Sunday, October 04, 2009

Chicago Summer's End

Chicago Summer's End: (Photos on Smugmug.) I may have to make Labor Day weekend in Chicago an annual event. I love Chicago. What could be more awesome than to be trolling up and down the lakeshore past restaurants and parks and museums and beaches and Wrigleyville in the soft, waning summer days? Nothing immediately comes to mind.

**Travel rant warning! Skip ahead about 4 paragraphs if you want to skip it. **

Another awesome thing about Chicago: it's four and a half hours by train from Ann Arbor. For me, that's a fifteen minute drive to the free parking at the train station, climb on board without paying to check my bags, ride the rails to Union Station in Chicago, grab a cab to my hotel (usually 5-10 minutes, less than $10). That's it. On the train you have ample leg room, no seatbelts, you can leave your seat for the bathroom or the snack car anytime you want, your gadgets can be powered up and used at all times. You can arrive 10 seconds before the train leaves if you want. If you miss your train, they just put you on the next one -- no worries.

Now contrast that with the experience of flying to Chicago. A 35 minute drive to a $9/day airport lot, arriving an hour early just in case. Hop the parking shuttle to the terminal. Pay to check your bags. Show your credentials to a security goon. Remove laptop and liquids from your carry-on. Strip off your shoes and belt and tuck any other metal into your carry-on. Stand around in your socks with your pants falling down because the idiots in front of you waited until they were to the metal detector before they started removing their jewelry and the shoes of their kids. Pray to God you didn't forget anything that would make the alarm go off. Re-dress and reverse everything you just did on the other side. If you're lucky you now get to sit around for a half-hour until your plane boards. Queue up as quickly as possible to get on the plane or else you'll be caught without an overhead bin for your carry-on. Squeeze into a seat with no legroom and don't you bloody move until you are permitted to under penalty of TSA strip search. Offer a silent pledge of your soul to not get caught sitting on the tarmac for hours. Get a plastic cup with 4 ozs of ice and 1 oz of Diet Coke. You have about a 10 minute window to use the tiny restroom should you need to, unfortunately all hundred or so passengers have the same window. Sit down and stay put again for landing. Reiterate the offer of your soul to the airline gods to get to the gate without an incident. Sit in baggage claim for a half hour getting hypnotized by the empty carousel. Take a $60, 45-minute cab ride from O'Hare to your hotel.

Flying saves no time, cost many hundreds more, and crushes your soul. Comparisons like this just really make me seethe at the air travel industry and bureaucracy. If we had high-speed (say 300 mph) cross-country rail service the airlines would be out of business and airports would become ghost towns.

I stayed at the Palmer House Hilton in the Loop, just a block from the Art Institute/Millennium Park/Grant Park and two blocks from the lakeshore. The Palmer House is the sort of place anyone who is anyone would stay in Chicago...if it was 1930. The lobby is amazingly beautiful -- baroque reliefs, dark wood trim, glistening chandeliers, ceilings fifty feet high -- and if you get a renovated room, it will have very tasteful d‚cor. But it is still an old, old building; normal tone conversations in the next room are crystal clear.

The pretense of high luxury breaks down quickly. The service policies are cynical. I got in about Noon and was told that a room was ready but it would cost me $20 if I wanted to check in before 1pm. The room is ready, but you are giving me the choice of waiting around an hour to enter it, or paying you $20? That's not hospitality, that's a shakedown. I waited the hour. And of course, as is the case in hotels everywhere these days, you are nickeled and dimed for everything: health club access, service charges, and, worst of all, internet connection. Internet access is available via wi-fi in the lobby and wired in your room. For $15 a day. Or you can use the terminals in the business center for .60 cents a minute (a penny a second). I don't know how to describe charges like that as anything other than cynical. I was going to cough up the $15 one day but the plug on the cable in my room was damaged and it couldn't hold a connection. I went down the desk the next day to have the charge removed, which was done immediately, but my request for them to send someone up to replace my cable was ignored, so I spent the weekend off-line.

