GETTING KICKED BY ROUTE 66: Part Two – Chicago’s Museum of Holography, The Bean, and Other Illusions

Friday, May 2, 2008

My first full day in Chicago starts with gray rain and a cold shower, but I won’t let it color my mood. The Whitehall Hotel’s boiler is on the fritz, so the front desk comps our breakfast while Steph waits for hot water. We order our meal brought up, so my friend won’t have to dress, go downstairs to eat, come back up to shower, and dress again. Steph refuses to consider a cold shower. She says it would run contrary to her life’s theme: “Me, me, me!” I laugh, but also worry she might be telling the truth. I fail to notice my own smugness about my life’s theme of “low-maintenance.” I see only what I fear to see.

The spring rain kills our plans for a walking tour.

We relax over an om-nom-nom breakfast of cholesterol and fat: hot tea with cream, buttered toast, eggs over-medium, fried potatoes, and OJ. We don’t leave until 11:00 a.m., and the spring rain kills our plans for a walking tour. This Route 66 Trip is a tongue-in-cheek homage to kitschy Americana, cheap nostalgia, and the road less traveled. We make no pretensions to Kerouac hipness, instead heading for geek nirvana: the Museum of Holography.

The world’s largest collection of holograms haunts a turn-of-the-last-century building in an old brick-and-mortar warehouse-district on Chicago’s West Side.

The world’s largest collection of holograms haunts a small, turn-of-the-last-century building in an old brick-and-mortar warehouse-district on Chicago’s West Side. Inside the dim museum, a petite, skeletal old woman with square white bangs, hollow cheeks, and a creaky voice tells us she’s a physicist and explains for us the physics of holography. She says the laser technology in holography cameras uses argon or other gases, each emphasizing different colors in the visible spectrum: red, green, blue, yellow, or a combination. The cameras freeze time by shooting a laser beam in less than a billionth of a second. She tells us how to best observe the photos:

1) Start at least three feet back.
2) If the photo displays a telescope or binoculars projecting toward us, step forward and look through that image to see what it’s magnifying. “In holography, they maintain their properties of magnification,” she explains.
3) Move our bodies back and forth in front of the images, some of which contain two or more 3-D holograms, creating fun surprises or the illusion of motion.

We look like a couple of drunk sailors, swaying back-and-forth, back-and-forth, through four rooms featuring more than two-hundred images. “I’m going to be seasick,” I say. Among the images are chimpanzees, a heart emblazoned with the word love until it’s pierced by an arrow, two cheerleader-like girls aiming a gun at us, a hand tossing sugar cubes that appear and disappear, a prospector panning for gold, and a thousand-year-old man found in a peat bog outside London who, according to our ancient docent “looks better than we ever will at a thousand”—that’s what she thinks. We particularly like the rotating hologram of the mad scientist who pours something into a tube, causing his eyes to shoot violent beams, which dissolve him, until he emerges again to shrink and float away. We watch that one over and over, laughing each time as if we’ve never seen it before.

Before we leave, our physicist friend lends us 3-D glasses to better see the colors shooting outward from some of the images. She instructs us to look up at the entryway chandelier and down at our bodies. Everything is multiplied in engulfing rainbows of light: multiple colors, multiple hands, multiple faces, a dazzling and disorienting refraction of the light that makes up our visual world. Is this what people see when they claim to see auras? The old physicist croaks, “Remember, we are walking through rainbows every day, all the time.” She doesn’t seem to be selling us on positive thinking, just sharing the scientific wonders of a world we don’t usually see.

Locals call it “The Bean,” although architect Anish Kapoor named it “Cloud Gate.”

The rain is clearing as we catch a bus to Millenium Park on the waterfront. We hope to find a hot dog stand, but settle for a giant jelly bean. Locals call it “The Bean,” although architect Anish Kapoor named it “Cloud Gate.” The two-story, chrome-steel sculpture is shaped like a bean, lying concave-side down to form an arch. Each curve presents a different Salvador Dali reflection of Chicago: skyscrapers bending, flexing, and stretching toward a faux sky that blends into the true sky above. As we approach, we see people standing under the arch. Steph joins them, comes back out, and declares, “We’re going to be here forty-five minutes.” I assure her I won’t go photo-crazy. “No, you don’t understand,” she says. “Wait until you go underneath!”

The concave indentation within the arch forms a funhouse mirror that gives me five wildly different reflections of me, me, me.

She’s right. The concave indentation within the arch forms a funhouse mirror that gives me five wildly different reflections of me, me, me. Several people stand with me, turning this way and that, giggling. Some two-dozen young people walk in with their choral director, stand in the center, and sing Annie Laurie. Their voices rise into the curve, blend, and bounce back with perfect acoustics. I hush, in thrall to the crystalline harmony.

Their voices rise into the curve, blend, and bounce back with perfect acoustics.

Ears satiated, but stomachs still empty, we stop to eat at the nearby Old Timers Restaurant and Bar, established in the 1960’s. It’s an old-school American diner: ripped blue Naugahyde repaired with blue duct tape, blue-and-white checked décor, wood panelling, and a friendly middle-aged waitress. Steph orders roast beast slathered in orange gravy, and I order perch and macaroni. I didn’t listen to the Naugahyde, which tried to tell me, “Of course the fish will be fried in taste-free batter.”

“This is the kind of food that will turn to the Dark Side,” Steph warns. She stares at her dripping fork. “I wonder what kind of meat produces orange gravy.”

Perhaps that color, too, is an illusion, like The Bean’s reflections, the holograms, and my fear that Steph’s refusal to take a cold shower might mean she’s, egads… high maintenance. I’m not even done eating before my perch-and-macaroni bomb gives me my first Route 66 kick — right in the gut. I need Pepto Bismal. And that ain’t no illusion.

One thought on “GETTING KICKED BY ROUTE 66: Part Two – Chicago’s Museum of Holography, The Bean, and Other Illusions

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *