Chicago Revisited

Susan Taylor

© Copyright 2021 by Susan Taylor

Photo by Christian DeKnock on Unsplash
                       Photo by Christian DeKnock on Unsplash

What a great place! My husband and I recently were in “The Windy City,” (more about that later). It was early October, unusually warm; in fact, temperatures were in the high 70’s, with a smattering of rain. After a punctual and comfortable flight on Southwest Airlines, we disembarked at O’Hare Airport, pulled our suitcases through a corridor, and shed the layers of clothes we had put on that morning in our hometown, San Diego, California.

For me, this was the trip I had been thinking about for years. I was born in Chicago in 1950, and had not been back since I was 16 years old. On that trip, my grandmother met us at the airport in a mink stole and pumps. She said that we were taking the L downtown to see a movie. These many years later I can still picture the ornate movie house with dimly lit sconces on the walls and a stage with dark curtains. Behind those curtains was a big screen. We settled back into our plush seats, feeling sleepy from the flight, and were enchanted to watch Julie Andrews, in a white apron, stretch out her arms, and gloriously singing, “The Hills are Alive…”

The “Sound of Music” in that theater was to be a marker on my list of why I wanted to return. So, in 2018, I searched Chicago avenues for that movie theater, with no luck. Movies in downtown Chicago are now multiplexes wedged between CVS drug stores and 7-11’s.

I also hoped to find the apartment house on West Berwyn where, as a newborn. I and my parents lived with my Norwegian-born grandmother until Dad packed us into the Studebaker to go west in hope of finding a post-war job. Eventually, he found work and we lived in a rented house in Sun Valley, a suburb of Los Angeles. Mother had said that she was never going to wait at a blustery bus stop again. In Sun Valley, there were freeways and orange trees, the ocean, sunshine, and, yes, occasional windy days.

We did go back to Chicago a few times. On one trip when my younger sister, Teri, was probably 5 years old, we rode the Southwest Amtrak line, called the Santa Fe route. We slept, sort of, in our chairs, face up. Mom, always into the latest fashion trends, dressed us in shiny deep blue and blood red Chinese pajamas. Our slippers had curly toes with bells that must have annoyed the other passengers when we ran back and forth down the aisle. Mom said that everyone thought we were so cute.

Another trip on the Santa Fe Line left me with other memories; a stop in Albuquerque with Indians ( we now know to say Native Americans),on the platform selling toy hatchets and feathered head dresses.

Continuing eastbound across flat territory, Dad nudged us and said, “Girls look out the window! Here, we’re crossing the Mississippi River!” His excitement let us know that this was a special moment in our traveling lives. This time it was my Uncle Ed who met us and we got into his big car for the short drive to Arlington Heights, a sprawling suburb of Chicago, where he and Aunt Fay, Karen Eddie, Jr, and Curt lived in a large, white ranch house. Uncle Ed was a master carpenter who had built much of Chicago’s fancy pants Hugh Hefner’s famed mansion. I think I heard Dad asking something about the Playboy bunnies. I was very impressed with the expanse of lawn in the front yard, and even more so with the back yard, which like so many in Arlington Heights, had no fence or wall around it. When you barbequed, or played croquet your neighbors could see you and also the clothes line flapping with stiff white sheets. Aunt Fay had bought all the ingredients to make Midwest summer sausage, something so delicious that Mom found it hard to find in Los Angeles. You’ve heard of not wanting to watch the making of sausage, and to this day I cringe at the memory of minced garlic and see the pink ground pork as it erupted out of the meat grinder. But the sausage casings were the most disgusting; my salivating relatives, themselves in hairnets and gloves, coaxing the mixture into these slimy tubes Finally, they finished and began labeling the future Christmas gifts. Two for Aunt Ruth and Uncle Bob over in Fort Wayne, Indiana, some for coworkers and neighbors and a couple for us to take home to Canoga Park, California, our latest house in the San Fernando Valley, bought for $16,000 in 1955.

