By David Lowe
Through Indiana with its somnolent agricultural fields, the train carried me from my southern prep school to my father’s hometown of Chicago. I had attended this school in Kentucky since my mother’s death when I was six years old. As the train approached Illinois, everything changed: the mixture of little houses and two-story factory buildings brought the passengers to life, for it signaled we were nearing the Second City. The tension within the cars increased significantly when people glimpsed the glitter of the Gothic Revival buildings of the University of Chicago and the dazzling beauty of the Museum of Science and Industry. It seemed that everyone on the other side of the car rushed to the windows for a glimpse, and this was nothing, compared to when the city itself came into view. Here before us was the vastness of Lake Michigan, the formal beauty of Grant Park, with, to the west, a wall of skyscrapers that had been appropriately labeled the Sierras of the Heartland. Brutal, grinding metal wheels on steel tracks announced that we were coming to a stop. It seemed as though everyone in the car jumped up at once and rushed towards the open exit. My 15-year-old self was pushed towards an opening, and I thought I was done for it until one of the staff grabbed my arm and led me down the three steps to the station floor.
“Which bag is yours,” he asked. I pointed to the large, heavy cowhide suitcase which had been my father’s. He lifted it with ease, and we turned to see, in the distance, my dad waiting to greet me. His costume made it clear that he had just come from Arlington Park Race Track. He was wearing a beautifully tailored English sport jacket with fine twill trousers reaching down to his high-topped shoes. We approached him.
“Welcome to Chicago,” he said, and gave me a kiss on either cheek, a kiss of great formality. He then handed the porter two dollars, grasped my hand, and led me beneath the high arches of Illinois Central Station, to his new car. “How do you like it?” he said. Of course, I had no input in selecting the new car he bought every other year, but as usual, it was a Buick and black and a coupe. This one had a striking sloped back and little seats that flipped up instead of a back seat. We got in, Dad started the engine, and swung the car into Twelfth Street, or, as real Chicagoans call it, Roosevelt Road, the Roosevelt being Teddy. We began to sweep up Michigan Avenue, past landmarks that I had studied in my architectural course this past year. There was the vast Stevens Hotel, the largest hostelry in the world. And the Art Institute, which held my beloved collection of French impressionist paintings. And there was the Congress Hotel, where, in 1933, the song “Happy Days” had its premiere for the incoming President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Directly across from the Congress was Louis Sullivan’s glorious Auditorium, where, it seemed, all the world had spoken. Finally, at the corner, proudly sat the public library, whose interior was a masterpiece of Tiffany mosaic.
We swept into Randolph Street and stopped in front of a welcoming garage. The staff came out, at least eight of them, and said, “Welcome Mr. M.,” his initial. My father handed them each one dollar and said, “Keep an eye on the car, there’s luggage inside.”
We walked onto Randolph and headed westward, crossing State Street, that great street, to a simple, elegant front of dark wood and great slabs of glass; above the entrance, a small sign read ‘Henrici’s.’ Upon entering, we were greeted by someone I’m sure was the manager, and he showed us to a prime seat at a round table near the front door. “Welcome, Mr. M.,” this manager said as he bowed.
“It is always good to be in Henrici’s,” my father replied intentionally. He showed the manager that he knew it was a German name; it would not be named for a female chicken. The staff, mostly German, loved that. The manager paused over us and asked, “The usual, Mr. M.? And for the boy?”
“I will have a Dewar’s and soda and a ginger ale for the boy.” Our breakfast came. This would have been a surprise to people who were not regulars at Heinrici’s, for it was finnan haddie. The expertly prepared haddock and the rich cream sauce were absolutely overwhelming. I did not need to get used to it, for my father thought it an appropriate breakfast for me for as long as I could remember. As we ate and drank, he told me about the days when his mother gave him a dollar and told him to take Uncle Jim, his younger brother, to Henrici’s. They dined sumptuously on that one dollar, as my grandmother knew they would. And he was forever in love with the old German eatery.
