Friday, October 22, 2010

Windy City, Windy Blog - The End

Missed the beginning? Where have you been? Parts One, Two, Three and Four are HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE. Even if you haven't read them, make me happy and say that you did.

(Notice how the links have been helpfully coded by highlighting the number of letters matching the order of installments - one letter for Part One, two letters for Part Two, and so on? That's the kind of helpful superfluous flummery you can always expect here at Suldog!)

Tiles at Grand on the Red Line subway. See the Chicago skyline?

Under the El at Addison.
"Why?", you ask.
I reply, "Why not?"


Our last full day in Chicago was mostly spent exploring one of the best museums in existence.

The Museum Of Science & Industry

We both grew up having visited Boston's Museum Of Science many times. We enjoyed it. However, after having seen Chicago's Museum Of Science & Industry, we both agreed that it made Boston's place look like a high school science fair.

(OK, let me soften that a bit. Boston's Museum Of Science isn't horrible. Our major complaint with it is the state of disrepair we found it in when last we visited it, some five years ago. Many of the interactive exhibits either didn't work or worked in a frustratingly slow manner. Had we been kids, we would have been turned off of science completely and begged our parents to take us to a movie. When the place is fully functioning, it's pretty damned good. Still, Chicago's place is better.)

My good friend, former bandmate, and former Chicago resident, Sean Flaherty, when I asked him about what to do in Chicago, said that The Museum Of Science & Industry was a must. Sean does impressions of bowling pins and neon signs, so we take his recommendations seriously.

(It's true. He does a magnificent vocal imitation of a bowling ball traveling down the lane and picking off the seven pin for a spare. He also is spot on when doing his impression of a huge neon chicken which at one time graced the front of a restaurant in Boston.

See the chicken in action HERE!

The chicken would wave its left wing, in a come hither gesture, beckoning you to enter the restaurant and devour its relatives. Sean can mimic the exact timing and nuance of that chicken. Unfortunately, the restaurant went out of business long ago, and the sign no longer exists, so the only people who understand what in hell he's doing when he imitates the chicken are other psychotic old fogies like me.)

Since the museum is not easily accessible via the El, at least on a rainy day when we didn't feel like walking a few blocks, we took a cab. The route taken passed by Soldier Field, home of the Chicago Bears, so we got to see that. Also, even though Chicago is on Lake Michigan, we hadn't really seen much of that huge body of water, and the ride was mostly along the lake shore, so that was a plus.

The place is ginormous.

(That's a scientific term, meaning large.)

Even though it is huge, it is easily navigable. That's because, unlike the Art Institute Of Chicago, the layout makes sense. Also, being scientists and all, they've done something entirely logical. Each staircase is color-coded. In that way, directions are easy to understand ("Take the red staircase to Level 2".)

Exhibits? Too many to mention them all, but I'll talk about three we especially liked.

Through January 23rd of 2011, there is an exhibit showcasing Jim Henson's creative genius. Films, paintings, cartoons, actual muppets in glass cases, and a puppet show, seductively draw you in and put into perspective the enormity of his talent. It's a separate admission, but well worth it. We spent a good hour or so exploring the artifacts he left behind.

The Coal Mine (Hi, Ray!) is a fantastic journey down into a working coal mine. Well, of course, it's only simulated, but damned if it didn't seem as though we had gone down into the bowels of the earth and traversed a few miles of shafts and whatnot. Quite a good bit of trickery, this exhibit is highly-educational, and it was especially interesting at the time of our visit as the Chilean coal miners had just been rescued the night before.

And we also enjoyed The Zephyr.

This is the actual train that broke a land-speed record in the early twentieth century, retrofitted for a recreation of that ride, guided by museum workers, with good special effects and endearingly corny ones, too.

This mule appears at one point, and tells you all about the trip from his perspective. The cool thing about our time at the museum was that it was a relatively uncrowded weekday. When we took the tour of the Zephyr, we were the only people taking it - us, and two tour guides. So, we sat and watched this cool animatronic mule all by ourselves, with no jaded modern children to ruin it via saying, "That's not real!" We appreciated that lack of cynicism, and enjoyed the funny little mule a lot as a result.

The museum is fantastic. You should go there.

Oh! I can't forget to mention that we both got to ride a Segway while there.

