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Schmich: In praise of the park bench

Sitting on my go-to bench Tuesday, I could sense a new season blowing in, that cool undercurrent that arrives in Chicago every August like the sound of an alarm clock.

Mary Schmich

August 14, 2013

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Let's pause, here in the remains of summer, to praise the humble park bench.

I have a favorite park bench. Two, really.

The second sits just off Lake Shore Drive at Fullerton Avenue and looks out on the curve of lake along the city's skyline. It's a standard Chicago bench, low to the ground, made of a long board at the bottom, two long boards for a back, the wood bolted to concrete posts, and the whole thing without a wisp of ornamental fuss.

I like the bench so much that for a couple of years I've used it as my Facebook cover photo.

A lot of people, however, like that old bench, so my go-to bench in the busy days of summer is one less likely to be occupied.

It's the lone bench in a tiny cocoon of a garden near the Lincoln Park zoo and boardwalk. It has a seat made of five unpainted wooden slats, a back made of three, arms and legs made of curved black metal.

Sit at just the right angle, shielded by shrubs and trees and tall flowers, and you can convince yourself you're in a secluded nature reserve. Lie down and you can study the sky.

To be honest, I don't sit on either of my favorite park benches as much as I'd like to.

Whenever I pass one of them while out on a walk, I think about sitting there. I remember how nice it was the last time I sat there, how clearly I could hear the breeze and see the trees and watch the shadows move.

But on many days, my inner personal trainer reminds me that sitting is a form of slow suicide, that we all sit too much, that the higher goal in modern life is to move, move, move.

Rev that metabolism. Charge that heart. Burn those calories. Tone those glutes. Excite those bones. And when you pass a park bench, do some triceps dips.

On mellower days, I sit anyway.

Sitting on a park bench is different from hunkering down at the computer or staring at the TV. It's a more contemplative kind of sitting, one that opens the mind instead of clamping it into a coma.

After I sat for a while on my go-to bench Tuesday, I got curious about other bench sitters. Why were they there?

Jamil Chaudhry, who was visiting from Vancouver, British Columbia, was eating lunch on a bench in a shady grove facing the Farm-in-the-Zoo.

"It's not just the bench," he said, with the inflection of his native Urdu, "it's the breeze, the plants, the view."

He swept a hand past the trees.

"Anywhere where you have a park and a breeze, this is a place to sit and to enjoy."

A few benches away I found Younus Ismail and his family. He, his wife and two of their sons had just arrived from Swaziland to visit a third son, who attends Lake Forest College.

"On a bench," Ismail said, "you get the beauty, the birds, the animals."

They were also getting something they said they couldn't get at home.

"It's a novelty that we can sit out without being mugged," said his wife, Fatima.

One appeal of a park bench is that it's a public place that feels private.

Jennifer Schelberger said she has been eating lunch on the same Lincoln Park bench every warm, sunny day for 15 years. Her office nearby has outdoor chairs where she could sit. She prefers the bench.

She likes to share her lunch (ham sandwich and Cheetos on Tuesday) with the squirrels. She likes to read (current Kindle selection: "Her Favorite Temptation" by Sarah Mayberry). She likes the spectacle of the passers-by, glad that they're not too close.

"It feels like you're in your own little country," she said.

That's exactly it. A park bench is its own little country. A public place where you can observe the world and still feel like you're on a retreat.

Sitting on my go-to bench Tuesday, I could sense a new season blowing in, that cool undercurrent that arrives in Chicago every August like the sound of an alarm clock.

Sit while there's still time.

mschmich@tribune.com