Midwestern Elephants

Why is it that great quotes always show up at inopportune moments? Like when you’ve finally decided just to shut your mouth about a subject that irks you to the core of your being for fear of your opinion being lumped in with those who would wish progress to roll backwards and return us to the days of unsliced bread, button-down shoes, and locally owned retail establishments.

The sheer horror of not being considered a modernist is almost too much to bear. I live in Marina City, for God’s sake. Mies sits across the street. I know fluorescent in the kitchen is my friend. I’ve already owned two iPods! But no matter. Open your mouth about the impending corporate murder–for that is what it is–of the Marshall Field’s nameplate by the evil retail overlords at Federated, and some heartbroken local will immediately insert their foot and wax on about childhood memories of shopping excursions with grandma to eat ice-cream-cone snowmen in the Walnut Room. To be followed with, “But the real Marshall Field’s is no more”.

Well, bunk.

As near as I can figure from my outsider’s perspective (I grew up in Gotham, not Hogtown, the one town where a Macy’s headquarters should and only should ever be) Marshall Field’s is alive and well in the minds and hearts of more Chicagoans than I care to shake a Frango at. Although habitual Target shoppers they may be (with all the Field’s-killing guilt that comes along with a kitchen drawer full of bullseye-festooned bags), that’s an allegiance built on the bottom line, not the seventh floor. Fifty years from now, you will not find these same people’s children waxing poetic about Christmastime buffalo chicken personal pan pizzas and toffee-nut lattes consumed by the glowing light of a red neon stripe. God willing.

As a native Gothamite, I know how my flatland friends and neighbors must feel. I mean, if I woke up tomorrow and found out that Macy’s Herald Square was becoming J.C. Penney, and henceforth November in NYC would be graced with the Penney’s Thanksgiving Day Parade…come to think of it, I doubt I’d notice. Retail genericism has been alive and well in Herald Square since long before they took the 25-cent hot-pretzel counter out of the Herald Square subway station. As long as they kept the wooden escalators, I’d let it go. We New Yorkers have a temper, don’t get me wrong. But it’s been a long time since Macy’s was Macy’s, and these days a real miracle on 34th Street would be not beating the crosstown bus on foot.

Is Field’s any different? That question I don’t give a fig for. What matters is how people still think about the store. And unlike we New Yorkers, Chicagoans still have a very present soft spot for their retail grand dame. In spite of economic reality and their own opposing shopping preferences, this proud, cornfed populace will go the grave jonesing for a short wait and early seating under the Christmas Tree and would be buried happily in a dark green shopping bag if it came to that.

“New Yorkers have short fuses but Chicagoans have long memories.” And there it is. Out of the mouth of an uncharacteristically incisive municipal functionary and out of left field, this comment today finally made Macy’s-gate make sense to my first-city sensibilities. See, back home, we’ll hold a grudge like nobody’s business, but we’ll be damned if we ever remember what for.

But the memory of a Chicagoan. Unyielding, like the Lake Michigan ice pack in January, or the tawdry new crust of an Uno’s pizza. My money’s on the perilously long winters that for two centuries have forced locals to cling desperately to remembrances of sunlight and the growing season, survivable temperatures and layerless dressing, to have some small sense of hope to get them from September through April. Or thereabouts. They’ve had practice in this.

Federated was born on Mid-Atlantic shores, where 20-degree temperatures are an excuse to stay in, not walk around with your coat open. They are not hardy souls. They could never understand the weight of Midwestern memory.

And in this, they are marvelously overmatched.

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