November 17, 2011KR OnlineNonfiction

The Merchandise Mart


Returning to Chicago after fourteen years, I sleep on the concrete floor of the studio at the Merchandise Mart with my sketch pad under me, drawings of yucca and orchids. The next day I walk, the smell of caramel corn on Washington Avenue, salty corned beef on Van Buren. Michigan Avenue in spring, tulips and daffodils, I’m looking so hard at facades that I fall and scrape my knee. After that I just trip sometimes. The pretty names of streets, Flournoy, Sangamon. I don’t come out at all on Sunday because I am afraid I couldn’t get back in. A ghost hiding on the fifteenth floor, surrounded by glass-walled showrooms of posh furniture, pillows with lace flounces and painted and gilded Tibetan chests. The blanket they gave me at the shelter is made of two pieces of fleecy fabric, snipped at the edges and knotted together. Unlike the trumpet flowers hovering in the conservatory at Lincoln Park, I am unprotected. I have bought with food stamps, olives stuffed with almonds, cornichons, one red Cerignola and one huge black Kalamata. I am so rich.


The El makes a curve around the Merchandise Mart and goes west under my window. I have stuffed vine leaves for dinner, tiny sweet peppers filled with herbed feta, and a slosh of lemon vodka, perched above the city. Where do baby pigeons come from, someone once asked, I’ve never seen one. I remember driving down Halsted to Maxwell Street drunk at midnight for a Polish sausage—your lover who worked in ER didn’t think that was funny. You wore your old soft shoes to play the organ in the church in Wicker Park. You wore thick red socks and wiggled your toes at the brunch where I met all your friends. It reminded me of being sixteen, squeezed into a vestibule with peeling veneer for private conversations with my best friend in high school. We were shocked that Mimi, who lived on Lake Shore Drive, had said patronizingly, I hope my friends will be yours too. It reinforced my being locked out of that circle. The house painter who did the trim on your mansion painted in ornamentation that wasn’t there, but should have been. When I go to look at it, to see if it’s still there, the blossoms of the tulip tree have fallen deep on the stairs and in the garden, the empty bird bath, a pink hushhhhh as foreground to the muted colors. The woman with a closed face who looks autistic sings out like a bird in the banks of computers at the public library: only these two ways for her to communicate. The gift of speech.


The other artists move in and I can’t live illicitly at the Merchandise Mart any longer. I line up at the door of the shelter on Harrison Street where the women are admitted at seven-thirty. It costs too much to be myself, one rages. The Korean girl next to me is humming the Star-Spangled Banner. We file in to gulp down our food at stainless steel counters, no chairs, it all has to be thrown away and we have to be out by eight when they let the horde of men in. The night ward supervisor is named Mimi. We’re waked at five and have to be out by six-thirty. There might be blueberry pie for breakfast, there might be sausage and grits. The women don’t know what to make of the ladyfingers that are set out one morning. I believe they’re pirogi: I had one once, the one I’ve named Minerva says. But after tasting it her verdict is, it’s just bread. She blinks slowly like an owl. After a pause, talking to herself, I guess it’s a once in a lifetime experience, Jesus. I get tired of crossing bridges over the Chicago River, the guardhouses squatting like little jewel caskets alongside, each different, decorated with clamshells and angels. I don’t tire of the architecture, learn to steal paper for sketches from the library, write across the printed side diagonally to save paper like a civil war widow. I walk the cold canyons of downtown streets west at night, the sun brilliant in my face, east in the morning, back to the Merchandise Mart. Stories up, a dragonfly hit the flashing glass and fell stunned to the sidewalk, gauzy wings intact. It gropes for direction. I long for you.


In the studio Aytl is shearing her donkeys, which are really piñatas filled with sweets: she’s going to give them new coats and use them in an installation. Marc is cutting pebbles of newsprint to put on the moonscape-looking India ink rubbing he crouched over thick good paper on the floor to create. Jamie is doing her replicas of cheerleader type, glamorous chicks, we’re afraid to ask if they’re self-portraits; they sit at the Last Supper table as brides, witches, angels. I realize I am surrounded by crazy people. I quietly draw gargoyles on lintels and the resplendent iron arabesques decorating facades in the jewelry district. My mother’s dearest piece of costume jewelry was a heavy emerald glass star, a brooch she let me wear for assembly once in grade school. You were driving down Harrison in an old green pickup with a flag on the passenger side door, pulled over and called my name. You’d heard I was in town, I told you I had the studio residency but was staying at a shelter. I gave you the wrong signals; when you asked if I wanted a lift I said no, I’m almost there. I wonder if you think of me constantly, as I do of you.


