Coming Out

NPR reporter Monica Eng posts traditional homemade dishes on Instagram for every holiday. When I spotted her photo of colcannon, I recalled that on St. Patrick’s Day in the before-time I would hop the downtown bus to The Gage restaurant for their annual version of colcannon. Colcannon is a peasant Irish dish of potatoes mashed with butter, cream, cabbage and onions. 

In 2020, Governor Pritzker shut down St. Patrick’s Day and all restaurants for a month to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in Illinois. Our watering mouths were abruptly slammed shut not for a month but for the year.

Let’s have lunch! I messaged Mark this St. Patrick’s Day. We entered the same bus at different locations. Pandemic bus culture dictates you huddle in your seat and never look around. We didn’t recognize each other’s masked faces until we lined up by the bus driver at our destination. We hadn’t seen each other since the beginning of the shutdown.

The Gage is near the recently reopened Art Institute of Chicago. Mark and I could have visited the Art Institute after lunch but I dared not mention it. I’m not accustomed to “going out” yet and I needed to take it one occasion at a time. The Gage is only two miles from my home and I already felt like I was on an out-of-town excursion.

I’ve spent as much time in The Art Institute and the nearby Harold Washington Library than almost any public space in Chicago. Long before I even thought about writing my own book, I loved to see and hear authors talk about their writing in the womb-like Pritzker Auditorium at the Library.

In the year before the shutdown, the Member’s Lounge at the Art Institute was my favorite haunt for eavesdropping on conversations. I’d grab a coffee, find a seat and nonchalantly leaf through the delights in the oversized art book from the latest exhibit. I overheard couples argue over lunch plans, strangers flirt with each other and friends gossip about the get-ups of passersby.

Those best of days—lunch, art and authors—flicker in my memory like a moth dancing around a light bulb. The moth, and its cousin the butterfly, are metaphorically overused these days to describe how the vaccinated are acting after the year-long pandemic restrictions are gradually lifted. I get it. In order to get back in the habit of going out, my soul measures future steps, like an inchworm sprung from its cocoon. I loop up, edge forward, look around and take the measure of the awakening world, retreating when un-masked danger arises. Like the metamorphoses of the caterpillar to the butterfly or the inchworm to the moth, I suspect I’ll soon be free to flit about at will.

Molting Monarch Caterpillar

It can’t come soon enough. I’ve become an eating machine. If only my outer layers would molt like those of the voracious-eating inchworms and caterpillars. They need all the calories they can chew off.  

I don’t.

Sex in the Art Institute

Sex in the Art Institute

On my first visit to “Painting the Floating World: Ukiyo-e Masterpieces,” I was so mesmerized by the dazzling patterns in the robes of the geishas that I did, indeed, float around the gallery.

R_UP_129R2_85-27_web“My god, a whole exhibit devoted to prostitution,” my companion whispered halfway around the showcased Japanese beauties.

I dragged back-to-back out-of-towners to The Art Institute of Chicago to see the paintings of Japan’s “metropolitan amusements to life,” as the curator describes it. The Weston Collection of concubines and geishas were painted between 1600-1850, the Edo Period, dubbed by the Japanese of the time as the “floating world”. 

My visitors were as entranced as I was with a particular part of the exhibit. Behind Japanese-style slatted-wood walls, long scrolls were rolled out flat in climate-controlled glass-topped tables. Moving sideways foot-by-foot in silent walking meditation, I peered down at the cases to study the painted images: depictions of men and women flirting and kissing, men and women embracing, then men and women in the most preposterous coital positions. Colorful garments wrap around their legs and arms, leaving the genital areas fully exposed. It had been a long time since I’d seen an erect penis. I had no idea there were so many ways to use it. The Manasquan High School gym teacher in New Jersey didn’t cover positions in 1960s sex education. Edo Period Japanese parents, however, bequeathed these scrolls to their newly-wed offspring for their sex education. How grateful I would have been had my mother given me the modern equivalent, The Joy of Sex.

My friend gasped. “I didn’t realize Japanese males were so well-endowed.”

I shrugged. “Well, don’t forget, all the artists were men.”

My cousin Therese came to town for Thanksgiving, and I couldn’t wait to get her to the Art Institute. I resisted briefing her as we ascended the stairs to the exhibit, stopping first to see American Gothic and Georgia O’Keefe. I left her at the Floating World entrance and pointed to the sign for the Member’s Lounge.

“I’ll meet you there. Take your time.”

The Member’s Lounge sets out catalogs for every exhibit. I grabbed a coffee, the Floating World book and settled into a chair at a corner table scrunched up against a wall crammed with dozens of other cafe tables and chairs. I was deep into searching for the scrolls of the erect-penis paintings when I felt the rustling of a neighboring body. A man with Asian features was squeezing himself into the adjacent table. I resumed my search. A jolting woman’s voice interrupted my task asking to sit at the Asian man’s table. I resumed my search.

“What do you think of acupuncture?” The woman asked the Asian man.

“I really don’t know anything about it,” he said.

“You’re kidding?” said the woman.

“I was in Chinatown yesterday for acupuncture,” she said her voice reaching the third octave.

What was going on? Was she so charged up after seeing the erect-penis paintings of Asian men she had to create stupid pick-up lines for this guy? The two of them carried on as if they were in a bar drinking sake. I abandoned my search for photos of the erect-penis scrolls and grabbed my notebook to record their conversation.

Just then Therese came through the door of the Members’ Lounge, caught my eye and burst out laughing.

“Wow. No wonder you left me by myself—so I could blush in secret!”

“Therese,” I mumbled, letting her in on the conversation at the next table, “there’s so much writing material here. I could sit in here every day during this exhibit and come up with a whole book, “The Overheards in the Members Lounge.”


“Yes, you know. Things you overhear. Write it all down.”

“Is that legal?” Therese asked.


Impressionists Impression

Impressionists Impression

Kicking up the milky stairs we head to the second floor, Gallery 201, 19th Century French Impressionists. We shimmy and shiver onto the planked floor, shh! Into high ceilings we rendezvous with my Impressionists. I show them off to you as if they are my own. Here’s the Renoir fruit bowl and there’s Manet’s train station. Oh! and the Degas dancers and Monet’s gardens.

Édouard Manet
French, 1832-1883
Steamboat Leaving Boulogne, 1864

You stagger at what to look at next, having studied but never seen the flabbergast of beauty before you. I suck in my cheeks in a quiet whistle to the tune of the hush in the gallery, swaying with silent vibrations.

And I whisper to you, “These are real.”