May 29, 2008

Lost Landmark

The "Dragon" at Old Orchard Mall. Hart's column is on the right.

Our Chamber of Commerce has yet to develop the Visitor's Guide to Hart-and-Jeff High Jinks, but it certainly could. There is the Edens overpass where the boys were once found throwing their shoes off onto passing cars below. Our local parochial school principal found the boys in the bushes, after seeing two naked butts outside his office window at 6am on a cold January morning. In front of Walker School, a good Samaritan stopped to summon police after noticing a barefoot kid running down the sidewalk. (He was supposed to be a winter day camp during Christmas break.)

The best-known of these historical landmarks is affectionately known as the Hart Memorial Column at Old Orchard Mall. Mall management is probably still marveling at this one. Old Orchard Mall, now Westfield Shoppingtown Old Orchard, is one of the earliest malls. Built in 1955, it was novel because of its suburban location, its size, and, get this--it was outdoors. By the time we bought our house less than a mile away from the mall, Old Orchard was in decline. It had become a utilitarian collection of nondescript brick buildings. To get from store to store, shoppers traversed poured-concrete walkways. There was the prerequisite Paul Harris, Casual Corner and Spencer Gifts. Two venerable Chicago institutions, Montgomery Wards and Marshall Field's, had anchor stores there.

About fifteen years ago, Old Orchard underwent a significant renovation. The signage was modernized using a fruit theme. (orchard=fruit, get it?) The whole mall was beautifully landscaped and spruced up. Latticework cladding camouflaged the unsightly structural pillars. Restaurants added outdoor seating in nice weather. Loewes cinemas came. Welcome additions were architectural features for kids: a maze, playground, AND the "Dragon," an undulating, hilly, climby-thing with concrete serpent heads at the ends. In short, Old Orchard became a "destination," not only for shopping, but for cultural events, restaurants, movies and just strolling around.

One balmy summer evening, a number of years ago, we found ourselves standing on the periphery of the Dragon watching the boys run off some steam and observing carefully for any injury to unfortunate toddlers in their path. I am sure that of all the visitors to the mall, none had ever noticed that there is a small gap at the bottom of the latticework columns. No one, until Jeff. In a nanosecond, he had slipped underneath and was climbing up the inside of the pillar. Immediately, we rushed over and, sticking our hands through the openings, shoved him back out. BUT, in that same nanosecond that we were preoccupied with Jeff, Hart slid into the adjacent column and made it all the way to the top, about ten feet up.

There was nothing to do except stand casually near the column and hiss urgently for him to climb down. But he wouldn't or couldn't. Heads were beginning to turn my way. "I'll watch you. Climb down the same way you went up," I coaxed. It was no use. I was aware that none of the other children were moving anymore. I trotted away to the Food Court to alert security. When I returned, there were now about one hundred people, all chins turned up toward the column where one could just make out Hart's glasses glinting in the sun. Enter the Keystone Kopps. The first ladder was much too short, so the maintenance men were summoned for a longer ladder. (Gray Squirrel, Gray Squirrel, come in. We have a Code Yellow at the Dragon. Do you read me, Gray Squirrel?)

By now, passersby had stopped to join the crowd and watch the drama unfold. But the masses grew restive. "Why wasn't anyone looking after him?" "What is going on?" "Who are the parents?" I shrugged, as if to concur that the kid's parents surely must be complete incompetents.

At long last, the maintenance guys got up on top of the lintel and pried open the column's cap. In a scene reminiscent of Simba the Lion King's introduction at Pride Rock, they lifted Hart triumphantly into the air to show to the cheering crowd. Then we slunk away in shame and did not return to the Dragon for two years.

Last week, on one of the first warm days of the season, Hart and I ate at Corner Bakery and decided to wander around and enjoy the unusual weather. Passing the Dragon, which was teaming with children, I noticed: THE LATTICEWORK IS GONE. I scanned up and down the walkways. All the columns are denuded of their camouflage. We inspected more closely. The concrete bases are still there and the heavy-duty bolts which held the latticework are still visible, but sheared off smoothly. Gone, all of them.

My brief notion was that some other child had tried the same trick. The Westfield CEO had screamed into his phone, "That's the second time in ten years some kid has done that. Get rid of those things before we are slapped with a lawsuit." Of course, that's impossible. No kid other than mine would ever try that stunt.

Just change and progress. Marshall Field's is now Macy's. Montgomery Ward's location is now a Nordstrom's. Old Orchard has an A/X now. Probably no one has even noticed that the columns were changed a month or so ago. Except me.

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