Friday, October 29, 2010

Why, When I Was Your Age...

WARNING: These are the bitter musings of a bald, toothless, wretched old poop. Unlike in THIS RANT (and please be sure to let me know when you post something about it yourself!), I offer no solution to any problems. This is just kvetching for the sake of hearing myself type (which is not quite the right way to phrase it, but you know what I mean.) These pathetic thoughts will no doubt sour your entire weekend, as well as leave you yearning for a future when maladjusted crabapples like me are forcibly euthanized. If you choose to read what follows, I will not accept responsibility for your misery. You may end up depressed, suicidal, and lacking the will to do anything productive for the rest of your life.

Other than that, you should find this an enjoyable read.


When I was a kid, Halloween was much better.

There, I've said it. I am now officially one of those hideous old bastards who complains about how much better things used to be. So shoot me. You'll be doing me a favor.

Have you seen It's The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown? That's how Halloween was when I was a kid. Beagles would climb up on top of their doghouses and fly off to shoot down German aircraft. It was great!

Well, wait a minute. Maybe that didn't happen. But the rest of the stuff did. Except for the part about sitting in a field all night waiting for The Great Pumpkin to show up. I didn't start doing that until after my first experience with angel dust. The sonovabitch didn't bring me any presents, either. All I remember is him saying, "Security? I've got a nutjob in the produce section. He's squatting in the gourd bin, naked, and I think he's trying to talk to a squash."

However, that's neither here nor there. What we're discussing is Halloween, circa 1965. The thing about Halloween, at that time, was that it was a night we kids got to dress up in costume and go out on our own. We waited for it to get really dark, so it would be scarier. We stayed out later than normal, so as to get to every possible source of candy within walking distance. And the only kids who had their parents with them were those not old enough to go to school yet.

You generally made up your own costume. It was a point of pride. If you had to buy a mask, it had to be one hell of a good one to pass muster. As a result, there were great multitudes of hobos, pirates, and clowns. Nobody had the props for anything more ambitious. You could be a ghost, of course, but you were risking your life. This was because your mom would kill you if you cut up a good sheet.

Occasionally, one of the boys would make the mistake of dressing in drag. He'd commandeer make-up, a wig, and high-heels from his mother or sister. While it may have seemed like a good idea at the time, and would get great laughs from the adults, it would likely have resulted in unmerciful teasing from your buddies. Of course, drag probably isn't an option now. It might be seen as transvestite-bashing or something. Likewise, it's un-PC to be a hobo now, since you're basically making fun of homeless people. And pirates are off the list because one-eyed people with hook hands and peg legs probably have some sort of anti-defamation league. And no witches. It's disrespectful of somebody's religion. About the only costume safe from criticism is one where nobody can figure out what you're supposed to be.

My friends would have been mortified to have a parent making the rounds with them. Part of the deal about Halloween - not said, but implied in our pre-adolescent contracts - was that if you were able to walk to school by yourself, you were old enough to trick-or-treat by yourself. It was a rite of passage, at least in my neighborhood. How many kids go out on their own now? Any?

Yeah, I know. It's a different world. There are child rapists and kidnappers lurking behind every bush. Hell, the people you would have unhesitatingly trusted to keep your kids safe in those days (priests, teachers) are the ones making headlines for lewd and lascivious behavior. Sheesh.

We went out as late as possible, and stayed out as late as possible. Now, even with parents accompanying most of the kids, it begins earlier and ends earlier. Part of the thrill, for us, was being out on the streets during hours when we normally wouldn't have been. That was scary in and of itself, which is what made it cool.

We went as far as six or seven blocks away - as far as our inner sense of security would let us go - whereas during a regular day of the year we never strayed more than three blocks from home. This is because kids have a sense of territory, just like dogs or cats, and you didn't venture too far beyond your own neighborhood because you knew that you might be invading someone else's turf. If you did, and you got beat up, you knew you had no real right to complain. But, on Halloween, if the disguises were good enough, you went further. Who knew who was under that mask? That was part of the daring and fun of the night. Now, even with parents (maybe especially with parents) kids only go to places they know.

In my day (in the before-time!) we'd gather as much booty as we could. And some of it might be unwrapped, or homemade, or otherwise not up to parental snuff. We always heard the stories about razor blades in apples, so if we got an apple we cut it up before we ate it. Other than that, we didn't give a damn. If it was candy, it went in our mouths. Now, unless it's a recognized securely-wrapped brand-name candy bar, it probably goes in the trash when the bag is emptied out at home.

Need I go into the fact that we got full-size candy bars, while now barely bite-sized treats are the norm? No, I didn't think so.

Some parents won't even let their kids go trick-or-treating. So, maybe they send the kid to a party. Or maybe not. I can't really imagine today's helicopter parents letting kids do the things they used to let us do at parties. Bobbing for apples? Why, little Jason might get some water up his nose! That's a lawsuit, for sure. It will affect his psyche and take years of analysis to overcome. And the possibility of damaging his teeth on a hard apple, or maybe catching pneumonia from that wet hair? Good Lord! That's child abuse! The Feds will be on your ass in no time flat. And you're not seriously considering telling the kids ghost stories, are you? No, we can't have that. You might traumatize them.

Yeah, I know. "You're not a parent, so don't suppose that you know what's best for my kid!" You're absolutely right. That's why I'm not a parent. I'd be a crummy one. At least I've had sense enough to realize that. There are armies of folks out there who don't have a clue.

OK, enough. I'll stop. I told you what was coming, but you didn't listen, did you?

Happy Frickin' Halloween.

Soon, with more bitter stuff.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


Yes, time once again for my imitation of Sisyphus. Time to make an attempt at stemming the tide of Christmas advertising that seems to inundate us earlier and earlier with each passing year.

I do this, around this same time every year, because I truly believe the cheapening of our holidays can be stopped. Do I believe it will happen right now, because of this post? No. It will take your help, and help from your friends, and then help from their friends.

I'm gratified that many of you, in years past, have joined in the effort. Perhaps you'll find some entertainment in doing so again this year? I hope so.

If you'd consider helping in any of the ways outlined within the body of what follows, I'll be extremely thankful.