My advice is to skip the Palmer House. It is not expensive and the combination of low price and the luxury presentation seems to make it a bargain, but the fa‡ade crumbles quickly. There are better hotels in the price range.

***End travel rant.***

But all this is blather. I should be talking about the coolness that is Chicago.

As is the case in most of my city visits, I spend the first afternoon/evening re-familiarizing myself with the lay of the land. On my feet I headed north on State from the Palmer House, passing Portillo's -- a tourist oriented spot famous for its Chicago dogs and Italian beefs.

A brief aside about food. There are three forms of paradigmatic food in Chicago: Chicago-style deep dish, Chicago dogs, and Italian beef sandwiches. Let's look at them in turn, from most to least famous.

  1. Chicago style deep dish pizza was invented in the 1940s at Pizzeria Uno. (In the 1980s Uno was franchised, including a branch in Ann Arbor where I spent most of my student years tending bar.) There have been many imitators over the years, but as it stands right now there are three other competitors for loyalists and a fourth that is breaking some new ground. The three other killer trad deep-dish spots are Giordano's, Gino's East, and Lou Malnati's. If you ask folks around town where to go to get the best pie, you will usually get one of two answers: Gino's East or Lou Malnati's (often just called "Lou's"). In my experience you will hear Lou's most often, at least at the moment.

    All of these pizzas are of the same style. The crust is like pie crust, the vegetables are fresh and cut in thick chunks, and the sauce -- which is what makes these pizzas to my senses -- is sweet and tangy and hits the palate with a real wallop.

    The new ground is being broken at Chicago Pizza and Oven Grinder Company where they use basically the same ingredients but form the pizza into a pot pie rather than a big honkin' deep dish. It has a growing following of folks who are truly in the know, but it's away from the Loop/Mag Mile/Rush street tourist centers and it's a bit of a hoof from the closest El stop.

  2. Chicago dogs, sometimes erroneously called "red hots", require detailed construction. The dog itself must be all beef (style points for Vienna Beef), and it must be boiled or steamed, not grilled. It must sit in a poppy-seed bun, which is also steamed. From there you add mustard, relish, chopped onions, as you would to any dog. Next you place on top two tomato wedges, a kosher dill quarter spear, and a couple of chili peppers, although in the context of a Chicago dog, they are always referred to as "sport peppers". Lastly, you add a dash of celery salt.

    There are hot dog vendors everywhere you look in Chicago. The most famous spot is Hot Doug's which is off the beaten tourist tracks. In the heart of Chicago, Portillo's is the place or perhaps Jim's Original if you are south of the main activity centers (it's right near the University of Chicago).

  3. Italian Beef sandwiches are the simplest of the three. From the description it can sound like little more than a beef sub, but that's very, very wrong. An Italian Beef, formerly called a "Dago Beef" before we became politically correct, starts with sliced beef that has been wet roasted in a juice or broth that contains various spices but at a minimum, oregano and garlic. The beef ends up about medium rare and is served on a sub roll with the cooking liquid poured right on top. It's like a French dip with the dip poured on it already, but the dip itself is succulently spiced. It is topped with sweet peppers and served. Simplicity itself, but when the beef is top quality and just barely approaching medium-rare, your tongue will unfold like a flower with each bite. I love these things.

    There is little consensus on where to get the best Italian Beef. Portillo's comes up again, and in fact, many places where you can get a good Chicago dog also serve a good Italian beef. Interestingly, I have found that the Italian Beef served at the little snack shop at the end of Navy Pier does a fair job.

OK, so that aside wasn't very brief, and probably not very relevant since I didn't eat at Portillo's; it was too busy. Nor did I have any of the three paradigm foods during my visit. But it is a cool thing about Chicago so any excuse will do.

Rather than Portillo's I stopped to eat at The Wit. The Wit is a new (or newly renovated) Hilton Doubletree hotel that by some fluke has become a hipster hot spot. Actually, it's not a fluke. It's partly because of the boutique-ish design of the place, but mostly because of the awesome rooftop lounge, with its big comfy chairs and terrific city views. The food was only decent but I can see where it would be quite the scene from happy hour through late nights. Conveniently, The Wit is a Hilton property so I can definitely put it on my short list for spots to stay next time (I'm a Hilton Honors program devotee). Not sure how I feel about the scenesters, though. They might end up annoying me after a while.

