Monday, January 5, 2009

Thinkin' on Lincoln

I've been reading a lot about Lincoln lately. Most recently, I'm reading Andrew Ferguson's Land of Lincoln, which is fantastic. Settling into a chapter about Chicago's relationship with Lincoln, I decided to head over to Lincoln Square and park myself down at Potbelly's (where I can sit alone on a Friday night with a book without feeling like some loser). It seemed apt, given that the Square's statue of the man himself is only about a block away.

As I stood in line, one of the young guys working behind the counter struck up a conversation with me.

"Whatchyou reading there?" he asked me, motioning at the book I'd tucked under my arm. I held it up for him. "What's it say? Land... of..."

"Lincoln," I finished the title.

"So it's about Lincoln?" he asked.

"Well, kind of. It's about how the idea of Lincoln kind of lives with us today," I said, feeling extremely self-conscious and nerdy since a few of the other workers had now started staring at my book and I had really hoped just to go through this whole reading-alone-in-a-sandwich-shop-on-a-Friday-night thing unnoticed. "You know," I continued awkwardly, "cause everybody has an idea about least what they learned in school or something."

"Not me," he said flatly.

I was floored. "You never think about Lincoln?" I asked him, my jaw probably hitting the counter because Lincoln is about all I've thought about for the last few months.

"No, not really," he said, shrugging.

Another girl working there interrupted him, giving me my total so I could pay quickly and seeming about as interested in our conversation about Lincoln as she was in having to work a Friday night shift.

I handed her my card and turned back to the guy. "So you seriously don't think about Lincoln? Not even like, just about him being president?"

"Nah," he said and then paused. "He was gay, right?"

Ah, yes. The Lincoln Was Gay, Right? theory was a pretty hot topic a few years ago with some historians--like C.A. Tripp who published The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln--to assert that Lincoln had some homoerotic goings-ons with friends like Joshua Speed, with whom he shared a bed for a few years while they both worked. Other historians and sensitive Lincolnphiles are quick to point out that sharing a bed was a common thing in those days and that Lincoln clearly didn't have any sort of "streaks of lavender" in him, as Carl Sandburg once wrote. Of course, this theory picked up enough speed for kicker packages on the nightly news and has ingrained itself as a staple of the modern perception of Lincoln's life.

I considered the delicacies of modern constructions of history, whether the nightly news does more harm than good sometimes, the context of the gay world in both contemporary and antiquated worlds, and how easily (and quickly) one moment in time can become contorted before we no longer know whether Washington ever chopped down a cherry tree or if Dubya approached Guantanamo with the same noble thoughts of the republic as Lincoln did when he suspended habeas corpus.

But I skipped all that. "Uh, I think he was probably not gay, but I guess we don't know."

I sat down with my sandwich and opened my book back up when the starkest irony of the situation struck me: The young guy had just told me he never thinks about Abraham Lincoln wasn't just a kid working in a neighborhood named after Lincoln: He was a black kid working in a neighborhood named after Lincoln.

It just so happened that the next section of my chapter on Lincoln and Chicago dealt with a Thai immigrant who lives one neighborhood west of Lincoln Square. He and his wife moved to the U.S. in 1973 and opened the third Thai restaurant in Chicago. After seeing Lincoln's image and name repeated endlessly, they investigated the president and discovered that he was a pretty important guy. In their opinion, he is THE most important guy. Their family began annual pilgrimages to visit Lincoln's tomb and have created a small shrine to a Lincoln statue in their restaurant where they offer the mini-Abe a full meal each day.

He's just that important to them--Lincoln made it possible for them to come to this country and to live among their friends and peers equally. In other words, Lincoln gave everybody a chance, whether you want to serve sandwiches or Pad Thai or read your book on a Friday night alone. So maybe it's not so much that we don't ever think about Lincoln (or whatever other great figures past have formed our lives today), it's simply that we sometimes take him for granted. It might just take a huge bronze statue in the Square named after him, a small figurine in a Thai restaurant, or even that nerdy girl who ordered the salami and turkey sandwich on Friday night to remind you of it.

1 comment:

Miss Merry said...

I can't believe that guy didn't ever think much about Lincoln! I mean, not that I think about the guy everyday, but he was a pretty significant (and famous) president!

That book sounds interesting. I'll have to check it out!