There’s a couch lady holding court in heaven. Katie Calhoun used to tell me I should buy her Marina City condo when she died. That was because I loved every minute of the adventurous years I lived in downtown Chicago’s controversial historic twin high-rise corncobs.
So did Katie. She was one of a small group of residents who had lived in Marina City since it opened in the mid-1960s as Chicago’s janitorial union’s city-within-a-city answer to urban flight. She was 38 when she moved into the towers in 1964. Last month, when she passed away at home at the age of 87, it was in the same one-room studio unit in which she lived for most of her adult life.
She often held court on the lower level between the two towers. Until the malevolent–and finally outvoted–condo board of the mid-2000s had them removed, Katie and her fellow long-term Marina City residents would meet on the curvy couches there and share gossip and news with each other–and not a little bit of Chicago history with younger residents like me who were wise enough to stop and sit with them as often as possible.
Whenever I would complain about noise, or traffic, or drunken tourists yelling far below our windows, she would have none of it. For Katie, downtown Chicago was the center of the known universe. She often told me she couldn’t imagine a life not lived in the center of a city. Most of her working life, she simply walked to her job as a graphic artist at the Sun-Times. After she retired, with so much to do and see so nearby, what was the point of leaving? Even just sitting in place was no problem. The show would simply come to you. All you had to do was grab a bench–as she often did on the plaza level overlooking the Chicago Loop–and let it.
When the condo board removed the couches to stop residents from congregating, Katie and the couch ladies began meeting on those plaza benches. When it was too cold, they’d meet in the individual building lobbies instead. At least until the condo board ripped out the lobbies. I had moved on from Marina City by then. But when I heard the story, I imagined Katie and the ladies meeting in each other’s apartments. Sewing. And plotting.
They couldn’t have met in Katie’s unit, though. You travel light through this world when you spend half a century in a studio apartment. Still, her unit was a virtual Disneyland for her cats. You couldn’t see the walls for the shelving units. I guess that’s what happens when you try to keep a lifetime of memories in one room.
It always made me sad to see. Not because her home was cluttered, but because mine wasn’t. Somewhere between New York and Chicago, from neighborhood to neighborhood, I’d thrown so much away I often wondered if I’d remember where I’d been–and who I’d been–along the way.
Until the day she died, If I can say one thing about Katie, she knew who she was. She was a Chicagoan. And her Chicago only extended from Roosevelt Road to North Avenue. I used to conceive of this city like that. I have often thought my greatest failing might be someday learning how to drive. But I’m sure Katie would have said it was leaving downtown Chicago.
Any couch lady worth their rim-salted drink down at Dick’s Last Resort will tell you that arguing with Katie wouldn’t get you anywhere. Who am I to say she wasn’t right? So from a former downtown Chicagoan to someone who steadfastly refused ever to follow suit, good-bye Katie.
Thanks for being an amazing example that life can be wonderful in our nation’s urban cores. Thanks for the pep talks. Thanks for the tickets to the Symphony. Thanks for thinking that I should have stayed. There’s a new star to be seen holding court in the heavens from the quiet nighttime vista of the Marina City roofdecks. This town is lesser without you.