Yes, we looked pretty dorky in the helmets, but it was fun. Donald, a helpful museum staffer we encountered over and over, sort of like our own personal science angel, rode up to us and asked if we wanted to try it. Well, of course we did! And, after we signed waiver forms absolving the museum from indemnity if we drove the thing out a window into Lake Michigan and drowned, he gave us each a lesson on how to operate the machine. We rode around in big circles, other museum patrons scattering from our destructive paths, and enjoyed ourselves immensely.

And now I just thought of something else I have to mention. We saw Donald again in another section of the museum having to do with how your mind operates. They had a contraption you wired yourself into to play a game using nothing but your brainwaves. Donald wired us in, and the outcome was surprising.

The object is to not think of an elephant, basically. You're supposed to relax your mind, make it as much of a blank as possible, and the little ball - which sits in the dead center of the tube at the beginning of the game - then travels away from the person who is most successful at relaxing. When the ball gets to your end of the tube, that means you were entirely more stressed than your opponent and you lost.

MY WIFE rarely relaxes totally, while I can fall asleep almost anywhere. We strapped on the headgear, though, and the ball inched it's way inexorably towards me.

Actually, it just stood stock still in the middle, at the beginning of the game, for about a minute. It was as though we were both brain dead. I thought Donald might ask us to step down and let some people with actual thoughts play the game. But then, it started moving, probably because I was worrying about it NOT moving.

MY WIFE won. She was more relaxed. I was astounded by that then, but I've now figured it out. She was relaxed because she was with me. I was on edge because I was with her.

Oh, goodness, I have to show you one more thing before we leave the museum. Look at this amazing view of the city!

It's actually from a model train exhibit in the museum. It takes up half a floor, and freight trains and subway trains and El trains travel all around it. Heck, I could have just sat there and watched that one thing for about three hours, but I'm a boy, so that shouldn't come as a surprise.

Bus To Train To Hotel

We were planning on taking a cab back to our hotel, but when we left the museum there was a bus waiting right outside the door. So, in the spirit of adventure, we took it. It apparently went to the Red Line, which then would take us back to our hotel, so we figured we'd save the cab fare and see another neighborhood.

The bus headed south through a couple of working-class residential neighborhoods, and we got to see real Chicagoans going about their daily business. We were the only white people on the bus, or in view anywhere for that matter, so we were obviously seeing a section of the city not usually traversed by tourists. It was an interesting ride, and we disembarked at Garfield station on the Red Line, took the train back north, and flopped into bed at the hotel for a short nap prior to dinner.

Benny's Chop House

Our final evening meal was spectacular.

Benny's Chop House is on Wabash Avenue, a five-minute stroll from Homewood Suites, our hotel. It is a high-end steakhouse, a bit pricey but well worth it.

MY WIFE ordered a glass of wine, while I opted for a Johnny Walker Black on the rocks. Scotch goes really well with a fine steak, in case you've never tried it, and good scotch goes even better. I could have opted for the green label, which is about twice as old and twice as expensive, but my palate isn't all that refined.

We ordered our appetizers and entrees - all is a la carte at Benny's - and our server, an all-together pleasing young woman named Deanna, informed us, when we both ordered asparagus, that one would probably be enough for two. We appreciated that. Her service was excellent, as was that of all the staff.

I started with a lamb curry soup, while MY WIFE had an endive salad. The soup was good, spiced but not overpowering, with healthy - but not so large as to make it a stew as opposed to a soup - chunks of lamb and chopped vegetables. The salad is reported as having been nice.

We had each ordered all-natural fillets, mine of 10 oz. and MY WIFE opting for the less-gluttonous 7 oz. cut. They arrived, cooked to perfection - I had ordered medium rare, while MY WIFE had hers medium - and they were stunningly good. It was probably the best steak I've ever had, the only reason I'm not willing to be more definite being that the scotch was pretty damned good, too. The asparagus was grilled, and delicious, and Deanna had been right about the portion being enough for two. I also ordered a baked potato, and it came with wonderfully crispy skin, nice mealy - but firm - inside, and was such a large tuber that I couldn't finish it, a rarity for me.

After the magnificence which was dinner, we gilded the lily by ordering a dessert of pecan praline doughnuts, served with bananas foster and caramel-ripple ice cream. We were smart enough to ask for ONE order, to split, and it was more than enough to satisfy. We accompanied our sweets with coffee, which arrived fresh and strong.

Truly a fine dining experience, and a wonderful topper to our trip.


Ugh. I hate the day when you have to go home. Not that I don't mind getting back to where I live, but it's always such a pain. Packing, making sure all reservations are correct, going through airport security...

