Miscalculations of Bliss and Twenty Four Wonderful Hours in Chicago
05/02/2012 47 °F
I have an amendment to make to the title of this journey. I was halfway across the heartland of Wisconsin, when I tapped my odometer button to see how far I had driven on this trip. It read 2,812 miles. I was surprised. I didn’t think I had driven that far. My original estimates were WAY off. Who is in charge of logistics and plans here? What clown is running this show? My estimation of two thousand miles was a joke, as I have at least another thousand miles to go before I near my destination. Not only that, it looks like I shortchanged myself a week as well. My flight to Seattle leaves on May 9th making this a thirty-day trip, not twenty-two.
I like the changes. Every trip should be flexible and free to morph as it will. If I had chosen to, I could have forced this journey match my original parameters, but that would have robbed me of some wonderful experiences somewhere along the way. Despite my poor planning, I am humbly and happily changing the name of this journey to “Four Thousand Miles in Thirty Days.”
I want to tell you about Chicago. This was my third trip into Chicago, though I have driven through the city at other times on other trips, and have flown into O’Hare International on numerous occasions. In my mind, those visits don’t count. I need to spend quality time wandering around a city for it to register as a visit.
Before I get into my Chicago explorations, I want to talk about my approach to large cities. For those (both) of you that read my blog, you know I am happiest out in the wilderness, tramping around a park, viewing the wonders of the sea, or on the road passing through some lonesome landscape. However, I love visiting cities.
Large cities look intimidating from the outside, but once you get past the outer loops of frenzied freeways, the charm of the neighborhoods and bustle of urban life takes hold. They lose their intimidation factor.
Chicago is a good example. Driving around the outskirts of Chicago offers nothing to the driver (other than frustration). On my last visit, I had to concentrate on driving, usually at a high rate of speed as though I was in a race. I hardly had time to enjoy the brief view of the city before it was gone. When I rode the train downtown and spent my day on foot, I found Chicago a very approachable town. It has a decent public transportation system and teeming with interesting sights, parks, restaurants, history, and life. Chicago has it all.
I find when I am walking through urban centers that I notice everything. I enjoy getting completely out of my element, and city life fascinates me. Why do people live here? How they live here? What makes them tick? In a city like Chicago, there are hundreds of stories all around you, and interesting vignettes of every day life, if you care to notice them.
With that mindset, I boarded the Metra Train in Kenosha, Wisconsin headed for the wonderful city of Chicago. The Metra train I rode connects the northern suburbs with the city itself. The train line has expanded since I had last ridden it. I used to have to board in Waukegan. I was glad to see the rail line expand further north. I hope to see it connect to Milwaukee some day.
Riding the train was novel. I don’t ride trains very often, but I enjoy them when I do. There is something proper to riding a train. It evokes a sense of historical appreciation, especially in Chicago. For decades, people have lived out in the suburbs and have ridden these trains to get to their jobs in the city. It puts into perspective the growth of the city. As for me, I enjoy the speed, the ease of travel, and the satisfaction of using good public transportation. While on the train, I passed through suburbs and neighborhoods with strong North Chicago names. Names like: Winthrop Harbor, Lake Forest, Ravinia, Wilmette, Highland Park, Glencoe and Evanston.
As I rode, I thought of how this trip bloomed into reality. Two days before I drove down to my sister’s house, I sent a note off to my niece to see if she was up for some company down in Chicago. As it turned out, not only was she around, but she had free time, VIP tickets to see a band I had never heard of, and excitement about my visit. It made sense to stay the night, and explore the city of foot the following day. I had hatched a solid plan, and I was on my way.
She picked me up at the train station just north of downtown. We drove into Edgewater down a long street packed with charming, brick apartment buildings from a bygone era. Each building was wide, on average three stories high, and built of brick. The amount of bricks that went into the buildings of this street alone was staggering. A skilled mason laid and set each one of those bricks. I am a fan of brick buildings. I like their clean look, and historical feel.
We stopped briefly, to drop off my things and to pick up her boyfriend. We went out for sushi (which was delicious), then took the L train (elevated train) down to Wrigleyville where the nights entertainment would be.
After walking a few blocks, we crowd surfed into a small theatre, and stepped into the queue to show our tickets. We had to pass scrutiny of the bouncers and collect our wristbands, before finally climbing up the wide stairs into the balcony to get to our seats. It was a great show. Imagine seeing a young James Brown as the front man of a young Blues Brothers band. Now they are not playing at that elite level yet, but the band was tight, and carried a fat sound. The front man had moves, timing, one hell of a voice, and had the crowd licking the tips of his fingers (if he wanted). The music they played was a mixture of originals and some covers, played and sung with a soulful funk that had us all on our feet.
It was a great night, and it was fun to catch some live music from a tight Chicago band. I would go see JC Brooks and the Uptown Sound again.
