Road Tripping in Chicago, Part II

Our second morning in Chicago was far more lethargic than the first, though it was more the product of a restful sleep than laziness. We went downstairs with Brit’s mom, searching for a breakfast place that our phones told us should be outside on the corner. It was not, but we discovered two restaurants in the hotel that we didn’t know existed before. Both were closed but one had a single table of people inside eating. I like to think they were held there against their will and made to eat at all hours of the day.

We finally found the breakfast place on the other side of the hotel and could just barely fit inside, but there we ate and schemed our next day of adventure. Brit’s mom’s friend Susan (the recently reconnected childhood friend) had expressed enthusiasm for showing us around Chicago and all of its museums. We, of course, were very excited to have a local agree to show us around. And so, after breakfast (and after I went back to the hotel room with the intention of brushing my teeth and using the commode, only to have that plan dashed upon the rocks once I found a seemingly-mute cleaning lady busily exchanging our slightly-unclean towels for perfectly-clean ones), Susan came to pick us up.

We quickly plotted our plan with a list of lots of museums (Chicago likes museums, and I hear the museums are rather fond of Chicago too) and headed downtown. Susan parked in an underground garage that seemed more maze than garage (not unlike the Art Institute), and then we trekked a few blocks over to the Museum of Contemporary Photography. There were several pieces with better reasoning behind them than execution, and then some cool collage work that I’m not convinced had any particularly deep meaning, and then some truly disturbing pieces with titles like “Untitled (Broken Glass)”, which naturally got me wondering why would you pretend it’s untitled at all.

There was an odd 18mm film of an animated brook and another, much cooler one of a guy flipping through pictures on his iPad, each picture representing a memory. It was so modern and simple that it ended up being really interesting – more so than the floor of fuzzy images with names like “A Chinese Ghost”. The final floor of the museum had pieces with a cool mix of photography and sketches. Overall it was a very dark collection, the coolest being this green one I posted a picture of.

We left that museum and managed to run into Susan’s husband, David, who we’ll talk about later. He was going to work so we only briefly said hi before ducking into the Museum of Architecture, which features an accurate miniature replica of Chicago. It was an amazing replica, with little slides all around the mini-city telling you all kinds of factoids about the history and design. I hear they do a 2-hour guided architecture tour down the river, and it’s probably amazing but we didn’t have the opportunity. I snapped a lot of pictures of mini Chicago.

After leaving the miniature replica behind us, we embarked on the Magnificent Mile, Chicago’s renowned strip of stuff. I didn’t even realize we were on it until we were halfway down it, when the buildings kept getting larger, the crowds kept multiplying, and the shops kept getting ritzier. The fog managed to lift on that day, so we could see most of the buildings, and seeing the Riverwalk and the Chicago Tribune Tower was really cool. Giant Marilyn Monroe flashed her giant undies and everyone seemed delighted.

When we walked by the incredibly-ornate Chicago Tribune Tower, we noticed that there are blocks in the walls from different famous places all over the world. The Great Wall, Buddhist temples, The Alamo, the Great Pyramid of Giza, etc. Susan, an intelligent owner of a PhD who’s lived in a startlingly large number of countries, wondered aloud if displaying that kind of worldliness wasn’t an admission of imperialism as opposed to a celebration of collective humanism. China, after all, probably hadn’t willingly given up some of those building blocks. I certainly like to think of Chicago Tribune reporters going to these far-off lands and trying to discretely pull massive stone blocks from the walls of timeless landmarks.

There was the old water pump station, where Chicago used to get its water, and an old fire station that looks to still be in use despite looking doll-sized. Then we were at the Museum of Contemporary Art, where we stopped for a little food and some drinks. The first exhibit we saw downstairs was really modern stuff – like putting neon lights in crisscrossing lines and then turning them on – but some of it was still pretty cool until we got to one room in particular. This room didn’t even try. There was a metal bar on the ground and we joked that that was part of the exhibit, but then we read one of the name plates on the wall and realized we were right.

