The Banquet of Life
Sunday in the Pork with Dave
By Dave Stinton
Sep 5, 2007

I was on the ‘L’ train, on my way downtown, sitting near an Australian family. Parents and their little boy.

This was Sunday of Labor Day weekend, and dread was creeping into the son’s heart about summer’s impending death and the subsequent school year. His mom tried to get him excited instead.

“You’re going to skewl in Ameerica,” she told him. “I used to draym a-bite thet when I was a gyal.”

Wow, I thought. They just moved here. And the poor kid is entering school about the time his mates back home are starting to smell spring.

I often forget that visitors come to Chicago. Our main industry probably isn’t tourism (my guess is it’s the manufacture and export of tubby television comedians), so we’re not as overrun with sightseers as, say, New York. But I love catching people surreptitiously peering at maps or consulting Chicago guidebooks. I hope they have a good time, and are received in a friendly manner.

(This is why I am wracked with guilt to this day over the time I sent a couple driving south down Western Avenue in search of Lincoln Avenue, a street that intersects north of where they started. For all I know, they wound up in Australia, cursing Chicago and all its residents.)

• • •

Labor Day weekend means two things to me: my birthday, and the Chicago Jazz Festival. It’s become a tradition that my parents meet me on the lawn in Grant Park bearing one bag of gifts and one bag of picnic-style snacks.

This year, the gifts were all snacks.

I got gourmet artichoke hearts, gourmet olives, and some sort of dessert vinegar. Plus a couple of truffles shaped like cups of cappuccino. These were from Canady Le Chocolatier, a homemade candy and gelato shop just south of downtown. A miniature dark chocolate cup contains coffee-flavored ganache topped with coconut “foam.” It even comes on a little chocolate saucer.

Night fell, cheese and crackers sat heavy in my stomach, and Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra wailed away on stage. The ensemble is constructed of some of the finest jazz soloists in Chicago, and unfortunately they all played their solos at once. I suppose I’m a rube when it comes to the less ear-friendly genres of jazz, but none of their pieces sounded different from any of the others. When my mom handed me a bunch of concession tickets she needed to get rid of, I saw it as a great opportunity to slip away for a while.

Night had fallen by this point, and I made my way to the food tents. I bought a pulled pork sandwich in a Styrofoam clamshell and wandered the grounds.

Grant Park is often referred to as Chicago’s front lawn. A wall of buildings looms to the west, and to the east is an eerie absence of them, where Lake Michigan lies.

My sandwich was fat with pork, and a significant about of meat escaped from the bun, trailing smoky barbecue sauce onto the Styrofoam floor of the container. I hoisted the sandwich to my mouth and gave in to the mess.

I found myself approaching Buckingham Fountain. Non-Chicagoans may recognize it from its appearance at the beginning of the opening credits of “Married: With Children.” (We are not proud of this.) As long as I’d shared a city with this fountain, I don’t think it had hit me just how huge it is.

Thirteen summers ago, my college girlfriend visited me from Rockford, about an hour’s drive away. We found ourselves basking on one of the benches that surround the fountain, and a homeless man approached us and offered us a song.

This would be out of character for me today, and it was ten times so back then, but I handed the guy a few bucks and bought a serenade for my girlfriend. I can’t for the life of me remember what he sang, but I remember feeling pretty romantic about it. (For her part, I think she mainly felt a little uncomfortable.)

Pulled pork sandwich in tow, I circumnavigated the fountain in search of that bench.

At night, the area around the fountain is lit with beautiful subtlety; there’s enough light to softly caress the contours of the landscape, but not enough to let you forget the nighttime. By far the brightest thing around is the fountain itself, drawing your focus with a brilliant and shifting spectrum of colored lights.

Against these lights, I saw them – tourists. Silhouetted, everywhere. Lifting cameras to their eyes, balancing cameras on tripods or on the lids of garbage cans. All cameras were aimed at the fountain, this majestic piece of water architecture.

I licked as much of the barbecue sauce off my fingers as I could and threw the Styrofoam into a garbage can near the two most likely benches. But I didn’t have time to slip into any nostalgia before I was approached by a large Indian family.

“Would you mind taking our picture?” they asked.

We did the perfunctory Which button? This button exchange, then I asked how much of the fountain they wanted in the shot. “As much as possible.” I framed them in the lower left, with water cascading above their shoulders.

Most of the time, standing that close to the fountain will give you a significant misting, but that night the air was soft and still.

I returned their camera and turned away from the fountain, letting my eyes adjust to the dim path back toward the stage. With the rush of the fountain fading behind me, and the clamor of a new jazz ensemble still soft ahead of me, I enjoyed a brief time during which my footfalls were audible. I happened upon a fire hydrant spitting a stream of water onto Columbus Drive and rinsed the remaining barbecue residue off my hands.

After some effort, I located my parents and rejoined them on the grass. They poured me a glass of chardonnay like honeyed pear. I looked back toward the fountain and could make out the 150-foot spire of water it periodically fires into the air. A trumpeter chose that moment to lift a solo high above the rest of the orchestra and splash back down to join them again.

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