The next morning I awoke to a very comfortable and quiet apartment. In the morning stillness, I sat in the kitchen, and admired the small green garden that my niece cared for in her back lot. I caught up on my journal, and read from Niehardt’s “Black Elk Speaks.” When my niece arose, she made breakfast for us, and I relished the relaxed freedom of Saturday morning. I enjoyed scrambled eggs on toast, fresh squeezed orange juice, and hot black coffee. Eating a relaxed breakfast on Saturday morning is one of my favorite pastimes in the world.
After breakfast, we ventured out into the cold, gray Chicago April. The wind blew steadily off Lake Michigan, and I was glad I had chosen to wear my woolen coat to combat the chill. We took the train downtown. I took polite glances at all of the riders. I kept wondering what was going on in their heads. Everyone who rides public transportation keeps their face fixed in a mask of introverted boredom. Nobody wants to look too long at anyone else. Nobody shows any emotion. Almost everyone keeps to themselves listening to their Ipod, staring off at a neutral point within the train car or out the window. It was though any outward showing of humanity would get them branded with a scarlet A (for Animated). There were a few conversations going on between friends, but nobody else said a word.
We started our day by walking over to Centennial Park. Centennial Park is home to the Cloud Statue, more commonly known as, “The Bean.” The bean is a photographer’s dream. It has a unique giant bean shape that has been highly polished to a mirror finish. The skewed reflections of people and cityscape it produces are interesting, and this statue makes everyone smile. Everyone likes the bean. As you might imagine, there are hundreds of happy photos taken there every day. Memories are made of this.
The flowerbeds of Centennial Park are beautiful. There were long rows of purple and cream tulips in healthy blooms. I enjoyed walking through the rows of flowers, appreciating the quiet oasis away from the sounds of the city.
My niece had free tickets to the Chicago History Museum, and so we went back the subway, which took us closer, but we still ended up walking five blocks or so. When my travel companions ask if I‘d like to go to a museum, I‘m usually excited. I like the idea of collecting history, and seeing old objects, and scenes from the past. However, when I start walking around the knick-knacks of history, I kind of feel a little let down, a little bored, and often stifling a long yawn. The stuffy air of the museum started to put me to sleep, and my feet felt as though they were weighed down with concrete blocks. After walking through the exhibits for a while, I found my niece sitting down on a bench and I happily joined her. I was beat.
“It feels good to sit down,” she said. I agreed. “How do you feel about deep dish pizza?” I asked her. “That sounds amazing,” she replied. One of my objectives for this trip was to get a true Chicago deep-dish pizza. I didn’t particularly care where I got it from, but I wanted a legitimate pizza. We left the museum, and went to find a good pizza joint.
After wandering around Old Town, we still hadn’t found a place that served deep dish. Finally, she called her boyfriend and got directions to Gino’s East. It was eight blocks away, almost back down town. We laughed, and started on another long walk. We were getting our exercise in for the day, that was for sure.
Gino’s East is one of the more famous deep-dish pizza joints in Chicago. I was glad I was going there, so I would get this pizza straight from the source. Our timing was good, and we had a table after only a brief wait. The ambiance of Gino’s was fun. It was dark, very spacious, and loud. The dull roar of the restaurant was raucous with stories, punch lines, laughter and music. On almost every surface of the walls, seats, tables, and picture frames, were the signatures of past diners. Gino’s encourages graffiti, but you have to bring your own marking device. White was the most popular ink, as most of the furniture is painted black at Gino’s.
We ordered our pizza. Deep dish pizza takes about forty minutes to an hour to bake. We were tired from walking all day, and thirsty. We ordered some beers and settled into our seats. That first sip is always amazing after a long day. It was Ed Rickett’s of Steinbeck fame who said, “The first glass is for thirst, the second for taste.”
It had been awhile since I had hung out with my niece and I enjoyed a thorough conversation with her flitting among the subjects like a bumblebee amongst the dandelions. We chatted of family, dogs, memories, Rex (her brother, my nephew), life, relationships, drugs, Chicago, and what else, I forget.
The pizza was as good as I hoped it would be. If you have a chance to try a true Chicago deep-dish pizza, do not hesitate. I am always amazed at the versatility of pizza. I have traveled throughout the U.S. and I am always amazed at the regional differences in the pizza that people make. In New York, the slices are huge and you fold them to eat them. In Chicago, it is deep-dish, that looks a lot like a pie. In Minnesota, they have a fetish for thin crust, and it is delicious. In Ohio, you order the number of slices you want, and they are square, thin and very crunchy. In California, they emphasize fresh ingredients with a medium thickness to their crust. I could go on, but you get my point. No matter what style of the pizza, I have enjoyed them all.
We finished our beers and I paid the bill. I was tipsy at this point and felt great. What a wonderful way to finish off my day in Chicago. My niece hailed a cab, and we rode back to her apartment. I had to catch my train back north to Kenosha. She dropped me off at the train station, and it wasn’t long before I climbed aboard and sat down. I was exhausted. I rested my head against the window glass as so many riders have before. I shut my eyes, and smiled.
What a great weekend.