17 Nov

Americans have to be told not to throw their pennies into small bodies of water. Anything smaller than a swimming pool and it’s inevitably lined with copper. There’s probably hundreds of dollars in the larger fountains. Do we even wish for anything when we do it? Or do we just toss out of habit?

I’m standing at end of a bridge, over the Metra tracks that mark the barrier between the Art Institute’s original building and its Modern Wing. A jutting piece of aluminum has collected the past month’s rain and the museum’s patrons can’t help themselves. There are pennies and nickels and dimes. Two keys. A perfect maple leaf. Etchings at the water’s edge look like fossilized shells. The water is drying up  slowly, leaving dirt on the aluminum in wide bands of varying colors. When it disappears completely, the sight will confuse people. Hundreds of coins in a bare aluminum trough, as if someone accidentally spilled a very large purse. 

What would I wish for, if I threw in a coin and believed it meant something? My friend is in the hospital, getting tests done. Before they admitted her they asked if she wanted to see a chaplain or make out a will. At lunch we talked about sad things. Penn State and high school English teachers who fool around with their students and who resign but then wind up somehow teaching at all-girls schools. How there’s only those who get found out and those who don’t, but no figuring out how to heal. My wife is training to be a counselor. She’ll see levels of trauma I won’t be able to imagine.

At the main library downtown, there are signs telling people not to throw coins into the fountains. People either ignore them, or the cleaning staff is lazy. The fountains gleam, the tile rich with wishes and profiles of dead presidents. The sky is the cleanest I’ve seen it. A blue that screams just to hear the echo, no clouds to dampen the sound. I’ve never thought about how this bridge was built, or how the facade of the Pritzker Pavilion was constructed. Never noticed the materials or the engineered panels or the i-beams that bend like Transformer legs.

“What would I wish for, if I threw in a coin and believed it meant something? My friend is in the hospital, getting tests done. Before they admitted her they asked if she wanted to see a chaplain or make out a will.”

I’m listening to a song called “Festival.” What do we celebrate today? Someone told me they’d been more thankful this week. I have too. I try to get there again. There’s so much beauty out here because I’m alone. When I go back to people it will be mostly ugliness. Bringing cheap shit to the food drive just so we can meet our quota and leave early the day before Thanksgiving. Apathy and hypocrisy. Remembering the times I’ve experienced both.

I want to build wells all over the city. Small, shallow-bottomed wells everywhere, so that we’re never too far from a chance to wish again. I wouldn’t need instructions or an artist’s statement. It’s hardwired into us somehow, even into me, who wasn’t ever taught that a small pool of water was the place for my petty change and deepest hopes. A bit of water and an edge and they will dig in their pockets and purses and give away a small bit of their property, their personal fortune. You can’t convince them to give those coins to the homeless woman across the street, but it’s all you can do to stop them from tossing them into the water, to become drowned relics of a silly practice.

Lake Michigan stretches out to the east, until the sky and water become white. No one throws coins into the lake. No one tosses their pennies into the ocean or into bathtubs or water glasses. But people did throw coins into the puddle below my feet, and I want to know what they wished for. Wishes are plentiful today. Maybe these wishers tried everything they could think of and then just dumped their change here as a last resort, to prove that they were willing to give up a little something for this one. I have change in my pocket, but I don’t throw anything in. I don’t even think to.

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