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The Memory Collector: Lost Chicago

Since it first appeared in 1975, Lost Chicago, recently reissued in a splendid new edition, has become one of the city’s essential books—but the personal recollections of its author, David Lowe, may be as valuable a treasure

(page 3 of 3)


Pictures from Lost Chicago and David Lowe’s own private collection

In retrospect, Lowe marvels most at how, from the age of six, his elders generally left him to himself, and how as a boy, alone—though rarely lonely, he claims—he fearlessly explored Chicago by bus, train, and el. At times he would inhabit his father’s thrilling world—not only the track, but the theatre, the ballpark, and the saloon—while at others he explored the museums and bookstores that were entirely foreign to his dad. “There were no books in our house except for studbooks and racing forms,” he recalls, and his father’s efforts to interest him in a job at the stockyards (that visit referenced in Lost Chicago’s dedication) fell flat. “I saw them killing animals, and you could smell the blood,” he remembers. “I’m glad I saw whatever I saw, but that was enough of that.”

After finishing his secondary education at Millersburg, Lowe made his new home at Oberlin College in Ohio, for which his aunt Gertrude picked up the tab. (Lowe’s family had vetoed his first choice, the University of Chicago, deeming it too leftist.) In 1955, the year Lowe graduated from Oberlin, his father died of intestinal cancer at a Chicago hospital. After the funeral, his elders again left the young man alone. That afternoon, at the Loop Theater (gone!) on State Street, he sat through four showings of the Katharine Hepburn movie Summertime. A few years later, New York became his permanent home, but the Chicago memories were indelible.

* * *

In Slaughterhouse-Five, his best-known novel, Kurt Vonnegut explains the concept of time on the distant planet Tralfamadore: “All moments, past, present, and future, always have existed, always will exist,” he writes. “The Tralfamadorians . . . can see how permanent all the moments are, and they can look at any moment that interests them. It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.”

Maybe it’s the confluence of his colorful childhood and his friendship with Vonnegut, but Lowe’s memories seem to unfold in Tralfamadorian time. Prefer a walk through Chicago without encountering Macy’s? Just cast your gaze at a moment—any moment—before that New York intruder landed in the Loop.

“There are only two cities in America,” contends Lowe. “New York and Chicago. Boston is a nice little town, but when you get downtown in Chicago, you know you’re in a real city. My favorite spot in the world is coming up the stairs out of the Randolph Street station. You go look in the windows of Marshall Field’s, and the el is running overhead. An urban sound. I love the el. I hope they never tear it down.”

But memories are perishable, too. Lowe talks of writing a Chicago memoir, but he first has to straighten out his own relationship to those memories. He would be wise to remember a project that he and Vonnegut once tossed around. “Right before he died,” Lowe says, “Kurt wanted us to do a book about the loss of urban life in the Midwest. We would get in a car and go to strange cities. I would check up on the architecture, he would write his impressions, and Jill Krementz [Vonnegut’s wife] would do the photos. Not a bad idea”—but Vonnegut’s death in April 2007 put an end to all that. So it goes.

Having fulfilled—and built on—his early aspiration of preserving the city’s splendor within the silvered pages of Lost Chicago, Lowe might still one day conjure up the eccentrically populated city now confined to his mind. Hopefully that day will come soon. Here on planet Earth, the clock is ticking.


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