A shop on Wells that sells only olive oil. A shop that sells candles, lunas, next to the soap artisan’s boutique on Hubbard Street. Vapor rolls in over the Chicago River, and I feel as if I’m walking in candlelight through the smoky city. The men who open the door at the shelter at seven-thirty sharp and dole out food never look us in the eye, we are not individuals. Over a hundred men, forty women. The beds are soft and commodious, not cots. Mimi in the morning: the coffee tastes like ants. I think what I will do if I see you again: take that work as a gift, no you can’t buy it. I think of what is precious. My mother’s square embossed pin from Ireland was of gold so pure it was soft, malleable. Years ago I watched an Irish woman make art by rubbing sphagnum moss in circles in a small square of paper. Aytl makes paper, but has set Barbie dolls that are supposed to be becoming silkworms inside one of the screens, their faces lacquered black. My prints are looked down upon because they’re figurative. I realize you don’t know what to do, what to say: I’m so glad to see you again. I’m glad you’re here. Will you have coffee with me. Will you have breakfast with me. The gift of communication. But then I’m staying at the shelter because I’m afraid of what might happen if I stayed with you.


I walk Lake Street because there are no people there, only warehouses selling the meat of pigs, goats, lamb, veal; Lyon & Healy harps. In the niches between girders, prostitutes used to flash their legs. I want French combs for my hair. They don’t have to have a diadem. A beheaded tulip: how do you know it is a parrot tulip if you don’t see the flower? I wait to see what will bloom next, in the stone urns coming down Wacker Drive, the flowerbeds tucked along art deco subway entrances on State Street in front of Louis Sullivan ironwork that is being refurbished. What will come after Marshall Fields, Carson’s. At the Merchandise Mart, Jamie, wearing Lycra ankle-length pants, wriggles her thighs suggestively as she talks about our unabashedly and blatantly exhibiting art in a commercial space. I’m here to produce work, I think. The stone carved into lilies and ribbons graceful above doorways. Mice run over the floor of the shelter that used to be a factory. The women are kind to me. I name Pearl for the string of big fake pearls always around her neck; she wears daily, a velvet dress I’ve figured out is deep purple, not chocolate, with mauve stockings and silver ballet shoes with little bows on them—over that a grizzled fake fur coat, black shawl over her tight frizzy curls. She’s always immaculate, and for that I have learned to esteem her.


Lost where Ogden Avenue dead-ends, I realize I can’t get to the place for Saturday’s free breakfast, showers, laundry. The fog is rolling in and rain is imminent, my two herniated discs hurt. I think, this is too much. If you come to me now it’s too late. I turn back to the studio, where Zack is at the drafting table doing his obsessive fine pencil lines that form nebula. On Harrison a couple of nights later, a man carrying a bouquet of white chrysanthemums and a big bag of take-out food shuts the gate behind him with a satisfied click. In front of the women’s door at the shelter the mad people are assembling, and I join them. I sit on a stone slab not attached to a door so no one will slam me in the back. Old gospel-rock plays in the dorm under the din of women. The soft clapping Meleathea makes when she thanks Jesus in her bed next to mine each night. Someone knit the narrow coverlet I found in the linen closet, squares of coral, aqua, moss green, turquoise, warm blue, forest green, purple-blue. I point my toes lying under it, my feet battered and blistered from the hour and a half long walk each way. Mimi asks if anyone knows how to do connected cross-stitch. Encircle me, the linked looping circles of iron ornamentation. Outside the factory window, the moon swirls like a bouquet of white chrysanthemums.

Linoleum block prints by Inara Cedrins

Inara Cedrins is an artist, writer, and translator from Latvian to English who returned to Chicago after travels world-wide for an artist's residency at the Merchandise Mart in 2010.