From there I trod north toward Rush Street, an area that comes alive at night with clubs and bars and open air restaurants and the fun flows through the streets. Alas, it was only late afternoon and I lose more and more interest in such fashionable locales with each passing year, so I curled over to Michigan Ave and headed back south through the glitter of the Magnificent Mile all the way south to Millennium Park.

I could spend an entire day in Millennium Park. It is the focal public area of Chicago and contains two of the most awesome pieces of city sculpture you will find anywhere. First, the Crown Fountain -- two 50-foot tall obelisks facing each other, with water cascading down them into makeshift waterfalls for kids to splash around in. What really makes it special are the faces rear-projected on the obelisks. They are just faces of average Chicagoans animated through some subtle changes of expression and occasionally pursing their lips and spewing a stream of water from their mouths. I defy anybody not to smile at the sight of this.

Second is the Bean, or Cloud Gate -- designed to look like an enormous drop of liquid mercury. Its shape and position end up creating fascinating, fun-house style views of both yourself and the skyline surrounding you. I love how it's intended to use the skyline as part of the artistic effect. I defy anybody not to stop and stare and take some snapshots at the sight of this.

Less arresting but more intriguing is the Pritzker Pavilion. It is essentially a steel, mutated clam shell stage, designed for concerts and other events. Beyond the seating is an expansive lawn and the whole area is covered by a lattice-work trellis that has the curious effect of placing gently-curved gridlines across the skyline for a view that causes your eye to focus more closely on sections of the skyline, like tightening up the aperture of your camera.

I strolled a bit and enjoyed the park, and people's reaction to it, then settled into the Park Grill (the restaurant inside the Park itself) for dinner as the sun was dropping. There are indoor and outdoor portions to the Park Grill. The outdoor portion is somewhat raucous and serves mostly sandwiches and upscale pub grub. It's a fine place for socializing but they have a habit of turning the music up so loud your teeth vibrate. It's a good spot for a drink during a Cubs/White Sox game when they are in the hunt, but otherwise there are better options. Let's face it, the place is tourist central -- and it's reflected in the prices. Inside is more of a fine dining set up. I grabbed a seat at the inside bar and ordered up a reasonable dinner of duck and squash ravioli. Not bad -- a little bland, maybe. I probably should have stayed on the hunt for something more interesting to eat, but I was there, and it was getting on, and I was hungry.

Most importantly, I emerged from Millennium Park fully re-familiarized with Chicago.

The next day was devoted to cycling. One of the most jaw-droppingly cool things you can do in Chicago is bike along the lakeshore. (This is why it is important to visit in the warm months.) The Lakeshore bike (and jogging) path runs from Hyde Park down on the south side, north past the museum campus, on past Grant Park and the Art Institute, continues up to Navy Pier, keeps going to Lincoln Park and further north from there not quite reaching Loyola University. I would guess it's between fifteen and twenty miles, all of it along the lakeshore with the exception of a short stretch near Navy Pier.

On busy weekends it can seem like the entire city is out pedaling or jogging. I picked up a bike from Bike and Roll near Millennium Park and headed for points north. The first stop is Navy Pier. Navy Pier is touted as the single most popular tourist point in the nation. I'm sure by some definition it probably is. And it can seem like it on a busy weekend. There are about nine million things to do on Navy Pier -- all geared to tourists and all too expensive. There is the big Ferris wheel and hot air balloon rides if you're up for seeing the entire city in a glance. Food courts, restaurants, crap shops, an imitation Cirque du Soleil, beer garden, miniature golf, etc. The best bets here are the boat tours, especially the dinner cruises where you can check out the skyline at night or the fireworks shows every Friday and Saturday. The most interesting is almost certainly going to be the architecture cruise which follows the waterways inside the city with a narrated low-down on some of the more interesting buildings and city history.

