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**PRINT: Our 30th broadsheet, GIVES BIRTH TO MONSTERS, by Chicago-based Spencer Dew, is a tale of one man's small heartbreak, the backdrop to a contemporary landscape of well-meaning but ultimately shallow political activism, fractured communicative lines, and more ultimately enduring drives toward total inebriation. In classic Dew fashion, he'll have you laughing all the way to brink of the void. Dew is the author of the short-story collection Songs of Insurgency (2008). This issue also features excerpts from our David Foster Wallace collaborative mini-tribute by THE2NDHAND editor Todd Dills and Bellingham, Wash.-based Doug Milam, author of our 27th broadsheet

SUICIDE SUE Suzanne Nielsen
WING & FLY: DFW, Feb. 21, 1962-Sept. 12, 2008 | Todd Dills

Ling Ma

In this fretful season, we hope you're dealing, we hope you're rejoicing. Or something similar. Perhaps at the Palmer House Hilton in Chicago -- is Trader Vic's still there? We don't think so. Wait, just checked -- it's back open. Rejoice. Rejoice.

Senior citizens have taken over the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton on this weekday afternoon. Decked out in tropicana attire -- white capris, Hawaiian shirts, easygoing linen suits -- they order carafes of wine, and converse on thickly upholstered sofas, their chatter contributing to the pleasant, soft din of the lobby.

The lobby is resplendent and grandiose, an antique relic that hasn't quite lost its luster despite the natural wear and tear of time. The painted ceiling, covered with Grecian frescos by French painter Louis Pierre Rigal, is dizzingly high. From them hang 24k Tiffany chandeliers. Protruding from the walls are gold-gilded angels holding up antlers of light bulbs. The entire lobby is lit up with electric light.

A maid combs the floors with a manual vacuum cleaner. It's a Rubbermaid Floor and Carpet Sweeper 4212. This one is an outdated model, painted in a light tan color that, like most mid-century color choices, suggests some kind of bodily fluid.

It's obvious why a manual sweeper is used instead of an electric (the latter is too noisy), but the Rubbermaid makes its own inadvertent noise: a sputtering like a vintage car engine without a muffler. It chokes across the newly installed rugs, a thick hipile with a peacock feather motif. The sound seems to go unnoticed except by me, sitting alone in a salmon-colored leather armchair.

I am waiting to have dessert at Lockwood, the new restaurant and bar in the lobby. It replaces the former gift shop that used to sell the hotel's trademark champagne liquid soap.

Aside from the elderly, the Palmer House Hilton is frequented by people like me, sentimentalists who are nostalgic for bygone eras. We are awkward ghosts attempting to haunt a past that is perpetuated by press releases, movies, and secondhand ephemera rather than history textbooks. It's a past that, for all we know, might have never existed. The flashes of our digital cameras glisten and bounce off the marble, little wistful gestures.

A security guard -- and there are more than a few planted here -- might call it loitering.

A major reason this lobby is so appealing to nostalgics is not immediately noticeable, but painfully obvious: There are no windows to the outside world in the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton. There's no trace of the new models of CTA buses roaring or the new retail shops on State Street.

It's not just the windows, though. In fact, just try to make a cell phone call from the lobby. You can't. There's no feasible reason why not -- the lobby is well above ground level. Even so, every one of my three calls is snuffed out without so much as a first ring. "Call Failed," my phone tells me, and I observe other guests pace the floor trying to find a signal out.

Once you're here, there is nothing else to do but to luxuriate in the insularity and remove of this plush, deeply embedded room. Order a drink, maybe.

My first visits to the hotel were during college. My dad usually stayed here on business trips. The visits always followed the same song and dance. He would ask about my studies, and then gently regale me to study economics.

I had come to Chicago specifically to study anthropology. At age 18, my plan was to become an archaeologist and spend the rest of my life exhuming stories that had already happened.

That didn't happen. I overslept most mornings, got Cs on all my archaeology papers, and majored in English -- at the very least, it's a language I can speak.

"You should do what you like," my dad, a former poet, used to tell me when he passed through town. "But having a day job in finance makes it easier to do those things."

Sometimes, while waiting for him to pay for the drinks, I would think that he was right.

