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Saving Grace: Prayer, hotels and beer in River North

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By Margaret Wappler

In the middle aisle of Holy Name Cathedral, a man wearing all black is on his knees, crawling toward the altar, throwing his hands up in the air. Behind him, gathering for an impromptu noontime mass after Tuesday morning’s catastrophic events, is a congregation of people by themselves or in couples. They’re praying, cupping rosary beads, crying, clutching each other’s hands. TV news cameras are off to the side and outside the church, but no one is talking to them.

When the service starts, the first hymn we are instructed to sing is “Amazing Grace.” At first, people barely sing along. Most hold their hymnals in front of them, shell-shocked, but eventually people start singing louder. Later, Father Bob McLaughlin gives a sermon in an ominous, thundering voice filled with something like fear, too. “This morning,” he says, “our illusions were shattered.” Everyone’s feeling of no longer being impenetrable is tangible in the crowd. During the sermon, the el makes its first rumble underneath; McLaughlin pauses and you can feel everyone tense, and then relax with the knowledge that it’s just the train. He says, “The only superpower in the world and we were rendered helpless, and maybe that’s not a bad first reaction,” he pauses, “because in that sense of helplessness we come to the lord and pray.”

Outside the church, the atmosphere is less dramatic and grief-stricken. River North’s bars and cafés are actually sort of hopping. Curious comments are heard from people at their tables in Andrew’s Restaurant and Cocktails. A woman says, “this was predicted by psychics years ago. They said the fury would come out of the East and attack our financial centers.” At the nearby Lenox Suites, where chief concierge Lisa Libassi says they’ve quickly become booked for the night with tourists from overseas who are concerned about how they’re going to get home.

The Marriott has an even lighter flavor. Inexplicably, Marriott’s customers who are supposed to depart today from O’ Hare and Midway are being instructed by the staff to go to the airports, despite the fact that air traffic isn’t moving. People leave every minute, in cabs packed with luggage, surely bound for airport-waiting and pandemonium. The bar is packed with tourists resigned to the situation that everything is closed. The TV blares CNN, and its terrorist-expert talking heads. One bartender says, as he pours a beer and looks at the TV playing the image that we already know so well—the second plane driving into the South Tower, sending out a plume of flames—“Within a year, this is going to be in a rock video.”

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