When I was a kid, Christmas was magical. The lights were colorful and amazing, making the night a warm, bright, wonderful place to be, even if it was 20 degrees outside and the snow was up to your waist. If you're old enough, you'll recall that Christmas carols gave you the same sorts of butterflies in your stomach that would be associated with love at a later time in your life. Cities and towns put up decorations on the main streets, with the larger municipalities erecting lovely Christmas trees in central spots.

All of the above worked, on a spectacular level, because it happened at an appropriate time. No retailer (or city, or homeowner) dared breach the unofficial line of demarcation – Thanksgiving. It was an unwritten rule that one holiday would play out completely before speaking of another was allowed.

Now? Nobody cares. Whatever you can peddle, whenever you can peddle it, is the mantra. It matters not a whit how many people’s memories are trampled, nor how irreligious the displays and advertisements. The only thing that counts is that ledgers get into the black. Restraint and taste are passé. The more outrageous the spectacle, the better for the bottom line.

Make no mistake about it: I’m a capitalist. I’m all for everybody making as much money as they can, as fast as they can, in whatever way they can, so long as nobody is physically hurt in the process. I’m not looking to enact laws against early Christmas advertising. What I am in favor of is standing up and being counted. That's fair. Opinion can drive a market in the right direction without resorting to the force of government intervention. If you decry this incursion upon our holiday ground as much as I do, I hope you'll join me in raising a slight ruckus. My hope is that we make enough noise to affect the situation. If we can’t, then I suppose we deserve this despicable state of affairs.

I’m going to give it a try. I hope you'll help.

If you believe, as I do, that Thanksgiving should play out fully before Christmas season begins; that Christmas carols should not be heard on the radio before at least Thanksgiving evening; that advertisers who dare to encroach upon Thanksgiving - or, God help us, Halloween - should be told in no uncertain terms that you despise their hideous advertisements and that you will not shop at their establishments unless they cease and desist; that malls who put Santa Claus on display before Veterans Day should be ashamed of themselves; then please consider doing something about it.

Should you be as incensed as I am concerning Christmas schlock, please post a "Thanksgiving Comes First" entry on your blog. Write from the heart. Everybody who visits your blog will find out how you feel. My guess is they'll agree with you. Perhaps they'll also write about it, and so will their friends, and so forth. I hope that, if enough of us do this, we might make some small impact.

Please title your post "Thanksgiving Comes First". If we all do that - use the same posting title - it will make a bigger impact. If you wish to reference this post, or other posts with a similar title, please do so. It isn't mandatory. I'm not looking to drive people to this blog. I'm just trying to make a difference concerning something that truly rankles me.

[This cartoon is a favorite, so I chose to run it even though I don't know whose original property it is. If you are the artist, or know who the artist is, I'll gladly give a great big link, and credit.]

If you wish to use the snazzy graphic at the top of this page, or any of the other original graphics here, either on your blog entry or as a semi-permanent graphic on your sidebar, please feel welcome to do so. I'd appreciate it. Having a visual symbol that folks see repeatedly would be a big help.

Following are my most personal reasons for wishing to see something positive occur. Yours don't have to match mine, by any means.

I'm a Christian, so I have more than an annoyance factor at work here. I think that cheapening the holiday, by expanding it beyond reasonable bounds, does a world of disservice to my religion. It gives people a false view of it, by making it out to be a greed-fest. However, if you aren’t a Christian, your take on matters is certainly as important. If you're Jewish, for instance, or maybe a Muslim, it might make you mad to see some of your own holy days being given short shrift because of this overkill. If you're an atheist? I imagine it doesn't make you happy to be bombarded by this stuff. Whatever your reasons, please consider telling the world that you've had enough.

(I'm not encouraging obscenity, but I won't discourage it, either. Make it funny, or use it to emphasize a point, but I’d prefer that you don’t be gratuitous just for shock value. Obscenity always works better when it is an organic part of the whole. Be creative.)

Here's my latest idea: I think a good value, given to merchants who forgo early advertising, would be a nice and proper thing to offer. For instance, Nordstrom's was a retailer that specifically advertised, in a previous year, that they would NOT be filling the aisles with Christmas merchandise until after Thanksgiving. God bless them! We should, at the least, patronize folks like that.

Better yet, offering the combined readership of ALL OF OUR BLOGS as a potential source of advertising for retailers who agree not to give the short end of it to Thanksgiving would be something that carried actual weight. If we could give FREE ADVERTISING ON OUR BLOGS to those who solemnly swear to hold in abeyance the tinsel and trees and carols, until after Thanksgiving, do you think that might make a difference? I'm willing to offer my blog space, for a day, to any retailer who makes that promise.

(Just a thought. I've always considered it nicer to offer incentives than to promise punishments.)

So, to reiterate:

If you believe as I do, that Thanksgiving Comes First, then please let your readers know where you stand.

If you post a "Thanksgiving Comes First" entry to your blog, please let me know by leaving a comment here. On Friday of next week, I'll write about this again. If we can get this thing rolling, it will be a joyous post detailing all of the successes, pointing folks to all of the other blogs, including yours, that have decided to fight the madness. If it turns out to be a dismal failure, I'll write about that, instead.

(Image courtesy of Thanksgiving Corner)

In order for this thing to have any real effect, it has to keep spreading via others. While I truly LOVE anything you do in response, we have to ask others to do the same. If we don’t, then we’re just ranting. While that's certainly fun, it doesn’t accomplish nearly as much as making our feelings known and also getting others to make their feelings known.

I firmly believe – and I’m sure you do, too – that the great majority of people are sick to death of the way Christmas has been commercialized. I’d be willing to bet that whenever you talk to anyone about this stuff, they almost always say, "Yeah, that's how I feel, too!"

Don’t you think we hold the majority opinion on this? If there were some way we could vote on it, wouldn’t we win easily? I sure think so. I think that for every person who loves hearing Christmas music at the beginning of November, there are ten of us who want to blow up the radio it’s playing on. I know that’s the way I feel. And I really, truly LOVE Christmas music. I honestly do. I own some 35 or 40 CDs full of Christmas music. But it has its place, and November (or, God help us, October) really isn’t it.

