Sunday, April 20, 2014

Winding Up the Windy City

The people of Chicago go a long way toward making up for the city of Chicago.

The city of Chicago is a place with predatory and rapacious parking laws, randomly aggressive wifi networks that will take over your iPad as you drive by whether you sign on or not, and a downtown street network that exists on at least three different levels, none of which connects to any of the others except in the most tangential and counter-intuitive of ways.  You can go a long way through downtown Chicago without hope of rescue or escape simply by making the mistake of being fifteen feet further up or down than you’d planned to be.

This last is something that nobody has thought to explain to Google Maps, incidentally.

And don’t even get me started on that casserole that the locals insist on calling a pizza.  It is a fine casserole – tasty, completely without nutritional merit, and filling, the way food like that ought to be.  As a casserole, I would recommend it to anyone.  But it takes most of a lifetime to prepare and how anyone not actively hallucinating would mistake it for a pizza is a complete mystery. 

Rule number one of pizzas: they are not cylindrical.

But the people who live in that city treated us very well on our visit there.  The Starbucks where we went to create backup accommodation plans gave me my chai for free because I was wearing my old fire company sweatshirt.  The hotel where we stayed upgraded us for free to a suite big enough to house four people in modest comfort and was very generous with blankets, pillows, snack foods and beverages.  And whoever screens the workers at the Chicago Transit Authority must look for people willing to cut tourists some slack.  They all answered our questions politely and accurately, and one of them even let us ride for one stop for free, which doesn’t sound like much but it was a long journey just to get to that point and we appreciated it.

Even the lady who booted our car was nice about it.

Last week was Spring Break for the girls, which of course means that staying put was out of the question. 

My brother once observed that one of the many ways you can divide people into two types is by how they relax.  “There are people who relax by doing something,” he said, “and there are people who relax by doing nothing.”  In our house, Kim and Lauren are clearly in the former camp, while Tabitha and I fall into the latter.  This means that Tabitha and I often end up being taken on adventures that we hadn’t really intended to have, but at least we have fun when we get there.

We couldn’t do a whole lot for break, though, since a) it wasn’t break for Kim or me, and b) I spent Tuesday having my wisdom tooth removed, which on the scale of Things You Can Get Right Up And Travel Afterwards ranks fairly low.  But neither is it anything requiring lengthy convalescence, and thanks to a quirk in scheduling in my compressed video class (the joy of having students at multiple high schools) I was not actually required to be in class on Wednesday or Friday.  Kim has so many excess hours in that she could probably take off the rest of the semester and still be owed money.  So we decided to go to Chicago.

Because Divergent, that’s why.

If you haven’t read the books or seen the first installment of the movies, Divergent is the new Hunger Games/Twilight/Harry Potter YA sensation.  It’s a dystopian sort of series that I’ve written about here before, shortly before I read the books.  They’re not bad.  Entertaining.  A bit on the thin side, but fast moving.  The author is clearly very young, based on the extraordinarily rapid recovery times her characters have after serious injuries (you notice that sort of thing when you’re middle aged), but it was worth reading.  And it’s set in Chicago.  We had several places from the book on our list of things to see, and we got to a few of them.

Traveling is a lot more complicated than it used to be for us, in part because we now have nine chickens in our living room rather than the seven we had the previous week and the zero we had the week before that.  Chickens don’t take care of themselves very well.  Fortunately we had a friend willing to take them for a few days, so Lauren and I packed them up and drove them over to the other side of town, where they served as a mini-zoo for our friend, her daughter, and several of her friends’ kids.  They seem to have thrived.  The cats and rabbits we could just load up with food.

And we were off, bright and early Thursday afternoon.  Or so.

We stopped for lunch at IKEA, because that’s how we roll.  And because Swedish meatballs are noncrunchy enough even for someone recently down one wisdom tooth.  And because we had a return to make, as one of the projects Kim has been working on in her abundant spare time turned out to be half an inch smaller than the piece IKEA had sold her a month earlier.  So it was a good place to stop, for a whole lot of reasons.

We got to Chicago and found a Starbucks (which is about as hard as you think it would be), parked in the lot across the street, and found a hotel online.  Then we paid off the parking authority who had booted our car and promptly spent the next eternity exploring the Nine Levels of Wacker Drive, which Dante would have written about had he had the time and a more sarcastic style.

But we found our hotel – a 1920s-vintage skyscraper right at Michigan and Wacker – and got our stuff settled in before heading out to see the place.

The first thing we found was Millennium Park, which has more than its share of public art.  We were there to see the Bean, as it is called in Divergent (it’s not called that in real life, not yet, but it will be), but first we stumbled into this:

If you can’t tell, those are actually fountains.  Water cascades down the sides, and you can walk into the pool between them if you want – it’s only an inch or so deep.  The faces change over time.  There are screens beneath the glass bricks, and sometimes the two faces seem to be sharing something with each other that only three-story cascading public artwork faces could possibly understand.  Also, sometimes a jet comes out right about mouth level that makes them look like they’re spitting.  It’s moments like that that let you know that the artist took some time to consider the audience, and you have to appreciate that.

