Archive | April, 2019

Grace does not charm

9 Apr

Flowers and birds

woods and furry beasts 

inhabit my world 

at second hand—

in zoos and public gardens.

My world has been 

the city

houses next to each other

you can reach

from wall to wall.

Towers so tall

they pierce the clouds

and obscure 

the night time’s 


Whitman’s people—

progeny of cobalt black 

slave China girl mestizo 

pale white men like me

blue blood and low brow. 

Without the mix my world 

does not exist.

I never knew the road less traveled 

but streetcar tracks

trolley buses 

twenty-four hour streets.

I seldom tramped

through fern and bush—

milked a cow and 

gathered eggs

only as a tourist 

on my uncle’s farm.

My tropes come 

from different corners 

of the world—

without the charm

no cuddling lure.

But grace 

is no stranger 

in my city—

on skid row 

in a panhandler’s face 

a screeching ambulance 

an anxious ER waiting room

even an

alfresco cafe.

Grace does not charm.

It does not cuddle.

Gritty like the city

it liberates.

(c) Phil Hefner   4/9/2019

Hyde Park: City of Imagination

2 Apr

You haven’t really lived until you’ve gone to Jimmy’s, ordered a Swiss burger with double cheese and onions, a pitcher of beer, and spent a couple of hours exploring big questions.

Jimmy’s was an essential part of my life for most of the sixty years that I’ve lived in Hyde Park Chicago—since it is not wheelchair accessible, it is out of bounds for me today. I relaxed there, and I also conducted seminars in the side room. I could play a game with the house chess set and consult the Encyclopedia Britannica that was always handy. Plumbers and electricians had their daily beer there; David Grene, translator of Greek Classics, talked with students over his daily martini.

Fortunately, this hallowed place still exists. You can order a Swiss burger today or even chat with a former Jimmy’s bartender who resides at Montgomery Place, the retirement home where I live.

But many of the places that I count as meaningful from these sixty years are no longer to be found. Bartlett gym and field house, with its two indoor running tracks, adjoining Stagg Field, where the University of Chicago football team played in the Big Ten, where Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman trophy in 1935, and where Enrico Fermi and his colleagues worked in a secret lab to produce the first sustained nuclear reaction—these places have been supplanted by a college dining hall and  Regenstein Library. 

The Swift Hall library reading room, with its magnificent vaulted ceiling, replete with painted faces of angels, as well as the study carrel tucked away in the stacks below, not air-conditioned (not even ventilated)—I spent many sweaty hours there, wrestling with the mysteries of 19th century German philosophy and theology for my dissertation—doesn’t even exist today. That library was eliminated altogether in a merger with the central university library.

There were two other pubs that were essential to my life, where I met for pleasure and also serious conversation with my profs, my colleagues, and my students. One has been displaced by a noisy pizza parlor, the other by a computer business. 

I could go on and on. The point is that these places were Hyde Park for me, and today they do not even exist.

What does it mean that these places are not to be found today? It means I have to locate them in a different dimension—they will never go away, because they are alive in my memory. For me, they are a city of memory and imagination.

In one sense, these places are factually real. I can take you to them and describe them in detail. But in another sense they are real only in memory. There are many Hyde Parks, perhaps as many as there are people who remember.

It also means there is a new Hyde Park emerging before my very eyes, just as the Hyde Park I remember emerged from the pre-World War II village. And the new people coming and going through Hyde Park engage new intimate places that I will never know. Like the Hyde Park of the future, the Hyde Park that came before me can only be imagined. My Hyde Park, too, will be a city of the imagination for those who are coming after me.

(c) Phil Hefner   April 2, 2019