Lady in Waiting

Each corner of the Windy City’s dark granite building holds a seven and one half ton bronze verdigris clock chiming  a shopper’s psalm on the quarter hour.  The numerals are Roman, the adornment Beaux Arts.  It is of its time and timeless. The store stands out like a cathedral among the other stores and office buildings in Chicago’s downtown.  It is a place of pilgrimage. The clock invites the lady to step into a merchandise Shangri-la where for a time she could have or be whatever she wants.  The entrepreneur who envisioned this utopia was Marshall Field.  His motto for this experiment was Give the Lady What She Wants.  It was here our girl learned what she didn’t want.

In the second half of the 19th century, continental transportation transformed Chicago’s boggy farmland into an industrial crossroads for the emerging country.  Railroads and canals enabled grain and cattle to metamorphose into capital.  With capital came the desire for legacy.  Wealth and mansions grew up around the city’s center.  The great hog butchers, farm futurists and steel makers deserved the same elegant lifestyle as East Coast men of great wealth.  They were just as rich—maybe richer. Cash in hand cries out to be spent.  And that was Marshall Field’s genius and legacy—spending money in elegant surroundings on image making merchandise. He taught the newcomers how to be rich.  The products were of the highest quality but it was the experience that converted the shopper into a devotee.

The girl’s hand reached out to open the heavy brass door on the Randolph Street entrance, but before her fingers touched the shiny, cold metal a uniformed doorman in full livery beat her to it with a “Good Afternoon Miss.  Have a pleasant day.”  The thirteen story building, with its four sub-basements and tunnels connected the loop underground just like the elevated trains did above.  For her the treasure house of Chicago was the elegant Marshall Field building. It was her touchstone. She even dreamed about living in the store—it held everything anyone could want.

Once a week, Maggie O’Rourke rode the Illinois Central from the Cheltenham Station on the South Side, past the gothic University and the dilapidated housing projects to arrive at the main underground station on Randolph Street. Her strong legs ran up the concrete stairs littered with newspapers and cigarette butts. Once out in the open, on today’s visit, the wind hit her with the grit and electric smells of a city.  Her coppery hair which had been neatly brushed into a classic page boy flew out like a windsock over her face—an east wind from lakefront.  But she didn’t care because just one more gusty block she’d be inside the calm and sweet smelling palace.  The weekly outing was a self-designed tutorial.  Within this building she was learning about a sophisticated grown-up world.  She left behind the working class Southside neighborhood which was already way too confining for her.

She was a lady in waiting, a budding one, who didn’t quite know exactly what she was waiting for.  Dressed in her charcoal grey school uniform with a four point, white, starched blouse under the blazer, white bobby socks and saddle shoes she walked with quick steps—her back strong and straight, her long neck holding her head still, with chin titled up—just like she learned in years and years of Ceili dancing.  This posture carried her with assurance from her schoolgirl to lady-in-training, trying on different personas and different stories.

The Randolph Street door opened onto the perfume department.  She’d select a scent she intended to fit the assumed character.  A dab of Joy behind the freckled ear and the cream colored inner wrist and she’d be a young bride recently married to a very rich surgeon. The intense rose scent would follow her all the way home. The day’s shopping adventure might take her to handbags—yes, a perfect alligator bag to match her pretend alligator shoes.  “Take the escalator to the third floor, Miss.”

She’d wander from scent to scent.  Shalimar with its hints of the Far East was the most exotic. On that day she might be a New York actress appearing at the Goodman.  She’d try a made up foreign accent to ask the woman behind the counter to direct her to lingerie even though she knew the layout of the store by heart.  She’d walk to the bank of elevators and ask once again so she could hear herself say “lingerie” in her new voice.  The uniformed and white gloved elevator “director” pointed to the upper floors express cars.  “Take car three to the seventh floor, Miss.”

Channel Number 5 is what Marilyn Monroe sleeps in.  It’s a scent for a liberated woman.  Coco Channel designed it for the young flappers.  Maggie wants to be liberated but is still unsure what that will mean.  On today’s outing it’s 1961; John Kennedy’s Thousand Days are just beginning. She’ll soon see the world change and by the end of the decade she’ll know what liberated means. 

Wearing Channel she wanders over to Art and Artifacts at the Wabash Street corner.  The colors here are darker, the ceiling is lower, the lighting is spotted—it resembles a private men’s club as seen in movies.  She finds a leather footstool shaped like a rhinoceros.  It’s $1500 more than what her father paid for the Pontiac.  She finds herself craving this exotic doo-dah.  She imagines the life she would have if she had the rhino—she would live in a large house on the North Shore or old Hyde Park.  It would have a wood paneled den with a large fireplace, built in book shelves, oriental rugs—a house filled with art and more doo-dahs  from world travels.  All because of a leather rhino.

She walks to the bank of elevators.  Today will be a day to decorate the pretend house. Her old acquaintance the “director” tells her furniture and Oriental rugs are on the eighth floor.  This department is one Maggie visits a lot trying on potential houses and husbands.  She has learned about decorating styles from the Architectural Digest she picks up from the South Shore Library.  English style tapestry sofas and dark wooden casework appeals to her eye. It begins with design—the turn of the leg, materials—using the finest woods and fabrics, craft—knowing how to turn the drawing into a work of art.  The rhino would fit perfectly with this style.  Like perfumes each style comes with a backstory.  She could even envision sitting on a plumbed up down filled chaise, with a box of Field’s Chocolate Frango mints [first floor candy and sweets] on the Chippendale side table.  She’d be cooing a soft pink baby dressed in an embroidered white lace nightgown (found on ninth floor children’s ware.)

While wandering through furniture she moves into Antiques where she finds the refectory table.  It was so long it could serve the budding writer she might be and the dining table for the family she might have.  Not far from the table there’s a high antique four poster bed canopied and draped.  She can’t help but giggle to herself when she imagines the drapes closed and the bed bouncing.  Might be a bit like Simone Signoret and Lawrence Harvey in “Room at the Top.”

All these thoughts and decisions about her future are exhausting.  Her stomach is growling and now all she can think about is high tea in the Walnut Room—twelfth floor.  The restaurant tables surround the open solarium with a Tiffany ceiling above and twelve floors of empty space below.  From these dizzying heights it’s back to reality.  Here, her mother will join her for tea.  Her mother works in China (second floor.) twenty hours a week so she can secure the twenty percent discount.  Shopping is Mrs. O’Rourke’s avocation and greatest joy and she is passing on the tradition to her youngest daughter.

Today is Thursday, traditionally cook’s night out in the Prairie Avenue mansions on the South Side or the Astor Street townhouses on the North.  The downtown stores traditionally stayed open until eight o’clock so the wealthy patrons could stroll by the shops and dine out.  Our mother and daughter will take high tea with the little crustless quarter sandwiches, and one bite pastries topped with Devonshire cream. 

After tea they would ride the employees’s elevator, ones without a white gloved attendant, to the employee’s discount store in the second sub-basement.  They’ll look for fine linen sheets, tapestry throw pillows or designer clothes marked down seventy percent.  Her mother will decorate their little bungalow in a miniature version of store’s style. But the rhino will never make it to the discount store.

By the end of the 1960’s Maggie had no thoughts of furniture, perfumes, houses or husbands.  Frango mints however remained a standby Christmas present from her mother for many years afterwards.

© 2021 Diane Miller All Rights Reserved


Diane Miller is a long time Zen student beginning her practice at San Francisco Zen Center.  A Sangha friend brought her to a writing group several years ago and a new passion was born.

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