May 03, 2010

Chicago Trip

Midwestern born and bred,
Midwestern I've been fed,
Midwestern, have I said?
Midwestern till I'm dead!   --
It was an idea born of a double-shot of Jameson after beer pong at the local Delta Chi house. (Just kidding.) Where could a Midwesterner go for a cheap vacation in April? Chicago! And whoda thunk it'd be warm and sunny and with streets full of surprise and relish (and not the kind they put on Chicago hotdogs)?


As I get older, I seem to have greater appetite for a nice view from the hotel room. Call it my own personal gentrification; I've come a long way from running down the streets of South Central L.A. It's why I go with the balcony option on cruises - there's just something electric about eat/drinking/smoking a cigar while eating up the view.

Because sometimes it's all in where you sit. Take today - if I sit in the chair beside the big window that faces east, I see the curve of the green Chicago river against the gothic, church-like Chicago Tribune building - a pleasant view made more so by the hint of blue spire in the gap next to the Tribune. It looks like a misplaced relic from a bygone age, a bit of Tolkien whimsy brought to life.

But if I sit in the middle of the window and look straight ahead all I see is an ugly tower cum parking garage. And if I sit and face west, all I see are molten modern skyscrapers and hotel high-rises.

It reminds me of how author William Least Heat-Moon describes a remodeled house in Kansas, of how it went from "grace to practicality, the commonplace absorbing the beautiful and superfluous, as the twentieth century often does to the nineteenth."

But later the sky darkens and the cars in the tower parking garage magically disappear and the skyscraper lights glow and the Westin sign sings its red and from any direction it’s not so bad.

We took the El train from O’Hare to get here. “It’s part of the adventure,” Steph said, and I agreed, though even more so when I found out a subway ride was $2 each, everything else $25 or more.

I read while she chose the better and observed the colorful urban scenery. The elevated subway is a chance to see neighborhoods far beyond the sedate Loop.

As soon as we got downtown we looked for a promising restaurant, and Ronny’s Steakhouse, established 1963, looked a likely suspect. Afterwards we walked towards Lake Michigan via the winding BP Bridge in Millenium park. It seemed like we walked as much east-west as north-south but it mattered not for the weather was excellent.

Then it was to the downtown where we wandered aimlessly waiting for a trolley car, and it eventually became evident we weren’t going to just run into one by accident. So I looked up the double-decker bus phone number at a Barnes & Noble and called to find where to meet one.

We rode past the Magnificent Mile, the home of Oprah Winfrey (whose apartment overlooks a Chicago beach that in July is “packed with bodies” according to the tour guide), Holy Name Cathedral, Blue Chicago, the Sears Tower, Soldier field and the museum area. It was disappointing only because it didn’t go to any of the neighborhoods, no authentic Polish culture for example, to the extent you can see derivative Polish culture from a swing by in a double-decker bus.

‘Round 4pm Steph went back to the hotel while I briefly hit the Art Institute and its glories. I was hypmotized by the simplest paintings, admonished by beauty.

Then hoofed it past the House of Blues, the Rock Bottom Brewery to the Holy Name Cathedral where a Mass was in process. Initially disappointed, I was transported by the IHS porthole in the center of the church dome, it looking like a giant host in the ceiling as if to signify the centrality of the Eucharist.


Sat in the windowsill and planned the day, which officially began after with a delicious breakfast at a nearby restaurant that was, unfortunately, a chain but location is the mother of invention, or words to that effect. “Potbellies” was close by, even if the décor, which included a portrait of Robert E. Lee., didn’t exactly scream “Chicago” .

Over fresh coffee I mused aloud. “When I nuke coffee,” meaning heat it up via microwave, “it never tastes that good.” Steph affirmed that, and I was glad for the confirmation. All these years I wondered if it was just my imagination that coffee tasted worse after being microwaved and now I can rest easy.

Afterwards I headed north up to the Old Town neighborhood, past interesting architecture and an Orthodox church that had apologetic material in its sign-board, mentioning how all churches except the Roman Catholicism go back to Christ, and the Romans broke off from the Orthodox. Tried to visit the church but it was locked, proving it can’t be the One True Church. *grin* St. Michael’s was open and I explored it before heading back to the hotel.

Soon it was on to famous Wrigley field, my first trip to the ballpark gem. The weather was splendid, a very sunny 65-70 degrees. I bought a Cubs hat to shade my eyes and as souvenir. The Cubbies held it close for 4-5 innings before completely falling apart. When we left it was like 13-1.

Behind us one fan commented to another that “it’s summer boys, the ivy is growing.“ And indeed although it was a bit scraggly and pale in color compared to its typical mid-summer hunter green, it was a timeless reminder of the ballpark that changes with the season.

After the ballgame we took the train back to the Loop and had a pleasant dinner at Berghoff’s, a German restaurant that brews its own beer. Steph loved the seasonal beer, a “Solstice Wit bier with a hint of orange.” I had the Amber since they were out of Pale Ale.

Thursday night at the Art Institute there’s free admission from 5-8, so we headed there immediately after dinner and I drank in room after room of wondrous paintings. With the Columbus art museum, it always feels like “is that all there is?” while with the Metropolitan in New York it seems overwhelming. Here was an in-between.

I found Steph sitting under the tail of the huge lion statue out front. The night air was tangy and the view restful. "You’re in a risky spot there,” referring to the possibility of artificial lion poop. “Want to hoof it?” . And we did, avoiding cab fees though not foot soreness.