Afterward, we headed east and stopped at State Street, its full panorama of apparel merchants laid out before us. Not only Marshall Field’s, but Carson Pirie Scott, Maurice Rothschild, the Fair, and the Boston Store. “Nowhere would you find a display like this one,” Dad acclaimed so loudly that several passers-by stopped and applauded. He was, of course slightly startled, but not embarrassed. He was a natural public speaker. We crossed State and entered the glorious first floor of Field’s. He always knew what he was after. He stopped and turned to the left and said to the very pretty sales lady, “I was told you have some beautiful handkerchiefs for sale.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered and pulled out boxes of exquisite Swiss handkerchiefs with perfectly rolled edges. “They’re three in a box, sir, one red, one blue, and one green.”
My father looked at the box and said quietly, “Send me two boxes.” He then presented his card, and we moved on under the vast Tiffany dome of Marshall Fields.
We stepped onto the escalator and rode up and up, till before my very eyes appeared a vast wonderland. It was nothing less than Field’s unequaled toy department. Dad led the way and said,” Make a selection, but not an entire electric railway set.” I saw in front of me, a foot-long PT Boat. It said in bold letters on the side PT 12. It had two guns on its deck that was hollow and could receive the carved torpedoes that had been made for it. My father quickly inserted the toy torpedoes in the two guns and fired them at a large woman who had her back to us. “Ouch,” she said.
My father turned to me grinning. “That was not a nice thing to do, David.”
“I’m sorry dear,” he said to the woman who was now rubbing her derrière. “He’ll never do that again.”
“I hope not,” the indignant woman said. I never brought up the matter with my father. He ordered the boat to be sent to our summer address, and we had a pleasant descent down the escalator. Walking across the first floor, we exited onto Wabash Avenue just as the El train passed by. This was always my favorite moment in Chicago, with the buses on a street like Wabash Avenue and the El above headed to Lake Street. I always felt this was the beating heart of a big city.
We crossed Wabash and came upon a store like none I had ever seen. It was all hats. Men’s hats, straw and Panama, and top hats and felt fedoras. We went inside and a salesman greeted my father, “Welcome, Mr. M., your summer hat is ready.” He must have pressed a button, because the next moment there appeared a stunning boater with a bright band, purple and white, my father’s racing colors. “It’s just as you ordered, Mr. M.”
My father took the hat, walked to a mirror, and placed it on his head. “Perfect,” he said. He removed the hat, replaced it with the fedora he had been wearing, and said, “Send it to my address.” The shop obviously knew his address, because there were no questions.
“Don’t forget, Mr. M., we have two more of your hatbands.”
We left the shop and headed down Wabash, passing the glorious windows of Von Lengerke and Antoine, Chicago’s legendary sporting goods store. The windows were chock-a-block with English rifles and hunting boots and costly Zeiss binoculars. My father had once sent me a hand-me-down, a handsome corduroy hunting jacket. Its glory was the waterproof pocket in its back panel, made for just- killed rabbits and birds and anything else that was small.
My father always knew where he was going in Chicago, and now we crossed Wabash, entered the Palmer House, and took the elevator up to the lobby. It was an exuberant space that had recently been refurbished by Italian artisans. At the very moment, we were admiring the lobby’s painted ceiling, a voice yelled out,” What are you two doing here?” We turned to the right and looked up a short flight of steps leading to the Palmer House’s Empire Room. There stood a distant relative, Mrs. Nelson Morris, dressed as usual in extraordinarily chic clothes. “Come and have lunch with me.”
My father answered, “We can’t, we have to do our errands and get back to the racetrack. But do come and sit in my box as a guest.”
She thought for a moment and said, “I would like that a lot.”
My father replied, “I will send you an invitation with details.” And before she could say another word, we had crossed the lobby and were headed down to the street level on the State Street side.
