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Tuesday, February 27, 2007
I Ran Away to Chicago -- in February!

I'd do it again, too. Art, pizza, Russian bookstores, a Chicago hot dog . . . And a flight delay led to an excellent lunch in Houston. (Note: This is not about politics. Not everything is, you know.)

I ran off to Chicago for a few days at the end of last week. It was for pleasure, not business, and, no, I'm not insane. I suppose I'm lucky, though. The previous week there was bitterly cold, and I left Chicago on Saturday afternoon just ahead of a major winter storm. I didn't take my laptop, so there was no blogging. My essential equipment was a cell phone, a book, a warm coat, and a three-day Chicago Transit Authority visitor's pass.

You might wonder, Why Chicago? Or, if Chicago, why February? The short answer to the latter question is, I had a Continental voucher from getting bumped last year on Delta (long story). It was about to expire, and the most interesting place it would get me before expiring was Chicago. I've driven past Chicago many times and have been to the suburbs on business, but had never seen downtown or anywhere else interesting in the city. I thought it would be fun and interesting. It was both.

Delights en Route

Even the actual travel to Chicago was a delight, and I don't mean that sarcastically. Besides the fact that I wasn't at work on a Thursday, the essential elements were the book and the food.

First, the book. Last summer a local writer recommended to me the short stories of one Ron Carlson, a Utah native who now apparently lives in Arizona. On vacation last August in Colorado, I made a bit of a game of looking for his books at the best bookstores I could find in Denver, Colorado Springs, and Boulder. I struck out, so I turned to Amazon for a collection entitled A Kind of Flying. Much as I love reading fiction, including (as it turns out) Carlson's short stories, after six months I was only about a hundred pages into the book, despite my considerable enjoyment. So I took it with me to Chicago, read it on four airplanes and at three airports during the trip, and finished the book on the flight home from Houston Saturday evening. I've read countless short stories in my life in Russian and in English, but I don't remember enjoying any one author of them more than Ron Carlson. He is fresh, imaginative, unpretentious, delightful. Color me a happy customer. (Here's an interview I enjoyed. Here's another.)

(Speaking of customers, both Continental Airlines and the Chicago Transit Authority now call their patrons "customers," not "passengers." I have tried in vain to imagine how the Harvard MBA who came up with that justified it to management.)

Second, the food. Air traffic control delays going into Chicago gave me ample time for a leisurely lunch at the airport in Houston. In E Concourse there's a Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen (one of a chain, mostly in Texas) with a $9.99 weekday lunch buffet. The blackened catfish was paradisiacal. The crawfish etouffee was superb. The shrimp gumbo was excellent, too, and everything else was just about right.

Diversey, Renaldi, a la Garbage

You'd think it would be obvious, if a city with a major airport or two is building light rail, a subway, or similar mass transit, that the transit system should go to the airport(s). Chicago, check. (Both airports.) Washington, DC, check. (The nearest airport, Reagan National.) New York City, check. (Kennedy, not La Guardia.) Salt Lake City, maybe someday. In more time than it takes me to write it, I got off the plane at O'Hare, met my brother -- who had decided to join me; we'll call him BOB, for "brother of blogger" -- got on the blue line "L" train, rode downtown -- Chicago takes pains to make its downtown beautiful at night, and it is -- tranferred to the brown line, got off on Diversey Avenue, and walked a few minutes to the Inn at Lincoln Park.

If you take sufficient care of something old, it's not really old. It's vintage or retro. Everything about the Inn at Lincoln Park was vintage except the shower controls. They were old. They presented a real risk of causing a Bill Murray-like cold shower experience (of which there are two in Groundhog Day). Overall, though, the accommodations were entirely adequate and relatively economical, thanks to a special Expedia rate. My typical large city strategy of finding an old but decent hotel, which has to drop its rates some to compete with newer hotels, worked well.