Friday morning felt like the first real day of vacation given that it always takes a couple days to re-awaken a sense of wonder. But in this case it was also the last. Got a seat with a view at breakfast at the hotel restaurant. Down the street there was a Church of Christ of interesting architecture and I wondered how I had missed it when walking on street level. Perhaps because it takes time to really see?

After breakfast we lazily made our way back up to the room where I languorously reading about the near magical catches of Willie Mays in his initial year.

Then we planned the day - I called the Chicago Transit to ask how to tour Chicago neighborhoods via subway, and he suggested the Brown line. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be in a subway train on such a beautiful day (third in a row, shocking for April in Chicago (if not Paris).

Steph wanted to do the Field Museum of Natural History, so we hit the trains and headed to see “Sue”, a nearly intact dinosaur skeleton some 67 million years old. Just as the heavens suggest distances untold, dinosaur bones test ones ability to conceive of time eternal. Our historical record goes back a few thousand years, which is likely as small relative to the history of the planet as our solar system is in the much larger universe. It was amazing such creatures existed, and like Christ showing his wounds to the apostles after the Resurrection, it was easier to believe in examining the arthritis on the bones, broken ribs that had healed, abscesses in the jaw. Even gigantic carnivores have reason for pity and it seems Sue lived only 27-28 years.

It was also wild to touch a meteorite, something that is not only the oldest thing in the universe, dating from about the time of the Big Bang, but that which comes from an asteroid belt off the coast of Mars, making it an object from the farthest away.

There was a large gemstone exhibit including a display on gold coins, where it said that gold coins were not just a form of hard currency but a work of art. So now I have both art and gold in the form of a couple “double eagles”.

Another exhibit showed a “what if you crossed a Chinese person with an Irishman?” and variations on that theme. Showed pictures of men and women and children of wildly disparate genetic blends. “I am what everyone will be in 2500 AD” wrote one man under his picture, which suggests that he thinks we are moving towards homogeneity. Likely in some things such as skin color but looking at the diversity of pictures, it seemed like greater variety.

The Irish and German cultures in America in the late 19th century often clashed over cleanliness issues (the Germans more so than the Irish) and language and culture, but now not at all. Is intermarriage as the great assimilator?


It’s energizing to walk around a big city, never sure what might be around the next corner. The bright-lit theater sign lured me down a side street, and the fresh smell of gourmet popcorn lured me into a shop on that side street where I picked up some pecan-carmel crisp. Warm, and delicious as it was serendipitous.

I see little girls like butterflies in a room high above street level, performing ballet moves. It reminded me of Bill Luse's daughter makes a living doing it in this very city.

I’m often surprised in a big city how individual people seem to be, how far from wanting to fit in they often feel the freedom of anonymity and reflect it in outrageous ways. We see a guy singing and waving his arms to his ipod music as if he were Fred Astaire in “Singin’ in the Rain”. A woman clutches her stomach with both hands, grimacing in pain with tears in her eyes, right there on State street on a Friday pedestrian rush hour (or not so pedestrian as the case may be). Young women wear shorts so short or tops so revealing as to reveal a casualness, a comfort in their own skin such that it’s like they’re in their boudoir. It seems paradoxical that a large city would bring out more individuation rather than less, although with the short shorts that’s less individuation that simply the new fashion.

IN the afternoon, as precious vacation time slowly perished, I walked back from the public library to meet Steph at Potbellies. The Harold Washington library, with all due respect to Harold Washington, was a disappointment; the 9th floor winter garden was closed off for some event and the rest of it seemed like an example of modern architecture’s difficulty with creating beautiful spaces. Or, as was said of one beautiful 19th century building, “you couldn’t build that today even if you wanted to.” I was chagrined to have been conned by the library. I’d have rather just taken the brown line subway and looked out the windows, a $2.25 form of travel. Or even give me a Starbucks or local coffee shop for the smells if not the bells. I feel more writerly there, a superficial reason that ought not be discounted merely for it being superficial.

Back on the El for one last ride. I looked out the window this time, and watched the city exhaust itself until it transformed into suburb. One-by-one the riders left until a nearly empty train deposited us at the airport. I'd not packed any eczema medicine and the underside of my left knee looked like hamburger meat. It itched like crazy but I ignored it because itching, like sin, doesn't accomplish anything. And I thought about how it seems easier to avoid the "sin" of itching when real sins come more easily despite worse results. It takes very little faith to know that itching causes greater misery, but it does take some faith to see that our sins make us worse off.  When I got home I immediately applied the medicine, which immediately made it itch. But this time I attributed the itch to healing. Could I welcome the itch now, knowing every minute was a moment closer to itch-free skin? Could I not apply that to the spiritual life and know that the medicine of suffering can be similarly applied?

While at the TSA, watching all the passengers go through the security measures, I thought: “all this just because some people half-way across the world don’t like us.” The cost of hatred, though admittedly a tiny, insignificant one compared to those who died in the attacks on 9/11.

I asked a attendant there if we still had to take off our shoes.

“Everyone but the workers,” he said. A mini haha.

It seems like that practice started just after the shoe bomber was discovered. What relief he wasn't “the Penis Bomber”. Imagine having to be castrated just to go on a flight?




Gregg the Obscure said...

Nice job on this, the final travelogue. I know that neither you nor I will travel once the jihadis operationalize the penile bomb.

TS said...

Ha, well, unless one of us goes the Origen route.

RB said...

Enjoyed! -rb

Gregg the Obscure said...

Though sin in my life is endemic,
I won't commit the Origenic.

Burma Shave

TS said...

Thankee RB, wish you had some NYC triplogs. My subway tours weren't quite as interesting as yours...