Friday, May 4, 2018

Blowin' Out to the Windy City

"Why do they call it the Boston Marathon? Only the last two miles are actually in Boston!"

As we headed from our home in Newton to Logan Airport, our cab driver raised a good question. I didn't have a good answer. Would people still flock to the Hub of the Universe, I wondered, if the 26.2-mile race were called the Race That Starts in Hopkinton, Progresses Through Several Towns and Ends in Boston?

Still, his gruff yet comical personality was a comfort as we made our way to our American Airlines flight to Chicago. He was the same cabbie we'd had during 2017's April vacation, when we flew to Florida. Those several days at Universal Orlando were a blast, so I figured this guy's presence was a good omen for our trip to the Windy City.

Things went smoothly through security, with the exception of a TSA agent yelling at Beth for leaving the iPad in her backpack. Owen was excited to be flying -- he loves planes, trains and, well that's it. Flight 1240 to Chicago took off promptly. We were aboard a 737, Owen informed me, with CFM engines. I don't know what those are but I'm glad that he does.

Before boarding our noon flight I scarfed down a chicken pesto panini from UFood Grill. It tasted like the best sandwich in the best dream, which is to say it tasted like nothing, because your taste buds sleep while you're dreaming. They work hard during daylight hours sampling donette gems, Thin Mints-flavored iced mocha latte cappucino espressos, McDLT's, fruit roll-ups, Nutter Butters and tapioca pudding. Oh, and Cheez Doodles (come on, taste buds don't lie).

During the flight Beth was reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. I wondered why, after reading two of his books (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Zeitoun) had I never realized that this acclaimed author's high-school nickname must have been Keggers?

I dozed off a bit during the flight, and for some reason the names and faces of Red Sox down through history swam through my head. Danny Cater, who played for the Sox for just two seasons, and not exactly All-Star seasons, somehow stuck with me.

I woke up and looked down the aisle -- a long view from where I was sitting -- and saw that it was "hot towel time" in first class. The flight crew was distributing them with tongs off a tray. They looked like large white egg rolls. "Big deal," I thought. "When I go to Supercuts they wipe my head and neck with a warm towel. I don't even have to actually TOUCH the towel!"

1:03 was snack time. Biscoff, Europe's Favorite Cookie with Coffee.

After my delicious snack I watched a show on the TV hanging above the row of seats in front of me. It was called "How I Met Rosie Perez," I think.

One of the flight attendants gave the kid sitting in front of me an American Airlines wings pin. It looked metal, and pretty nice. A few years ago on a flight an attendant gave me a small bag of plastic ones for Owen. On my first flight, when I was 12, the fight attendant (they were actually stewardesses back then) asked me if I wanted a pin. I didn't hear her -- I guess I had airline headphones on -- so she had to ask me a second time. She sounded a bit annoyed by then. I took them. Wish I still had them.

From O'Hare we rode a CTA train 17 stops. I wondered why the Chicago Transit Authority's Blue line has two stops named Harlem? OK, I just looked it up: one is on the O'Hare branch, the other on the Forest Park branch, and both are on Harlem Avenue. For part of the trip, the train travels in the median area of highway Interstate 90, which in the Bay State we call the Mass Pike.

There were a LOT of ghost signs and cool old buildings along our route into the city. I took this as another good omen, and took advantage of these photo ops during our stay.

We arrived at our hotel around 3:30. The Alise Chicago is located in a former office building where Al Capone's dentist plied his trade. We were on the 9th floor, giving us a great view out the window of this amazing Muddy Waters mural:

The weather was cold, but we warmed up our first night with a deep dish pie from Pizano's Pizza & Pasta. We figured we couldn't go wrong with a place run by the son of the founder of Pizzeria Uno. The pizza and cheesy garlic bread were delicious, but didn't set well with my digestive tract the next day.

