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Two Days in Chicago

Author: RichardNika
Date of Trip: June 2011

The morning of Thursday, June 8, my wife and I set out on Spirit’s 6:45 AM departure from Ft. Lauderdale for a quick visit to Chicago. Why Chicago? I hadn’t been there in many years, and my few brief long-ago visits had been in the dead of winter. The last time, the ice – that’s ice, not snow – had been so thick that you couldn’t see where the sidewalk and curb ended and the street began. My wife’s childhood had been spent in a Chicago suburb, and she remembered her many visits to the city, which she had also not seen in many years. And Spirit had e mailed me another ridiculously cheap – as long as we kept to its dates – sale. Wecarried small under-the-seat bags, because of the shortness of the trip as well as Spirit’s carryon bin baggage charges.

The flight is normally three hours, and was uneventful until we came witin 200 miles or so of the city. Then the pilot announced that, due to weather, we would have to stay in the air a bit longer than planned. That “bit” turned out to be another hour and a half – we could have flown to California in all that time. Curious as to where we were, I sneakily tuned my ipod to the radio and began picking up St. Louis stations. Then, those faded and I began picking up Jefferson City – the Missouri state capital, located in the center of the state. I kept picking that up for at least a half hour.

Eventually, we returned to NE Illinois and heard the usual announcement that we were beginning our descent. Finally!The weather didn’t look so bad, but as we got below the clouds and approached the runway, I could see that a small but real cloud of weather had been hanging over O’Hare Airport itself and had that it had rained.

The plane came down over the runway. We couldn’t have been more than 50 feet above it when there was suddenly a tremendous surge of power, pushing us back in our seats. The aircraft shot back up at an angle I’d never seen any other plane assume at takeoff, except for the one time I’d seen a Concorde take off in front of my 747 at London’s Heathrow, years ago.

I don’t frighten easily on planes, but this scared me. My fear was not eased when the pilot came on and “explained” that another plane had been where it wasn’t supposed to have been, on the runway ahead of us. I hadn’t forgotten that the worst death toll ever had been when two jumbo jets colided on a runway in the Canary islands.

20 minutes later, we finally came down, to an expected and well-earned burst of applause from the passengers. Once inside the huge terminal, we took a very long walk to the CTA (Chicago Transit Authority) station. Its blue line begins at o’Hare, takes 45 minutes to get to the city’s famed “Loop” and then curves south and west and out again, to Forest Park. There’s a flat fare on the system of $2.25; you get a card and put it in a slot and then it pops out again, as in New York’s Metrocards. There’s no need to run the card again when you exit. The ride is mostly elevated, with a lot of interesting views including back porches and windows of apartments.

Our stop was the Clark and Lake station, and a walk up to the Chicago River and a picturesque stroll along Wacker Drive to the Hyatt. We were fortunate in the weather. The day before, it had gone up to 95 – now, it was in the high 50s, comfortably cool and mildly breezy. The view of the river, downtown and Lake Michigan was terrific from the elevated ground – from our one-room suite it was spectacular. That silly Chicago song by Frank Sinatra – you know, the one with the line “I saw a man, he danced with his wife” – kept running through my head, despite my efforts to banish it.

It was Thursday, the one day of the week when the Chicago Art Institute museum is open till 8 PM. Our walk downhill took us into Millennium Park, only severak years old and therefore appropriately named. It’s a bneautiful long rectangular park. 24 1/2 acres, west of michigan Avenue, between Randolph and Monroe, with Lakeshore Drive and Lake Michigan bordering it to the east. Its Pritzker Pavilion is an outdoor auditoium surrounded by strangely shaped towers and wires. The Lurie Gardens and surrounding landscaping were in full bloom. Most amazing was the Kapoor Sculpture. This “thing” – hard to describe perfectly – has been described as an elliptical sculpture inspired by liquid mercury. 66 feet long and 33 feet wide, its a sort of avoid, with the middle raised off the ground so you can walk through and under it. It’s all polished stainless steel, like a mirror – well, it IS a mirror, and the reflections in it – of the city, the people, the park and oneself – are amazing, the more so for being oddly distorted depending on the distance and angle.

