Hecht, Ben, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, Chicago; University of Chicago Press, 1992

pp. 53-55 - excerpt

transcription excerpt of a book

"1001 Afternoons in Chicago"

There were beggars in the street but they only add by way of contrast to the effulgence of our procession. And, besides, are they beggars? Augustus Caesar attired himself in beggar's clothes one day each year and asked alms in the highways of Rome.

I begin to notice something. An expression in our faces as we drift by the fastidious ballyhoos of the shop windows. We are waiting for something--actors walking up and down in the wings waiting for their cues to go on. This is intelligible. This magician of a street has created the illusion in our heads that there are adventure and romance around us.

Fauns, Pierrots, Launcelots, Leanders--we walk, expectantly waiting for our scenes to materialize. Here the little steno in the green tam is Lais of Corinth, the dowager alighting from the electric is Zenobia. Illusions dress the entire procession. Semiramis, Leda, and tailored nymphs; dryad eyes gleam from powder-white masks. Or, if the classics bore you, Watteau and the rococo pertness of the Grand Monarch. And there are Gothic noses, Moorish eyebrows, Byzantine slippers. Take your pick, walk up and down and wait for your cue.

This street, I begin to understand, is consecrated to the unrealities so precious to us. We come here and for a little while allow our dreams to peer timorously at life. In the streets west of here we are what we are--browbeaten, weary-eyed, terribly optimistic units of the boobilariat. Our secret characterizations we hide desperately from the frowns of windows and the squeal of "L" trains.

But here in this Circe of streets the sun warms us, the sky and the spaces of shining air lure us and we step furtively out of ourselves. And give us ten minutes. Observe--a street of heroes and heroines. Actors all. Great and irresistible egoists. Do we want riches? Then we have only to raise our finger. Slaves will attend with sesterces and dinars. A street of joyous Caligulas and Neros, with here and there a Ghengis Khan, an Attila.

The high buildings waver like gray and golden ferns in the sun. The sky stretches itself in a holiday awning over our heads. A breeze coming from the lake brings an odorous spice into our noses. Adventure and romance! Yes--and streets are all the plots. All the great triumphs, assassinations, amorous conquests of history unravel themselves within a distance of five blocks. The great moments of the world live themselves over again in a silent make-believe.

Here is one who has just swum the Hellespont, one who has subdued Cleopatra; here one whose eyes are just launching a thousand ships. What a street!

The afternoon wanes. Our procession turns toward home. For a few minutes the elation of our make-believes in the Avenue lingers. But the "L" trains crowd up, the street cars crowd up. It is difficult to remain a Caesar or a Don Quixote. So we withdraw and our faces become alike as turtle backs.

And see, the afternoon has been squandered. There were things which should have been done. I blush indignantly at the memory of my thoughts during the shining hours in the Avenue. For I spent the valuable moments conversing with the devil. I imagined him coming for me and for two hours I elaborated a dialogue between him and myself in which I gave him my immortal soul and he in turn promised to write all the stories, novels and plays I wanted. All I would have to do was furnish the paper and leave it in a certain place and call for it the next morning and it would be completed--anything I asked for, a story, novel or play; a poem, a world-shattering manifesto--anything.

Alas, I am still in possession of my immortal soul!