Are we tilting at windmills? I’d like to think we're not. The response in previous years, from all of you kind folks, gives me hope that it’s a winnable battle.

Sooner or later, if we speak up and ask others to do likewise, I honestly think we can have some effect. I’m not saying that we’ll bring the corporate world to its knees, nor is that what I hope to accomplish. This isn’t a power trip. But, if we can get them to ramp it down a bit, that would be an accomplishment of which we could be proud.

What this is all about, truly, was brought home to me while watching an episode of Mister Rogers.

On one of his shows, he was explaining the concepts of noisy and quiet. In order to illustrate the difference, he took his television audience to see a musician friend of his.

Fred had the musician, a percussionist, play his many instruments. Some were very loud, while others were soft and gentle. Afterward, Mister Rogers looked into the camera and spoke. He said, "In music, the silences are just as important as the loud parts."

The silences are just as important as the loud parts.

That’s a very profound statement. It’s true, isn’t it? Without the silences, it’s all just noise. The silences – the pauses, the gaps, the unfilled spaces – are what give the notes their power and meaning. And when it comes to a holiday, the silences – the quiet times preceding (or even within) the holiday – are extremely important. They give the celebration its power and meaning. That’s why I care so deeply about this. We all need some silences. They’re just as important as the loud parts.

Please keep writing, as well as asking your friends to write. Maybe send off a letter or two to your local newspapers. I've had a couple published, and some of you are much more eloquent than I am. Let us know what sorts of responses you receive. As promised, I’ll list (and link to) all of your blogs come next Friday.

For now, Google the phrase "Thanksgiving Comes First" and you'll find many past postings. Even that simple act, in and of itself, helps to spread the message. Getting many hits on Google, for the phrase, will bring it to the attention of some more good people.

Thank you for listening. God bless you if you help.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Worst... Halloween... EVER!

I'm here to tell you that was the worst Halloween ever. We didn't get a single kid last night!

MY WIFE and I dressed up and everything. I was The Wolfman and she was Frankenstein. She only stands about five-one, so she was the cutest little Frankenstein you ever saw! Then we stood outside of our front door waiting for the kids to show up in their costumes. We even had an endless tape loop of "Monster Mash", by Bobby "Boris" Pickett, and set up our stereo speakers to blast it out the window. And then...

NOTHING! We couldn't believe it! I mean, in other years we at least got 10 or 15 children, but not a single solitary kid came to the door last night. As a matter of fact, I didn't even see ONE child on the entire street for the entire night. Amazing. Has Halloween died so thoroughly?

You know, I expected that some of our neighbors might be disappointed, too, but they didn't seem to be. A few of them opened their doors to look outside - I guess they wanted to see if there were any kids coming - but, when their eyes met ours, they went back inside, shaking their heads. I guess they were just embarrassed to not have costumes as good as ours.

One Halloweenie (I guess that's a good name for someone who's the equivalent of a "Scrooge" at Christmas) yelled out, "Shut off that fucking music, you morons!" not getting into the spirit of things at all. With people like that in the neighborhood, maybe the kids were just completely scared to come down our street.

Well, we weren't going to let one bad apple ruin Halloween for the whole neighborhood. We'd show him! We decided to really pick up the pace. I went inside and turned up the Monster Mash really loud. MY WIFE put her arms straight out in front of her like Frankenstein's monster does and she stiffly walked up and down the sidewalk going, "Aaargh! Fire BAD! Aaargh!" Then I came back outside, squatted down on my haunches and howled like a banshee at the moon. "Aaaroooooooooooo! Aaaroooooooooooo!"

Finally, around 9pm, when we realized that there wouldn't be even one trick-or-treater this year, we went inside, shut off the music, and got out of our costumes. I'm glad I bought candy I really like because we ended up eating all of it ourselves.

Did any of you have as miserable a Halloween as we did? I sure hope not. What a major disappointment. Never have I had such a rotten October 24th in all... my...

Oh, wait a minute. It's next Sunday?


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.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Windy City, Windy Blog - 4

Missed the first three parts? If you're some sort of insane completist, here they are - Part One, Part Two, Part Three. However, feel free to dive in here and pretend you've read the others. I won't know the difference.


As I look back over my notes, I'm somewhat astounded by how much we crammed into every day of this vacation. What I find most interesting, though, is that it didn't feel as though we were pressured in any way, shape, or form. There was no, "We have to do this NOW! We'll regret it forever if we don't make it there on time!" Instead, we did what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it, and if something else of interest was placed in our path, we enjoyed that, too. It was truly a swell trip.

Wrigley Field

I come from Boston. We have Fenway Park, the oldest major league baseball stadium in existence, built in 1912. The only other park I have reverence for, and which I would go out of my way to visit, is Wrigley Field, the second-oldest, built in 1914. So, since we were in the neighborhood, we did.

Wrigley Field is home to the Chicago Cubs. The last time the Cubs won the World Series was in 1908, which will be 103 years ago when next season rolls around. That is the longest drought, between championships, of any major North American professional sports franchise. Hell, the last World Series they even took part in, win or lose, was in 1945. Being a Red Sox fan, and having seen the somewhat recent ending of our own 86-year misery, I very much empathize with Cubs fans. I follow their games and would love to see them vanquish the various bogus curses under which they are supposed to be operating.

(That anyone would buy into something as silly as The Billy Goat Curse thrills me to no end. It is what makes America great. You can always get at least some people to believe any bunch of malarkey you concoct. It is this sort of thinking that makes me refuse to lay down my dream of becoming the first musician to release a million-selling recording of nothing but bass guitar solos.)

As with Fenway in Boston, Wrigley is located in a residential neighborhood. That was part of the charm of such older ballparks. They weren't occupying some godforsaken 20-acre cement slab in a suburb 35 miles outside of the city for which the team was named. They were right in the heart of that city, and thus truly in the hearts of those who followed their fortunes. They weren't just entertainments. They were neighbors.

The season (at least for the Cubs) is over now, so nothing much was happening around the ballpark. We took a nice walk, enjoying the statues of past Cubbie heroes, the quaint (for this day and age) architecture of the park, and the quirks of the neighborhood. For instance...

