Magazine | November 7, 2016, Issue

‘Tear Down This Big, Beautiful Wall’

We were sitting outside a Chicago hotel, waiting for the Uber. This was the modern world in all its glory; the proud towers of this bustling and bankrupt city rising above, a glass-clad slab in my hand summoning a private ride to the airport. America has its problems, sure — but from here it looks pretty darn Great already.

Daughter: Did you get my book from the hotel room?

Me, in my head: Pretty sure I didn’t. Out loud: What is it?

The Cold War book for school! I have to have it!

Me: We have to go to the airport! What do you need to know? It was the Commies’ fault. We won.

Dad! I have to have it.

Me: Does the front cover show Ronald Reagan kicking down the Berlin wall while holding an American flag with an eagle on his shoulder? No? Then you don’t need it.

But of course this wouldn’t fly. So. I jog back to the hotel, thinking I’ll get housekeeping on the line before I get there. Get out the magical pocket computer, summon up the digital assistant, and ask her to get the phone number for the Holiday Inn Mart Plaza Chicago.

I found 17 Holiday Inns around Jacksonville.

What? No! Chicago!

I’m sorry, I didn’t find anything for Whatno Chicago.

Eventually the digital assistant came up with the phone number, which went straight to a reservation center several hundred miles away, and they couldn’t connect me to housekeeping. The actual number of the hotel was apparently a company secret. Post it online, and heck, everyone’s going to be calling up, wanting to talk to someone.

By now I am thinking it would be fine to make America incrementally greater again.

By the time I got to the hotel I was cursing everyone for this delay, certain we would miss our plane, all because of the Cold War. Because of Stalin. Partly my daughter, but mostly Stalin. Had to be greedy. I’m sure the book said it was partly the United States’ fault too, because it’s a public school and the teacher will probably finish the subject by playing Peter, Paul and Mary and assigning an essay test on what, exactly, was blowing in the wind. Hippie pot smoke and B.O., that’s what.

Two sets of long elevator rides later, I was on our floor. I could see four housekeeping carts. Ran to each one, and looked for a book with The Cold War: Totally Our Fault on the cover, or maybe Cold War: Really, Could You Blame Them? But no. Sunglasses container, children’s shirts, a lost shoe — who leaves behind a shoe in a hotel room? Did he come for the Cubs game and decide to have an amputation while he was in town?

No book. Found a housekeeper, and she refused to do anything. She spoke no English except “Talk to lady downstairs.” Apparently the lobby was chock full of ladies milling around with baskets of cast-off items.

Found the concierge, said we’d lost a book. He asked: What was it? I wanted to say, “It’s about a long twilight struggle that played out on distant stages, a war that concluded without a treaty or triumphal parade,” just to see if the concierge would say, “Got it. The Cold War. I don’t know what’s worse, the historical amnesia or the revisionism. Let me make a call.” But I babbled “It has ‘Cold War’ on it,” and the concierge called lost and found. Seven minutes on hold — during which I imagined our plane boarding and departing — and then he said they had it and someone would bring it up.

The elevator doors opened, and out stepped a nice young lady holding an ancient tattered ledger that said Lost and Found. It looked like the first few entries would be “Spats” or “Celluloid collar stay.”

“Cold War book?” I panted, and she said “Cold War book!” And I was off. Down the elevator, out to the Uber. Daughter greatly grateful.

“The West had better be the good guys in this book,” I said, “or I am not running six blocks and talking to a reservation center in Missouri before rifling through maids’ carts ever again.”

Sigh. “Everything has to be ‘America is great’ with you.”

“Kidding! Except, sort of. Yes.”

Earlier we’d been on a riverboat cruise to study the architecture of the great city. We came across an enormous modern building, and the guide explained its genius. The architect had a challenge: The building would be in the middle of several beautiful historic buildings. He could defer to them or overwhelm them. He chose the former. She described how the massing of the building turned and stepped back, with tall grey horizontal bands located below the roofline of the neighboring structures. After it had paid homage and admiration to its predecessors and established its role in this great tableau, it rose on its own terms — making the building an individual but part of a process, tying together all the different voices from the past.

And then she fell silent.

The name Trump hung off the side of the building in yuuuge letters. I looked around; no one was taking pictures. Everyone was just staring up at the name in silence.

It’s odd: If you look at them from one angle, the silver letters shine; from another, the reflections make them look as if they’re peeling. It’s hard to imagine them crowbarring the letters off the building in a few years because the brand is poison, but in the Cold War I’m sure the East Germans kicked the wall and thought: Sure. That’ll last.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at

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