There’s a crowd around it. Kids, teens, parents with selfie sticks, all blown up and reflected back at themselves. It’s smooth and shiny, overgrown, a tuber of flotsam, though nobody knows if it drifted from the lake or from the innards of the city. People touch it, walk around it, touch it some more. There must be a couple hundred people in its vicinity, which is understandable given the weather: about fifty degrees Fahrenheit, a few clouds, a fair breeze. Most of us spend about ten minutes in its company before moving on to food or other attractions. If you’re like me and have never been this close to a large body of water that isn’t the ocean, you keep expecting to smell sea salt, but that's not here right now. Just this huge, silver body, and a lot of people.
There are skyscrapers too. You can see them to the left and right of it, and above it, linear and unwavering and unsmiling. Yet their reflections are goofy, stretched-out curves, losing balance deliberately like children in a mirror maze. In this other dimension they forfeit all their somberness. Here even the sun can’t help but recline, wilting in its own warmth.
Some come here out of obligation, others for the Instagram ritual, and a few for the Facebook Events: “Release the Bean into Lake Michigan and shout “You’re free!” “Deep Fry the Bean and Eat it.” (The reason why the bean is so clean is because of the “Windex the Bean” event.) Nobody tries to get a picture by themselves; it’s inevitable to be encapsulated with others in the photographs, since the reflections come from all angles. In this way, we have a collective knowledge of every atom of the bean’s surface. We’ve documented its entirety, physically through photograph, metaphorically through meme.
The bean stands on two legs. You can enter from one end and come out the other. Underneath, it’s cool and dark. You have about twelve reflections here, each looking at another with removed curiosity. The surface of the bean feels cold, but it’s hardly neglected: there are white fingerprints everywhere. There must be at least fifteen other people crammed underneath here. Even then, it hardly feels stuffy. The bean stands on an expanse of square tiles, steel on cement, grey on grey.
Surrounding the bean are less-interesting things. There are street performers playing percussion, an art museum, all other components of Millennium Park… and of course the city itself. Willis and Portillo’s and the CTA. Yawn! These all orbit the bean. Everything revolves around it and their only function is to adorn the bean and give it a setting, to give it things to reflect across the universe. It tosses these things about in a game of lacrosse.
Does the bean have its own shape, or is it a parasite to its props? What I mean is, does it need the polygonal towers around it to craft its own profile, its bellies and crests, its grammars of smoothness? Or is it simply the consequence of some God-imagined hyperbolic formula? How does it assert itself? My favorite bean-themed Facebook Event is “Watch a Koon’s Dog and The Bean Hump and Make Shiny Babies,” because it points to the mystery of both the bean’s origin and its perpetuation. What were the other options—binary fission? An extraterrestrial seed? Where will we find a balloon large enough to craft a fitting mate? In death, will it remember itself through its photographs or its memes? Or will its memory exist at our fingertips? What are we like inside? Who chooses our names?
Does the universe shift stance? I think so. My friend and I smile for our photo in front of Cloud Gate and then head toward Navy Pier. We later decide it is not worth our time, and instead make our ways West along Riverwalk. I already have two Instagram captions planned out. The one for this picture will be “bean bean bean bean bean,” a tribute to the bean’s hegemony. But for the next visit it will be “bean there: done that.” We’ll pose unhurriedly about a hundred feet away from the bean (don’t worry, it will still be visible in the photo) and fake uncaring shrugs. We will do this because, although everything orbits the bean right now, this arrangement is temporary. The bean is a stranded whale and, like any, it will soon explode. From internal volatility, or from our own inventions… who cares? Drenched in whale guts, we will laugh and cheer and finally disperse. I wonder: where will we place our universe’s center of gravity in the next millennium? Where will we store our new obsessions?