On a Thursday evening this past August I met my friend at the Oak Street Beachstro after work. It was late in the month, so instead of the brutally humid air, perfumed by pungent storm drains, that typifies early August in Chicago, the night was mild, gentle. September was just hours away.
My friend and I sat at a table from which we could watch the lake and the bristling palm trees that the Park District stuffed into dumpster-sized planters. The Beachstro is an open-air bar/restaurant that aims for a louche, Margaritaville vibe but still serves a market price filet and mixes Manhattans for the septugenarian retired bankers and anestheslogists and their preserved wives who live in the high rises overlooking Lake Shore Drive -- a world away from the metallic bikinis and Eighties cover bands just up the coast on the big fake boat at North Avenue Beach. A temporary sun deck perched on the edge of a manmade beach that's overshadowed by skyscrapers, it's, in a word, an anomaly. I like it because it is one of the few places one can sit next to the water in Chicago in a chair, at a table, and with a drink.
We met there a few times over the summer this year, a tradition we started in 2009 when my friend realized that her friend is the general manager there. That's a boon when you want to sip Coronas by the lake at Gold Coast prices. We'd been catching up for an hour or so, discussing, as she and I are wont to do, this road called life and its curves and potholes. We were chatting with the aforementioned manager, as direct and polite a guy as you'd expect to manage a restaurant at the crossroads of city beachfront and old money and nouveau riche, when a middle-aged British lady woman approached our table to speak with him. She was determined to express to my friend’s manager friend that the service at the Oak Street Beachstro was very good. Very good.
She had more to share than how much she enjoyed the salmon dinner, this fiercely positive Mrs. Londoner-now-in-Rockford, IL-who-is-really-an-Essex-girl (just like the famous chef Jamie Oliver "—well, he is an Essex boy," she told us). In fact, Lady Rockford ("that's what they call me," she told us) appeared with downright creepy timing: just after an almost-perfectly-round pink moon rose out of Lake Michigan, and just before an unexpected ten-minute fireworks display over Navy Pier nearby.
Once she vowed that the Beachstro's service was among the best she'd experienced, here or in England, it turned out that Lady Rockford was there to remind us of a few things. How gorgeous the night was, how we are leading charmed lives, how we are blessed here in America, because she has done food service work in the Ukraine (?) and they are really hard up over there, they have nothing, and we have everything. We are blessed! She was put out by her parents at age fifteen, you see, and so she went up to London and worked. She knows the value of work, learned it then, yes indeed, she did. Especially when she worked in the Ukraine, because let me tell you, they have it pretty bad in the Ukraine. Bad.
“I work hard. You work hard! I can tell you all work hard, and here you are, enjoying how hard you've worked in this wonderful place!” Her eyes looked into each of ours.
I started to get cold chills from the utter aptness of oracular oration, because just moments before, my friend and I had been discussing how towering mountains of bills and people who don’t get us are ultimately outweighed by the opportunities we have and the people who surround us who do get us and the joy within the continual task to learn to understand ourselves.
“Look around you,” Lady Rockford said, “just look at this. We have it good!”
So I did. I saw the moon gently lighting a path on the water, the river of headlights on Lake Shore Drive, the dark, trapezoidal Hancock Tower. I saw the palm trees springing out of their sturdy flower-filled planters, thriving there on the concrete, and I could hear the lake’s waves lapping at the manmade beach. I saw things made and placed where they don’t belong, but somehow still fitting there.
Then the moment dissolved, and refocused into a more typically absurd encounter with a garrulous stranger. Lady Rockford described her one spectacular U-turn in the middle of Michigan Avenue, which I think happened when her husband’s retina detached (?) and they had to go see the “amazing” doctor in Water Tower Place who was just “amAZING" and took such good care of him and that’s how Lady R learned to drive in downtown Chicago, don’t you know?
I'm not one to question good fortune (or I try not to be), and I think mysterious ways should be left to be mysterious, lest they be so dissected and diagrammed that they become normal. But as I rode my bike home beside the lake, still holding its moonpath to the horizon, with the city glittering behind me and the final fireworks winging overhead, I suddenly thought of how Emily asks the Stage Manager in the play Our Town, “do human beings realize life as they live it? Every—every minute?”
No, Stage Manager replies, "The saints and poets, maybe they do some."
But I think some of us ordinary human beings do. Not every minute, of course. And, actually, not even as the final minutes of a year tick away. I think it's a compulsory act, the December 31 realization, the kind of taking stock that happens before medical exams and weddings and living room furniture purchases.
But some of us maybe can realize in random minutes during the 14th or 9th or 36th week of the year, when the leaves on a tree are blown just so, or a toddler smiles in the airport, or when a chattering stranger and the moon and the fireworks and the manmade mountains inexplicably align.