We reached the art museum, which is in the park, via a raised overpass, a pathway elevated above the park that led to an entrance and an elevator down to the lobby. Admission is $18 – $12 for students and seniors, free for under 14. I’ve been to most of the world’s major art museums but had never been here, and it blew me away. There was one exhibition after another of various kinds of contemporary art, most of it intriguing and fun to look at – paintings, sculptures, textiles. There were picture books and prints. There were renaissance prints and drawings, a favorite subject of mine, as I attend regular drawing workshops. There were the glorious Chagall windows, made especially for display in Chicago and recently conserved, with an exhibit of how that ahd been done, For coin collectors like me, there was an exhibit of ancient coins, mostly featuring animals. The Egyptian and Asian/Cambodian art was spectacular, perhaps more so than anything I’ve seen in NY’s Met. There was a whole room of Van Goghs, and the impressionists included a room of Renoirs. Walking through the American collection, I found Sargent, Whistler, Hopper, Diego Rivera amd Georgia O’Keeffe. I broke out with an loud “OMG!” when I was suddenly standing in front of what is, without question, the most satirized image in the entire world – Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.” Much to my wife’s exasperation, I made her take my picture next to it (photos ae allowed without flash, as in many museums) There were a few by 19th century American, Mary Cassatt, a stern-looking woman who never had children and has painted perhaps the most beautiful pictures of children ever produced, uniting realism with impressionism. I asked where to find Turners, and found a couple, with his wonderful displays of water and white light. The Asian collections included many of those wonderful Chinese porcelain almost-comical animals from eras long gone, intricate ancient bronzes, and wonderful prints, flowers and landscapes. There was so much that we didn’t have time for – African, American Indian, the 60-odd miniature rooms, and many others. About the only thing that didn’t impress me was the room of Cy Twombly “sculptures,” which looked like sticks and boards that had been dipped into plaster. I recalled two of his drawings, illustrated years ago in the NY Times, that looked almost exactly like two sheets of scribbling that my mother had saved in my scrapbook, done by me at age two.

After visiting the store and buying some cards and refrigerator magnets, we exited at ground level and returned to the Hyatt through the park, which is itself a work of art. We stopped at a deli shop on Stetson Street to buy sandwiches and beer – we sometimes enjoy having deli meals like that in our rooms. I’d have stopped for a Chicago proverbial deep dish pizza but saw no such place on the way.

We checked out in the morning after breakfast – room coffee maker coffee and an abundance of leftovers from dinner, plus some fruit. Question: Why do all the hotels in Europe and Latin America include breakfast, but in the US, only the CHEAP hotels do? Can someone explain this to me?

I’d wanted to visit the Museum of Science and Industry, which I’d visited years earlier on one of my winter visits, but it was miles away. The Field Museum was much closer, in the same direction as the Art Institute but then another walk continuing south beyond it for about the same distance. A famed natural history museum, I had never been there; my wife had been, as a child. Now carrying our little bags, we walked south to the park, then cut over and walked south on Lakeshore Drive. It was another cool day, with the breeze from the lake. Crossing the Drive, we walked alongside the shoreline, passing numerous joggers. It was an exhilarating walk.

Like the Art Institute, this museum is open all week (don’t you hate those around-the-world Monday closings?) “Basic Admission” is $15 – $12 for students and seniors, $10 for children. We had to pace ourselves – we got there at 10 and our flight out was 6:20, meaning I’d want to set out for O’Hare between 2:30 and 3:00. There was no time for a lot of special shows and 3-D movies and the basic included the entire main collection plus one of the four special exhibits. One of those, “The Whale,” had been widely advertised, and after due consideration, we chose it.

We spent a lot of time browsing the stuffed birds and animals on the main floor and their dioramas and explanatory signs. There was no end to the birds, a topic we enjoy, having regular encounters with doves, blue jays, parrots and cardinals at our back yard feeder. There were bears, and an exhibit of animals related to dogs; we were surpised to learn how closely dogs and cats are on nature’s family tree! There were, however, no stuffed dogs – children would have been upset by that. I probably would have, too. Among the thousands of birds was a passenger pigeon – they had been incredibly abundant here 200 years ago and shot down to extinction – the last one had died in the Cincinnati Zoo a century ago. There were “black ducks” and mallards – a sign explained that they interbred – the female black ducks usually mated with the males, but preferred the “more aggressive” mallards. Just like humans, I remarked to my wife. She made no reply.

The whale exhibit was extraordinary. It included countless pictures, slides, videos and a short movie. I had never known that whales had evolved comparatively recently – in the geological scheme of things – from land mammals who apparently enjoyed swimming so much that they decided to stay in the water. There were many kinds, and all sorts of quizzes and puzzles, and mockups of a whale study laboratory. the exhibit was basically sponsored by New Zealand’s government whale agency, with bilingual explanations – in English and Maori! An exhibit about beached whales – when they die, they do provide valuable conservation data – reminded me of the beached dead whale I’d seen north of Santa Cruz, Calif. last November.

We finished with the meteorites, minerals and gems exhibit upstairs – a favorite of mine. Not as overwhelming as NY’s Natural History museum, but very impressive and inclusive, and with a beautiful collection of ancient gold jewelry next to it. A brief stop in the museum store, and we went outside and around the corner and caught a city bus to the Monroe Blue Line station, which required a final three block walk along State and then Monroe. This time, the airport terminal was right there at the final stop.

We hadn’t had lunch, and I hadn’t had my Chicago deep dish pizza. I’d said, well, if they have that at the airport, I’ll splurge and pay the usual exorbitant price for airport food. In fact, a concession there had small-but-not-too-small full deep dish pizzas for under $7, and they were delicious. We had one for our delayed lunch. Then the flight was delayed over an hour, so we had another one for supper. There were no misadventures on the flight back, and we were home and in bed by 1 AM.

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