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I used to go downtown on Saturdays with Chris Maddi or Chris Pearson or Everett or Andrew Kaplan. We’d take the IC from 55th Street northward. Dad gave permission only after I had passed the test – I was required to name the downtown streets, in order, north to south, east to west. Randolph, Washington, Madison – a useful skill, I walk those streets now every day.

Chris told me his dad’s simpler rule over dinner a while ago. "Noah’s going? Then you can."

We’d start the day on the train platform, stepping down to arrange pennies on the rails. Pennies were all copper back then, and smeared better than the new ones do. Once we’d built up a decent handful of change, we’d get on board, and get yelled at for putting our feet on the seats in the end of the car (where the seats faced each other.) We’d echo the particular style of the conductors, "and kindly watch….your step please" and ride past "twef street, Roosevelt Road" to "Randolph, South Water Street, Far de Train Go." Never did find the South Water Street exit, though Dad insisted it was there.

Once downtown we’d emerge from under the library at Randolph and Michigan, and head west, past Baskin Robbins (still there) to Baer’s Treasure Chest (not there) to play pinball. Not really pinball, but we called it that. Baer’s had a few newer video games, like the controversial Death Race 2000, which involved driving into the running people, who then turned into crosses. Also an early attempt at Pong turned sideways, in a pinball machine case, pretending to be pinball. Baer’s had no actual pinball machines, at least in the early years, because pinball was illegal in Chicago. An old Chicago law didn't allow machines that had a ball launched by a plunger. There was one cop-out machine, which had a ball launcher thingie between the flippers, controlled by the right flipper.   Otherwise, no pinball, until later when the law was changed.

In back, though, were the real treasures. A helicopter simulator, in green-gray metallic paint, with a red handle for power, and black for tilt. It was touchy business making a toy helicopter to fly in slow circles and brush electric contacts with spring feelers before the timer ran out. The Test Your Love machine. Shooting Galleries, that looked 6 feet deep, but were only two feet from front to back. I didn’t really understand the mirror trick until I bought Coney Island Rifle from Max in 1985 when Baer's closed. Giant versions of those rod-operated hockey tables. Sub Hunt, the mechanical one, not the video game. The back room was where these old monsters lived, and for some reason Max Baer didn’t send them on.

Then lunch at Wimpy’s on State Street, near the smoking Marlboro sign. Or at the counter in Woolworth’s for the half roasted chicken, because the name was so funny. A round of the coin shops, where Chris and Chris and Andrew pretended to be interested while I brokered my deals.

Down to Hobby Service and Supply, below the street under 22 West Madison. H S&S was the biggest in the city, packed with rockets, expensive airplanes with instructions in Japanese, and tiny little cans of Humbrol paint that cost more than a dollar. You had to go downstairs from inside Woolworth's to get to it, or go from the subway. It was down the hall from Chicago Clock, with the toaster-shaped clock whose foam-rubber toast endlessly rose and fell, rose and fell.

We could spend a whole day at Marshall Field’s. The big store, downtown. Nine whole floors! I was master of the place because of my parents’ annual tradition of the $5 Fields’ gift certificate. It came printed on an IBM card, tucked in a red envelope. At first, we’d go with mom to spend them. Sometimes we’d get to see Santa, in years where Hanukah was before Christmas. This was a bafflement, because Santa was never mentioned at our house otherwise. My own children caught their first glimpse of Santa in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas – spread-eagled on a wheel while Mister Oogy Boogy threw knives at him. Perhaps their perspective will be as distorted as mine.

As we grew older, we took our own certificates downtown. We’d get coconut milk at the juice bar on 6, or visit the coins and stamps. The toy department had a magician named Zeringo. He performed on the hour, for 10 minutes or so, things like linking rings and disappearing scarves. He also sold aquarium equipment. The department was vast, seemingly occupying the whole floor. (Chris reminds me that the rest was actually filled with children’s clothing.) My first skateboard came from there, and my Marfield microscope.

Then downstairs sliding on the escalator banisters, which made them screech and slip. We liked seeing the left hands of the other riders jerk in concert. Sometimes the thing would stop altogether, and shoppers would stand there, waiting for it to start again.

From the Civic Center Plaza (now the Daley Plaza) we would run up and down the Picasso’s base, look at the eternal flame, and then check on the old office building to the northeast that was about three degrees off vertical. Or we’d stare skyward with our jaws dropped, seeing how many passers-by would look up.

Then home. Fannie Mae for a turtle, or a popcorn shop for caramel and cheese mix, before heading down into the IC station again. Sometimes we weren’t listening on the train and went right past "fifty-fit, fifty-sit, fifty-seven" and had to walk home from 59th.

Later, in my early thirties, my friend Jim asked my advice (I have a reputation still) on where to get a toy for his nephew. Fields, I said. (This was before the Toys R Us opened on State.) The department was tiny, and sparsely stocked with Hasbro and Milton Bradley and other prosaic stuff. We settled on some Legos, and made our way to the counter, where an old man waited on us, "Roy Zering" on his nameplate. Something rang in the back of my mind.

"You’re Zeringo!" I said.

He beamed.

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Copyright 2000 by Noah Shlaes