For me, Navy Pier was just a convenient stop for an overpriced bottle of water before I pushed further north. Next stop was the North Avenue Beach. About a mile or so up from Navy Pier the beach broadens and turns into Chicago's miniature version of South Beach centered around a large building that contains the usual beach facilities -- restrooms, snack bar, etc. -- but also rents out beach volleyball courts and other summertime doo-dads. The second floor is given over to a somewhat rowdy beach bar called Castaways. This is party central in summertime Chicago; live music and soft sand. Lake Michigan is tolerably warm in late summer as long as you don't stay in too long, and the cream of Chicago's young adults are all out tanning and playing beach volleyball (rather seriously in some cases), I saw a couple of boot camp fitness classes going on. It was idyllic, only marred by the knowledge that these were summer's waning days.

Another brief push north took me through Lincoln Park proper and over to the Lincoln Park Zoo. It's on the small side, but it's a little gem provided you are happy with a pleasant stroll and not looking for a comprehensive wildlife experience. Heavy on primates, and a good selection of "big creatures" -- lions and tigers and bears... And, strangely, it's free admission. Yet more Chicago coolness.

North one last time and then off the lakeshore path down Addison to Wrigleyville. There is a reason everyone loves the Cubs and despite what you may have been told, it's not for the love of Wrigley Field. Having attended a game there (on a previous trip, the Cubs were on the road this time) I can say unequivocally that there is little to love about Wrigley Field. It is, like the Palmer House Hotel, a relic from a bygone era, and quite explicit evidence that the good old days weren't all that good. It is an uncomfortable experience to watch a game there, provided you can even see it as there are plenty of obstructed view seats. Its facilities fall far short of modern standards of service and, quite frankly, it can be smelly. The only reason to like it is sentiment, of which I have none. I would take a modern park any day -- modern stadiums have benefitted tremendously from the need to compete with sitting at home in a recliner with HD and Tivo.

But what no other park can match, as far as I know, is Wrigleyville. The area surrounding Wrigley field consists of sports bar after sports bar punctuated with some souvenir shops. (There is also an El stop right in the heart of things.) Many of the bars open up the windows and you end up with an entire neighborhood full of good timers casually following the game. I stopped for a late lunch in one of the pubs. Just a smattering of folks were around because the Cubs were out of town and out of the pennant race. Still, it was easy to see the neighborhood as the source of the special feelings everyone has for the Cubs, despite their century long drought.

With the afternoon running down, I sped back to the trail and aimed south, retracing my path, eventually passing Millennium Park and stopping at Grant Park for a quick dash through the Chicago Jazzfest. Unlike their Bluesfest, Jazzfest is not all that spectacular. They get a couple of name acts -- although I will allow that there are very few "name acts" in Jazz anymore -- but they mostly pepper the line-up with "serious" jazz musicians which means the audience will be marginal. I wandered around a bit but nothing caught my eye or ear, so I set to pedaling further south.

The next southerly stop is the museum campus, consisting of the Adler Planetarium, the Field Museum, and the Shedd Aquarium. I zipped around a bit but as it was getting late I decided to push on and leave the museums for tomorrow. Just south of the museums stands the imposing Soldier Field, home of the Bears, sitting quietly awaiting the start of the NFL season. I continued south a ways further. With time, you can go even further south, eventually reaching the Hyde Park/U of Chicago area, but I didn't get that far. The sun was making a run to the horizon and it was starting to get a bit on the chilly side, plus I had a half-hour ride left to get back to the bike rental shop. The ride north afforded magnificent views skyline with the oblique lighting from the setting sun. I dropped the bike off at dusk; happily tired having covered close to 25 miles.

In fact, I was so enamored of the active, lakeshore life that I did it again the next day. This time in my running shoes. I threw some swimming gear into my day pack, laced up my Nikes, and hit the lakeshore path north the next morning. I got two or three miles along when I encountered a tiny little beach plot that was fenced off from the path. Passing it at cycling speed the day before I didn't realize it was a dedicated dog beach. I thought I was having fun on the lakeshore, but there is nothing more joyous than a pooch jamboree in the surf. No tennis ball, stick, or Frisbee was left unretrieved.

