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Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Marina City Party Crowd

In June of 1968 I graduated from law school and drove my little white VW bug to Chicago to begin practicing law with a major law firm there. I wanted to live downtown and walk to work (I sold the car on arrival), so I rented an apartment in the brand new Marina City Towers. The two Towers, amusingly shaped like corncobs, are sixty stories tall (an extension in the middle of each goes up another five stories for a penthouse), with the bottom twenty stories being devoted to parking. The towers, made of cement, border the Chicago River just where it empties into Lake Michigan, all of this a block away from Michigan Avenue and the famous "Magnificent Mile." Wikipedia has this to say about the buildings:

"Marina City apartments are unique in containing almost no interior right angles. On each residential floor, a circular hallway surrounds the elevator core, which is 32 feet (10 m) in diameter, with 16 pie-shaped wedges arrayed around the hallway. Apartments are composed of these triangular wedges. Bathrooms and kitchens are located nearer to the point of each wedge, towards the inside of the building. Living areas occupy the outermost areas of each wedge. Each wedge terminates in a 175-square-foot (16.3 square meter) semi-circular balcony, separated from living areas by a floor-to-ceiling window wall. Because of this arrangement, every single living room and bedroom in Marina City has a balcony."

Actually each unit had at least one and a half balconies, with the bedroom balcony being shared with the unit next door. When my cousin Jerry Birge came to visit with his rather large family, I was terrified when one of his more adventurous boys began climbing the balcony railing, trying to go from one balcony to the other, and had to be snatched back to safety (Jerry thought it was funny, which was not my take on the situation). In addition to the apartments, Marina City has other buildings at ground level and below ground, so it makes up a complex that in my day included a theatre, gym, swimming pool, ice rink, bowling alley, several stores and restaurants, and of course, a marina. There were people who not only lived in the Towers but worked there, and who, consequently, never had to venture outside into the brutal Chicago winter. The theater, I'm told, is gone, but the jazz club "House of Blues" has moved into its space. The units are now sold as condominiums, not rental properties (condos were unknown in 1968).

The apartment I rented was not immediately available when I arrived in Chicago (a clear breach of contract), so I spent a very interesting week living at the YMCA downtown. This was the summer of the Democratic convention riots of 1968, and in another blog I'll talk about being caught up in the terror of that. When my apartment still wasn't ready at the end of the week, I made lawyer-will-sue noises, so the Marina City management moved me into the model apartment on the 59th floor for a month before my rental one was ready down on the 52nd floor, facing north. The two photos below (click to enlarge) show my views from the living room and the bedroom balcony of the latter. I loved living at Marina City, pie-shaped apartment and all, and walking to work, being a bachelor living by himself for the first time (I was about to turn 25 in September), and—thanks to a cookbook sent to me by my mother—learning to make my own meals. [Alas, I was wretched at cooking in the beginning, probably being the only person in the history of the culinary arts to make an egg explode.] The concrete walls between the apartments were soundproof, but not the ceilings and floors, and I could sometimes hear the couple who lived above me quite clearly. They fought loudly late at night, and this would have been bothered me more except their arguments were short and frequently quite fascinating. In addition, during the day and in the evenings there were often incredibly loud thumping noises (like multiple bricks being dropped) that went on rhythmically for an hour or more. Puzzling about it, I finally concluded they were trying to become the first people in the world to teach a moose to jump rope.

The Living Room View

From the Bedroom
The towers in Marina City are noted for the high speed of their elevators. It takes only 35 seconds to travel from the lower-level lobby to the 61st-floor open-air deck. One day I stepped on the 52nd floor elevator to go to work, and the two little girls who were the only other passengers had already pushed every button for every floor. They giggled when we stopped at the first couple of floors, but my icy glare as the door kept opening and closing, floor after floor, soon had them examining their shoes, blushing bright red. 

Walking to Work

Lots of things happened to me while living at Marina City: I acquired Fred, the best pet I ever owned (see "Parakeets and Me," February 5, 2010), my parents and sister came for a disastrous Xmas visit in which we all came down with flu and Mom nearly died, I had a wild relationship with the head custodian's daughter (who wanted to marry me) and my first true homosexual experience with the boyfriend of one of the women I bowled with, and, yes, even more, but those adventures will be related in future posts. This one is about the wonderful Marina City party crowd.

