As I walked north on Dearborn Avenue yesterday to meet a student, I passed a red brick building on the west side of the 1300 block that felt eerily familiar. I slowed my stroll to read the sign fronting the valet stand. “3 Arts Club Cafe.” I knew I would run into this place sooner or later.
I stayed here for a week once, in 1999, before it was a cafe. Now that I’ve moved here I think I see it everywhere. Yesterday I actually did.
The Three Arts Club of Chicago was a home and club for women to pursue music, painting, and drama that was founded in 1912 and that endured until 2004. Developers bought it in 2007, and now it sells sandwiches. During its twilight it rented its space to visiting groups. Like the YMCA.
That’s what brought me. It was an orientation for my first job. Fresh off a year as an overseas church volunteer and only two years removed from college, I was hired to direct the Kansas City YMCA’s installation of a national Y effort backed by money from The Pew Charitable Trusts, Rock The Vote, and Do Something to up the civic engagement of 18-29-year-old young adults. Other sites were in Oakland, Seattle, Blacksburg, Dallas, and Minneapolis, and all of us directors joined the national YMCA staff at this funky spot on Chicago’s Near North Side to learn what we were supposed to be doing.
It was mostly chaos. The young gun they’d hired to coordinate the national program was a hot head. He talked too much, and when we took in a Second City show he tried to sneak in. He had history with the co-directors from Seattle, and by the third day he was openly scheming to have them fired. Mutiny ensued, and though the hot head made it through the end of the week he was replaced a couple of months later.
The Three Arts Club of Chicago hosted the disastrous commencement of my first job, yet seeing it 17 years later, in the opening act of another new job, filled me with nostalgia and kind of made me marvel at the circular nature of the universe and how things have a way of coming back around.
My boss and another colleague were there for that week too. At the end of the week they bought me a T-shirt and mug from the Caribou Coffee we escaped to daily to commiserate. As far as I can tell that’s gone too, and so is the T-shirt. But I still have the mug.