Do I really need to regale you with stories concerning going through security at our nation's airports? No, I suppose I don't. Everybody knows it sucks. I'll say it was surprisingly less sucky than I thought it might be, though, so perhaps I'm getting used to being treated like a criminal.

Our flight home was fairly uneventful. I do need to tell you about one thing that happened.

When we checked in at the airport, our boarding passes for Southwest came up with a "C" on them. Now, if you're familiar with Southwest's boarding policies, you know that they board "A" passengers first, then "B", then finally "C". Seating is as you wish it, so the earlier you board, the better your chances of getting seats you may like - that is, together with your loved ones, or perhaps not over the wing if you want a view.

I was dismayed by the "C" on our passes because I had specifically bought "Early Bird" privileges, for an extra $10 per ticket, when I purchased our tickets a month before the trip. Those privileges don't come with a guarantee of being in the "A" group, but we had been so on the journey TO Chicago, so I had assumed we would be on the way home, also.

I asked the Southwest employee behind the counter to check and see if we did actually have such privileges on this leg, or if I had somehow not been charged for them. He found that we did, and couldn't understand why we came up with a "C" on our boarding passes. He suggested we ask the counter personnel at the gate to see if they could straighten it out.

At the gate, we were told that, basically, the entire flight had purchased Early Bird status. Well, if that were so, then it hardly made it a privilege, and those of us who were on the tail end were getting nothing for our expense. I decided to write to Southwest, requesting a refund, when we returned.

The good news, and why I will likely fly Southwest as often as possible in future? I didn't have to write them at all. The next day, while checking e-mail, I saw something from Southwest. I wish I had saved it, to show you exactly what it said. The gist was that they were sorry and they were automatically refunding the extra fees. And I hadn't had to contact them at all.

That's great customer service. In addition, all of the personnel we dealt with at airports and on flights were courteous and helpful, and the stewardess on our final journey even sang a song to keep us entertained while we were taxiing to the gate (and she had a sweet voice, too.)

And that's that for our Chicago trip. Thanks for wading through the half-a-book I've written here. It was a wonderful trip, and we certainly recommend the city as a great vacation destination. The people are friendly, the sights are many and interesting, the restaurants are some of the best in the world, and we've already talked about going back. Maybe you'd like to join us?

Soon, with more better stuff.


Michelle H. said...

A satisfying ending (and food-filled one to boot - you should consider be restaurant conniseurs(sic?). Anyway, thanks for the Chigcago tour and glad you were refunded the extra airline fee.

Craig said...

I LOVE the Museum of Science & Industry! It took me a few years, and some force of will, to finally decide to check out some of the other world-class museums in Chicago, just 'cuz I couldn't bear to miss the MSI. But you didn't mention the Nazi submarine. . .

Your comments on the bus ride away from the MSI rang familiar. Other than Lakeshore Drive, once you get a couple blocks away from the MSI, you're in pretty dicey neighborhoods. One time, my dad got lost driving away from the museum, and we ended up driving past a fellow in camo fatigues brandishing a chrome-plated revolver at somebody-or-other up the street. . .

And what I said before, about the restaurants. Altho, from your description, I'm not sure I could afford Benny's, anyway. . . ;)

Buck said...

A high-end steak house is a treat that rarely, if ever, disappoints. And I imagine a high-end CHICAGO steak house would be better than most, except perhaps for Kansas City, about which I've heard great good things.

So... food may be on my brain most of the time (age is why I don't cite the OBVIOUS example), but the Museum of Science and Industry sounds/reads like a treat of equal proportions. Except for those dorky helmets, which I KNOW were required. It's for your own good, yanno?

Quirkyloon said...

I really enjoyed this series. And let it be known that it is your "superfluous flummery" that keeps me coming back!


Teacher's Pet said...

"(Notice how the links have been helpfully coded by highlighting the number of letters matching the order of installments - one letter for Part One, two letters for Part Two, and so on?..") You are sooo clever!! :)))
I want to go to Chicago now...after reading your posts. (Yes, I read them ALL...)
What a wonderful trip for you and YOUR WIFE!!!
Thank YOU for the detailed blogs....
Fabulous, Jim!!!!

Ragtop Day said...

I've never been to Chicago, and never considered it as a vacation destination, but you made it all sound like so much fun! Thanks for taking us along!

Karen said...

