Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Dear Chicago, You'll Never Guess...

Admittedly, going out is not the best way to prepare for a long journey on the road, but at this stage of my life, staying up until 5AM is still easier than setting the alarm clock. I didn't plan it, but a Thursday in Amherst is always a bit of fun. Dicky Peach and I pushed our way onto an already crowded bus and headed into Stackers for a night on the jukebox. Sam joined us later and for a few hours we broke up the terrible tunes of the American youth and were surrounded by lovely company.

On our return to Cashin Sam and I again broke our meat embargo...but this time it was deliberate. It had been months since I had eaten chicken wings, and the consequences frightened the hell out of me and any plumber within a 100 mile radius. That wasn't enough to stop me from picking apart a few pieces after a belly full of beer. A few days later I again rediscovered why I won't be eating them ever again, but before that...

I still had a few hours to kill before our planned departure to Chicago. A 7-seater van was procured, but instead of the work I had originally planned, I opted to pack in the dark, watch TV and keep my roommate up. Eventually the clock did some laps and just before 6AM, we were all crammed into the van.
Double Denim Dicky Peach

Dicky Peach's shoulder is not nearly as comfortable as I needed it to be, and after nodding on and off for a few hours I was the first to make grumpy remarks. Chicago bound, the anticipation and the onset of cabin fever meant the hours ticked by ever so slowly. It took an eternity to reach Buffalo, and by then I was sleeping like Da Vinci, 20 minutes every few hours.

As much as I had romanticised road trips from books and films, the reality was proving to be far different. Cramped, sleep deprived and longer than I imagined. The 8 hours to Buffalo were beginning to hurt, but we were only halfway. Worse still, due to red-tape and my fear of driving on the wrong side of the road, no one else could help out with the driving. For all my complaints, it was really nothing compared to what she had to put up with.

Once past Buffalo and a few naps in between we made it to Ohio. I was really drawn to Cleveland last time I visited it-it's a perfect representation of American industrialisation. It could be amazing, the city's highlights stand to the side of Lake Erie, and the skyscrapers and built up areas indicate a level of wealth and beauty. Yet, there is something about the city holding it back. It's the place that could have been, and a place I'd like Wollongong to be. If you want to see America, and all that is, then head to Cleveland.

The view of the city came and went, and part of me wished we were stopping there as well. As we left it behind the sun began to set over Ohio's rural parts and before long, we were in Indiana. Before long, we were finally entering Chicago past the White Sox stadium, then finally into the downtown area. It was around 11PM, and a marathon effort.

Despite the exhaustion of the trip, I was buzzing about being in Chicago. I remember sifting through countless basketball books and magazines when I was 9-10 years old and planning my life around going to the University of North Carolina and then living in Chicago, just like the man I admired most at the time, Michael Jordan. I applied to go to UNC on exchange, but my subjects didn't work so I had to pass on that, but it was 15 years of dreaming that ended when I stepped out from the car onto the tarmac. To me, the place was more myth than reality. A brilliant sporting city, with two black Skyscrapers overlooking everyone in its surrounds and a massive lake that freezes in a winter I can still only imagine. It's home to Batman, another hero of mine growing up, and to Roger Ebert, a hero of mine as a man (please read this, you're a poorer person for passing it over. Every meal you eat will taste better. Every word you speak will resonate longer and every girl you kiss will be sweeter). Still, not all childhood aspirations workout. As the reality pushes forward, I'm approaching my 25th birthday both unqualified and unemployed.

It was late when we arrived, and being collectively knackered it was remarkable we even walked the few blocks it took to get food. For a meagre $5, I treated myself to a Dr Pepper and a lice of the famed deep dish pizza and almost immediately succumbed to the food sleeps.

In the earlier hours of the next day we set off to see the city. We crossed the river and I got to see Marina City with my own eyes, rather than the printed pages of books or pixels of my computer screen. There were tales that Chicago was an outstanding city for architecture, but to have it validated so quickly was a bonus.

Better yet, stores of torrid weather had yet to prove true, as the sun shone brightly on a beautiful winter's day. Through the city's streets and under the railway tracks that were above us, we made it to millennium park where families were not falling over on the ice skating rink while everyone else was mesmerised by a giant chrome bean.

The bean had masses enthralled, and is one of the best pieces of public art you'll ever see. The city's skyline reflects in odd shapes while you can choose to manipulate your own body into a series of different shapes that would take months in the gym. Though amused, Sam and I wandered off in search of water. Living in landlocked Amherst, I'm always ecstatic to see large bodies of water, even if it is a lake. Our venture to Lake Michigan was punctuated a stop at Frank Gehry's insect like pavilion. Even with the sun out and a beautifully clear look, the lake still featured ever-present icebergs (dead ahead!). Alas, our venture to the water had ended, and we moved onward to Willis tower.

Sears/Willis tower had graced the background of my phone for two plus years. Whenever I was looking for motivation to do well at university so I could go abroad I only had to look at the screen of my brick-like Nokia for inspiration. It's the tallest building in the U.S. and there was no point in aiming for second best. Like Michael Jordan as a kid, the Willis Tower was another realisation of a longheld ambition.

...only the line to go to the top was 3 hours long. We all elected to brave it, the day was too beautiful to risk losing, and if spending 17 hours in a car previously wasn't enough, we were again in close quarters for another three as we slowly meandered our way to a series of elevators taking us to the top. The building's design was first demonstrated by holding 9 cigarettes together and have them raise up at different points. As we made it through each durry we slowly climbed up to the skydeck.