After dinner we rode the Pink line train to the Willis Tower (formerly the Sears Tower). We cruised quickly up to the 103rd floor and soaked up the amazing 360-degree views of the city at night. We even ventured out on to the Ledge, a clear glass overhang 1,353 feet above the streets of Chicago.

While I look relatively composed in this photo, I was more freaked out by the Ledge than I thought I would be. Something about being able to look down a quarter of a mile and see where I would splat brought out my primal survival instinct. My son, Owen, wasn't too thrilled with this attraction, but my daughter, Amelia, and my wife, Beth, thought it was great. I felt a bit dizzy and disoriented for 15-20 minutes afterward.

The next morning, my equilibrium restored, we ate breakfast in the hotel restaurant. Realizing that the thick cheese from the previous night's deep dish pizza was wreaking havoc in my gut, I opted for the Greek yogurt, granola and fruit. I like regular yogurt, so I figured the Greek variety would be good for me. After a few spoonfuls, however, I realized that Greek yogurt is glorified sour cream, and not good for my sour tummy.

Lesson learned.

Our big outing for our first full day in Chicago was the Shedd Aquarium. We saw beluga whales, penguins, small sharks, sea turtles, otters and much more. Nothing, however, freaked me out more than the Japanese Giant Spider Crab.

Before heading back to our hotel, we checked out what we, and I'm guessing most people, call The Bean. Located in Millennium Park, just two blocks from our hotel, the stainless steel sculpture is officially known as Cloud Gate. It's the ultimate selfie destination for visitors and residents alike. It's hard not to get caught up in looking at yourself, taking pictures and checking out the city's reflection.

After returning to the hotel, I hung out for a bit, then set out on a walkabout to shoot photos for my other blog. Check out "Toddling Around Chicago" for photos and descriptions from that jaunt, as well as other elements of the backside of Chicago I shot during our vacation.

Back in the hotel lobby, I chatted with a woman who, along with three guys who'd just gone up in the elevator, was lugging lots of electronic equipment. I asked her what their deal was. She said they were in town shooting follow-ups for "Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives," a Food Network show that I watch pretty regularly. I asked her if the host, Guy Fieri, was in the hotel. She said nope. Oh well.

That night we ate at a restaurant I'd first heard of on Food Network: Little Goat Diner. Owned and run by Stephanie Izard (a winner of Bravo's "Top Chef"), the restaurant is, as Beth said, a super-duper hipster joint. Old-timey photo booth by the front door. Bearded waiter with fingernail polish. Retro-chic wallpaper. Modern versions of classic comfort food. I had the Smoked Fried 1/2 chicken with tangy slaw and the most heavenly biscuit I've ever had in my life. We all loved our food.

As we walked from the train to the restaurant I felt like I was in NYC's Meatpacking District. Turns out that feeling wasn't far from off the mark. "Fulton Market, that sketchy old smelly neighborhood that (along with the Union Stockyards to the south) gave Chicago its big shoulders, that Near West Side meatpacking district that backed Carl Sandburg's claim to Chicago as 'hog butcher for the world,' that food-processing antiquity that outlasted the Stockyards themselves by 45 years, is a ghost town. That Fulton Market is dead. Or about to be." So says Christopher Borrelli in this April 2017 Chicago Tribune article. And what has filled the void left by the meatpacking companies and butcheries of old? You know the answer.

"What flourishes among its weeds and dark windows is Fulton Market the Foodie Wonderland, an overpopulated place cohabitating with Fulton Market the Tech Metropolis. Restaurants, however, led the invasion: Paul Kahan's Publican in 2008, then Grant Achatz's Next in 2011 opened on Fulton Market, the street. Two blocks away, Randolph Street was already a draw with Blackbird and Avec. When first-generation restaurants like Marche and Red Light closed, Stephanie Izard stepped in with Girl & the Goat, launching a second wave."

I love being right.