That trip was in the Spring, just after Easter and the weather was quite cool. My sister and I wore perky white fluffy short coats and black patent leather shoes. Dad argued that is was ridiculous to bring such lightweight and impractical clothes to Chicago in April, almost as unthinkable as wearing white after September. Aunt Fay found some old winter clothes that Karen had outgrown so we were warm for the rest of the vacation.

There were only those two train trips. I have a feeing that my mother might have felt guilty for leaving Grandma and her sisters in 1952. They would all eventually make their way to California for vacation, enjoying our swimming pool, exotic orange trees, and Mexican food, but they never left Chicago until many years later.

As an adult I hadn’t kept in contact with my Chicago cousins, but Eddie had found me the Facebook way, so I asked him what was the street number of that red-brown apartment building where my earliest years were spent, on West Berwyn, in the Scandinavian section of Chicago. He turned to Karen, a few years older, and she sent back two possible addresses for the three-story apartments on that block. Tim, my husband, is a whiz with bus and subway schedules, so after a train and two buses, we landed on the sidewalk a short distance from West Berwyn. It’s a wide and tired, tree-lined street, and the apartments looked a lot like the ones I’d seen in my mom’s old photo album. Except that those black and white pictures, their dogeared corners coming loose from the tiny black triangles meant to keep them on the pages, made the street look cosmopolitan and elegant. West Berwyn in 2018 was not the tony scene I had imagined, and yet it seemed perfect for a young, war-weary couple with a new baby to settle in with doting grandparents and plenty of pin-curled housewives on all sides.

We were about to leave when a man in a muscle shirt stepped out of one of the likely suspect apartment front doors. I related my story to him, unrealistically hoping that he might remember Melvin and Martina Wall and little Susan, but of course he had lived in the building only 13 years now. Came from Manila, like most of the families in his apartment complex. We thanked him and mutually “Have a good day-ed” each other. Tim and I retraced our steps to the bus stop. I tell you, I was as high as the Ferris Wheel at Navy Pier. Strangers and friends have listened patiently as I recounted the experience, then, and as now in this story.

The morning was warming as we transited to our next stop. It was still early and we were hungry, ready for breakfast at Valois Cafeteria, also on the South Side, not far from Hyde Park. Trip Advisor lists it under things to do, although I doubt many tourists take the trouble to go there. Valois Cafeteria has been in the neighborhood for generations, but currently is famous because Barack Obama would grab breakfast or lunch there before heading off to his classes at the University of Chicago’s Law School. Just another block over lived a pretty friend named Michele who lived with her parents and whose house is today guarded heavily from the public.

The cashier, a petite, older woman wearing a hair net, confirmed that student Obama was “real cute.” His picture smiles down from the dingy walls of the restaurant, and when I ordered my food, I almost felt that he was telling me to get the 2-egg special with coffee. My husband ordered steak, potatoes, and eggs, and a cup of hot chocolate. All of this set us back no more than fifteen dollars , and although we would have been within our budget to take home a triangle of cherry pie or cheese cake, we resisted. Valois is truly a blast from the past, with its low prices, greasy grill and friendly grill cooks, glass pie safe, and an unimaginative, almost square floor plan. By the time we left, a few other white people had come in for food. Outside, I laughed again at the sign the read: VALOIS CAFETERIA - SEE YOUR FOOD

My husband and I couldn’t wait to see the legendary sights in Chicago, at first wondering if five days would allow us to see everything. As it was, we experienced everything on our list and more.