The views of the city were amazing, and the clearness of the day gave us vision for miles. The windows left a lot to desire for, but seeing the John Hancock Center stand tall with Lake Michigan in the background bypasses any grievances. The three glass boxes that are built externally to building received a workout that would cause any engineers heart to momentarily stop. Seven of us gathered inside one of the fishtank like platforms, and for numerous attempts did our best to all jump at the same time. It was equal parts stupid and fun, but had it gone wrong, it would have been a great place for the story to end.

It didn't, and we wandered on to some other pizza joint that was full. When we finally found a place to grab a bite and a beer the sun was setting and the cold was creeping in. After one round the girls were already feeling the effects of the beer and for the next two hours did their best to psyche out Dicky Peach and Sam. It didn't work, and we after a quick pitstop back at the hotel we all ventured back out again.

I had originally planned on doing some light stalking on a musical hero of mine, Bob Nanna. Unfortunately his usual appearance wasn't on this week, as he is off adding to his musical history at the moment. What I missed out on  on this trip will be more than made up for when the new album drops, and if anything I hope to be back in Chicago.

Anyway, back to the bars! The previous night we had seen a bunch of girls inappropriately dressed for the cold and the whole city seemed drunk. We went looking out for our own deep dish slice of this, abut all we found was one bar that was too busy. When that stopped being fun we found an Irish bar and with Harp and Smithwicks on tap, Dicky Peach was immediately at home. Alex, by this stage was somewhere far from planet earth. He struggled his way through ordering a beer and when Sam and I left him reports filtered through that he spent the latter part of the night chatting to a homeless man (the conversation began when he threw something at Dicky Peach, but missed and hit the hobo). Tani's tiredness has crept in, and she was nodding off in the bar while Renita was still trying to psyche out Sam with her advances.

On the return to the hotel Dicky Peach had taken a fatherly tone to Alex as he tried to coerce him into shutting up and sleeping. Northern Ireland's next Liam Neeson was channelling his best authoritative figure in an attempt at keeping Alex quiet. It worked to a point, but the next day when Alex had misplaced his wallet (he thought it had been stolen again) he made a commotion until he discovered it...along with all the condiments and other pieces he had stolen the night before.

While Alex was trying to figure out what had happened the night before and Peach made plans to see the ice-hockey, Sam and I walked out into the streets to see more of the city. I had previously noted how much I missed rain-the sound, the smell and how the snow was almost placid in comparison. That all changed when I went outside, and almost immediately it started bucketing down. Unlike Amherst, where at the moment it rains and freezes causing people like me to slide down hills, the Chicago rain just kept falling and falling. I heard the sound, I smelt the smell, but when my shoes and jacket soaked through I no longer missed it.

After an hour or so I made it to Art Institute Chicago and left Sam to walk to the planetarium. I was there to see Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, but as soon as I saw the large Seurat I had my own Cameron moment from Ferris Bueller. It was amazing to see the impressionist paintings up close, and while they can leave one feeling inferior, they can also make you try harder than you normally would. That complex feeling of inferiority and inspiration followed me throughout most of the gallery. In reality, I'm just another guy from Wollongong who likes a holiday, but in my time I've been privileged enough to see some of the world's finest galleries and pieces of art. I may not have any formal qualifications, and I've not read a great deal on the topic, but for what my opinion entails, I feel the Art Institute Chicago is the best gallery I've been to.
Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

Daydream Nation!

When I had stopped, stared and done my lap I tried to meet Sam at the aquarium so we could see some whales. I've seen humpbacks play off the coast of the Illawarra twice before, but getting up close would have been something else. When the rain continued to pelt down I was doing my best aquatic impression, but when it came time to go inside, the line stretched all the way outside and around the corner. Instead, Sam would have to put up with more planetarium as I joined him and the girls there.

The lake was choppy due to the weather, and we braved the outside again before a large black Cadillac people mover pulled up. We were told it was a limo, and without much hesitation I, along with everyone else jumped in and headed for Gino's East for more deep dish pizza. The menus all had activities for kids on the flipside, and I smashed everyone when it came to finishing the race, but in fairness, the girls beat me when it came to the eating competition. For all of its loveliness, there's a limit to how much deep dish pizza you can eat in a day (it's three slices).

The remainder of the stuff was more reserved. With the rain not relenting, we left Tani alone to get her car sleep while the rest of us smoked victory cigars and stank up the whole place. Knowing we had another marathon car trip ahead of us, we all played it relatively least until the cigars finished.

The trip back did not disappoint in terms of its difficulty. It was another 17-18 hours in cramped space with what felt like unlimited monotony. Street signs became more and more amusing, with one declaring "Correctional Facility Area, Do Not Pick Up Hitch-Hikers", and another advertisement offering "Fireworks, Swords & Knives, Pepper Spray and Stun Guns. I also had a lady threaten to call the cops on me, because I desperately needed to pee and the side of her gas station seemed good enough (I did my best to write the word 'Sam' in the snow so that I at least had an alibi).

We finally made it back to Amherst at around 2AM, and everyone was equally shattered. It was a lot of work for two days, but Chicago is a great city and every minute there is worth 35 hours in a car. While the two days was not enough to really appreciate the place, it's simply whet my appetite to return. When I return home the same background will adorn my phone, and the same motivation will exist. Chicago is an amazing place, a culmination of so many things I had wanted for a long time, and now that I've been there, I can't wait to formulate new reasons to go back.

Stereophonics - Step On My Old Size Nines
It's not doppelganger week, but this song has been rolling around in my brain for the last few days. Enjoy the finest Welsh exports since my uncle Chris.

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