August 11th, 2017
Karin and I were making a “Stadtbummeln”. Roughly translated from the German, that means taking a “city stroll”, or in our case it meant “wandering around aimlessly in a strange town”. Karin and I were spending the morning slowly exploring the Uptown district of the north side of Chicago. We used to make a lot of “Stadtbummeln” back when we were dating in Germany. Now, on our 33rd wedding anniversary, it felt good to do it again.
Karin and I had stayed overnight at the home of Voices for Creative Non-violence. Voices rents the upper floor of a house on Argyle Street. They use most of it as an office for their peace activist work. There are three bedrooms on the floor. There is also a large attic loft, which has a couple more beds. Sometimes there are only a few people at Voices; sometimes the place is packed. The Veterans for Peace Conference was happening that week in Chicago, so the house was full of people who wanted to attend the meeting. Generally, there are only a few regulars staying on Argyle street. Kathy Kelly lives there, when she isn’t flying to Afghanistan, or attending a rally, or doing time some place. Otherwise, people tend to drift in and out. Voices has a large transient population.
Karin and I got up early that morning, and we walked from Argyle Street to our Lady of Lourdes Catholic Church on the corner of Ashland and Wilson. We went to Mass there. Oddly enough, there was another couple in the church who were celebrating an anniversary. These two people had seventy-one years together. That was kind of overwhelming. I have trouble imagining living for seventy-one years, much less being married for that length of time.
The joy of making a Stadtbummeln lies in its inherent unpredictability. A person tends to go places and do things that are unexpected. Karin and I had made tentative plans for our exploration of Chicago, but they changed as soon as we left the church. I had intended to show Karin the Vietnamese Buddhist Temple that was right across the street from the Our lady of Lourdes. Karin had asked to see it. However, once Mass was over, Karin realized that she was hungry and that we should find a coffee shop ASAP. We went in search of a cafe.
I told Karin about a nice, cozy coffee shop nearby. I had spent some time in there during my last visit to Chicago. We walked east for several blocks on Wilson and never found the place. Apparently, it was on a street running parallel to Wilson, but I couldn’t remember exactly where. Looking around, we spied another cafe on the other side of the street. We crossed Wilson and entered the Emerald City. It was kind of artsy, and obviously an independent operation. They had excellent breakfast burritos.
From the Emerald City we got back on Wilson and walked all the way to the lakefront. We came upon the heavy stones that make up the barrier wall near the beach. Karin went down to the water. I watched people running their dogs along the sand. Karin came back with the hem of her skirt soaked with water from Lake Michigan. She had waded in just a little too far.
We sat together on the stones for a while. We felt the sun and the wind. Karin said to me,
“It’s about seven o’clock in Germany. On our wedding day, we were having our first dance at this time during the reception in Markelsheim.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
Karin smiled. “Should we dance a waltz?”
I shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
We both got up and danced on the beach, something slow and melodic from Strauss playing in our heads and guiding our movements. I was never much of a dancer, and I had forgotten how to waltz. Karin helped me to remember. When the dance was over, we brushed the sand from our feet and walked through the park. Karin scored a coconut Popsicle from a Mexican vendor during our travels.
We walked from the park west to Broadway, and then we headed north. We were making our way back to Argyle Street. Where Broadway crosses Argyle is the Vietnamese neighborhood. The area has small, family-run groceries, Pho restaurants, Asian banks, and the ubiquitous nail shops. It seems like everybody smokes there.
Karin wanted to check out a Vietnamese supermarket. As we walked to the entrance, we were accosted by a Buddhist monk. The man was short and squat, with a shaved head. He smiled broadly. He wore saffron-colored jacket and pants, and he had an orange cloth draped over his shoulder. I am guessing that he was a monk from Southeast Asia, but I’m not sure. Buddhism has a lot of flavors.
He stopped me and asked, “Do you know Buddha?”
“I know a little about him.”
The man had a thick accent. “Do you want picture of Buddha?”
“No, not really, but thank you.”
He pointed at his van. “I have many pictures. You take one.”
The guy had an old van that was packed to the roof with pictures and posters. They all seemed to have Buddhist themes. They were also remarkably tacky. His pictures of the Buddha were the artistic equivalents of portraits of Jesus that are painted on black velvet backgrounds. I had trouble imagining us displaying one of his pictures in our home.
The guy got excited. “You must know the truth! We know that we all die soon! We have no time to lose!”
“Drop your anger! Lose your desire and attachment! That is what Buddha say!”
“Yes, right, of course…”
“We must break free from suffering!”
“Hey, uh, my wife wants to look in the store. Thanks for sharing with us.”
Then I asked his name.
“You call me ‘Monk’!” My name not important. All things transient!”
I offered to shake his hand, but he said, “No! No! We don’t shake hands! We do THIS!”
He put his palms together and bowed slightly. Gassho. Karin and I did the same.
We walked swiftly into the store.
The store was full of the exotic: tiny Confucian shrines, oddly shaped pots and pans, unidentifiable types of seafood, an infinite variety of noodles, small mechanical cats that waved and smiled at me. Karin bought some dragon fruit and some soap. We got some incense for Stefan.
Karin and I exited the store. Karin turned to me and said,
“Look behind you.”
Bad vibes. I turned slowly to see Monk eagerly waving at me, beckoning me to return. We walked back toward him.
Monk held up a paper towel and smiled at me. He loudly blew his nose into the towel and dropped it on to the pavement.
“You see? You see what I do?! You must let go of your anger, just like I let go of the rag!”
“Look! Look here! You see picture? You go do meditation?”
He grinned. “You take picture to meditation hall! I make it just for you!”
“I don’t think so.”
Monk was perplexed, and appeared to be slightly hurt. “But, I make it just for you.”
“Sorry. I just can’t. Thank you.”
I put my hands together and made gassho. Karin quickly did the same. Monk bowed to us.
Karin and I walked away rapidly. We did not dare to take a backward glance. I had never experienced a Buddhist hard sell before. The guy was pushing the Dharma like he selling me a used Pontiac with high mileage. It was somehow deeply disturbing. It felt so wrong. We didn’t want to visit the temple any more. It would have been a let down.