July 23: Racine, Wisconsin to Chicago to Lake Michigan to Flint, Michigan
Reality is spirit– the essence brooding just behind all aspect. Seize it!
Frank Lloyd Wright
Soundtrack: Beck, Odelay; Anthony Castellano’s Mix for Laura; Pearl Jam; franchise radio: the River
I caught up with the laundry at the Knight’s Inn in Racine, which had a washer and dryer and a little room to sit and read On the Road. As soon as I realized I was at the location of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Johnson Wax Building. I asked the desk clerk, who was very knowledgeable about the town, and she drew me a map of how to get to the factory.
We took off after the the clothes were dry, unhampered by a swimming pool or jacuzzi, and headed toward Lake Michigan. I had intended to take the ferry across the Lake and miss Chicago, but this was to be another day of Wright sites and a validation of Steinbeck’s mid-west anchor point. It would also be a day of allergic reactions to medications and we would cut back on the antibiotic Laura was taking and the Ibuprofen the HMO had prescribed for my hip problems. Laura got a rash all over and my hands and feet began to itch terrifically, so we halved the dosage, which made perfect sense since we were both short people, under 5’4”. (According to Randy Newman, we were the ones with no reason to live, not Charlie, who took after his grandfather and was nearly 6 feet tall.)
There was more to the Johnson’s Wax Building than I remembered from the drawings, including a great golden scalloped canopy as we pulled into the turnout, but the facility was not open for tours. We had to appreciate it from a distance and turn around in the driveway. Back we drove through the streets of nineteenth century, mostly brick, buildings and south down the shore of Lake Michigan.
Unfortunately, the lake remained mostly in the far distance, even along the famous Lakeshore Drive into Chicago. Laura liked the lushness of the landscape and the tiny towns heading south into the city. We stopped at Glencoe and had ice cream at a little shop across from a park on the rail line. Though we never found the Botanic Gardens, Laura was amused by a sign for Roy Radigan’s Wonderful Food.
The way into Oak Park to see the Frank Lloyd Wright houses was through a seemingly interminable ghetto. Laura slept through this tedium of crosstown traffic while I listened to a man on pubic radio read his own story about feeling helpless having to trust his son’s life to a hospital. This was a familiar feeling.
We finally arrived at Frank Lloyd Wright’s Home and Studio around 4:00, too late to take the last tour. So we walked around the block and looked at the Huertley House and the Gale House and two hybrid Victorians around the corner, soaking up the atmosphere under these broad tree-shaded avenues in the cooling afternoon.
Doug and I had brought Charlie here when he was three and we had a 2-hour layover on a flight back from New York City. We had jumped into a taxicab and had the driver show us all the Frank Lloyd Wright houses he could find in the neighborhood. We held Charlie up to the window to see, whether he really understood or not. He had been visiting Frank Lloyd Wright houses in Los Angeles since he was 10 months old, and when I was a docent at Hollyhock House he had played on Sugartop’s porch while I took the tour groups through.
But I had always seen Chicago on the run – as a stopping point cross-country to New York. Once Laura and I had walked around Downtown in between legs of a train trip and gone to the top of Sears Tower. Once I had spent a glorious afternoon at the Art Museum and seen the Auditorium Building and early Wright and Sullivan sites by the long park that edged Lake Michigan. Always we were on a tight schedule, unlike Steinbeck, who used Chicago as an excuse to break from his cross-country camp-out and check into a good hotel with his wife. This trip, we were expected in New York by the 25th to have time to hang out with Sister Laura.
After our walk through Oak Park, we were on the move, or as Laura Anne said, “rushing through,” though we got lost among warehouses on the way out of town and took forever finding on-ramps and exits to the 90. Not that we really wanted the Interstate just yet. Route 12 followed the lake to Michigan City, birthplace of Wright's granddaughter Anne Baxter, where there was a nuclear power facility and National Lakeshore that we never located in the thick woods that buffered it from the town. The suburban closeness of Michigan City to Chicago marked Catherine Wright’s first steps away from her hometown after marrying Kenneth Baxter, who was working in a car dealership when Anne was born in 1923. As the Depression dried up the demand for automobiles and the repeal of Prohibition opened other markets, he took a job with Four Roses, later Seagram’s and they moved to New York. Anne studied with Maria Ospenskaya and was on-stage from the age of 11.
Route 12 wove in and out of little towns, of which Gary and Michigan City were the largest, and merged with Interstate 94 into Michigan. Along this shore the factories were soon replaced by lakeside towns with bars and antique shops and pizza joints lit in neon as the sun sank. A sign on a church warned: “HELL IS HOTTER THAN AN INDIANA SUMMER,” an oblique reference to the sin of global warming.
At the side of the road, a skeletal motel revealed the cellular concrete structure of the common 2-story plan for lodging, the way earthquakes laid open office buildings in L.A. and exposed their inner grid. Toward the lake, the architecture was more inviting: rustic summer cottages lined the streets down to the town of Union Pier, where we stopped for a picnic and a taste of the local ambiance.
As the sun went down, people were leaving the crowded beach with towels wrapped around them, some walking back in clusters to houses nearby or to cars that lined the little lane leading to the lakefront. Laura danced and whirled in the sand and then we sat eating crackers and cheese, watching the sun drop like a red rubber ball into Lake Michigan. The warmth of the day rose up through the sand; we lingered as lights came on in the houses and folks lucky enough to live here sipped drinks on their porches, laughing in the cooling breeze.
Finally, we took our things back to the car and headed back to Interstate 94, which connected with 69 to Flint, Michigan. I wanted to take the HHR back to its origins and that was the city I always associated with Chevrolet, so I told Laura to drive until she saw the General Motors plant. I lay down in the back while she “drove all night on the 69.”
At 2 in the morning I took over and pulled into the enormous parking lot of the General Motors Plant outside Flint. Everything was dark and empty, just a few cars at the edge of the long building that claimed to be a headquarters. I decided, after driving for two days straight, to stay at the Days Inn across the street, where three of the 2-story motel grids we had seen in Indiana were arranged in a U around a dewy expanse of lawn.