Waveland Avenue sits behind the outfield, and thus behind the bleacher seats within the park (which you can see a slight bit of on the extreme right of the photo.) One of the totally charming aspects of Wrigley is that the apartment buildings behind the park all afford a view of the games from their rooftops. That isn't to say Joe Blow off the street can go up there and squat, but if Joe Blow rents an apartment on Waveland he can see all 81 home games absolutely free. Those apartments come with a season ticket. That the Cubs management hasn't built a huge wall to destroy the view speaks volumes.

(When it was just the apartment dwellers watching from their rooftops, and perhaps having a cookout, Cubs management put up with it magnanimously. Once construction of the rows and rows of seats began, with concomitant admission fees and sale of food and drink, they did raise a stink. A settlement was reached whereby the Cubs received a percentage of revenues. Still quite generous for a sporting franchise, in my opinion. They could easily have built a 'spite' fence and left them with nothing.)

As we finished our circle of the park, we came upon an entrance used by equipment vehicles and so forth, and spied a view of groundskeepers working on the field prior to its winter shutdown. One of the crew saw us pointing our camera through a metal grating. He came over and kindly opened it for us to get a better shot. How nice was that? If it was a Fenway groundskeeper, he probably would have chased us away with a shovel.

I have nothing but kind words for the Cubs, and I hope they win it all in 2011.

Art Institute Of Chicago

After Wrigley, we headed for The Art Institute Of Chicago. This was on MY WIFE's 'must do' list, and I had no objections. She's more of an art admirer than I am, but I enjoy a nice afternoon in a museum, too.

A Magritte. I say I like surrealism. MY WIFE says that
I like anything with tits in it. Both are true.

The place houses a great art collection, but we found the layout bewildering. One had to go through some very weird hoops to reach certain areas of the museum. This problem was exacerbated by one of their elevators being under repair. Perhaps we might not have found it so trying during some other week, but it seemed that every time we tried to find a specific gallery, we had to go up a flight of stairs, then go down in an elevator to a mezzanine, then take a different set of stairs back up, and so on, until we were ready to just say to hell with it. Very convoluted.

I am a particular fan of Salvador Dali, and there were, as I recall, three of his on display. Other surrealists, such as Magritte and Peter Blume, are well-represented.

MY WIFE's tastes run towards the less-nightmarish, with a particular fondness for the impressionists and pointillism. Unfortunately, the one painting she particularly wanted to see, one she had admired in prints and other copies for years, was not available for viewing.

Paris Street, Rainy Day, by Caillebotte, was the one work in the museum that MY WIFE absolutely wanted to see. And it was on loan to another museum. That lack put a damper on what had been, even with the weird layout of the place, a fun afternoon of enjoying artwork. I think it can safely be said it was the major disappointment of our trip (MY WIFE's disappointment stemming from not seeing it, and my own disappointment due to her disappointment.)

Laurence T.

However, as I have espoused, Everything Gets Better. Upon our exit from the museum, I heard a magnificent voice singing some seriously good soul. I looked around, expecting a radio or boombox, but saw Laurence T.

This man was performing on the sidewalk, in front of the museum, with a portable amplifier and mic. He had some sort of a karaoke set-up. That is, he had backing tracks pre-recorded, and he was vocalizing on top of those. And he was tremendous.

Laurence T. & MY WIFE. The man can SING.

We stood on the museum stairs, transfixed, listening to this amazing voice. After he finished a number, I went and dropped a dollar in his bucket. He began another, and MY WIFE came over to me, grabbed me, and started dancing with me on the sidewalk.

You must understand: We don't really dance. MY WIFE is proficient, but I'm horrible. However, she had it in her head to do as many things as possible that were mentioned in the song "Chicago", and "I know a man who danced with HIS WIFE" was one of the lines. Laurence T. saw us dancing and, during an instrumental break, said, "Now that's what I'm talking about!" We danced for a short while and then settled down on the museum steps to listen to this guy belt out a couple more.

I can't for the life of me figure out why he doesn't have a major recording contract. No, let me amend that. I can't for the life of me figure out why he isn't an international superstar. He has a smooth sexy voice, with both high and low (extremely low) range, and he also has absolutely stunning stage presence, especially for someone who was performing on the sidewalk of a busy downtown street.

After MY WIFE put an additional dollar in his bucket, he handed me a business card, reproduced here. Now, please go to You Tube and enjoy a performance. Once you do, I expect you may be of the same opinion as me, in that, even though he has apparently made national television appearances, and performed in Las Vegas on a regular basis, he deserves a wider audience. He's a superb talent. And there he was, performing on the street for us, for relative chump change. An amazing highlight of our day, for sure.

Millennium Park

After having enjoyed Laurence T. and his superb pipes, we walked a short distance to Millennium Park. It is Chicago's downtown green space, a cousin to The Common in Boston and Central Park in New York.

The place is full of fascinating stuff. I'll describe a few of those we enjoyed.

The Crown Fountain, which consists of two towering glass blocks at either end of a shallow reflecting pool, was the first thing we encountered. Video projections of the faces of Chicago residents play on the blocks, changing every few minutes to a new face. The overall effect is supposed to be one of the faces spitting water into the pool, and that must be incredibly cool when it's happening. However, that aspect of the fountain is only on display during warmer times, and wasn't happening while we were there. Still, the faces were fun, and without the water it looked as though they were blowing kisses to each other across the couple of hundred feet between the towers.

We strolled through meandering gardens of wildflowers and shrubs, a contemplative space amidst the big city racket. It was surprisingly quiet, with a small stream flowing there where the more adventurous took off shoes and refreshed their feet in the waters as we passed by.

Near the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, an outdoor concert space, we came upon an oddly curving and shape-shifting pedestrian walkway, sort of a maze that you can't get lost in. As with so much of the other bits of this park, you can't see the entirety of it from where you stand. You have to explore it if you want to see it all. Just about everything in the park is more than at first meets your eye. Much of the artwork incorporated into the landscape was designed by Frank Gehry, and he deserves big applause for providing so much relaxing entertainment for the mind.

Our favorite thing was The Big Bean.

