Friday, February 15, 2013

The Passion of St. Valentine

As my wife and I drove toward Wicker Park last night to celebrate our ninth Valentine's Day, we reminisced on the ways we've celebrated over the last near decade. The conclusion we came to was that we suck at Valentine's Day. Including the most recent one, we could only come up with four Valentines of note, and those were fairly unexciting. One included an international box of moldy rose petals, another a movie night.

This is why, when I realized that V day was fast approaching a couple weeks ago, my palms began to sweat and my mind went blank. What was I going to do for this obligatory day of romance and celebration that hadn't already been done a million times before? I say obligatory not out of resentment, but out of the realization that not doing something would be cheap and disrespectful to the woman who means so much to me. She keeps me sane, encourages my dreams, and gave me the most beautiful daughter in the world. I had to do something great this year.

I spent hours online, Googling "Innovative Valentine's ideas" and "Valentine's in Chicago" and "What to do this Valentine's day". I found restaurant reviews, plays, movies, and concerts. I found Anti-Valentine's Day events put on by punk bands and comedians. I heard that my one of my favorite Podcasters was going to be on Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me on Thursday, but then I realized that this would be awesome for me, but probably too selfish to be a great V Day surprise.

One evening, after Annie had gone to bed, I sat up beside her, trolling blogs and scanning yelp reviews. Nothing was percolating, until I saw a review that mentioned a photobooth. I looked, and the restaurant was just down Milwaukee Avenue from our house. Then I realized that, not more than a couple blocks away was the Double Door, an awesome music venue that I remembered also had a photobooth.

A quick search brought me to, a compendium of all known photobooths in the world. This ambitious website dedicated to a unique piece of nostalgia gave me a great idea.

I began searching for Chicago stores, restaurants, bars, and bodegas that sported these old-timey photo vendors. Distilling the list of 37 locations, I cross-referenced addresses on Google Maps, and began fleshing out a route. I checked websites and facebook pages for cover charges and closing times. I was ravenous with the excitement of this mini-scavenger hunt through part of our new community.

We'd take the Blue Line from our neighborhood down to Wicker Park, where seven of these photobooths were said to be tucked into corners of bookstores and barrooms, behind piles of records and blending into the scenery. A tasteful but trendy dinner at one of the local establishments, then off we'd go in search of strips of photographic ephemera. The challenge would be to appear as though we were there to shop, then feign interest in the photobooth, take some pictures, then be on our way to the next location on our TripTik. We'd see the area, check out some new places, and have a blast.

When I looked up at the clock that sat staring blankly from my dresser top, it read 2:37 AM. I'd been plotting this photographic extravaganza for more than three hours. But the agenda was complete.

I was incredibly proud that I had actually completed the plans for a Valentine's Day more than a week before the event. Game-Set-Match.

I gave the day little thought until this week. I primed my wife with just enough information so that she wouldn't make other plans. I lined up grandparental babysitting for our daughter. It was all going to be awesome!

Valentine's Day rolled around and I even got my boss to let me out of the office early - something that generally comes with opprobrious disdain. I began my commute home, stopped by a local flower shop to pick up a bouquet of flowers, and felt good about the approaching evening with my true love. But as the traffic began to congest around me and the clock retained it's unyielding march forward, I got worried. My worry turned into exasperation as the people around me continued to drive like vehicular imbeciles. In reality, I'm sure that they were driving with perfectly acceptable prowess, but in my mind, I was a NASCAR driver at a go-kart track. Through rush hour and road construction, I weaved my way up to our home. An hour after we intended on leaving, I got home.

The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray - A reality that I should have anticipated. Upon arriving home, I told my wife that we were taking the train. Holding her breast pump in hand, she stopped and looked at me blankly. Then it hit me - if we were going to be out for several hours, she would need to pump. If you don't understand the implications of that statement, I'll leave it for another essay. Let's just say that the baby needs to eat.

So we jump in the car. I shoot a text to a family member who has free parking in the area and get permission to use her space. We make it down to Wicker Park and pull into the spot. We have dinner at a quiet little place under the train tracks, and then begin our walk to the first photobooth.

