Doing Chicago

Last week, to make the most of the little time I have left in the USA, I decided to kind of invite myself over to my friend Ethan’s house in Chicago, because I figured he’d be the sort of guy who’d have a good time showing someone around the city. It turned out I was right. He planned out a big bike trip to go see most of the interesting things in the city, and I drove up there one Wednesday to visit him.

Actually, what I did first was go drop off my snake at his new home in Deb’s basement. My dad has taken care of snakes before, but I trusted Deb more than him, knowing how Dad is with animals. He has this way of sort of forgetting about animals until he remembers that they need to be fed, then feeding them and forgetting about them again. Snakes don’t need to be fed very often, so if Dad gave Tenzing a big enough bowl of water, he could conceivably open the cage only two or three times in the whole time I’ll be gone. This is why I figured Deb was the better bet. Unfortunately, Tenzing didn’t seem to like her, or maybe he was just in a sour mood from all the bumping on the car ride up to Chicago. He bit her a few times, which is more than he’s ever bit anyone before. He took a swipe at me, too, but he missed. Luckily, Deb is intrepid, and said that Tenzing is small enough that his bites didn’t even hurt. She told him that she’s soften him up over the coming year, and he’s just going to have to shove all his hard feelings aside because she won’t be putting up with them. He’ll do just fine.

After I explained all the tricks and peculiarities of my giant homemade cage, I bade Deb and Tenzing goodbye and zigzagged through Chicago to eventually Ethan’s house. It’s a nice place. They have a trapeze out back, and a garden on top of their garage. He and his parents and his two little sisters live there. Ethan made some dinner, which he wasn’t expecting to do, but his dad told him to, and they fed me, which I certainly wasn’t going to expect of them, but I didn’t complain. We hung out for the length of the evening, and then they set me up on an air mattress in the basement (which I would be testing out for leaks before the family’s big camping trip began tomorrow morning).

I finally hit the tile floor through the air mattress at about 4:00 in the morning, but I managed to blow it back up and feel well rested by 8:00 when it was time to have breakfast and start biking. As far as I know, Ethan has been biking around Chicago since he first learned how to ride a bike, and by now he’s got pretty much the whole city memorized. I highly recommend him if you ever go to Chicago, love to bike, and want a tour of the city. We started out in his neighborhood, which he’s proud to say is actually within the city limits and isn’t one of those awful sprawling suburbs. To start out, we went to the South Side, where he promised we would find good social commentary. By this he meant we could see the way Chicago is segregated. We stopped at a Hispanic grocery store for some discount Gatorades, and looked at all the signs in Spanish. Ethan says a lot of the richer, whiter people he works with don’t even really realize this part of the city exists. They’re aware that poor, darker-skinned people live somewhere, but not that there are entire neighborhoods where they live with each other and the white people stay away. I was familiar with something like this from Cincinnati, but I basically only knew of neighborhoods there as “good” neighborhoods (that is, rich, white, and safe) and “bad” neighborhoods (mostly black, poor, and the kinds of places where people warn you that you’ll get shot if you don’t ride through with tinted windows rolled completely up). Here things were much more organized, or, to put it more negatively, much more segregated. There was the Hispanic neighborhood; we also saw a Polish neighborhood and, once we got lunch, a Chinese one. The lunch was a very American one from a place called Maxwell Street—hamburgers and Chicago hot dogs, one of each for us starving cyclists—and we ate it along the Chicago River in a park on the edge of Chinatown, under a willow near a pagoda-looking shelter.

We were, as it happened, right downstream from a pretty awesome structure: a lifting rail bridge. But it doesn’t break in half and fold up like most road bridges that let boats through. Instead there’s a really tall column on either side of the river, and a section of the bridge gets raised, still horizontal, about eighty feet into the air. Also, to complete the visual, there is a house perched on top of the bridge, suspended about twenty feet above the rail. While we ate our greasy American food, we decided it was unlikely that we’d be lucky enough to see it raise. Then someone drove a pleasure yacht right up to it and started clearly waiting.

But we’re dealing with the railroad here; nothing is hurried. So an Amtrak went over the bridge, then stopped partway across and reversed back to its original side of the river. Then it did it again. Then a coal train eased its way leisurely across the bridge. By this time we had long since finished our food. Once the coal train cleared, we decided to give the bridge five more minutes to let the poor pleasure-yachter through, because we had a timetable to keep—Ethan had decided we should take a two-dollar water taxi from this park to downtown, but we needed to get some Chinese pastries first. About five minutes later, an Amtrak came across, so we decided to let it go away and then we’d leave. It got off the bridge. We watched expectantly. Nothing happened. We biked off. We were almost out of earshot when I heard a siren come from the bridge, and I turned around to see it raising up. And it was cool enough to merit the wait and being strung along so long. (It strung us along one last time, when we were waiting for it to lower again—we were through waiting for that and had gotten out of the park once more, and then the siren sounded again.)

The Chinese bakery was interesting. Ethan got some mango pudding, but I decided to go for weirder things, so I got a “bean paste and walnut cake” and a sesame cookie. The first thing looked a lot like a big fig Newton, but instead of fig inside, it was bean paste with walnuts in it. The bean paste behaved slightly magically: first it didn’t taste like anything. Then it tasted sweet, almost as if it were a fig Newton after all. Then it tasted like refried beans, and I had to give the other half to Ethan. I had better luck with the sesame cookie. I bit into that once we were on the water taxi (a shiny yellow boat that would take us and our bikes down the Chicago River to downtown). It tasted like sesame, very much like sesame, and not, as I’d expected, like a sugar cookie with sesame seeds added on top. I liked it. I’ve gained a new appreciation for sesame.