The official name is Cloud Gate, and it was created by the artist Anish Kapoor (from whose site the above image comes.) It is... well, you can see what it is. It's a big silver reflective bean. Everybody who comes to it loves it. No matter how old the person interacting with it, he or she is childlike with wonder.

The reflections are truly quite amazing. Here are our shots of it.

If you look closely, you'll see the two of us reflected,
dead center, taking the photo.

This shot was taken from underneath the sculpture,
inside it actually, looking up. Again, we are in the
shot, but in this instance some 8 or 9 times, at least.

In case you couldn't see us in any of the others,
here we are again!

Another shot from under the sculpture.

The entire park is a great public space, and we loved it.

Silly Damned Ride On The El

We went back to the hotel and freshened up. After another great meal at OYSY, we finished our day with a pointless ride on the elevated.

We enjoyed most of our rides on the CTA. It's a good efficient system, and has enough character to entertain thoroughly (not quite as much as London's Underground, or the New York subway system, which are my two faves, but still quite a bit.) Our previous tour of the Pink Line had been fun, and riding around The Loop was always fascinating. However, our final extended ride was rather mundane and mostly boring.

We decided to ride the Blue Line to O'Hare airport. It looked to be a longish ride, and we assumed, since the majority of the system as a whole is elevated, this ride would provide us with a nice nighttime view of some neighborhoods. However, to our dismay, only a short section of this line is elevated, most of the distance either underground via subway or running in the middle of an expressway (which has a certain charm, but becomes repetitive quite quickly.)

We never even made it as far as O'Hare, deciding instead to cut our losses by disembarking at Jefferson Park and waiting for a return train. Oh, well. Not every day can end with a winner. Tomorrow will, though.

(That's a teaser, of course.)

Soon, with tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Windy City, Windy Blog - 3

This is me, all in black, for no particular reason.
Well, OK, the color hides the fifteen pounds I
put on eating humongous amounts of steak, hot dogs,
gelato, stuffed pan pizza, and other Chicago staples.

Time once again for you to be whisked away to Chicago. Or, rather, for you to be bludgeoned over the head with interminable detail concerning our recent trip to Chicago. Same thing, right?

[If you missed parts one and two, lucky you! Here they are, in case you have a masochistic streak - ONE, TWO.]


As usual, the day began with the wonderful (free) breakfast at Homewood Suites, our hotel. After filling ourselves with various proteins and carbohydrates, and lubricating their passage with plenty of liquid caffeine, we went to take our 9am tour on The Chicago River.

Chicago Architecture Foundation River Tour

We had heard that this was a "can't miss" tour, and those who told us were absolutely correct. If you are in Chicago, take this tour. It is tremendous.

You board a boat on the riverside, at the corner of Wacker and Michigan, and you are then taken on a 90+ minute ride on the Chicago River. During the leisurely trip, a volunteer docent gives running commentary concerning the many fantastic buildings you see from your seat on deck.

For better information than I can possibly give you - that is, correct information - please visit the foundation site.

Photo opportunities abound, and I took many. I'll now show you a few of them. If you ask me to impart any knowledge concerning the buildings, though, I'll have to admit to you that I can't tell you much. I enjoyed the tour thoroughly, and I was given a wealth of information concerning every single one of the buildings we saw, but I have retained little of what we were told. This is not the fault of our tour guide, who was one of the best.

Lindy Trigg, our FANTASTIC tour guide. If you get her as your
docent, you will be blessed. Funny, knowledgeable, friendly,
and superbly entertaining, my ignorance is not her fault.
Of course, that's obvious to most of you by now.

The very tall black building is the Willis Tower
(formerly known as the Sears Tower, it is the
tallest building in the city, and formerly the
tallest building in the world.)

The Civic Opera Bvilding.

Nice reflection of buildings from the opposite bank.

The first 12 or 13 floors of these residential buildings
are taken up with parking spaces. See the cars?
Reminds me of The Jetsons buildings.

I now wish I had taken notes during the tour, so that I could tell you more about some of the spectacular sights, but it was much more pleasant just sitting back and being entertained by it all. I suppose the dearth of information I've given you may cause you to want to take the tour yourself in order to gain the knowledge, and, if so, my spectacular ignorance has been a good thing.

Coffee, Candy, & Restrooms

One thing I wish to emphasize, concerning Chicago, is the friendliness of the people who live and work there. We encountered nary a single scowl or even a tiny bit of rudeness during our entire week-long stay. Now, obviously, visiting a city and living in it are two different things. Residents may be able to tell you about all sorts of hideous people within their metropolitan area, and we dealt mostly with service personnel who are trained to smile and make our lives easier. However, coming from the northeast of the United States, where "Fuck You!" is sometimes not seen as that different a greeting from "Good Morning!", we found the overall civility of Chicago to be a very pleasant change. I'll give one short anecdote as a sample of what we ran into every day.

After leaving the river tour, we wanted a cup of coffee. About a block from the river, there was a coffee shop. We went in. Before ordering, we inquired about the possibility of using their restrooms.

As it turned out, they didn't have any public restrooms. However, the nice young woman behind the counter (and 'nice' is not a word usually associated with baristas in our part of the world) told us that if we backtracked two doors down the street, to a candy shop, they had bathrooms we could use. She also said that they give out free samples, and maybe we'd be lucky in that department. We thanked her, and told her we'd be back for coffee after we took care of our other business.

We went to the candy store, and they did have restrooms. However, in order to use them, a woman had to come out from behind her counter, with a key, and lead MY WIFE into another part of the building. She did so, while I perused the most excellent candies on display. She returned, sans MY WIFE, and offered me a free sample of a delicious mint/chocolate concoction. When MY WIFE returned, she got a sample as well.

Understand? This would rarely, if ever, happen in Boston. One storekeeper, rather than just tell us she had no bathrooms, gave us the extra information we needed, unasked. The other storekeeper left me in her store, fairly much unattended, while going out of her way to leave her shop and take MY WIFE into another part of the building. Once she had done so, she left MY WIFE there alone - where, if she weren't MY WIFE, perhaps she could have stolen any number of things - returning to the counter to offer me free stuff. When MY WIFE returned, she got free stuff, too. This all occurred with genuine smiles - no heavy sighs, or any indication that we were putting these hard-working people to a task they'd rather not have to do - and this is the norm in that city, so far as I can tell from all of the other interactions we had during our stay.

