Sunday, February 15, 2009

Valentine's Day, college style

While at Regenstein Library, I noticed a Doc Films poster showing City Lights (Chaplin) as the night's feature film. Until then, I had had no plans. I called J., who was discovering that, unlike farmland, bank accounts don't lie fallow until the farmer returns. He agreed.

He arrived bearing gifts—an enormous mixed bouquet (pink roses, miniature roses, tulips, carnations, and snapdragons with white mums) in a red vase with pink ribbon and a red scented candle. This was added to the five cards, including one to Hodge from "Celeste the cat," postmarked Gary, Indiana. I find "Celeste" suspect, as I told J. No self-respecting real cat would use the phrase, "your owner," to another cat. He disagreed, but he doesn't know cats like I do. It was a cat who first said, "You are not the boss of me," I'm sure.

I thought of going to the Dixie Kitchen and Bait Shop, in case it succumbs to the university's new mission as urban planner and developer. The wait would be 40 minutes, which also seemed to be the time in line to pay the fancy new parking machines (one of which was broken). On the way to Medici on 57th (Plan B), we passed Salonica, which ended up being Plan C when I mentioned it to J. It's the least romantic place on earth and therefore perfect for two friends on a budget (and he must have spent his on the flowers and candle). He came away $23 poorer (including tip), plus about $13 for a bottle of extra virgin olive oil. During dinner I regaled him with stories about Dr. Sadist. Isn't that fun?

At Ida Noyes, City Lights was 2 for the price of 1, so $5 for both of us. I wondered who else would show up at a campus film society for a movie that's almost 80 years old. Mostly couples, many young; several were like us—not so young. A few single young and middle-aged men and women were scattered about.

Of course, I can't sit through even a 90-minute film without a couple of visits to the women's room before and after. Much has changed at Ida Noyes Hall since I guarded the sports facilities and the towels—the Max Palevsky Cinema replaced the gym where I once watched Joey Ramone snorting and where the Hispanic Cultural Society held salsas. The pool is long gone, replaced, from what I could see, by underground offices, an elevator shaft, and many walls. But a certain strong mildewed odor of decay prevails—that hasn't changed in 30 years. The strains of "Satisfaction" (Stones) from the Pub completed the scene. All I needed was a hint of chlorine.

Except for an access ramp, the women's bathroom appears to be untouched by progress. The one new amenity I noticed was the condom dispenser (25 cents). The lubricated variety was sold out, while half of the non-lubricated awaited their moment of passion. I'm curious about how often it's restocked. The third time I went downstairs, I met two girls but witnessed no purchases. I wonder how sales compare to those on the other side of the stairs.

Ever since I saw City Lights in a college silent films class, it's been one of my favorites. Underneath all the absurdities of life are joy and sadness waiting to happen. Visually, it's a brilliant film from the opening gag to the closing question. Why is a sword the most prominent feature of a statue dubbed "Peace and Prosperity""—a sword that repeatedly sticks it to Charlie, so to speak?

I don't belly laugh like I used—someday I must figure out why—but even just a few minutes in my face was wet. Each scrape is so perfectly framed and timed, from Charlie's pantomimed critique of the nude statue that keeps sucking his attention and his flailing helplessly on the dance floor to his brief career as a boxer avoiding being hit. Laughter is contagious, and I was almost as charmed by the carefree giggles of the woman behind me as by the movie.

Of course, it's the ending of City Lights that haunts the memory. The flower seller, once a few dollars from being both blind and homeless, yearns to hear every wealthy young man who walks into her flower shop speak with her unseen lover's voice and afford to feel pity for her awkward, ragged "conquest." As she recognizes his touch, they know that they have no future—not because she is a shallow, grasping ingrate, but because she has, thanks to him, moved to a different world, one that she aspired to and one that cannot trap his freer spirit. His expression reflects joy, hope, and recognition of the unmovable new barrier between them.

I think she will not see him at her corner again.


  1. Reading this post was like being back in Hyde Park. I'm glad Salonica is still there.

    I've shown that final scene in several classes (it goes well with themes of recognition in the Odyssey), and someone always ends up in tears (sometimes me).

  2. Salonica is celebrating 30 years. Apparently, we both landed in Chicago the same year. I would never have guessed it was new when I was an undergrad. I didn't think my stomach could take diner food anymore, but the spinach feta omelet, hash browns, and English muffins went down a charm.

    I appreciate that it says so much without words—physical recognition and emotional recognition that their relationship is not to be (which he already knew . . .).