Not long after I'd moved in that summer, I went down to the laundry room (which filled 20th floor and had a panoramic view of the Loop) with a bag of dirty clothes. While I was engaged in this chore, an elegant woman in her 50s, dressed for a cocktail party in a stylish dress, earrings and jewelry, hair expensively coiffured high on her head, in heels, came in with her own laundry bag and began loading a machine. Puzzled and amused by the contrast between her task and appearance, I introduced myself and commented that she was the best-dressed laundress I'd ever seen. She laughed merrily, and identified herself as Chris Van Tuyl. She and her husband Ron had recently moved to Marina City after his retirement (they'd lived on the south side of Chicago all of their marriage), and had just returned from a party. She wanted to get her laundry started right away since she had a lot of it to do. Chris and I hit it off immediately, and she invited me back to their apartment, where her jovial husband Ron introduced me to the evil concept of a martini and proceeded to get me plastered.

Chris and Ron Van Tuyl
The Van Tuyls were a fascinating couple, much in love, great company, and we became lifelong friends. I adored them both, and from them I learned much about this world and how to live in it in style. Ron was an amateur photographer, and many of the pictures in this post were taken by him. Chris had a job as the Information Desk Lady at Marshall Field, the famous Chicago department store, which was nearby. Their one fault was that they seemed to get me drunk every time I dropped by their apartment (or they came to mine—causing Fred the parakeet to fly happily to their shoulders, squawking with pleasure). One evening when they called me up and said the usual " Doug, come on down!" I pinned a note to my chest stating "Please don't get this child drunk" and signed it "His Mother." That didn't work, but fetched a laugh prior to the martini shaker being loaded.

The Van Tuyls introduced me to others living in Marina City, all about their same age, and these crazy people were the "party crowd" of this post's title: Ruth and Kaye, Mary and Joe, Vic and his wife (girlfriend?), and some others whose names now are lost in my fogged-over memory. I'd thought I knew about parties and drinking from my high school/college/law school days, but that was minor league stuff compared to the level this older crowd played at. It seems like there was a party at someone's apartment three or more times a month, and in addition to too much alcohol, there were games and bawdy stories, singing, dancing, and some things I will not describe (non-sexual, I hasten to add). At one of these revels, and for a reason I don't remember, I whimsically hid everyone's shoes (which had been kicked off at the door preparatory to dancing). Unfortunately I hid them far too well, and, unable to remember where they were myself (large amounts of alcohol being involved), the result was that a number of people had to pad back to their own apartments (some to the other tower) barefooted and grumbling about that imbecile Doug. Some of the shoes weren't found for a week or more. At another party, this one at my apartment, Ruth came running to me yelling, "Doug! Fred's jumped into the punch bowl!" Normally caged during these bacchanals, Fred had been freed by some wicked person (they all loved that bird), and he'd joined in the merriment by promptly leaping into the spiked punch. Cursing, I fished him out (wings spread, he'd not gone under), and rinsed him off under the kitchen faucet before drying him with a towel and locking him firmly back in his cage.

These zany people taught me a lot about many things: marriage, for example, or how to solve life's problems, or little bits of arcane wisdom, or how to love another human being completely (they all had happy marriages). Some of their sayings have stayed with me. Kaye, for example, hearing me remark that I loved a good steak, laughed and repeated her father's maxim that "chicken is fowl, pig is pork, but beef, by God, is MEAT!" When my parents came to visit at Christmas time, the Marina City party crowd welcomed them with open arms, and a good time was had by all (Ruth mooned over my father, who she thought the handsomest man she'd ever met—"Does he have a brother, Doug?" she asked me seriously). Chris and Ron talked me into joining first one, and then another of the two bowling leagues that residents had created at Marina City, and over the course of the year and a half I lived there, I became a decent enough bowler.

Doug the Choreographer

The Same Event
The photos above are from some joint birthday party held in my apartment, and should give some clue as to the nuttiness of these affairs. I have no idea what was going on in either picture, but we're obviously in the flow of the moment.

It was with a heavy heart that I left these good people at the end of 1969 to join the faculty at the Indiana Indianapolis Law School. Sadly, I lost touch with everyone except the Van Tuyls, who I visited sporadically and exchanged Christmas cards with until both were gone (Ron outlived Chris, dying just a few years ago in his 90s). I miss them all, and think back on my Marina City days with great fondness. Those madcap parties will never be equaled in my lifetime, and, given my advancing age, that's just as well. But these days I'm known far and wide for what my friends and law students call "The Whaley Martini." It's really the "Ronald Van Tuyl Martini," but let's not tell anyone that.

Related Posts:
“How I Became a Law Professor,” January 27, 2010
"Parakeets and Me," February 5, 2010
"Popourri #1," November 15, 2011 (Chicago Cubs Fan)
“A Guide to the Best of My Blog,” April 29, 2013


  1. In 68 my color scheme was all green all the time, but I have to tell you that sweater you're wearing is something beyond the pale :)

  2. All I remember about graduating is the huge party and fun we had in an event venue in NY. It was a really crazy party and afterwards I decided to join in with my father's business. College was the best time of my life. I made so many friends for life, and unforgettable memories. Cheers to 2018!