(In turn, of course, we purchased both some candy from the one woman and some coffee from the other, so everybody got something good from the transactions. A little kindness, and a smile, greases the wheels of commerce quite wonderfully.)

Chicago History Museum

After our coffee, we went to the Chicago History Museum. It is a bit off the beaten path, a good healthy walk from the nearest El station (accessible by bus, but we weren't certain which one, so we walked it.)

We had chosen to go there because admission is free on Mondays.

(That wasn't the only reason, of course. It appeared, from brochures, to be a likely destination for quirky and interesting sights, as well as a good history lesson concerning where we were, but free always helps.)

There were exhibitions concerning weddings in Chicago, past and present; historical struggles for freedom; how Chicago grew from a one-man fur-trading outpost to a city of millions; and the many and varied facets of Chicago's Chinatown neighborhood. A wonderful presentation of dioramas showed important periods in Chicago history, and, of course, the place was loaded with facts and figures concerning The Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

The quirkiness, which is what makes this museum endearing, comes from collections of small commercial artifacts; some classic automobiles; the presence of the very first El train; and other stuff of that nature, which we hoped might be in such a place but which we weren't sure of until we got there.

The generic must-have shot when something has your name on it.
Notice how the green shirt does not hide the poundage
quite as well as the black at the top of this page...

An entire wall of an old building, complete with genuine advertisements
of the day. We speculated that the 35 cent room came with a bed,
while the 50 cent probably had sheets to go with it.

What can I say to make you want to go to this place? What if I told you, that after having been there, we would have gladly paid the admission? I suppose that might do the trick. It was a swell afternoon's entertainment, and we recommend it.

Pan Pizza

Chicago is the birthplace of pan pizza. It is an incredibly thick and gooey take on the pizza one finds in most other locales. We would no more have come to Chicago without trying this pizza than we would have gone to Las Vegas without gambling.

Now, I have to tell you that my favorite pizzas have always been those with a thin crust, somewhat crisp (although not cracker-like.) I prefer them not loaded down with too many toppings. New York pizza is the best pizza in the world, for my money. We have one or two very good pizza places in the Boston area - as a matter of fact, I love the pizza from The Pleasant Cafe, in Roslindale - but New York abounds with them. The first thing I do when I arrive in New York is search out a local parlor - any one - and grab a couple of slices. So, the general idea of pizza that is a few inches thick is off-putting to me. However, when one views this dish as not so much a pizza as an entirely different style of Italian cuisine, I think that's the right approach. You won't enter into your meal with expectations that won't be met.

We went to Giordano's, a famous pizza emporium somewhat near our home base. There was a twenty-five minute wait for seating, and they suggested that we order our meal as soon as our name was added to the waiting list. In that way, the pie would most likely be ready near to the time we were seated. As you might imagine, a pizza that is two or three inches thick takes a while to bake. We ordered one 10 inch pie, which is more than enough for two people. You can get any number of toppings (or, more correctly, fillings, for this style of pizza) at slight extra charge, so we ordered sausage and green peppers with ours.

After a brief interlude outdoors, wherein I had a cigarette and listened to a street person give a spiel about his Christian homeless shelter (I gave him two bucks for the entertainment value alone), we were seated, ordered a couple of drinks, and received our pie a few minutes later.

My God, if I had ordered pizza anyplace else and was given such a thing, I would have sent it back and questioned the sanity of the chef. However, since I knew what to expect... well, damn it, it was absolutely delicious. Magnificently chewy cheese, fresh vegetables, savory sausage, a buttery crust (perhaps a bit salty, but still nice), and, when combined with a local ale - Goose Island 312, which is pretty damned good in itself - just one hell of a satisfying meal. We took home about a third of it for snacking later as the mood hit.

And thus ends Day Four in Chicago, and the third installment of this trip report. I've got three more days to tell you about, and I hope I can fit them all into two more postings. If not, more's the pity for you.

Soon, with... well, you know.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Windy City, Windy Blog - Part 2

Subway kiosk. I liked the style, so I took a shot of it.
Notice similar across the street.

This is part two of my stupefyingly long blog concerning our trip to Chicago. If you haven’t already seen the first part, and you have an hour or two, you could go HERE and read it. Doing so will make me very happy and prove your worth as a human being.


After another nice (free) breakfast at the hotel, we decided to go see about taking a tour. The Chicago Architecture Foundation gives tours by boat, on the Chicago River, of some of the outstanding architecture of the city. We had heard nothing but great reviews of this tour, so it was on our ‘must do’ list.

The cruises were not directly accessible via the El, so I tried to get us as close as possible. After a subway ride, I figured a two-block walk in one direction and then a block or so in another direction. However, when we came up out of the subway, serendipity struck. The world-famous department store, Marshall Fields, loomed in front of us, and MY WIFE very much wanted to go inside and have a look around. She assured me that it contained some interesting architectural features of its own. I was in no hurry, so in we went.

[Marshall Fields photo from THIS SITE. ]

(It’s actually a Macy’s these days, but they’ve had the decency to leave some signage and so forth unmolested and it is readily identified as the former Marshall Fields.)

It was interesting. There is one spot in the store where you can look all the way up to the ceiling some seven or eight stories above. The escalators are all open and situated next to each other in a central area so you can somewhat pretend you’re in an Escher print while riding them.

After having ridden the escalators and looked at the ceiling, we went back outside and started walking towards what I thought was the river. However, between entering the store and exiting it, I had lost my tenuous grip on our bearings. By the time I realized we were walking in the wrong direction, we had gone about a half-mile. When we discovered the mistake, MY WIFE suggested hailing a cab to get us where we wanted to go. Great idea. We did so, and were at the river in a couple of minutes.

Unfortunately, by the time we arrived at the place on the riverbank where the tickets were sold, all tours for the current day had been sold out. I inquired as to the next available booking, and was told that the first tour on Monday morning was open. I purchased two tickets for 9 am the next day, and then we went for a walk on the riverbank.