The first booth was in a bookstore. We browsed for a bit and then meandered back to the giant gray box in the corner. Tucked inside, we realized how ridiculously small photobooths really are. As the flashbulbs went off, we made goofy faces and tried our best to outdo the other. Then we waited for our photostrip to develop.

Once the strip came out, we strolled back through the store, making overstated comments about various books and failing at being discreet. It felt as if we'd shoplifted, though our only crime was not buying anything at the store.

The second booth was in a record store and when we entered, esoteric electronica music emanated from the venue. The place was dotted with hipsters and middle-aged men thumbing intently through rows and rows of vinyl and compact discs. As we entered, my wife pulled me down to whisper,

"We're not cool enough to be here."

I chuckled as we began our loop through the store. We browsed the rap and dance sections, pulling out obscure records and giving the impression that we knew anything about the music we perused. Arriving back at the front of the store where the photobooth was, I realized that I didn't have singles, only five and ten dollar bills. I sheepishly approached the counter to get change. The man at the desk looked up with disinterest as I requested small bills, but acquiesced.

Inside this booth we again tucked in and tried not to sound like complete doofus' as we arranged ourselves before the camera. The pop of the flashbulb startled us as we kissed and crossed our eyes. In moments, the pictures were taken and we were back in the record store, looking sheepish as the more serious patrons glanced down their noses at us. A few minutes of whirring from the machine and we had our pictures and were back on the street. A few blocks down and we arrived at the next stop on our list. The winter wind was turning our cheeks rosy, so we ducked in in a hurry.

Inside this boutique we were met with a well lit clothing and accessory shop and the sound of a DJ mixing  R&B hits from the seventies with modern hip hop tracks. We looked around to find ourselves in a shop that could outfit the entire entourage of Jayz or Kanye. There were a dozen people in the shop, mostly listening to the music in the back. All of them looked a little startled when we walked into the store. A sore thumb couldn't stick out more than we did.

We followed our same pattern, feigning nonchalance while looking for the target of our query. The only difference was that our level of discomfort was much greater, as we could not even pretend to be patrons of the styles found there, and it felt as though the entire store new it. We gravitated toward a jewelery case and found some beautiful locally made pieces that Annie really liked. One of the owners, a black man in his twenties or thirties, walked over and welcomed us to his establishment. His gregarious demeanor was comforting and we loosened up as we finished our rounds. But where was the photobooth? We tried not to be obvious as we searched, and in the end determined that no such photo opportunity would present itself. 

By this time, the cold, the extensive walking, and the hour were all pressing in on us, and we decided to forgo the final three spots. There was one more booth right next to where we parked, so we began our trek back up the street. A half of a block before arrived at the Double Door, we could hear the heavy rock music pouring from the iconic music dive. We paid our cover, despite the fact that we really just wanted to get into their photobooth, and decided to enjoy a drink before we took our pictures.

Sipping our respective Cherry Coke and Pabst Blue Ribbons, we let the sounds of raucous guitars wash over us as we just enjoyed the moment for a while. We wandered back to the photobooth, ducked behind a fancy cream velour curtain, and just as we were wrangling the stool, Annie noticed a handwritten "Out-Of-Service" sign on the lens of the camera. We sat a moment, downtrodden at the fact that our final stop had resulted in a goose egg. We emerged from behind the curtain and stood in the waves of sound again. Finishing our beverages, we left the Double Door not fifteen minutes after we'd entered. The bouncers looked at us curiously as we exited and we drew close as we stepped back into the brisk night air.

Overall, we only found two working booths. But it was a blast to explore and to find ourselves anew in this new environment, rediscovering our love as we strode, hand-in-hand, through the streets of Chicago. We commented on architecture and laughed at bizarre graffiti. We found comfort in each others discomfort. We discussed old movies and new adventures.

I realize that Valentine's day can be contrived and commercial, but in a world that is increasingly filled with superfluous mundanity, busy work, and spare moments of rest, it's days such as these that allow me to pause and realize how lucky I am to have such love in my life - such undeserved adoration from a wife who means more to me than anything else ever could.

Happy Valentine's Day to all the sceptics, the dreamers, the curmudgeons and the silly-hearts. I hope that, whatever you were doing this past Valentine's Day, it brought you happiness.


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