Eating Chicago

By Majorie Jenson 

My arrival in Chicago was preceded by an angry paper about Columbus’ subjugation of the Native Americans in the Bahamas and Cuba perpetuated by his lack of a national or familial history. I’m sure you can understand my concern that I would be the token angry indigenous-identified radical queer woman. How’s that for identity politics?

My arrival was also preceded by a former Antioch student throwing a book at a patron of the Newberry Library (ask Tom Haugsby for the whole story). Suffice to say, we no longer have a co-op here. I had to prove myself and my college as a Newberry Research Fellow living in the Gold Coast District (read “rich white neighborhood?). Within the first week of the seminar, I found myself and my people being called “Indians,? repeatedly, by the Director of Renaissance Studies and subsequently explaining to my fellow Fellows why the misnomer offended me. They call us “Indians? because Columbus thought he was in the Indies. He also thought Cuba was Japan.

However, I have found my Columbus book useful. From beyond the grave, Columbus kills another indigenous group – the spiders that frequent my apartment. (These natives are abundant and fucking huge.) But seriously, the importance of semantics transcends being politically correct. It’s about accuracy and intelligence. We don’t call Cuba Japan because of Columbus’ ignorance. Let’s not misidentify an entire indigenous people because “Indian? is easier to say. Coincidentally, my research topic is in the Renaissance and my professor encouraged me to talk with the Director.

“It’s okay,? he said. “She didn’t mean anything by it.?

Sure. Apparently, ignorance is bliss. Previous to this exchange, I challenged my professor’s analysis of the epic hero’s definitive “masculinity,? which led to a long discussion of the fallacy of a gender binary. In the end, he agreed that the political and economic factors of patriarchy proved that it was a better term. Again, a question of semantics that is larger conceptually than just being “PC.?

My time at the Newberry is split between research, class on travel writing and working part-time for the Development Office. My first task at work was to prepare for the General Consul of Brazil’s visit to the monthly “Wednesday Club.? This included making signs and copies for the event, moving chairs and generally acting as any intern would- as a gofer (go for this, go get that).

As the crowd entered Ruggles Hall, I felt distinctly and incontrovertibly out of place. They were the elite, well-dressed, well-off: the bourgeoisie. Milling around, they spoke of opera tickets, were surprised they had to pour their own wine and were dismissive of the catering staff. I hung their coats and identified myself as “the intern? when introduced.

I racked my brain for enough Spanish from my distant high school classes to speak with the catering staff when encouraged to eat by my boss. They seemed relieved that I tried to explain my vegetarianism (sin carne, por favor). I stood in the back, shrugging into my cardigan sweater, trying to blend in with the wall, feeling very much the underdressed and poor intern. I ducked out during the Q and A and gossiped with the security guard at the front kiosk. He was, at that moment, the only one I could relate to: a working-class POC that assured me that I would adjust to the extravagant, fivestory, marble-accented library and the mostly ignorant white librarians. I was still unsure, but comforted nonetheless.

After my distinctly Antiochian complaints, I worried what my weekend held. The other students were beautifully nerdy and, as most educated people are, liberal. They came from colleges such as Kenyon, Lawrence, Beloit and Hope. None had the radical reputation of Antioch. And no one thought poorly of our “confrontational culture? (and many have visited Antioch). On Friday night we met on the fourteenth (read thirteenth and a superstitious architect) floor. The night began with Appletinis and Cabernet Sauvignon raised in praise of the semi-colon; “the sexiest punctuation mark ever,? said Jason from Albion. We played the prerequisite game of Never Have I Ever and I explained the rules of Cliff.

Eventually, we moved to the seventeenth (read sixteenth) floor, put on trashy pop music and smoked too many cigarettes (or at least I did). The studio apartment was transformed in Club Newberry, and the remaining Fellows danced away several hours. After Nick from Denison danced on his kitchen counter, we decided to relocate.

In drunken impatience, Jason, Nick, Becky (also from Denison) and I left the others to bravely broach the Zebra Lounge, a dark, sketchy bar in the first floor of our apartment building. An older pianist played Beatles covers. Drinks were overpriced. We talked about the library, Milton, Shakespeare and erotica. Other bar patrons expressed their envy of our scholastic endeavors.

The city called and we walked two blocks to the shore of Lake Michigan. The buildings reached for the sky like fingers with many jeweled rings. Small, warm waves crashed around my feet. My dress winked back at the jewels of the city and I held black stilettos out of the water while Chicago’s much acclaimed wind tugged at my hair.

We talked about privilege. Our ramblings included this extravagant life as a temporary construct only to be taken from us by the real world. We marveled at how well we were living. We knew that we will never live this good again, being English majors. We promised to enjoy our impermanent existence. “For four months, Chicago is ours,? Becky said to the skyscrapers.

“We’ll eat Chicago,? said Nick, quoting an obscure song. I can only assure you that we will.