The Silly Little French Cafe

The Chicago River is a smallish waterway, not too much wider than the Neponset River in Dorchester, if you’re familiar with that - which you probably aren’t – but unlike the Neponset, Chicago’s river has been given a nice walkway with pleasant little spots to sit and ruminate, historical plaques every hundred feet or so, and watercraft traverse it regularly. The only things traversing the Neponset on a regular basis are muskrats, and the finest amenities made available for the public to enjoy are discarded shopping carts.

The south branch of the Chicago River,
with lucky shot of swirly reflection.
It may be the best photo I've ever taken.

A short walk from where we had purchased the tickets was a small French riverbank café. Well, it advertised itself as a French café, although I have no idea why. The menu did include foie gras, so I suppose that might have been the reason. Or maybe it was the lack of service. After we were seated at a table for two, and given menus, our waiter studiously ignored us for twenty minutes. To be fair, he seemed to be somewhat harried, being one of only two servers taking care of perhaps forty patrons, so I won’t badmouth him further. However, we decided our day could be better spent than in waiting to place orders for overpriced food accompanied by slow service, so we left.

The Drawbridge Museum

God always has a reason for bringing you places, even if you think the best you’re going to get out of an experience is having not ridden a boat, not seen any great architecture, not eaten, and also not gotten the beer or wine you desired. On our walk away from the silly French café, we discovered a museum.

In the base of the bridge, at the corner of Wacker and Michigan, there is a drawbridge museum. Admission is free. You enter through a door in the actual bridge itself, and once inside you get to explore the big gears of the drawbridge, are given an education concerning differing types of drawbridges – the one housing the museum is a bascule-trunion, for what that’s worth to you - find out a whole bunch about the history of the river itself, and you climb up inner stairs to finally find yourself on the street level surface of the bridge having enjoyed yourself thoroughly and learned more about drawbridges than 19 out of 20 people you know (unless you tend to hang out with whole bunches of drawbridge attendants, in which case my estimate is probably severely off.)

Hot Dog!

We like to watch The Food Network. From watching many of their shows about Chicago, we had the idea that hot dogs were so ubiquitous in Chicago that you couldn’t swing a cat by the tail without hitting a hot dog vendor (if that’s your idea of fun.) However, even though we had been on the lookout for a Chicago-style hot dog since landing at Midway two days ago, we had yet to encounter a single place where we could purchase one.

As with our discovery of The Drawbridge Museum, however, we went where we wouldn’t have if we knew what we were doing and got a nice surprise as a result. As we later found out, by truly studying a map of the city, we had been going way out of our way to get to certain places. I would plan out routes via the El, thinking I was taking us by the most direct way possible, but, in reality, walking would have taken less time. The reason for this mistaken impression was because Chicago city blocks are rather small in comparison to some other large cities, such as New York. Whereas walking five blocks in New York might take you twenty minutes, five blocks in Chicago will take you about ten.

Anyway, after visiting The Drawbridge Museum, I tried to guide us back to the El. We planned on going for a ride on one of the lines and just enjoying the sights of some neighborhood or another from the elevated rails. I took us a few blocks out of our way and when we re-entered The Loop, one of the first things we saw was a Gold Coast Hot Dog stand. We didn’t expect to have dinner for several hours, so since the hot dogs were right in front of our faces, and we had no idea if we’d find any ever again, we decided to pop in and have one each.

The Chicago-style hot dog, as with so many other things connected with this big city, is a bizarrely large variation upon what you might find in other American cities. You get flat pizza with thin crust everywhere else, but in Chicago you get a three-inch thick creation that is basically lasagna with a crust. You get an 8-ounce fillet mignon elsewhere, but a 10 or 12-ounce one in Chicago. There are more tall buildings here than in any American city outside of New York. And your hot dog comes with half a produce section in the bun.

[Yummy Chicago Hot Dog photo from HERE.]

The Chicago-style hot dog is unique, delicious, and one makes a meal. Any good frankfurter has to start with good meat, and Chicago dogs are made with decent cuts in a natural casing. It is placed in a poppy seed bun, as opposed to the plain buns we were used to seeing at home. And most hometown dogs would stop there, leaving it to the diner to add one or two scrawny condiments, perhaps mustard and relish, and being satisfied with that. Not in Chicago. In The Windy City, they pile on a pickle that’s almost the size of the hot dog; two or three of what they call ‘sport’ peppers, which are medium-hot-spicy and about an inch or two in length; a full tomato wedge or two; yellow mustard; strangely fluorescent green relish; a handful of chopped onions; and a generous sprinkling of celery salt. The combination of flavors explodes in your mouth. The odd thing is that the dog itself doesn’t get lost amid the myriad of additional ingredients. The flavor is enhanced rather than hidden, and we were not disappointed.

The Pink Line

After our gustatory delight, we climbed the stairs to Randolph/Wabash station on the El in The Loop. After a quick consultation of a system map, we decided to take a ride on The Pink Line, out to 54th and Cermak.

(Chicago’s El lines are color-coded. There are Red, Blue, Green, Purple, Yellow, Brown, Orange, and Pink lines. The Red and the Blue are the only two that run 24-hours a day. All of the others shut down around 1am, more or less. The Red and the Blue are also the only two that run via subway through The Loop, all others being elevated.)

[Map of Pink Line from this rather comprehensive CTA-centric site.]

Our choice of the Pink Line for a ride was informed not so much via knowledge, but just because we thought the Pink Line sounded wussy and thus safe. We weren't murdered or anything, but it was probably a bit less safe than we originally thought.

We rode through The Loop and then onto the Pink Line proper. It was an interesting ride, on 25 to 30 foot elevated tracks for most of the journey, although – very odd for public transportation – there were a few grade crossings near the end of the line, cars stopped on the street waiting for us to pass.

(It just occurs to me that I have no idea how that worked with trains that operate via an electrified third rail. Wouldn’t automobiles - not to mention stray animals and children - have far too much chance to electrocute themselves? I’ll ask someone.

Nah, that's too much work. I'll take a guess that there has to be overhead wire at some point, otherwise there would be daily random frying of small animals, children, drunks, and junkies who ran onto the tracks at crossings. We didn't notice any catenary, but we weren't looking for it, either. If anyone knows the answer, feel free to make me more knowledgeable [no small feat.])