I loved this tour of Chicago and I'm so glad you decided to take us along! I'm surprised at the immediate refund from SW, but isn't that nice! Benny's Chop House sounds like a place where they dismantle cars :) I'd have ordered 1/2 doz oysters, a NY Strip with seasoned mushrooms along with a couple glasses of good red wine. For dessert I'd have the selection of artisnal cheese (4 cheeses) with a good glass of port. I do this all the time with good restaurant menus - I pretend I'm there :)

Karen said...

Oh, and today is the first day I noticed the change in your blog header. Cute!

TechnoBabe said...

Great vacation. Hubby and I didn't go anywhere but by reading about you and your wife in Chicago it felt like we had a getaway too.

slommler said...

I enjoyed this trip immensely! It was a fascinating tour and I had a great time. My only regret was that I couldn't "taste" all the food that was devoured..oops..I mean eaten. Ha!
Everything sounded so delish!!!
Thanks for sharing
Glad you had a good time.

that disney blog said...

chicago is awesome! loved visiting the windy city with you!

Joan said...

A great vacation you both had! Nice.

Maggie May said...

Chicago does seem to be a marvellous city and I would love to visit there. (Seems a bit unlikely.)
I would prefer airports to be zealous than sloppy, any day.
I love that Zephr... but a talking donkey?
You have to come down to earth now after a trip like that.
Maggie X

Nuts in May

eileen said...

great write-up! sounds like you had an awesome trip.

Pam said...

This has been a fantastic travelogue. I'm so glad you enjoyed Chicago and love all the good things you said about it. We definitely need you to promote all things good about the city. It's a chilly morning, dark and dreary, rain on the way.

3GirlKnight said...

I loved your description of riding the Seqway and of your final dinner. Hope you had a safe trip home!

rc said...

I can't believe Jim can write about Chicago for 5 days without ever poking fun of "Wacker"...

Jeni said...

I'd say the fact that you got service from Southwest -i.e. the refund for the extra charges -without even asking for it, shows a company that is trying to provide great customer service.

Pauline said...

Hilary from The Smitten Image has introduced me to your blog. You've introduced me to the Windy City. I'm happy to have experienced both :)

Hilary said...

Hmmm I was pretty sure I'd commented here the other day... telling you how very much I enjoyed reading all about your trip and how you make Chicago sound like a paradise. Just as well though.. it saves me writing an email to tell you that you're being talked about over at my blog... ;)

Pat - Arkansas said...

Reading your travelogue has been a real pleasure, Suldog. Makes me want to hop on Southwest Airlines and head to Chicago.

Your classic blog ending may not be accurate; I don't see how you can write anything else that will be much better. Hugs!

Angela Christensen said...

As I've said, you don't get a bad meal in Chicago, and you damn sure don't get a bad steak, but Benny's...ahhh. Perfect ending to a delicious vacation. And the Southwest thing was a perfect P.S. Thanks for taking us on vacation with you.

Jenn Flynn-Shon said...

I thoroughly enjoyed reading every word of your trip details and yes, Chicago is now on my list of places to see! Southwest is pretty much the ONLY airline I'll ever fly. Not only because of the no extra fees policy but never once have I had a bad experience with anything. You know exactly what to expect going in...and then they make it better.

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lime said...

ok, you've sold me on southwest!

now, if you like museums with cola mines and museums where you can act like a kid and museums where they have groovy setups allowing you to see how a particular mode of transportation works have i got 2 for you. we have an actual coal mine turned into a museum so you go down into the actual mine. the tour is pretty informative and there is a very nice exhibit in the building too. then we can go to the crayola factory later on and you can draw on glass walls and paint and glue and model clay to your heart's content and see how the coal got from the mines to the ports via the mule drawn barges in the canals complete with a model of working locks.

anyway, the local tourist board ought to hire me and chicago's tourist board should hire you. i want to see chicago and you've given me some terrific places to start. :)

Chris@Knucklehead! said...

Sounds like an absolutely jam-packed trip, Jim. Glad you enjoyed it.

david mcmahon said...

Thanks to you, I can now (finally) claim to have seen the Chicago skyline!

Ruth and Glen said...

We really enjoyed seeing Chicago through your eyes. Yep, we read every one of your entries.:o) It truly gives us a different perspective from what we always experience in a big truck. There is always lots of construction, dead-stop traffic, and a ton of aggravation with all the truck restrictions downtown.

Thimbelle said...

Almost as good as going on the trip - I loved all four installments!

Glad you made it home again, safe and sound. :)