The Megapolitan Flaneur: Part 3: Objects and Meaning
The Megapolitan Flâneur is a series of short travel essays. These essays will focus on my trip to Chicago – September 4 – 6, 2013 – and what I experienced. Neither chronology or inventory, the essays will be reflective, free associative, and impressionistic.
Full Disclosure: I am a staff member and assistant editor for the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (CCLaP). While I did wander and amble throughout Chicago, this was a “working vacation” for me.
“A commodity appears at first sight an extremely obvious, trivial thing. But its analysis brings out that it is a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties”
Karl Marx, Das Kapital, Volume 1
Day 1: The $10 Martini
After a long trip on Amtrak, I arrived in Chicago. Unfortunately, due to flooding in North Dakota, the train was over four hours late. After calling Jason Pettus, the founder of the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, and telling him the situation. My late arrival would mean I would miss Maureen Foley’s reading scheduled for that night. (I did make the Quimby’s triple-header the following evening.)
I ended up having a martini in the hotel bar of the ultra-swank Congress Plaza Hotel. I spotted the hotel and the lush bar during a roundabout walk through the Loop in search for a non-chain dinner. (Dinner was at a chicken schwarma at a local felafel joint.) The Congress Plaza Hotel was built in 1893 to house tourists for the Columbian Exposition. It’s a massive edifice that’s gone through several renovations and recently dealt with a bitter strike.
Inside, the bar radiated a Second Empire opulence. Furniture in dark wood and a polished brass bar created a luxurious atmosphere. On this particular Wednesday, the bar was nearly uninhabited. A couple people drinking and a quartet playing pool. An older couple then came up to the bar and asked about the Cardinals game. They struck up a conversation with a couple more people and gabbed about Duck Dynasty and the Cards being tied in the 11th.
That night I ordered two drinks. The aforementioned $10 martini and a finger of Macallan 12. To some, ten dollars may seem like a lot to pay for a cocktail. It is. But there is more involved in this monetary transaction and alcoholic consumption than just cost. Without getting into a Marxist lecture, the Ten Dollar Martini is a common staple of metropolitan leisure culture. I’ve had a similar Ten Dollar Martini at a bar in Milwaukee.
The Ten Dollar Martini was worth the steep cost due to several interrelated factors. The first, location, remains key to the experience. In the hospitality industry and in travel writing, experience is key. The components of the cocktail were high-quality, but not at all exotic. Ketel One Vodka, ice, vermouth, four olives. Mix, shake, pour, drink. As a wannabe amateur mixologist, I’ve made martinis at home and watched a couple Youtube videos. The martini ended up as a perfect combination of an icy clean smoothness; the dryness of the vodka slowly melding with the saltiness of the olives.
I used the cocktail as an opportunity to chat with the fellow tourists and de-stress. The quality beverage and the opulent surroundings made for a wonderful evening. Then I headed back for the International Hostel, read a little, and climbed into my bunk bed. (To put this in perspective, I had a Ten Dollar Martini, but stayed in a hostel that cost $28 a night.)
Day 3: The $10 Ring
On my last day in Chicago, I had some time to kill. After checking out the hostel around 10am, I would have to be at Union Station by 1pm. (The train departed around 2:30pm.) I had a nice lunch – more on that in the next installment – and bought a cheap ring from a street vendor. Like the Ten Dollar Martini, this requires a little back-story.
Prior to our marriage, my wife bought me a nice titanium ring from Etsy. Unfortunately, I neglected to try it on. Suffice to say, the nice titanium ring had the tendency to clench my finger. It turned out it was a size too small. Then I found a Mexican street vendor (or Latin American, I can’t be exactly sure on his provenance) selling jewelry, necklaces, and other items. I looked for a ring that was my size. I tried on several. Some had cool designs, but didn’t fit. Others were too big. The Goldilocks Dilemma. Eventually I found one that fit and had a design apropros to me. Made from stainless steel, it had a scorpion etched into the center ring. The center ring also rotated independently from the ring itself. The scorpion had special significance, since I’m a Scorpio. I don’t subscribe to Horoscopes and other fortune telling traditions, but I do like scorpion imagery. (My wife has the same birthday as me and is also a Scorpio.) I was hesitant to ask the price and then the vendor told me it was ten dollars. So now I have a Ten Dollar Ring that also functions as a Wedding Ring.
The Ten Dollar Ring may seem a bit odd as a Wedding Ring, especially in our American culture that seems so subservient to the Wedding-Industrial Complex. Regardless of taste or background, the Wedding-Industrial Complex equates Dream Wedding with an expensive wedding. (This may get a bit Marxist or Barthes-ian, but bear with me, I have a point.) In the end, the expensive wedding may end up yet another predictable affair. Why pay a lot if it’s something that everyone has seen before? We didn’t pay a lot for our wedding and it was a big success. For two reasons: It was a ceremony and reception customized to our wants and our reception came as part of a package deal. (The ceremony and reception were planned in another state and the package deal meant far fewer headaches.)
What is the American fetish for thinking expensive = good? Yet this fetish co-exists with the equally confounding DIY stripped-down aesthetic? Truly marvelous things can happen in that shadow area between over-priced opulence and hairshirt austerity. (In the end, both are shallow postures attempting to exhibit authenticity to their respective fandoms.) One sees this all the time in the health care debate.
We keep debating the ideological merits of the Affordable Health Care Act, but people rarely ask why these healthcare costs are so much in the first place? I won’t get into the fractious, controversial, and complex healthcare debate, but I do want readers to re-think the nature of cost, price, and value. Are cost and price the same thing? Finally, for something we value – a ring, a prescription drug, or a common medical procedure – why is an insistence that it not be over-priced tantamount to treason?