able to crash a few dinners). Making the best of it, we went out for Chinese in the early afternoon, then took a romantic walk around Uptown in the stinging cold. The marquees of the Riviera, the Aragon, and the long-shuttered Uptown Theatre seemed to proclaim their elegance for us alone, and the gorgeous murals inside the neighborhood post office (some of my favorite public art in the whole city) seemed to appreciate having a private audience rather than serve as background color for the postal service. As a cinephile, I found it grand. With the exception of the Riviera, all of these sites were constructed during the art deco era, when architecture enjoyed a closer relationship with cinema than it would any time thereafter. Modern architecture was integral to the spectacle of German expressionist films, and the pronounced verticality of art deco designs made buildings seem more like movies. We felt privileged to have these sites all to ourselves.
After seeing my wife off at the Red Line, I decided to hang out at the Starbucks at Broadway and Lawrence until it closed at 5 PM. I think I was the only customer who hadn’t come from the psychiatric hospital a few blocks away on Marine Drive. The men sitting at the table next to me spoke freely about being treated there. One claimed to have been admitted so often that he considered it a home away from home, the other patients, no matter how well he knew them, were like extended family. The caffeine taking effect, he launched into a soliloquy about being schizophrenic, single, and forever broke, which dovetailed into an appreciation of Elton John’s early career. “What I really like about those songs are Bernie Taupin’s lyrics,” he said. “They’re like poetry. But the thing was, Bernie didn’t think his words were any good. People told them that they were worthless, that nobody was ever going to care about them. So he threw all his poetry in a garbage can. But then Elton came along and found them, and he thought they’d be good song lyrics. Then he tracked down Bernie and asked him if he could use his words, and they became friends.”
I haven’t checked to see if this story is true, in part because I don’t want to spoil my mental image of a young Elton John rifling through trash. More to the point, it made such a good impression on the storyteller’s audience that I think it deserves to be true even if it isn’t. The schizophrenic and his new friends didn’t seem bothered when the baristas came around to kick us out at 5 PM. Wherever they were going next, they knew they’d have company, and the storyteller was clearly on a roll. On the antiholidays, people like these are the kings and queens of Chicago. I can’t wait to encounter more like them on Christmas.