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.