Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Come On, Babe, We’re Gonna Paint the Town

The route I had planned out yesterday developed a hitch almost from the very beginning. The plan was for me to gradually make my way north towards Wrigley Field in the morning / early afternoon, and then slowly come back south in the evening. To that end, I was going to do a quick drive-by at the Adler Planetarium first, because it has great views of the city skyline (I do happen to like planetariums too, but I wasn’t in the mood for a museum).

The problem was that there was nowhere to park, so I drove around in a circle a few times and decided it would be better to just move on.

My next stop would be Millennium Park, right in the center of the city, between all the downtown skyscrapers and the lake. It felt a little like being in Central Park, but didn’t have that sense of being in a huge space surrounded by an incredibly hectic city. It felt more like Boston Common, where you can see the city, but don’t feel like you’re in it. At the same time people are relaxing without seemingly worrying about getting back to the “real world.”

It might have helped that there was a Family Fun pavilion set up today, so there were lots of families with young children all over the place. The pavilion itself looked pretty awesome – a giant checkers game, a coloring station, an area with tens of thousands of Lincoln logs, a big pile of art supplies and glue, and a storyteller. I could have entertained a group of campers for hours in there.

Right in the center of the park is what would usually be one of my least favorite things on earth – a large piece of abstract modern art with a pretentious title. Officially named “Clouds Gate,” it’s basically a giant silver bean. And I mean really giant and really silver. Unlike most pieces of abstract modern art, I quickly grew to like this one. I loved walking around it and seeing it from every angle, not because I had any interest whatsoever in looking at the bean, but because it reflected everything and everyone around it with a sort of funhouse mirror effect. I’m pretty sure I’m in every picture I took of the thing, although I haven’t found myself in all of them yet.

There was also another oversized piece of modern art in the park, the Crown Fountain. This thing (well, things actually, there are 2 of them facing each other) is a big block with water running down the sides. On the facing sides, there are LCD screens projecting people making random faces. Every now and then, they’d make a spitting motion, and water would shoot out of their “mouths.” This one I didn’t particularly care for, except that it had the added benefit of providing fun, which it would have done even without the convoluted artistic message.

By this time, I was ready for lunch and I wanted pizza. So I found a pizza place near the park and ordered the absolute smallest one they had. It was an individual lunch special pizza that was about the size of a small frozen one from the supermarket. Somehow, by the grace of God, I was able to finish the whole thing, but moving afterwards was not exactly easy. As for the debate about New York vs. Chicago style pizzas, there’s really no way to say one’s better than the other. It’s like comparing Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes. They both have the same main ingredients (high blood sugar / cheese, sauce, and crust), but the way you arrive at the final product is completely different and, in the end, the only real similarity is in the name. As for the pizzas, I think it’s possible for any given pizza of either style to beat another of the opposite style. It all depends on the quality of the ingredients. The one with the best sauce and cheese will be better, regardless of how it’s assembled.

After lunch, I staggered back across the park to the car and headed north to Wrigleyville. Unfortunately, the Cubs are in Houston today so I didn’t get to see a game, but I had tickets to go on a tour of the ballpark, if nothing else. Parts of Wrigley remind me of Fenway – the obstructed view seats, the manual scoreboard – but it’s also very different. Wrigley is much larger than Fenway and doesn’t have the level of quirkiness of its Boston counterpart. It also doesn’t feel 100 years old. The seats are larger, it doesn’t have the retro-style signage, and the outside has a surprising amount of 1960’s stucco. Like the pizza, though, I can’t fairly come to a conclusion about which is a better baseball venue until I get back here to see a game at the Friendly Confines.

Next, I headed south to continue my habit of climbing to the top of the tallest things around by visiting the John Hancock Observatory.

The big black one
I know, the Willis Tower (aka Sears Tower) is taller, but everything I read prior to coming here said that John Hancock has better views. So I hopped on the elevator, and about 40 seconds later I was on the 95th floor, listening to the audio tour with my personal tour guide, David Schwimmer.

Since I didn’t get there until around 6:15, I decided to hang around until the sun went down. After all, how likely was I going to be to find a better vantage point for a sunset than the top of a 1,000-foot building? Over the course of an hour, the views went from this:

to this:

Pretty cool. I still want to do that at the Empire State Building some time, but I haven’t found an occasion for it yet.

Next it was time for dinner (It had been almost 9 hours since the pizza bomb, so I was ready to give food another try). I drove over to Navy Pier, where I was planning on going to the restaurant that inspired the “Cheeseburger Cheeseburger” / “No Coke, Pepsi” sketch on SNL. But along the way I didn’t see it, so I turned to Yelp for some help (hey, that rhymes), and ended up reading some reviews of it, none of which were particularly kind. So I abandoned that idea and looked for somewhere else. I passed by a Bubba Gump Shrimp place and saw big buckets of shellfish on a few tables. This reminded me of the commercials for Joe’s Crab Shack, which in turn reminded me of the great shrimp I had at the now-submerged Joe’s Crab Shack in Galveston. So I decided on Bubba Gump. I know, it’s a chain, but it’s a chain I don’t have by me, and it looked really good, so there you go.

And it was worth it, because the food was great, even though my waiter totally looked like Detective Holder from AMC’s The Killing. I got a thing of 3 kinds of shrimp (it’s a Forrest Gump-themed place, so it was fried shrimp, battered shrimp, cocktail shrimp…), all of which were fantastic and came with appropriate dipping sauces. My only complaint is that my waiter gave me the check before I had a chance to order dessert, but I think it was getting to be closing time and they all wanted to get out of there. In particular, he needed to get back on set so they could keep filming season 2 of The Killing. So I ended up going to an ice cream place on the pier instead.

I didn’t go on any of the rides there (there’s a Ferris wheel, scrambler, merry-go-round, and some other ones) but walking around between them was good enough. In an amusement park on a summer night, eating an ice cream cone, it felt like an entire day in Wildwood compressed into just a few moments.

But that didn’t last long, because when the clocks struck 10, everything closed. This caught me off guard, because I thought that megacities like Chicago stayed open all night. If this was New York, it would have a skeevy amusement park open until 4am and it would be packed the whole time. Maybe New York is just different than every other city like that.

Overall, though, I like Chicago. It’s such a large city that, like in New York, if you just put your head down and do what you’re doing, you won’t get strange looks from locals who can tell that you ain’t from around here. Having grown up around New York, I could tell how things work here (how aggressively to drive, to avoid taxis, not to wait for the light to turn to cross the street), and became comfortable very quickly.

Anyway, on the way back to the hotel, I decided to give the Adler Planetarium one more try. Surely at this hour I could just park on the street and no one would complain. It’s not like people would be vying for spots at 10:30. So I parked, walked down to the very edge of the water, and took a few pictures of the skyline.

Tomorrow I’ve got some extra time since I only have to get about 400 miles for the day so I may end up going back there to see the museum itself (there are actually 3 museums all about the natural sciences right there). After all, once I’m out of this town, it’s basically just a straight shot back to Colonia.

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