UPDATE: Jonathan Belcher gives me the lowdown!

"Hello Jim:

YOUR WIFE had mentioned to me that the two of you were going to Chicago. The trains essentially coast through the crossings. Each individual CTA car is 48-feet long and has a third rail shoe on each side of each of the two trucks. Only one shoe has to be in contact with the third rail for that one car to get 600-volt DC power. So its only a relatively short period of time going through the crossing when none of the four shoes on one car are in contact with the third rail. In a multi-car train, all cars are powered, so even if one car loses power for an extended period (if the train happened to stop with one car right in the dead spot at a crossing), the remaining cars on the train would still be able to draw power and move the train. The accelerator control systems on rapid transit cars in general also make use of low-voltage battery power, so even if the first car of a train came to a dead spot on a crossing, the train operator would still be able to control the power to the motors for the entire train and resume movement when it was clear to proceed.

There is a danger that people or stray animals can easily walk on to the right-of-way and be electrocuted. I think there have been a few occasions in Chicago over the years where intoxicated individuals have come into contact with the third-rail near a crossing despite abundant warning signs.


Thank you, Jonathan!

As interesting as the ride was, it went through some severely sketchy neighborhoods. I don’t mean that any of the people we saw looked particularly evil, but these were obviously poorer neighborhoods, many of the houses having broken windows, and missing doors or entire back porches, with the houses built literally within one foot of the neighbor’s house, windows and all, so you could open your bedroom window and fairly much reach into your neighbor’s kitchen for a snack. Many stripped and wrecked automobiles were visible, and while some streets appeared as pleasant as any other neighborhood might, there were blocks at a time that wouldn’t have looked totally out of place in a war zone. Graffiti was prevalent in spots, and some businesses had bars on the windows – that sort of thing. We didn’t feel in any imminent danger while riding the train, but even as a long-time veteran of city life, I would have been ready for action if walking some of the streets over which we rode.

The end of the line was at grade level, and in a bit nicer area, so we might have gotten out and explored it a bit if we had seen anything interesting, but the only building of any note was a high school, so we saw no need to leave the station. We walked over to the return platform and boarded a train for the ride back.

(The Pink Line heads out from The Loop in a westerly direction. In general – and I hate to use such generalities, especially when I don’t know from first-hand interaction whether the generalities mostly hold true – the south and west of the city are considered somewhat less safe than the north and the east. I had heard this from a few sources prior to our trip, and heard the same from folks in the city when we told them where we had gone. We both like to see real neighborhoods where people live, so it’s the sort of ride we sometimes prefer, but circumspection might be preferable for others. Use your own best judgment, in other words.)

Texas De Brazil

Have you ever dined at a churrascaria? If you love eating your fellow animals, there’s no better way to spend an evening.

We had been in touch with Joseph – my Godson, introduced in this narrative a day and about 4,900 words ago, I believe – and arranged for him to meet us at our hotel, from which we would take a short walk to a restaurant named Texas De Brazil. I suppose the choice of name has to do with the immediate connotation, in most folk’s minds, of Texas and Brazil as bastions of gluttonous meat eating.

If you’ve never been, here’s how it works. There is no menu. Each patron gets to have as much as he or she wants of whatever is available. There is a large buffet of appetizers, including salad-type items, cold meats, interesting vegetables, fish, soups, rice, beans, and cheeses, among others. Sample a bit of everything, if you wish, and have as many plates as you want. Thus far, it just sounds like a run-of-the-mill all-you-can-eat.

The amazing part begins when you’ve finished your plate or two of deliciousness from the buffet. Each diner is given a card or button, one side red and the other side green. You are given a new plate and instructed to keep the green side of the card turned up, on the tabletop, for as long as you wish to keep receiving meat. Once you’re sated beyond all reason, turn the card to the red side and the servers will stop coming. Don’t worry, though. Should you feel like beginning again – perhaps you belched and found more room – just turn the card to the green side and they’ll bring more meat.

An even more astounding thing is the scope, variety, and choiceness of the meats offered. I'm sure there are some hideous rodizio-style restaurants in the world, but I haven’t been to a bad one yet. A true high-end churrascaria, such as this one, offers as much true choice meat as you could possibly want, with the per person price becoming ridiculously low when you consider what you’ve been able to tuck away in your belly.

The meats are brought to your table on huge skewers, by uniformed staff that seems sincerely saddened when you don’t want to take some of what they have to offer. They bring chicken breast, chicken wrapped in bacon, roast pork, huge lamb chops, tasty sausages, tremendous tenderloin of beef, and as a topper to it all, whole skewers full of 3 or 4 ounce fillets mignon, and then, to top that, fillets wrapped in bacon. And they keep on coming, in various rotations, until you beg them to stop by turning your card over to the red side. At which point your waiter drops by and asks if you’re sure, and is there any specific cut you might like more of, so you tell him you could go for a little more fillet mignon, and he asks if you want the plain one or the one wrapped in bacon, and so that you appear at least a tad non-decadent, you tell him the non-bacon-wrapped one.

Cost for Texas De Brazil, as I recall, was about $70 per person, which included our various drinks. Joseph had three or four cokes, MY WIFE had a couple of glasses of wine, and I had a mojito. We had also ordered bottled water for the table. Exclusive of drinks, maybe $55 each? Very much worth it for the food alone, and the service was impeccable as well. Also, the ambiance was subdued and pleasant. All around, a wonderful dining experience. The fillet mignon I devoured was enough to amortize the cost of all three of our dinners. I highly recommend the place for anyone who isn’t a vegetarian or who wouldn't mind raising his or her cholesterol count by ten points in one sitting.


Oh, hell, no.

This is taking me even longer to write up than I thought it might, and I usually don’t blanch at writing 2,000 words in any one sitting. I’ll have to come back and start again tomorrow. I have four more days to tell you about. With luck, I’ll be able to do so by the end of the week.

If you have any brains, you should just go to Chicago yourself and spend a week there. It may end up being quicker than reading about it here.

Soon, with even more Chicago stuff.