27 October 2011

My Kind of Town, Chicago Is

This was inspired by a post, "Chicago!" in the blog of a friend of mine.

In sixth grade, I got to on an overnight school field trip to Chicago.  I had never been anywhere like Chicago.  It seemed everywhere one looked, there were skyscrapers and scores of people.  I've always romanticized the hustle and bustle of a big city, feeling bored in the small town where I grew up so it was love at first sight for me.

We went to the Museum of Science and Industry.  I remember three things from the museum: their exhibit of the captured German submarine, U-505; taking the photograph below with a friend of mine; and the two of us defying instructions and ordering some pizza from the Pizza Hut inside the museum.  That pizza came in handy because it took a lot longer than expected to clear out and get us somewhere to eat (a Cracker Barrel somewhere in Indiana, as I recall) and everyone else was quite upset at how hungry they had become.
I have a bad habit of looking at people
who make me laugh while taking pictures.
Beyond the museum itself, though, I remember that the bus drivers and our teachers had a hard time finding the hotel, a Courtyard by Marriot, and we got settled in much later than anticipated.  I remember the Cubs were in Philadelphia that night, because we caught part of the game on WGN that night.  There were four students per room, two per bed.  I shared a bed with the goofball in the above photograph; I don't recall now who our roommates were.  I know I wanted to stay up later than the other three.

The next morning, we all went to the hotel pool.  I recall vividly that the floor of the pool was not smooth and it hurt my feet.  (I generally just stood in the pool because I'm a terrible swimmer and I hate it.  I should have just flaked in a chair.)  Remember that girl who rejected my rose in seventh grade?  Well, she was there and in sixth grade I overlooked her pasty white flesh and the fact she had no business wearing a bikini.  I still think about that from time to time as something I should have thrown in her face.  I'm petty like that, i suppose.

There was a longer return trip to Chicago in eighth grade, but I was only an alternate and everyone who made the list wound up going.  So, instead, I used my saved money to buy my very own VCR.  It was a Magnavox, and the first movie I watched on it was Batman Returns.

In 1998, I was talking with another friend of mine who lamented the fact that would be the first year in a decade he hadn't gone to Chicago for the annual comic book convention (Wizard World Chicago).  I was working at Cracker Barrel by then and had plenty of disposable income and nothing to stop me from up and going somewhere.  So, a week before the convention, we decided we'd go.  It was pretty easy getting that weekend off of work.  The very first shift I worked after we had talked about going to Chicago, my manager approached me desperate for me to work in the kitchen instead of waiting tables.  I told him I'd do it, but only on the condition he take me off the schedule the following weekend so I could go to Chicago.  He didn't even hesitate to agree to my terms.  It was a great bargain for me!

Along with the convention, we took in some of the city.  I distinctly recall the street vendor shown below, who accosted us near the Chicago River, hustling a shoe shine service: "$8 a shoe, the tip up to you!"  I was wearing sneakers so having them shined really didn't make any sense, but they were actually kinda dirty for some reason and since I was bad with money and since I wasn't up to resisting his aggressive sales approach, I paid him $20 ($8 per shoe with a $4 tip) to clean my sneakers.  A complete waste of my $20, but I like to think it was somehow important to him.  Like maybe he took a date to see a movie with that $20 and now they're happily married.
"$8 a shoe, the tip up to you!"
That was the first of three consecutive summer trips to Chicago for my friends and me.  In 1999, we went to the Ravinia Festival for a concert by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra performing the movie music of John Williams...with the maestro himself conducting!  The following year, we caught Clint Black.  That was a busy day; we left home around midnight, drove to Chicago by morning (stopping along the way to kill time because we realized we were on schedule to arrive too early), then took in an afternoon Cubs game at Wrigley Field.  Somehow, we still had the energy for the Clint Black show that night!  Ah, to be young...

These are all things we saw and did, but what stood out to me most about Chicago was how friendly the people were wherever we went.  Being from the South, I was given to understand that was rare on the other side of the Mason-Dixon line.  Instead, I have consistently found Chicagoans to be friendly and welcoming.  Even overwhelmed cashiers trying to keep a long line moving generally managed to greet me with a smile.  Certainly, my sample size is pretty limited and confined to a relative handful of places whose business relies on providing quality customer service.  But even Chicagoans who weren't on the clock were generally friendly when I interacted with them.  Moreover, they were colorful and did the kinds of things that few around here would have the gumption to do.  Like this cool cat:
In 2006, my wife and I actually took our honeymoon to Chicago.  It amused a lot of Chicagoans to hear that, of all the places in the world, we had selected the Second City.  My wife had never been there, but we discovered that the New York Yankees (her favorite team) were in town to play the White Sox at the same time that Wizard World Chicago took place.  We got a great deal at the Tremont Hotel.  There are numerous little anecdotes I could tell from our honeymoon (and some I can't!), but this post is already lengthy so I'll hold onto those for another time.