come on, baby don’t you wanna go

He Ain’t Here, But He Sure Went By
Yelp recommended Fontano’s Subs near DePaul University, so I suggested to Liz C. and Stephanie J. that we meet there for lunch on Sunday. But Yelp did not tell us that Fontano’s, like a lot of downtown eateries, is closed on Sundays. I waited for the ladies to arrive so we could make new plans.

“We have our choice of Chicago chain eateries,” I offered. “Potbellies around the corner there, or Jimmy John’s the opposite way.”

“I’ve been wanting to try Jimmy John’s,” Steph insisted. “I’ve never heard of this place,” Liz said.

“They advertise it all over!” I replied. “I’ve been in town two days and I know about it.”

“I dunno …”

“You’re right, it’s a ruse. I called Steph this morning and said, ‘Now play along – this is going to be hysterical …’ ”

Jimmy John’s was open and vacant on Sunday. They prepare sandwiches with lightning speed; I had just finished paying for my roast beef when it was waiting for me at the other end of the counter. The ladies got Italian cold cuts.

I Have Always Depended On The Kindness of Transients
Steph wanted a futon or an air mattress to put up some visiting family. I had taken an unintended tour of the South Side of Chicago on Saturday, by simply walking west from Grant Park*. I vaguely remembered passing a Target … or was it a Best Buy? Giant CVS, maybe?

The three of us stood in front of a You Are Here map on the side of a bus depot, puzzling it out. I texted Google for directions. While I had my phone up, a portly man in a stained sweatshirt, ill-fitting corduroy and a Discman lumbered up next to us. “Who you callin’?” he asked.

Even if I’d really been calling a human, was this guy likely to know him? The sheer oddness of the question stymied me until Liz interjected. “We’re trying to find a Target,” she explained.

“Oh, there one on South Clark,” he said. “You just take the Red Line to Roosevelt, walk two blocks.” He trundled off.

Which was right where I’d suspected it was. “Thanks!”

We combed every inch of the Target, but could only find a sectional sofa whose arms and back folded down. It looked neat, but it was a bit more than Steph wanted to pay. The trip paid for itself, though, when we got to see the cart escalator. It’s a conveyor belt that runs parallel to the escalator that snugly grips the wheels of your shopping cart and guides it down gently. We stared like the slack-jawed tourists that only one of us were.

We found an air mattress at the Bed, Bath and What-not a block away.

Where Everybody Knows Your Name
Since MT was getting in on a late flight from Florida, I had a half-time dinner before meeting her later. Mother Hubbard’s seemed far enough off the beaten path that I wouldn’t have to deal with too many tourists. Plus they advertised genuine Chicago-style hot dogs, which I had been exhorted to try.

“Where you from?” the bartender asked after taking my order. Apparently I looked like that much of a tourist, though I’m sure asking what time the liquor stores close didn’t help. Talking about Boston sparked a conversation with the guy sitting two stools down – a New Jersey expatriate who’d lived in Colorado for a decade, then moved to Chicago to continue working for Hyatt Hotels. I chatted with him until the food arrived.

Against every instinct in my body, I let the ketchup lie, instead loading the dog with onions, sweet relish and mustard. And it was so good.

Not So Fast, Shredder
After several scheduling complications, MT, her boy Adam and I settled on Heaven on Seven on North Michigan. Having already eaten, I tucked into a turtle soup, though MT insisted I try the pulled pork she ordered. All very good. I walked in with low expectations of what Chicago could manage for Cajun cuisine, but the freshness of the meat definitely helped.

MT doesn’t use Facebook, so I got her up to speed on gossip among our old friends. She was delighted at weddings, astounded at pregnancies and happy that folks had jobs and apartments.

President Gas is President Gas Again
I took the Red Line to the Blue Line, then to the temporary Blue Line shuttle, to get to the Green Eye Lounge. The bartender never charged me for my Bell’s Amber. When I waved a five at him, he blinked. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, “but thanks for being honest.”

So Hawver and I retreated to a corner, took turns ordering rounds of domestic beer, and did what we always do in bars: debate the future of energy policy.

“Everything in this country depends on petroleum,” he said. “And when the existing reserves get too expensive for Venezuela or Mexico to export, what is the U.S. going to do?”

“Pay more,” I replied. “Or invade.”

“No, but these countries need oil too! Do you think that these South and Central American governments are going to keep selling to the U.S. while their own citizens starve?”

“Oh, God! I’d hate to live in a world where that happened!”

