One of the perks of participating in the Near South Planning Board’s Author-in-the-Schools Program is that I get two complimentary tickets to the annual Harold Washington Literary Awards Dinner. I always go, and I always take my wife who enjoys the event as much as I do. After all, it’s not that often that we get to hobnob with Chicago’s movers and shakers at The Union League Club of Chicago.
But we don’t go for the company, or even the sumptuous dinner. We go to hear the recipient of the Harold Washington Literary Award speak. And we’re not talking about little known, up-and-coming writers. We’re talking about the best of the best, the crème-de-la-crème. Writers like Toni Morrison, Robert Pinsky, Margaret Atwood, Dave Eggers, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Sara Paretsky.
I remember when Ms. Paretsky won the award. The year was 2012. My wife and I attended that year along with our niece who had an interest in writing and had just finished her first year at Kenyon College. I remember the 2012 awards dinner for another reason: it was the year that the Near South Planning Board’s Award Committee acknowledged former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley for his support of the arts during his twenty-two years in office. It’s ironic that Mayor Daley received the Union League Club’s acknowledgement at the annual Harold Washington Literary Award dinner. After all, it was Harold Washington who defeated Daley in the 1983 Democratic primary.
I met Mayor Daley once. Briefly. It was 1990. My wife and I had moved from Montana to Chicago several years earlier. Coming from the hinterlands, we were bug-eyed at everything around us; it was a far cry from rural Montana. (You mean they actually drive the new cars you see advertised in magazines?) And, yes, we wanted to take in as much as we could. So, in March of 1990, we went downtown to take in the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. A big mistake. First of all, it was crowded, very crowded, near claustrophobic crowded. Secondly, I wasn’t dressed for it: green just isn’t one of the colors in my closet. And green was definitely the preferred, if not mandatory, color: there were green hats, green shirts, green pants, green shoes, green socks, even some hairy green chests and shiny green heads. And if that wasn’t enough, the Chicago River was also green.
That’s where I met Mayor Daley, on Michigan Avenue, near the bridge that spans the north branch of the Chicago River. I stepped around a barricade and inadvertently plowed into a small, stocky man—Mayor Richard M. Daley. He didn’t smile; but he didn’t frown either. An aide quickly stepped between the two of us, and in a flash he was gone.
So, when I saw him at the Harold Washington Literary Award dinner standing in a small art-filled room off to the side with one of his aides, I thought this was my chance, to remind him of our meeting, and to say some encouraging words to him (he had just lost his wife, Maggie, a true supporter of the arts). So, I grabbed my niece’s arm and said, “Let’s go meet the Mayor.” And we did, we walked right up to Mayor Daley. I introduced myself, and then my niece. It was cordial, and, like the barricade encounter, very brief. When we returned to my wife, who was not interested in meeting Mayor Daley, I told her of our encounter. She smiled.
Wife: “I see you talked to Mayor Daley.”
Me: “Yes, you know he’s a bit shorter than I thought.”
Wife: “Oh, really. And what did you think of Sara Paretsky?”
Me: “Sara Paretsky?”
Wife: “Yes, who did you think was standing next to Mayor Daley?”
Me: “Wasn’t…that…one of his aides?”
Wife: “No. That was Sara Paretsky, the person being honored tonight.”
Me: “Yes, of course, Sara Paretsky.”
I’ve never met Sara Paretsky. But I do know her work. My wife and I often listen to her books when we drive to my wife’s parents’ home in Cleveland. We like the crime books set in Chicago that feature V. I. Warshawski, Paretsky’s fictional private investigator. It takes about six or seven hours to listen to an entire book, which is perfect for our drive to Cleveland. Sometimes, when the book is longer than our drive, we’ll pull up at my in-laws’ house and sit in the car until we finish the book (which is usually no more than half an hour or so). Sometimes, while we’re listening, I’ll gaze into the rear-view mirror and see my wife’s parents peeping through the kitchen curtains, wondering why we’re still in the car.
Tonight we’re not listening to Sara Paretsky. We’re listening to Marilynne Robinson, the 2016 Harold Washington Literary Award recipient, known primarily for her trilogy set in Iowa. The saga is comprised of Gilead (2004), which received the Pulitzer Prize; Home (2008), awarded the Orange Prize; and Lila (2014), winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. She delivers a searing talk, not about the state of reading or writing in America; but a polemical speech decrying the current state of politics (we are, after all, halfway through the 2016 presidential election cycle, and you know who’s on everyone’s mind).
Ms. Robinson is intelligent, witty, articulate, and extremely political—and well deserving of the 2016 Harold Washington Literary Award. We return home satisfied, especially because on the train ride home we are entertained by a legion of college students from Brazil who chatter away a mile a minute in their native Portuguese, while one of them slips off to flirt with two girls sitting next to us.
“My, he’s handsome,” my wife whispers into my ear.
I just smile and pull at my graying beard.