Upstairs was an interesting set of photographs that showed a house with 3D spheres cut out of it with a chainsaw, and there Susan delivered a pitch for an apocalyptic movie that I promised to make. We’ll all get rich! Another floor up brought us to the main attraction, an exhibit about pop culture art from the ’80s, mostly centered around Reagan and AIDS.

It was a good mix of material ranging from billboards to paintings and sketches, with a few videos thrown in. Given that most of the art centered around the rise of AIDS, it wasn’t exactly a feel-good exhibit, but I found it interesting since I wasn’t even alive during that time. A lot of it would have a story behind it – such as a sculpture one artist made for a police station that depicted a black guy in a hoodie crouching next to a dog. The city had commissioned it to be made because they wanted something decorative and yet representative of the community, so naturally the artist decided to make it look like one of the members of the community. In the end the sculpture only lasted a week in front of the station because the hoodied guy looked much too much like a hoodlum.

Susan split early to retrieve her car from that far-away labyrinth of a parking garage, so we finished up with the exhibit and perused the gift shop, which mainly consisted of cool gimmicky things that you would never know what to do with (like most gift shops I’ve come into contact with). We had been walking a ton and my feet were glad for the rest when we sat on the steps of the museum, just watching a guy with a pink mohawk leisurely ride his bike back and forth. He reminded me of Portland, that other far-off city we explored mainly on foot and train.

Susan picked us up and she expertly navigated the Chicago traffic (traffic inevitably stresses me out and I can’t imagine driving around a city like Chicago where everyone’s first response is to angrily honk) to get to a restaurant called Big Bowl, which served Chinese and Thai dishes. Just because we admitted to the waiter that we’d never before dined there, he brought us complementary Summer rolls, which were scrumptious, and then David came in to eat with us. We talked about the city, which David has lived in for quite some time, and he and Susan told us all about what it was like before the western side (where Reilly and Sam live) became hip and cool. Its development sounded very similar to that of East Nashville, going relatively quickly from an unsavory part of town to a gentrified hipster haven.

The restaurant was delicious and my Thai curry came in a clay pot that added to the experience perhaps more than it should have. After much eating and talking, Susan again split to fetch the car and we stepped outside to wait for her. David explained that the amount of fog we were seeing (a lot) wasn’t at all normal for Chicago, that it was because of the sudden warmth they’d been having the past week or so. We bid him farewell and Susan drove us a few blocks away, where we hopped on a train back to Reilly’s place.

It was Sam’s birthday, so we went to a bar, Small Bar, and drank beers to celebrate. I drank some local ones, including an incredibly hoppy one out of a can, and I surprised myself. Perhaps I’m developing an affection for IPAs after all. After the bar, we all took a train further west to a party of a friend of theirs. The party was in a house in which five people lived, and we didn’t know anyone but Reilly, Sam, and their friend Kayla. Almost immediately I befriended a tall bearded fellow, mainly on account of his hearty laugh. I’m a fan of hearty laughs, and it just so happens that he’s in school to be a cinematographer, so then we got all dorky about film and talked about cameras and stuff. I told him about Employment, my forthcoming short film, and he was immediately gung-ho about it, which was nice.

After standing and chatting and witnessing some drinking game whose rules I for some reason could not fathom, we hopped back on the train and rode it a ways before splitting apart from Reilly and Sam and walking, just Brit and I, to Chinatown. It was late (around 1am), but the area wasn’t unsafe or anything, just empty. We had a few blocks to go and we were both tired and pleased with the full day we’d had. A cat crossed our path and ran across the street. I looked at it and said – as I’m wont to do – “Hey cat, don’t do that!”

The cat turned back to me with a look like, “Hey man, this ismycity. You don’t tell me what to do.” I was stunned by its impertinence, so then we made up a half-hearted jingle for it, for Chicago Cat, which thankfully survived the night. Ask me sometime and I’ll sing it.

Safely inside the hotel, we quickly slithered into the bed and fell into another restful sleep.

Stay tuned for Part III, the exciting conclusion to the Chicago four-day spectacuweekend!

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~ by Jon C. Forisha on March 29, 2012.

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