Something is very wrong. How else to explain why dozens of otherwise sensible people, in this time of urban fears fueled by violence flashing across television sets and popping off the front pages of newspapers, are voluntarily opening their homes to strangers this weekend?
The strangers are not invited inside the homes, not allowed to sprawl across couches or raid refrigerators or snoop through medicine cabinets. But they will be free to wander the gardens of homes in a couple of the city's finest neighborhoods, and what is a garden if not a home's summer room?
Taking place Sunday (the event kicked off Saturday) is the Sheffield Garden Walk & Music Festival, now in its 45th year. It offers more than 90 gardens to visit. Many of them are beautiful, secret little spaces sitting behind, aside and in front of the fine homes in the DePaul/Lincoln Park area. (Go to the corner of Sheffield and Webster avenues, the epicenter of the action, or to sheffieldgardenwalk.com for all sorts of information).
But the gardens sometimes are overwhelmed by the rest of it all: nearly a dozen bands, food and drink vendors, guided architectural tours and a special area for kids.
It will be a bit more sedate a mile or so south, where the focus of Sunday's Dearborn Garden Walk is more precise, with fewer gardens but also fewer distractions.
Today is the 55th year for the Dearborn walk. It began at a time when the Gold Coast neighborhood was, believe it or not, down at the heels, its old mansions being razed for high-rises or being broken up into cramped apartments.
Now it is as beautiful a section of the city as there is, history hanging heavy in the air. Much of the credit goes to the people who organized the North Dearborn Association in 1954 for the expressed purpose of "the preservation and the beautification of its Chicago Near North neighborhood."
Two of the association's most energetic members are the fellows featured in the accompanying photo, Greg Hodapp and Woody Olsen.
"Part of the allure of the walk is that you get to meet the gardeners," Hodapp says. "And many will happily talk gardening and tell you about the history of their homes."
Adds Olsen, "It is an intimate experience."
These two are often in the company of their friend Carol Truesdell, equally passionate about this part of the city and the author of "Gardens of the Gold Coast."
Published in 1999, it is available, along with all the other information you might need, at the organization's websites (northdearbornassociation.com or dearborngardenwalk.com), where the $15 book is touted as "not a 'how to' gardening book but rather a 'why not' book. It is not meant to instruct but rather to delight and inspire."
In recent years each walk had a theme, and this year local designers collaborate with garden owners to create vignettes around the life and times of Ernest Hemingway.
Not only is today Hemingway's birthday (he would have been 114 years old if you care about such numerological things), but for a few months in 1921 he lived on the fourth floor of an apartment house at 1239 N. Dearborn Parkway with his new bride, Hadley Richardson.
It was described as "(A) grimy, top-floor walk-up … in a run-down section … (with) tiny rooms and ugly, broken-down furniture" by local writer Gioia Diliberto in "Paris Without End: The True Story of Hemingway's First Wife."
The building looks a lot better today, and visitors can walk through its hallway into a courtyard that will feature a collection of Hemingway memorabilia as well as Stuart W. Hubbard, a former associate professor of English at the University of Kansas, discussing Hemingway in Chicago.
Another garden will feature a boat as part of an homage to "The Old Man and the Sea," and Hemingway scholar Nancy Sindelar will talk about her new book, "Papa's Places," at the Hotel Indigo, 1244 N. Dearborn Parkway.
There will be about 20 gardens featured on the walk. That's about average. Some will feature live music, and there are also architectural walking tours. Start at the Latin Middle School, 45 W. North Blvd. It starts at noon and ends at 5 p.m.
As to why the strangers are welcomed so casually, Truesdell offers, "I think we all feel so privileged to live in this amazing neighborhood that we love to share it."
Hemingway once wrote, "The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them," and that seemed to be a philosophy of Yvonne Pen, who for decades proudly invited strangers to walk through the first floor of her house at 55 W. Schiller St. and into the small garden behind it.
"The people who visit are always so lovely," year after year, she said when I interviewed her in the early '90s.
It has been a while now since Pen's garden has been part of the Dearborn Garden Walk. She got old and sold the house and moved to Kentucky to be close to her grown son and his family. But there was a Sunday afternoon in those days when she sat in her garden and shared tips about plants and flowers with a woman who had traveled from the Far South Side.
"My garden is nowhere as nice as yours," the woman told Pen at the time. "But I care for it and I would hope that you can find the time to come and see it one day."
I don't know if Pen ever made that trip. I like to think that she did. But I do know that one afternoon long ago in a small garden, two city strangers shared some common ground.