We ended the discussion at the same stalemate we always have: Hawver insisting that the collapse of oil would lead to a new Dark Age, whereas I insisted it would be a mere global depression that ended U.S. hegemony.

Hot Dog, Part II: The Wrath of Foie
Hawver and I planned better for our trip to Hot Doug’s on Monday morning, getting there at 10:30 on the dot. We had to wait through the line of people similarly desperate for hot dogs, but this took no more than 20 minutes. Afterward the line vanished. Hawver’s suggestion is probably best: show up at ten minutes before 11:00, so you miss the desperate people but beat the lunch rush.

Hot Doug’s only serves duck-fat fries on Fridays and Saturdays, so I missed out. But I got the sauternes duck sausage topped with foie gras and aioli – the legendary foie gras dog. It was sweet and hearty and tender, everything you’d expect. But some fries would have complemented it very well.

* Okay, the nicest possible part of the South Side.


90 east toward chicago, on my way to cincinnati

The Hunt Is On
While wandering downtown Chicago early on a Saturday morning, taking amateur pictures of the architecture, I passed the occasional pair of fit twenty-somethings in identical T-shirts, consulting a map or a clipboard. The collisions grew more frequent until I found a horde of them in Chicago’s government center, participating in something called City Chase. I wanted to explore on my own, and lacked a scavenger hunt partner besides, but it looked like fun.

Between doing some voice-over work for Urban Interactive and the lead-up to an Internet Inc. outdoor chase at our new office, I’ve been thinking a lot about scavenger hunts of late. The one time I had an opportunity to plan one – for my acting troupe in college – led to a lot of frustrating puzzle entries, excessive distances and yelling. But the variables involved fascinate me. You want entries a good distance from each other, but not so far that they exhaust the players. Clues that hinge on insider knowledge without being too obscure. Lots of different factors at play; that’s why they call scavenger hunts the “sweet science” on ESPN.

… Ladies
A man on a street corner in the Jewelry District asked if I was in the market for jewelry. If I’d said “yes” (it takes a lot of effort for me to lie), that’d have to be one hell of a pitch. Jewelry stores, with telephones and burglar alarms and everything, surrounded me at all points of the compass. That’s a lot of credibility to overcome.

“I invented diamonds.”

“The jewelry?”

“No, the stone itself.”

“… go on.”

In any case, still being a bachelor, my answer was a resigned “No.”

And We Are Here As On A Coordinate Plane
“Where are you?” Hawver asked via cell phone. “I’m at … 800 South, 300 West,” I told him. “Oh, wow,” he replied. “I’m at 800 North, 100 East.”

I love that about Chicago. I could navigate myself, or someone else, to any point in the city, and I’ve only visited there four times. All I need are coordinates. I couldn’t do that in Boston, and I’ve lived here longer than any one city. I only just realized, two years ago, that the streets crossing Commonwealth Avenue (Arlington, Berkeley, Clarendon, Dartmouth, Exeter, Fairfield) ascend in alphabetical order. Until they don’t. And that’s only if you stay west of the Common. Past that, it’s a swirling toilet drain into Cthulhu’s eye (i.e., Government Center)

We arranged to meet near to 0,0, via some combination of walking and subways. Once there, we took the Red Line north to Addison. The Red Line sits on mostly a straight north shot outside the city, so the N values increased but the E/W values stayed relatively constant. I did some quick math and consulted my encyclopedic knowledge of Blues Brothers dialogue in my head. “Are we getting off near Wrigley?” I asked.

Hawver, verifying that I had indeed taken the pebble from his hand, nodded.

Hot Dog … The Failed Movie
We’d come all the way to Wrigleyville to visit Hot Doug’s, the world-renowned hot dog shop. “Sometimes there’s a bit of a line,” Hawver cautioned. “But usually no more than …”

We slowed our walk as we approached the cafe, opposite the Williams and Midway pinball factories. Over one hundred and fifty people stretched in a line out the door, past the end of the building, and into the residential neighborhoods surrounding it. We got to the end of the line and waited for twenty minutes. It never moved.

Admitting a temporary defeat, we retreated to a taquerista near Logan Park. I had some chorizo and chicken tacos. “That’s probably the one thing I’d miss about moving out here,” I said between bites. “Fish.”

It Takes A Lot Of Money To Look This Cheap
Hawver’s band, The Lovers, played at Quenchers‘ 30th anniversary bash. They’re a five-man set: guitar (Hawver), keyboards, bass, drums and the lead singer (who also doubles on guitar or keys for some songs). They blend some electro New-Wave sensibilities with garage rock attitude – just fun, foot-tapping rock. They also managed to pack out the back room – somewhere between 30 and 40 people.