I could have spent the whole morning watching the dogs, but I had some swimming to do. I turned back south eventually reaching a smallish beach just to the north of Navy Pier called Ohio Beach (it's roughly where Ohio St. intersects Lakeshore Drive). What's unique about Ohio Beach is that a few yards off shore it's about 5-6 feet deep and that depth extends along the shoreline bulwarks for what is probably a full mile. That makes it perfect for open water swim training, as evidenced by the triathletes swarming around in their wetsuits. Me, I only had my swimming trunks, but I figured I'd take a shot at trying to keep up.

Now, I am not a novice swimmer. I knock off a mile or so with regularity in the pool at my health club on a weekly basis, so this shouldn't be too bad right? Well it turns out open water swimming is a more than a little different from pool swimming. First off, it's a bit nippy. The water temp was about 68 which, if you are without a wetsuit, is not cold enough to drive you out, but just cold enough that you can't really "get used to it". It also requires an especially long time to warm up. And it turns out that Lake Michigan lacks the nice smooth surface of a pool that allows you to turn and breathe without inhaling water. I verified this on multiple occasions. It was a full twenty minutes into my swim before I finally found anything resembling a nice natural stroke. Once I felt like I was finally going smoothly, I looked to my right to see an old man in a wetsuit clipping along like a metronome, passing me as if I were a Yugo on I-94. Maybe I am a novice swimmer.

After a full 45 minutes of hard swimming I was back at Ohio Beach doing something more appropriate: laying in the last of the summer sun to dry off, looking up at the skyscrapers just across the street, lamenting not knowing when I would have this feeling again. Then back on my Nikes for the final mile and a half or so back to the Hilton to clean up.

To give my poor body a rest, I hopped a cab down to the museum campus. In all honesty, I find non-art museums uniformly unimpressive. This is especially true of science museums, which tend to be less informative, entertaining and current than a half hour special on the Science Channel. In Chicago, the non-art museums are four-fold; they are: The Shedd Aquarium, The Adler Planetarium, The Field Museum, and The Museum of Science and Industry. Planetariums can put on good shows, but I was tired enough that I was afraid I would fall asleep in the dark. I have twice been to the Science and Industry Museum, once as a child and once a few years ago. It is -- not to put too fine a point on it -- dull. My first choice was the Shedd Aquarium, where I have never been, but there was an enormous line to get in (and a line to get in the line to get in) that went out into the sidewalk and along the street. So I settled for the Field museum, a place I have been numerous times.

The Field Museum has general themes of natural history and archeology and what, in a more open-minded time, could be referred to as anthropology, although now I'm sure we'd call it cultural studies or some such tripe. There are regular top-quality exhibitions, usually around some historical theme. At the moment the exhibition was called "Pirates!" providing background and stories of real live swashbucklers. It looked good, but I can't offer a definitive judgment since it was sold out.

A problem many non-art museums have is one of political correctness. They simply can't touch on hot button issues and if their displays don't summate with declarations of fealty to progressive philosophy while being careful to provide lip service to the loyal opposition, they will find themselves in some fresh hell of popular grievance. In history museums this tends to manifest itself in breathless prose about the spiritual validity and moral quality of any failed, backwards culture that has ever existed. (Except Nazis; it is always safe to malign Nazis.) In science museums this manifests as extended lectures on global warming and extinction and pollution and how filthy and despicable human beings are. Case in point -- a current show at the Adler Planetarium is described as follows:

Since the beginning of time, the people of Africa have used their knowledge of the sky to meet their physical needs for survival, build their societies and shape their spiritual lives.
Skywatchers of Africa is a fascinating exploration of Africa and the cultural uses of the sky that developed over thousands of years. The show highlights the diversity of African cultural astronomy and celebrates our shared human experience.

Dark energy, extra-solar planets, supermassive black holes, 11 dimensions -- fuggetaboutit. Astronomy is about honoring primitive African culture.