The next day we took a cab to the amazing Museum of Science and Industry, where I learned a LOT about farming combines, from headers to the feeder house, threshing to separation, cleaning to grain handling. That was enough for me!

Kidding. The most amazing part for me was the U-505 German submarine, which the U.S. Navy sunk off the west coast of Africa during WWII. After being transferred to Chicago the sub sat on the museum's grounds for 50 years before it was cleaned up, dropped in a gigantic hole, and a museum addition was built around it.

I wanted to go in, but we had to buy tickets for a specific time later on in the day, and nobody else wanted to do that. Among the items confiscated from the sub were 87 record albums. Wonder if there were any Wagner albums?

The museum also featured an amazing model train set-up, a full-size 727 airplane hanging from the ceiling and a mirror maze, among many other great exhibits.

For lunch I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

We ate dinner that night at the Exchequer Pub, a standard-issue restaurant with a great back story: "226 South Wabash Avenue has historically been occupied by restaurants," per the restaurant's web site. "The first restaurant was established at the location during the roaring ’20s. It was called the 226 Club. Rumor has it that the restaurant was a 'speak-easy' in those days, patronized by none other than Al Capone. After all, Big Al lived just a few blocks south."

Everything in this town comes back to Scarface.

The next day, our "warm" day at 45 degrees, we took a 90-minute river cruise operated by the Chicago Architecture Foundation. I plan to post a complete write-up of this tour on my Backside of America blog, but I'll share a few details and photos here.

This is the Jewelers Building, which was built in 1926 with, get this, high-rise parking! Yes, there were car elevators that allowed tenants to "bring their cars right up to their floor and park in front of their suite," according to one of the articles available at this link. I've never heard of such a feature. I find it absolutely fascinating. Of course there's a Scarface connection: this is "a landmarked riverfront tower where Al Capone was once said to run a speakeasy in the building's rooftop dome," according to the main article at that link.

The building in the center of this shot is the headquarters of Joseph Cacciatore & Co. Real Estate. The mural caught my eye first. It was painted by French duo Ella & Pitr, according to the realty company's Facebook page. Known as "The Native American Lost in Chicago...Dreamin'," the mural is one of two the artists have completed in Chicago.

My daughter, with her young eyes, was able to tell me that the classic water tank on the roof read "Cacciatore." If not for her, I probably wouldn't have been able to determine much about this site.

Check my blog, The Backside of America, in the near future for more photos and words about our river tour.

After the cruise we ate lunch at Chicago's outpost of Elephant & Castle, a British-style pub and restaurant. I had the bangers and mash, natch, along with a Fuller's London Pride, all of which was quite tasty.

After getting the kids settled into our hotel room again, Beth and I set out for The Rookery, a very cool building with a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed atrium. I mentioned this building and featured photos at my above-mentioned Backside post.

We had dinner that night at one of Lou Malnati's 52 locations. The restaurant, where you order your pizza when you walk in the door and then wait for a table, was nothing fancy, but it had great pictures of local celebs on the walls: Bears coach Mike Ditka, Bears players Mike Singletary and Walter Payton (R.I.P.), Jane Byrne (R.I.P.), the first female mayor of Chicago, and Jerry Krause (R.I.P.), the general manager during the Bulls' mid-1980's heyday.

Our Jim Breuer-esque waiter took a shine to Amelia, asking her, in a loud, VERY expressive voice, whether she wanted pizza in addition to the pasta she'd ordered. He also brought her an Arnold Palmer, for no particular reason, and proceeded to insist that she would LOVE it! She didn't.

We wrapped up that night at The Bean.

The next morning, for the second day in a row, we had muffins from the sole Chicago outlet of Magnolia Bakery, then packed our things and headed to the train. We rode on a mostly empty Blue line train back to the airport. We had a smooth transition to the plane, where I sat by myself in a window seat, while Beth and the kids filled a row on the other side of the aisle. We arrived home around 3:30 that afternoon, content in an entertaining and fulfilling vacation.

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