We stood on State Street facing the northwest corner of the Palmer House which contained Peacock’s Jewelry Store. My father led the way to the store’s bronze portals which were in the form of peacocks. I had always thought it was wonderful that a city would have a jeweler with the appropriate name of “peacock.” As we approached, a man in formal cutaway opened those wondrous doors for us. Something astonishing, I thought, happened when we entered the shop itself: all the staff appeared to be looking at my father and smiling. We walked to the back of the store, enveloped in its sumptuous green marble walls, and there, waiting for us, was Mr. Stewart Peacock himself.
“Hello, Mr. M.,” he said loud and clear. “Your timepiece is ready.” Obviously, my father’s watch meant something in this shop, and I soon learned why. It was a Patek-Philippe in gold, but that was just the start of it. It was a regular large pocket watch, but it chimed the hours and minutes and was also, wonder of wonders, a stop-watch that my father used when clocking his horses at various racetracks. Mr. Peacock laid it onto a small velvet cushion and said, “We had to repair the initial.” And he turned it over and showed my father’s initials, ML, inlaid in onyx at the center of the back. “Be careful with it,” Mr. Peacock said, the only man to admonish my dad in that way, “this is a very valuable timepiece. Please stop dropping it.” The story was that my dad sometimes drank too much, and at times when he would pull the watch out of his pocket, it would fall to the floor. It was never seriously damaged, but the case was often badly dented. Overlooking what Mr. Peacock had said, for the families had been friends for generations, he invited Mr. Peacock to come and sit in our box at the track.
“I would love to,” Mr. Peacock answered, and he would, for he appeared at Arlington Park and sat in our box at least once every racing season.
We left the shop amid lots of cheery good-byes and started walking up State Street. I had the chance to look closely at the unparalleled cast-iron decoration of Carson’s first floor and moved on past Field’s when I saw something that made me want to delay my return to Arlington Heights. The Chicago Theater, the flagship of Balaban and Katz’s fleet of movie palaces, was presenting on its stage, one of my favorite comedy teams, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, but I didn’t say a word. We were soon in our Buick headed west on Randolph Street. When we came to LaSalle my father abruptly stopped, parked the car, and pointed to the majestic Board of Trade at the end of the street. “That’s one of Chicago’s most magnificent modern buildings, and we are represented there as the largest dealer in livestock of any city in America.”
As he started the car again he pointed to another building and said, “That’s where Tommy Nash’s law firm is, Nash, Ahern, and McNally.” Tommy Nash was my father’s closest friend since childhood. “David,” repeating my name always meant that he was extremely serious, “you know Tommy has offered you a place in his office. If you take it, you will have a good life, right here in Chicago. You know Tommy is one of the country’s most renowned lawyers.”
I thought for a second and then blurted out, “Yes, I know, and I also know that he was Al Capone’s lawyer.”
A sheet of ice seemed to coat the interior of the Buick. “That was unnecessary of you to say, but even if he were,” and here he spoke like a true Chicagoan, “he is a great, great attorney.” We drove through the northwestern suburbs like Barrington and Park Ridge as before, but in silence, Tommy Nash between us. Eventually, he turned to me and said, “David, let’s not fight, we’re all we have.”
When I saw the familiar buildings of Arlington Heights, the imposing public swimming pool, the glorious movie theatre, I found myself saying, “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have said that.”
We pulled up in front of the charming cottage we rented every summer, and at the same time, our landlady, Mrs. Müller came out of the house next door where she lived. “Wilkommen, welcome.” I lifted the heavy cowhide suitcase which Mrs. Müller noticed at once. “You can’t have this child carrying that trunk.” And with that, she walked over, picked up the bag, and went into the house. “Come on David.”
As I began to follow Mrs. Müller, my father said, “I have to go out to the track, now.” But before he turned to get into the Buick, he patted me on the back in a very paternal way. I knew then that we would have a great summer together.
David Garrard Lowe
Author’s Note: At the time of this writing, Arlington Park which was a large part of my father’s professional life and of this story, is scheduled to close.
I would like to particularly thank my friend and colleague Linda Zagaria for her assistance with this article.