I'm snarky about all this, but I certainly don't expect things to be otherwise. Museums respond to their incentives and their incentives are to be like this. That's just the world as it is. It makes one aspect of the Field Museum all the more interesting. You see, the Field Museum got its start during the times of Teddy Roosevelt, when conservation basically meant shooting and stuffing animals for display. And the Field Museum is loaded down with shot and stuffed animals -- many are probably left over from Teddy's day. I suspect the kids going through the museum rarely ask where they came from, probably assuming they are just some form of special effects. That's good, because God forbid some poor soccer mom has to explain how these critters came to be in the state they are in.

Among the holdovers are the stuffed and mounted bodies of the man-eating Lions of Tsavo, who killed and ate dozens of people and caused an extended shut down of British expansion into central Africa a little more than a century ago. The mountings are not that impressive anymore, due to the shrinkage that comes from taxidermy, but it's nice to see the progressive world is unable to steamroll absolutely everything in its way.

If you're up for a good adventure story I highly recommend the account the activities of these lions as written by the officer who eventually killed them after a number of harrowing attempts, The Man-Eaters of Tsavo, by J.H. Patterson.

Also, if you're up for more man-eater lore, the Field museum also has the stuffed carcass of the largest man-eating lion on record, the man-eater of Mfuwe. In the early '90s (1990s) this bad boy was snarfing up villagers in Zambia, who found that they couldn't do anything about it because hunting lions was restricted. Yes, that's right; the poor schlubs had to basically let this lion feed on them until some white Bwana came along who was willing to pony up for a hunting license to kill the thing. There's a post-modern man-eater story for ya.

With the museums closing, I strolled back to the Hilton, cutting through Grant Park and the Jazzfest once again, and once again hearing nothing all that compelling. It had been a full day. I slept deeply to say the least.

So I was down to my last day, with a train departure scheduled for 6 PM, I slept in and checked out at 11, leaving my bag with the bell hop, and performed one of my personal Chicago rituals: a breakfast smoothie from Jamba Juice before making my way to the Art Institute.

The big new thing at the Art Institute is the Modern Wing. Designed by famous architect Renzo Piano, it stands in stark contrast to the weighty, windowless behemoth to which it is attached. It is certainly modern -- all aluminum and glass and right angles. It is covered partially by huge green awnings to provide shade, but that also allow for skylighting. Inside the airy, natural light and pale wood trim provide a sense of openness and lightheartedness, again in contrast to the gravity of the old building. It's a very nice space, but it misses on counts of integration. It doesn't seem to enhance the experience of viewing the art in any way beyond providing a little more space, and compared to the exceedingly well integrated sculptures of Millennium Park just outside, it doesn't really add to the cohesiveness of the area. It's nice; nothing to be disappointed in, but not all that special.

Old or new, the Art Institute is one of my favorite places on Earth. I spent some time snapping photos of painting details, which has become an odd habit of mine. People give me weird looks but it's good in that it makes me regard the paintings more closely. I had previously paid little attention to In the Sea, by Arnold Bocklin, for instance. Looking closely at it I found the characters to be not just spectacularly creepy, but downright ugly, making me wonder whether he sought out ugly models to make a point. Anyway, you can check out Smugmug for the visuals. And yes, you can't visit the Art Institute with seeing La Grande Jatte.

Before I knew it, it was time to start home. I stopped for an early dinner at Pizano's Pizza and Pasta, a place I had never heard of before but was conveniently located in the Loop on my way to get my bags. Although I only grabbed an appetizer of sausage and peppers, the place is clearly a source of tastiness. They do have the expected deep dish pizza, but they also serve entrees that are prepared well over to the traditional Italian side of the spectrum featuring homemade pasta, rather than just reworked pub food with tomato sauce and garlic touches. Good place. Goes on the list for future visits.

The rest was simple. Grabs my bags, cab it back to Union Station, and a wonderfully uneventful train ride home. Thank you, Amtrak. I was in bed by midnight, vowing to make more frequent use of Chicago next summer.