Hawver introduced me to their keyboardist Kevin and their manager Ashleigh that evening. “You manage these fools?” I asked her.

We The Living
I suffered a few minutes of confusion when I saw T-shirts for “The Livers” in the merch pile before the show started. Had I been mishearing Hawver’s band’s name all these months? Not so, as it turns out; The Livers followed The Lovers on the playlist. My second guess, equally incorrect: they weren’t a punk band. Because a band named “The Livers,” if they mean the organ, has to be punk.

No, The Livers are two guys who record themselves playing bass and drums. They then project this on a screen behind them while playing guitar live. The (recorded) drummer counts them in and they use a DVD remote to skip between songs. It’s furiously awesome.

goin’ to chicago (sorry, but I can’t take you)

Twenty-seven B-stroke-6
American Express lets you book flights online with Membership Rewards points instead of cash. The site even duplicates the functionality of Travelocity, allowing you to search a range of dates or a couple adjacent airports. Neat. But they’re not always great on follow-up.

Case in point: I wanted to check-in for my flight to Chicago early, so I needed a confirmation number from AirTran. Never got it from AmEx. So I called AirTran customer service. Waiting for the list of options to end didn’t help; the recording, instead, cycled through broader and broader questions (“I’m sorry; I didn’t understand your response. Are you even getting on a fucking airplane?”). I hung up and tried a different number, but this time ended in some bizarre menu where a recording read a list of check-in procedures off at me. “Fees may be accrued for additional bags checked. Carry-on bags must be eighteen inches deep by twenty-seven inches …”

Finally, I tried the second number once more, punching “0” repeatedly until I got a human. She found my confirmation number with all speed, wasting very little time on courtesies.

No Touching
I had an afternoon to kill before I needed to be at Logan, so I met Misch at Downtown Crossing for lunch. She took me to a place in the food court that served up tasty chicken teriyaki. The upstairs was packed, so we ate in the food court basement.

“Why Chicago?” she asked.

“I have friends there,” I explained. “But more than that, I really like the city. It’s modern, it’s cheaper than Boston. And I’ve been in Boston ten years now. It might be time for me to move. Lately I’ve been feeling something needs to change, though ‘moving eight hundred miles’ is probably the most expensive change possible. So I guess this is–

“I’m sorry,” I interrupted myself. “Could we continue this conversation somewhere that doesn’t feel like a prison cafeteria?”

Paranoia Rewarded
No sooner had I settled into my spacious second-row seat (I sprung for the business-class upgrade) than I felt something missing. Running through the pocket-patting ritual common to all adult males, I found a vacancy on my left side. iPod, yes, but no cell phone.

I darted to the front of the plane. “Sir, you’re gonna have to -”

“I left my cell phone up there.”

“Okay,” the attendant soothed. “We’ll send someone up the jetway to get it. We can’t let you back into the terminal for security reasons.”

Vindicating as it was to hear that AirTran personnel don’t think any more of TSA screeners than I do, I didn’t think sending a third party would help much. My initial conversation with the tiny man who came down the jetway bore this true. “Where was your cell phone?”

“Back there. At the gate.”

“At the gate?”

“Where I was sitting.” Not literally AT the gate; I took it out of my pocket to shut it off before boarding, so I know I had it in my hand while I was waiting for boarding to be called; this is ridiculous …

“Do you know where you were sitting?”

“At the … one of the seats? Near the middle?” A couple rows back from the gate? Near these two college students; you could tell by the baby cheeks and the sweatpants; are you really going to send me to a strange city without a cell phone?

“Okay, come with me.” The tiny man escorted me back up the ramp, nattering the whole while about a time that he’d left something at the gate and the plane had already pulled away. I chimed in to be polite (“wow, really?”) rather than gargling in panic until we got back to the gate. Once there, I shouldered past him and ran to the row I was sitting in. I tried not to wring my hands as I searched, until the crew member himself found it, its dark blue frame camouflaging it perfectly among the seats.

I’d write AirTran a thank-you e-mail, but we probably broke some federal regulations in letting me back off the plane. I’ll check with my lawyer first.

In Wicker Park Did Kublai Khan
Hawver told me to take the Orange Line from Midway into the Loop, then the Blue Line out of the city (toward O’Hare, ironically), getting off at Damen. I found him outside, reading a fat tome on energy policy. We flagged a cab, a light drizzle having started to fall since I landed.