Outside the airport, we boarded a city bus which got us within a few blocks of the very cool Acme Hotel, a boutique accommodation a short walk from Lou Malnati’s Pizza. The congenial staff at Acme wear “uniforms” resembling car mechanics and moving company workers. The small rooms have lap-sized blackboards on the doors where visitors can write things like, “I heart Chicago,” and order a double espresso almond milk latte for the next morning. We found it more efficient to leave our coffee order at the desk the night before, and at 7:30 each day, after a curt knock on the door of our room, a coffee carafe, cups and warm milk were waiting on a tray. I can’t get revved up without a couple cups of coffee upon waking so this was a special treat. We would open the shade by our diner-style sitting area, and stare at the red brick building next door. Because that brick wall was so close to our 5th floor hotel room it was hard to see if there was any rain on the sidewalk below. At the end of the hall, the Fire Escape door was painted to look like the zig zag metal steps of an actual fire escape. I felt like Alice in Wonderland, wondering when the Cheshire Cat would appear around any corner.

An early riser, one morning I went down to the West Side Cafe in the lobby to drink my Morning Joe and socialize a bit. The barista obviously had made friends with the regular patrons, but she was interested in hearing my back-to-my roots story. I learned that she was a young mother who wanted to go back to school and study writing. “That’s something I have thought about doing myself,” Jasmine said, when I told her I was working on a children’s book. I have a feeling that she will go on to do just that.

Our first night we asked by a recommendation for a Thai restaurant near the hotel. There were different opinions, just as we found when inquiring about the best pizza in Chicago. We were directed to one nearby Thai place but its selection of craft beers was limited so we found another place eat. We followed that with a late-night roof top at Ballast Point Brewery, a sudsy offspring of Ballast Point founded in San Diego. We were already feeling at home in Chicago and happily anticipated more exploring the next day.

Being friendly to service workers can result in learning much about them and their jobs and why they chose to live in a certain city. I have been told that I need to respect peoples’ boundaries, but it’s pretty easy to tell if someone is okay or not with having a personal conversation. A lovely woman from Poland, Jadwiga, checked our coats and umbrella at the Chicago Art Institute. She’d lived in Chicago for a while and enjoyed her job. I asked her if she liked pizza and what was her favorite pie shop, and if she had a favorite gallery in the Art Institute. She was drawn to the Arts and Crafts exhibit, with its soft, warm wood and rounded Shaker influences, the Mission leather and straight-backed sofas, Stickley chairs, Tiffany lamps, and matte glazed Rockwood pottery. I love that style, too. Back home in San Diego, we live in a Spanish Revival house and except for some gently used plant stands, an old tea table, and a stained marble washstand, our living room is fairly contemporary.

We enjoyed more examples of the A and C movement, perpendicular lines, and Art Deco fonts on a tour of the Frank Lloyd Wright Oak Park neighborhood, which we visited the next day, in chilly weather. We boarded our bus (be sure to reserve a place on the tour in advance as it attracts residents of the city as well as tourists) to Oak Park, a suburb an hour from downtown, to visit the architect’s studio and house, and eight other homes he designed on a quiet, sycamore-lined cul de sac. Our very classy tour guide, Anne, quizzed us about which of the houses were progeny of Frank (I like to think of him as a persona friend!), and which were not. Seeing Oak Park was every bit as thrilling as standing outside the fences surrounding John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s childhood homes in Liverpool, England, but that is for another travel article.

The weather warmed in time for us to see some sun reflected on the magnificent skyscrapers along the Chicago River. Again, buy your tickets early, as this Architectural River Tour really delivers. Before boarding, we bought a bag of Garret’s Popcorn, the caramel pecan variety. Think Cracker Jacks at three times the price, and twenty times the deliciousness. No prize in the bag, but we didn’t miss it one bit.

Back on the boat our articulate and funny tour guide pointed out the gleaming steel and glass buildings, told us which architect was the mastermind behind them, and what tenants inhabited the structures. Chicago is home to the first American skyscraper, not New York City, as commonly thought, and up until, the Sears building, now know called the Willis Tower, was the tallest building in the world until 1998. As we glided down the river, a very prominent letter T looked down imperiously on our water craft, and we were told that it was another Trump Tower, Mid-West style. Some people, at least were impressed.