The busy Lincoln Park neighborhood is fairly upscale now, though I understand it hasn't always been. BOB and I looked through the information in our room about nearby restaurants and settled on Renaldi's Pizza Pub, a block from the Inn and across Broadway (which isn't very broad there) from a Borders Bookstore. It was about 9:00 p.m. when we ordered our garlic bread appetizer and a 14-inch pizza. (We later decided that the 12-inch pizza would have been enough for two hungry travelers.) A quick look at the menu convinced us that the pizza for us was the "A la Garbage." While waiting for our order, we amused ourselves by reading Chicago's famous, free satirical newspaper, The Onion. (I had only read it on the Web before, never in print -- and be warned, sometimes it's PG-13.) The pizza was superb, and the atmosphere was pleasant. The waiter seemed to be a real Italian.

Little Russia, Little India, Little Pakistan, and Aesthetic Nirvana

On Friday, BOB and I enjoyed an above-average continental breakfast in the Inn's well-appointed breakfast room. I tried not to eavesdrop on the guy at the next table, who was conversing in Russian (music to my ears!) on his cell phone. Then we took the L north to the Loyola University station, whence we embarked on an unexpectedly long hike up Devon Avenue. Finally we came the Indian, Pakistani, and Muslim neighborhoods, the visual highlight of which was a series of clothing stores with beautiful, colorful native Indian clothing in the windows. But our goal was slightly further: a couple of blocks on Devon Avenue which featured, among other things, some Russian bookstores. Half the fun was listening to clerks and other customers chatter in Russian. They even answered their phones in Russian. Alas, the Russian cafe we'd heard was there apparently has gone out of business.

So we rode the Devon Avenue bus back to the L and headed downtown. After eating authentic Chicago hot dogs at Chicago Sub for lunch -- thus fulfilling the trip's stated major objective -- we spent the afternoon at the Art Institute of Chicago. It's part school and part world-class art museum, and is noted, among other things, for its fine collection of Impressionist paintings. Among the Impressionists I have long preferred Renoir, but that afternoon I quickly developed a taste for the work of Camille Pissarro, too. I enjoyed this museum as much as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art or Leningrad's (now Saint Petersburg's) Hermitage. Some of the beauty is breathtaking.

After dark we wandered downtown for a while. We saw some Irish pubs and a few other restaurants which might have been fun for dinner, but they were all packed on a Friday night. So we settled for a comfortable but unspectacular dinner of American cuisine at a diner near the hotel, then returned to the hotel and dozed off during Law and Order.

I'll Admit It: Saturday Morning Was Really Cold

The next morning, we enjoyed that lazy continental breakfast again, then decided to walk east from our hotel, toward Lincoln Park and Lake Michigan. It was cold and windy -- enough so that we soon decided to turn our backs to the wind and return to the hotel. We did see a corner of Lincoln Park, including statues of Alexander Hamilton and Goethe. (See how deftly I avoid the obvious jokes involving cold temperatures and metal statues!)

You know that song from Oklahoma! about everything being up to date in Kansas City? Well, Chicago appears to have achieved a major advance in medical care which has not yet spread around the country, i.e. to Utah. At least that's what we judged from some signs we saw on Diversey Avenue. Near our hotel, you see, was an establishment called "Resurrection Health Care." That's the advance: resurrection. I wonder if it's FDA-approved already.

I meant to photograph the signs before I left, but forgot. So check out the photo at the top right of this web page. As it happens, there's a perfectly prosaic explanation for the name, but this is more fun if you don't worry about that.

By noon I was on the blue line, nearing O'Hare. Everything was essentially on time, all the way home. I sat in seat 14F on both 737s on the way home. That's the second exit row, and in both cases there was no window seat in the row in front of me. I had more leg space than I could possibly use.

BOB is eager to hear my next crazy idea for a trip. Perhaps the Finger Lakes in October, during Ithaca's Friends of the Library book sale. Lunch at Doug's Fish Fry in Skaneateles, dinner and blues at the Dinosaur in Syracuse, some colorful foilage. Then again, I've never been to San Francisco.

We'll get back to politics tomorrow.

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