We got off the water taxi and hauled our bikes up a big staircase, then rode to the Bean. Perhaps you have heard of the Bean. It is a giant bean, at least 25 feet tall, that is made entirely of mirror. The reflections are wild. You can stand underneath the bean, because it arches up, and put your hands on the wall, and it looks like you’re touching the hands of a duplicate of yourself that is standing on a wall. You can also examine the entire city in most parts of the reflection. The Bean is worth seeing. Most of the people in Chicago appear to have felt the same way, because a whole lot of them were there, the kind of crowd you’d usually see at a concert or a train station. Once, I jumped up to see how high up the bean I could plant a handprint, and a moment later a guy came up to me and said, “Dude, do you have a phone? I got this sweet shot of you jumping up to the Bean.” Unfortunately, my phone doesn’t get pictures, but I hope he enjoys it.

Not far from the Bean is the Cultural Center, which Ethan had mentioned to me once. It’s basically a free art museum and hangout place and hub for interesting things to do. My favorite art was that of Michael Dinges. He takes a white thing—a lawn chair, a boat, a dead Macbook. Then he engraves words and art all over it with a Dremel. The words form anticapitalist, pro-thinking-your-life-through slogans, often in catchy and ingenious quatrains. The art is banners, octopuses, snakes—all really well done in the pointillist style. Michael Dinges is a guy I’d like to be friends with, based just on the ideas he writes about on these Macbooks.

From there it was time to go up the Hancock Tower. The night before, we looked at prices for the Sears I Mean Willis Tower. All the customer reviews online said there was a long wait there, and when you got to the top it was boring, and then several of them recommended the Hancock Tower instead—it’s 100 floors high, right up there with Sears Or Rather Willis Tower, and apparently has a better skydeck. So we rode the fastest elevator in North America up to the top and Ethan showed me all the things we’d seen and all the things we had yet to see. Unfortunately I had left my glasses in Ohio, but I could still see most of what he was talking about—though the Bahá’í temple was a smudge for me. He showed me Oak Park Beach, where we’d be swimming shortly, and I got to see where the deep parts are and what people look like from a thousand feet up when they’re swimming. It was one of the better views I’ve had the opportunity to experience in my life (though the view from the cliff above Crowduck and the view from the top of Mt Garfield probably top it).

So we swam. The water was pretty choppy on Lake Michigan that day. Ethan says that’s what makes it a great challenge—just getting from one point to the other makes you work good and hard. I, being a river dweller rather than a lake dweller, was a bit more standoffish, but I got in and swam anyhow, and had a good time, just in small doses. I got the feeling that Ethan could have swum a lot longer, but he was accommodating, so we started making our way back to his house.

On the way we passed some more social commentary, and some railyards, and went through a hipster neighborhood. In fact we had dinner there. Somewhat on a whim, we went into a Peruvian place with a not-Peruvian name (“Between”). It was not what we expected inside. It was dark, and the tables were either unusually low or unusually high, and there were partitions all over made out of lots of red strings hanging down from above (like a hippie bead door, but without the beads). But we decided to give it a chance, and we both had a Peruvian pasta-meat dish. It was delicious but there wasn’t enough of it. That was our verdict, I think, on Between.

To assuage this disappointment we stopped by a Tastee-Freez and got enormous milkshakes that took at least a half-hour to drink. They probably had an entire normal day’s worth of calories in them. But we were biking, so we could handle it. (I barely could.) We drank them while walking around in a nearby park, close to where Ethan grew up, and I climbed on some stuff here and there. It was dark and we looked out over a pond. Ethan said it always seemed nice to him, but I could see lights and hear shouting easily from the other side, so it didn’t seem like a real pond to me, more like a field with water on top. I guess living in a city gives you different ideas of what counts as a pond.

Finally we biked back to his house. We had biked, Ethan estimates, 40 to 45 miles. Our bodies gave us just enough time to brush our teeth and get our affairs in order, and then we collapsed. I drove home the next day, sore, but awfully glad I’d gotten to see the city so up-close and personal with such a knowledgeable guide. By the way, Chicago is way better in almost every respect than Cincinnati. (But it doesn’t have Cincinnati chili.)

Besides that, other news includes the fact that I allowed my hair to be cut so I could look more presentable in the eyes of the Koreans. This was a big thing for me, because the last time I had any length taken off my hair was in eighth grade. In probably the majority of my memories, I have long hair. And I still think of myself as a longhaired person temporarily disguised as a shorthaired person. But for the time being, I have a short haircut. Victor says it makes me look like Jerry Seinfeld, which I guess can give you a rough idea of it, although other people have disagreed with him. Also, I got my visa, and I got other stuff, and I’m packing up, and it’s getting very close to time to leave. Wow. It’s crazy.

File under: adventure, snake · Places: Midwest

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Sounds like lots of fun. The southside of Chicago has changed much. The huge, half burned out section 8 towers are now gone.

However, Lake Michigan is still there, not Lake Superior.





Wow! Glad you got a chance to have such an interesting visit to Chicago, and get exercise besides. So can you get up here sometime before you leave? If not, can we come down there and see you? Gotta say our goodbyes–a year is a long time.

Maybe we could have a farewell dinner together? Call us when you have time.

We had a good time in Germany, but we're jet lagged and trying to rest to catch up. Grandma




How great you were able to bike around Chicago! I took an architectural tour (on a boat on the Chicago River) a couple of years ago and can appreciate all the fun you had down there. Good for you!

I'm glad Deb has Tenzing. They'll do fine together. And you know he won't be forgotten!

We hope you have a fantastic time in Korea. It sounds just right for you. Enjoy….

Aunt E.

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BON VOYAGE, NATHANAEL. May you have a happy and adventurous year in Korea. We will be thinking of you. Grandma and Grandpa


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