Quite satisfied with what we had seen and done on day 4, we still looked forward to Happy Hour that afternoon at Cindy’s Roof Top Bar, to be followed by dinner at The Purple Pig. Cindy’s is an elegant restaurant and bar which offers an afternoon tea and drinks-event garnished with a view of Lake Michigan. It was standing room only, so we went outside toward the low wall and heat lamps, a gray Lake Michigan and its shoreline just a short distance ahead. The tallest amusement park rides on Navy Pier stuck up to our right, and a small, neat red and white lighthouse stood daintily on an island in the lake, to our left. I found some paper and a pen and wrote a short poem, “A Lighthouse on Lake Michigan”, which pleased me and got compliments from Tim. Our dinner reservation didn’t allow us to linger to see a sunset, so we went back to our hotel to shower and put on nicer clothes before walking back to the Purple Pig.

Bear in mind that trip was before Covid 19 and the need for face masks and social distancing. The Purple Pig is long and narrow, so much so that you could expect to get a splash of turtle soup splashed down your back, but we were quickly seated. The food was mediocre and the cocktails pricy. It was dim, and I am visually-challenged, and noisy, and my husband wears a hearing aid, but when in Chicago, you usually can’t go wrong following Trip Advisor.

The next day was our last in Chicago, and needing to get back to O’Hare Airport by 3 pm, we decided to revisit Lou’s for a pizza late lunch. First, though, we were fortunate to have snagged a noon appointment to record on NPR’s Story Corps, which at that time was broadcasted from the third floor of the stately Chicago Cultural Exchange Center. If you have heard any of the Story Corps episodes you know that they are short conversations with two people who know each other and have shared a common, often profound experience. Our story was smaller, if you will. We talked about our trip to Chicago, our marriage, children, dreams, feelings, and I read my poem over the air. We left knowing this would be one of our most memorable activities in Chicago.

A brief visit to the Palace Hotel with its million-dollar gold Tiffany-designed peacock doors and a peek into the Russian Tea Room, and we were off to catch the L to the airport.

Chicago is a wonderful city to visit, even if you weren’t born there;. the city has an efficient public transportation system, good restaurants, interesting avenues, and friendly people. A couple of things, however, I found lacking in Chicago: dogs and homeless people. A quick Google search brought up many dog-friendly restaurants and hotels, but I saw very few pooches being walked downtown. During the same number of days in New York, I saw many people out and about with their loyal four-legged friends. On a recent trip to Scotland, I remember seeing a minimum of three dogs every day. Even the homeless people on the streets, had dogs by their side. Why does this matter? When I travel, I miss my dog a lot, and I really appreciate getting to meet and pet other dogs wherever I happen to be.

The second thing missing in my five days in Chicago was homeless people. The internet says that the greater Chicago area has some 80,000 homeless people, but I counted six between Tuesday and Saturday. I read that most are living doubled or tripled up with family members or friends, or in shelters which mainly are located outside of the city center. This was a refreshing change from the many tents and shopping carts in San Diego, on its beaches, in front of the Central Library, in doorways, and on the grass across from the San Diego Zoo.

Will I go back to Chicago? I turned 71 this year, and I doubt that I will return. It was great to revive my memories and make new ones with my husband of 18 years. I discovered how profound are family and place. However, there are many places that I still want to see for the FIRST time. I will listen to Sinatra belt out “Chicago, Chicago, that Wonderful Town” and listen to Ira Glass’ This American Life on NPR, andlook back at the pictures we took.

I will reread this article and be happy that I went to Chicago in October of 2018.

Susan Taylor is an English teacher and private tutor. She is a self-avowed “grammar geek,” and loves helping children, teens and adults improve their language arts skills. Her favorite teaching moments were when she taught English as a Second Language in adult school. She remains friends with former students from China, Iran, Thailand, Mexico, and other countries. She has traveled extensively, including to Luxor in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt, Romania, Viet Nam, and is always looking for new places and people to learn from. She is grandmother to four lovely children and eagerly awaiting the birth of her third grandson in March 2022. She lives with her husband, Tim, and the most empathetic Duffy, a 3 year old ball of canine cuddles.

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