These pictures actually come from the next day, when we went back.  They’re much more dramatic things at night.

And eventually we found the Bean.

It’s pretty much what it looks like, only when you get closer it becomes one of those things you can play with endlessly.  We never saw the place without a crowd, which is rare for public art.  So three cheers for the Bean, I say.

After our first visit to the park we wandered through the Loop and found Geno’s East, where Tabitha and I split a casserole while Kim and Lauren tried other things.  There was hockey on as well, as the playoffs have started and the local team was in.  I sat facing the only screen that had my Flyers on (they got absolutely curb-stomped), but the Blackhawks seemed to be holding up their end while we were there.  Apparently they lost later.  Oh well.

We wandered back to our hotel and cashed it in for the night. 

Our next day’s plans were pretty basic.  We went go back to Millennium Park to take some photos.  And then we wanted to go to the Field Museum.

This took longer than we expected.

From Millennium Park we walked across a serpentine bridge over a vastly busy road, except that the bridge only let you cross so far because apparently the other end is being turned into the World Of Styrofoam.  Workers were fanned out across a four-acre plot hoisting blocks of Styrofoam the size of sheet-rock and a foot thick, and then doing, well, something with them.  It seemed to involve wrapping them in tarps to create landscapes.  Eventually there will be a bouncy palace, I’d imagine.

But this got us no closer to the Field Museum.

So we started walking, all the while looking for either a bus or a cab.  Neither came.  We kept walking.  We kept looking.  The tides came in.  The tides went out.  Small children grew up, loved, moved away, wrote memoirs, returned for visits.  We kept walking.

Eventually we found a bus whose driver said we were only one stop away, and he’d take us that far for free.  We were grateful.

The Field Museum is worth it, by the way.  It’s a vast clattering shell of a building stuffed to the rafters with things you can’t even imagine and organized according to whim.

Right when you get in you come face to face with this:

And the day we were there, also this:

We liked the dinosaurs so much we found a whole other hall full of them and spent some time there. 

It was at the midpoint of a long exhibit on the evolution of life on Earth, one that started with the creation of the planet and ended with the hockey game the previous evening.  Museum designers are getting really good at that sort of narrative these days.  We had a good time.

We also hit the Egyptology exhibit, which had all sorts of actual mummies and related gear.  We found a Mammals of Asia hall that let Lauren stare in goggle-eyed wonder at pandas.  There were several halls dedicated to gems – one just for jade, that Tabitha and I sped through, and another on all sorts of gems.

And then there was a gift shop, which was suitably immense.

It was enough to tire out a body.

We did eventually find a bus back to our hotel – another fairly lengthy search, but one that ended happily.  After a short rest, we headed back out to eat dinner.  And having already done the Required Chicago Meal, we opted instead for basic decent food that could accommodate all of our various food needs (no nuts, not much wheat, and non-crunchy options available).  We ended up at the Houlihan’s right above the parking garage where we’d stashed the car.  I haven’t been in one of those since the 80s, and they kept the soundtrack carefully preserved for when I’d come back apparently, a fact that irritated our waitress no end.  Our waitress was clearly having a great deal of fun with us, and so we had fun with her as well.  It was a good time.

We then decided that it was too cold (39 degrees) and windy to brave Navy Pier for the various Divergent-related sites there, so instead we went down to the station and got on the El, which is also heavily featured in Divergent but has the basic advantage of being enclosed and out of the wind.

It took us some time to get all the arrangements made, and the CTA guy there was astonishingly patient explaining the various things we’d have to do in order to pay for our rides (the machines were new and apparently temperamental) and stay on the Loop without heading off into the vast reaches of the outer city.  We had a good time riding along, being Dauntless, and then we went back to the hotel.

The next morning we had breakfast, checked out, and then spent an hour or so wandering along the Miracle Mile, a section of Michigan Avenue dedicated to separating you from your cash as quickly as possible.  We also enjoyed walking around the Tribune Building, which has embedded in it stones from all over the world, from both famous buildings and general areas, each with a little sign identifying it.

And then we very carefully found our way out of town.

But not home!

We had a lovely Easter dinner with Kim’s side of the family, an evening full of food and good people, and then we went home.  And then I went back out and retrieved the chickens.  Then I went home for good.

It’s nice to visit places and people.

It’s nice to be home.


KimK said...

Whew! That was a lot of "and then"s. No wonder we were all feeling quiet today.

vince said...

I lived in Chicago for a very short time as a child, and used to visit it with some frequency. Haven't been there in years, though.

Unknown said...

Whew! I'm tired reading this! It looks like you had a great time.
BTW, Issam transformed me from a relax=doing to relax=doing not much type of girl.