The Palmer House Hilton is a story that has already happened, and there is probably nothing left to exhume. The skeleton of this story, which has calcified into Chicago lore, is that the Palmer was originally built in 1871 as a wedding present from real estate developer Potter Palmer to his bride Bertha Honore. It has been rebuilt three times.

More than a century later, the hotel is being redone yet again. Bought from the Hilton chain in 2005 by Thor Equities, the goal is to restore the legendary hotel to its former fabled glamour, but also to modernize it into a kind of place that Paris Hilton might frequent (the hotel still retains her family name).

Like any aging brand, the question is how to commodify the same old story over and over again. The epitome of Thor Equities' modernized vision is embodied by the Lockwood, where I arrive for lunch a little after 1:30 p.m.

The Lockwood is named after Bertha's younger brother, the upstart in the family. Inside, the postmodern décor simultaneously reveals and conceals the hotel's historical facets. There are mirrors etched with the same wallpaper pattern found in upstairs corridors. There are thick sheaths of colored plastic that encase the old chandeliers, downplaying their antiquated appearance. The countertops of the tables and bar are marble like parts of the lobby. The color palate is teak and cream.

The background music is a jazzy electronica embellished with breezy vocals. Not quite the type of lite jazz playing in Dillard's department stores and Crystal Lite commercials, but of a similar strain.

Despite the fact that the website encourages you to make a reservation, the restaurant is pretty much empty except for two older ladies eating salad and another older gentleman in a blue blazer and boating shoes who will probably order the shellfish.

My waiter is a brusque middle-age man with a harried manner and a penchant for issuing abrupt, staccato sentences. He hands me a menu framed in a leather plaque, the kind that might house grad school diplomas.

"What's good here?" I ask.

"Well, everything's good," he answers. "The halibut, the crab cake, the burger..." He drifts. I am losing his attention.

The menu is a updated version of hearty supper club fare, with the kind of dishes patrons might have enjoyed at the Empire Room in its heyday. The Short Rib is braised in red wine. The Kobe Beef Silver Dollar Sliders are really just mini hamburgers on brioche buns. The Amish Chicken Club Waldorf sandwich pays homage to the Waldorf-Astoria, another historical luxury hotel undergoing renovation.

The dessert I have come here for is called Bertha's Famous Brownie. More than anything else on the dessert menu, it is the most historically rooted item. Allegedly, the brownie was invented by a hotel chef at Bertha Palmer's request in 1892. She wanted a ladylike dessert that ladies could eat with their hands without getting them dirty. The original recipe calls for a layer of apricot preserves glazed on top.

The updated Bertha's brownie at Lockwood is actually the requisite chocolate dessert found in most fine dining restaurants. At $12, it is basically three different reiterations of chocolate.

But more than that, at $12 what they are really selling is a piece of the story. The dessert is the story that I have come for. It is the latest commodification of the hotel's history, and it arrives on a big white square plate.

The first part is the brownie itself, moist and dense, embellished with a carmellized sugar latticework and a smear of chocolate-shiraz sauce. The second is a dollop of chocolate ice cream, redundantly served on top of a miniature version of the same brownie. The third is a small shot glass of chocolate milk mousse, topped off with a bit of whipped cream.

Now that it is here in front of me, beautifully plated like a miniature deconstructed landscape, I'm aghast that there is nothing else to do except to eat it.

I take small bites. I try a bit of everything. The brownie is passable. The ice cream I could probably buy in a gourmet grocery store.

The only remaining part of the dessert is the chocolate milk mousse. It is served with a tiny silver spoon that my waiter has forgotten to give me. As I wait for him to retrieve it, I entertain the idea of calling my dad afterward. That's what I should really do; I should tell him about the changes to the hotel he used to stay at, painting a big picture crammed with details.

When the spoon finally comes, I slot it through the opening of the glass and take my taste.

It is cold and sweet. Thickly whipped, it is lighter than air. And before I know it, it has already dissipated in my mouth. It has already been consumed.


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OUR FRIENDS AT The Left Hand make great soap, salves, balms and other natural hygiene-type stuff, in addition to publishing a zine and running a book swap, a performance series and more from their Tuscaloosa, AL, homebase. When they offered to make something for us, we jumped. We introduce THE2NDHAND soap, an olive oil soap with a quadruple dose of Bergamot, "for the readers we've sullied..." Price is $6, ppd.