A neighborhood of Mrs. Glessners
06/24/2009 10:00 PM
I have visited the first floor bedroom of Mrs. John “Frances” Glessner hundreds, if not thousands of times. As a docent at the famous 1887 landmark building at 18th and Prairie, it isn’t the décor of the room that inspires me. It’s Mrs. Glessner’s desk.
Mrs. Glessner’s desk is on the same side of the room as her side of the small double bed. It dominates the space for me. Not because it‘s big. Or grand. Or in the way. Au contraire. It’s small and next to the far wall, a few steps from her dressing room.
I used to think it was quaint: Mr. Glessner would get up on his side of the bed and meet a valet in his own dressing room, which had a door that could be entered from the hall, so as not to disturb the Mrs.
Then, Mrs. Glessner would saunter over a few steps when she got up, and get right to her correspondence at her desk. Fountain pen in hand, I imagine her writing notes to her friends on creamy note cards embossed with a “G” while sipping coffee delivered by one of the live-in maids.
In the South Loop, we have all become Mrs. Glessner. In the morning, like Mrs. G., we are on our e-mail accounts and our listservs, our homeowner association online boards and our very own Facebook pages.
We might only have a fountain pen to impress people we meet at cocktail parties – or if we’re antique pen collectors – and our coffee may be from Caribou, but otherwise we don’t much diverge from Mrs. Glessner’s daily pursuit of contacting her friends.
We write our thank-yous for the nights before, make our plans for the nights to be and conduct all our business of the day in our housecoats with our coffee. Online.
We tweet, we feud, we misunderstand and makeup. We send YouTube clips, podcasts and music to play on iTunes. We forward articles with a click from the morning papers, which aren’t paper anymore and may include news from such sources as the Jerusalem Post, the London Times and the Boston Globe. We make cutesy “comments” to our “friends.” (Yes, I mean to put those words in quotes because in the world of Facebook a comment has a certain panache, and a friend may be someone you never met.)
Not a morning goes by that I don’t think of Mrs. Glessner as I ruminate with any number of 200-plus friends on Facebook (reporter Carol Marin has near 5,000, for comparison), painstakingly and carefully limit myself to 140 characters to get the word out to a bunch of twits – I mean followers – on Twitter and riff on my own Chicago Journal blog, South Loop Observer, for all the world to see.
Mrs. Glessner’s notes, of course, were hand delivered to her friends and colleagues in the social milieu of Chicago at the turn of the last century. But while I type all my stuff on any of number of keyboards on my various devices, I know my heart is just as much engulfed in spreading the news of neighborhood happenings, things to do, people to see and places to go as hers was.
She had a Monday Morning book group that she hosted every week. We have our book clubs that we host regularly, too.
We have neighborhood organizations that we are on the board(s) of and we are e-mailing like houses on fire all day with one plan or other, one meeting or other, one problem or other. So was she.
Our alderman sends his blasts, as does our pal Enrique Perez from Printers Row, who has become the conduit of so much going on in the neighborhood via his e-mail that if he lived in Mrs. Glessner’s day and carried on like he does now, he would have to get mules – not horses – to pull the carriages with his messages that are intended for all. I think Mrs. Glessner would have been Enrique-dependent – like we all are – if Enrique had been there back then.
Sometimes we reply-all and get ourselves in trouble and sometimes we don’t reply-all and get ourselves in even more trouble. Mrs. Glessner may have put the wrong note in the wrong envelope and gotten herself in trouble, too but: the role of distraction and what it can do has diminished/grown with time, depending on the level of attention you started out with. Who knows if Mrs. Glessner was ever distracted from her task like I often am now.
All in all, I may have a certain gene for this. Circulating small bits of correspondence in the world has been practiced by the females in my family for generations. My grandmother, who lived in Las Vegas, always took advantage of the strip hotel “postal cards” that were offered free (including the postage) in those days, to drop me a line or two. She would send me pictures of herself in front of a million dollars (literally) under glass – another free perk of the casinos. She’d scour the Vegas papers for articles to send. Her nephew was the United States Senator from Nevada so she always had a lot to circulate regarding him. But it was always mailed in the old fashioned way.
Today, my mother scours the Tribune and clips articles for me. She pops them in envelopes and gives them to me when we see each other. Both my mother and grandmother believed in mailing tons of newspaper articles to their huge families around the country. I carry on the tradition online.
If you haven’t gotten an article from me from somewhere in cyberspace, it’s only because I don’t have your e-mail address.
Bottom line: My girlfriends and boyfriends in the South Loop and I no matter where we are – in lofts, condos, townhomes, single families like mine – or the South Loop millennium version of the mansion (some built by Tony Rezko, by the way) are living in a Gilded Age whether we realize it or not. Every single time one of us pops out of bed in the morning and goes online first thing to contact our buddies for any reason at all, we are living like Mrs. Glessner. Click.