Wednesday, October 31, 2007


I’m not a smoker and I generally detest the habit. However, whenever I smell cigarette smoke, especially when it’s carried by an outdoor breeze, it usually takes me back to a specific place. I did my graduate training at Northwestern University’s Chicago campus. The campus is located on the Great Lakes streets off the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue. Chicago was usually cold as a witch’s teat or hot as the devil’s armpit, but once in a while the temperature had to be moderate while it was moving between the extremes. When the weather was nice, crowds of people walked, jogged, and rollerbladed on the Lake Michigan shore.

One mile north of my apartment was North Avenue Beach and there, right on the lakeside path, was the Chess Pavilion. Built entirely of cement, the pavilion looked like bleachers that were built for ogre-sized people. Situated at regular intervals, cement platforms rose from the benches to form cement chess tables.
You’d have to sit side-saddle or straddle the benches to look at the board which led to uncomfortable positions both in body and on the board. I don’t remember if the cement achieved the alternating colors of the chessboard, but the surface of the board was fairly rough such that you didn’t want to bring your good pieces. I’ve still got my first USCF plastic chess set with all the felt worn off the bottom. In good weather, the hustlers would be out talking trash and smoking like chimneys. Mostly I was too intimidated to play a game in such a public place for fear that some master incognito would totally humiliate me. Once in a while, I got up the nerve to compete. Usually there was a cool breeze coming off the lake such that I always shivered, part from the arctic air, part from the cold of the cement seeping into my butt, and part from the adrenaline of competing against hustlers, who were chess professionals in a sense.

Behind the pavilion were gray cement statues of a king and queen, imperious guardians of this little chess kingdom. The chess queen was not quite a caryatid column, but seemed to carry a similar air of danger about her. While my mind wandered between moves, I would imagine that the queen would say, “Beware!” or “Off with her head!” I could look down the shore at the rest of the Chicago skyline and watch it’s hive-like bustle from afar. Or I could stare across the vast waters of Lake Michigan, serene by comparison. We were surrounded by fresh air, as fresh as it could be in the middle of a major metropolitan city, but the chess players spiked it with the pungent yet familiar scent of cigarette smoke. That’s how in my mind, the smell of cigarettes on a breeze is hardwired with my memories of the Chicago Chess Pavilion.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Ernie, all of that is true of course. I should know, I spent 15 of my life in Waukegan, Illinois. But I have to say, it's a great place to grow up. Eric