Hawver lives in an old but well-maintained neighborhood, in a second story gut-rehabbed apartment. Wide rooms, hardwood floors and spacious ceilings. He and Dea each have their own private offices, as well as large swaths of the living room they have laid out as they see fit (Hawver: Niall Ferguson and Stephen Baxter books; Dea: Buffy and Angel DVDs)*.

All this, plus a shared garageway in the back and a third of a mile from the Blue Line. “How much does this run you?” I asked. He quoted a figure, a mere 30% more than what I pay for a studio (!) in a similar neighborhood in Boston. If I wanted to live in a similar studio, at a similar distance from a nicer downtown, I could pay half what Hawver and Dea pay for a rehabbed 3BR. I choked on my beer.

Domo Arigato, Mr. Gelato
Hawver and Dea took me to a party a short cab ride away, where some grad school friends of Dea’s were wrapping up a barbecue. The host graciously brought out some raw tuna steaks, which I ate with my hands before I even thought to offer someone else (sorry). There was also a hearty cake shaped like a robot. I didn’t eat all of that. Quit staring at me.

Though I didn’t smoke, I followed the smokers out to the porch while the grad students played Asshole indoors. Kyle, lead vocalist in Hawver’s new band, talked about his last trip to Boston. “After stumbling out of this bar called, whassit, The Field? We’re looking for the train. Can’t find it**. So we keep walking until we hit a bridge going over the river.” He went on listing the bars he and his girl Diana hit in their trip around Boston. Hawver and I, functioning alcoholics both, chimed in whenever he struggled for an establishment’s name.

“Did you come to Chicago to see Hawver play tomorrow?” his friend Tony asked.

I thought for a moment. “Yes, I did,” I said.

“Shit,” Kyle said, pitching his cigarette. “Now I’m’a have to be good.”

* Not to suggest that Dea doesn’t read; rather, as a grad student, reading is business for her.
** To pre-empt the question, yes, you have to be pretty drunk to miss the Red Line coming out of The Field in Central Square. That’s what made it such a good story.

like a lover’s voice toward the mountainside

No new content on Monday or Tuesday. Wednesday through Friday will be a recap of my trip to Chicago. If you’re a friend of mine on Facebook, you can see photos I took of various buildings. If not, you can’t.

Well, okay, you get three.

chicago courthouse

north michigan ave

roosevelt subway

but I don’t see any angels in the city

I love cities more than anything.

I love the density of city blocks – twenty-story buildings blotting out the sunlight. Crowds of students, tourists, people on business. Diners and narrow, ancient storefronts. Cabs passing green statues. Ten dollar sandwiches and eight dollar drinks. Bars open until four, clubs open until sunrise. Five million people in the same twenty square miles, in defiance of all sense. Being alone in a crowd; making friends out of strangers. I love cities.

You have to beg and threaten to get me to go camping with my best friends in the world – and I say this from experience, and it hasn’t worked – but I’ll take a trip to see a city at the drop of a hat. I’ll buy bus tickets, train tickets, plane fare, whatever it takes.

I think my love affair with dense urbanity keeps me from embracing my functional anarchism to its full extent – that Daniel Quinn certainty that tight collections of human beings require powerful states and entrenched corporations to sustain them. They clearly do. And I clearly can’t live without them. I’m the product of a world I think is unnatural, and it bugs me at times. But then I see the Manhattan skyline from the Acela Express, or get to watch Boston turn the night sky pink, and I forget it all. Cops, unions, housing codes, churches? Bring ’em on!

All this I say to preface the trip I just booked to Chicago for two weeks from today (August 21-24). Let me know if you want to a visit from a wide-eyed Bostonian while I’m there.

all I care about is love

I could move to Chicago very easily.

Apparently, Internet Inc. will move experienced people out there with very little argument. I could spend what I pay now for housing and get a spot in a nicer neighborhood. Chicago’s subway looks more extensive than Boston’s; I could get rid of the car. Two of my best friends in the world – Mariateresa and Hawver – already live in the city. I think I’d do all right there.

I’m not bored with Boston yet, though. Not quite. But I can feel it at the edges. Hawver once said that only thirty real people live in Boston; the rest are smoke and mirrors. I think I’ve met twenty-six of them and I keep seeing them at the same bars. It might be time to broaden my horizons.

Nobody panic; I’m not moving yet. Check in with me in nine months, though. Because something’s got to change – either me or the city or the world I live in – or I don’t know what I’ll do.