Monday, August 20, 2007

That Toddlin’ Town

Chicago, 2007

I am, by background and temperament, something of a small town boy. While I love the cultural opportunities provided by the Big City — including museums, symphony orchestras, big name concerts, a diversity of ethnic eats, and the generally liberalizing atmosphere all that brings (and as I happen to live near a biggish one) — I’ve never loved one enough to actually live inside its borders.

Sure, there is some allure in the daydream of living in New York City or London or Paris, but such fantasies always rely on scenarios entirely divorced from reality: more income than I seem capable of scaring up, living quarters out of cinema, a return of the youth I’ve already misspent, and the capacity to stomach that much humanity crushed into that little space.

Over the last week, the Critical Family, as mentioned earlier, were up in Chicago, kicking it with my wife’s brother and his girlfriend. Let me recommend, right off the bat, the services of The set up is simple: hotels and airlines and such sell off anticipated excess at great discount to who passes along the savings to you, the customer. We stayed at the four-star Hilton Chicago for as much as we’ve stayed at Super Eights in small towns. Look at this place. Two ballrooms. A grand piano player each night to tinkle the ivories in the lobby. Eighth floor swimming pool looking out on the city including the Sears Tower. Luxury galore.

Now, there is something to be said for fancy hotels, yet at the same time, my internal socialist bridles at how every damn thing in the room has a price tag. Six frickin dollars for a 32 ounce bottle of Ice Mountain water? Ice Mountain? Not even Perrier or Evian, but water so common it might as well be tap water? Forget it. I got the key for the minibar, but damn, if the bottled water is six dollars, I wasn’t even going to touch the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

Speaking of jacked up nonsense, who precisely is getting the mandatory 21% gratuity with room service anyway? Ms. The Critic often likes to order room service when we stay in better hotels and this one had us puzzled. There were the overpriced meals to begin with, the delivery fee, then the 21% gratuity. You figure, the cook cooks the food, lays it out on the plates, on the cart that is pushed by the delivery guy who delivers it. To whom is that tip going? That mystery we never solved, though I suspected all the collected 21% tips were simply skimmed off and used to buy Paris Hilton a deluxe, gold-plated crotch shield for all those embarrassing upskirt photos when she just insists on not wearing panties out in public with a skirt.

The bro-in-law’s apartment was much like you’d expect in the big city, more money for less space than you’d pay elsewhere, but other than that lovely. Hardwood floors, pleasantly high ceilings, hot water almost instantaneously despite their third floor location. On our next to last night in Chicago, they had a little drama in the adjoining alley, which was probably the single most dramatic thing to happen while we were there.

But the city itself is beautiful, like a larger, fancier, cleaner Cleveland. There is something about good ol’ Cleveland that always seems to be wiping its nose, getting the gunk out of its ears. Perhaps it’s the greater quantity of marble or the actual concentration of real live shopping downtown filled with national brand name stores, but Chicago seemed like the cosmopolitan cousin of Cleveland, the relative who went off to the Big City and came back to tell ya all about it.

I’m not sure who manages the lakefront, but the same muscle shoal nonsense currently beleaguering Lake Erie must have reached the other Great Lakes as well, yet for all I could tell, Lake Michigan on Chicago’s shores was nothing but sandy smooth beach bedecked. After twenty summers of rocks, shells, and slime here in Cleveland, I’m hoping we cant get a little of that action some day.

Anyway, our itinerary was longer than I thought we’d have time for and shorter than Ms. The Critic wanted it to be. The Littlest Critic would have been thrilled if Chicago had consisted of one long-ass Navy Pier with rides and games and the biggest, biggest Build-A-Bear workshop in creation.

As it stands, we tried to hit the more cultural landmarks, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Shedd Aquarium, the Field Museum, the Magnificent Mile, and so on. We got all that list accomplished save the Field Museum, which is to say, we visited Chicago but bagged on its eldest, most famous resident, Sue the Tyrannosaurus Rex. Of course, that always leaves us something to go back to.

The Contemporary Art Museum is much like most any city’s. A rather neutral space with art more loosely defined than at the high falutin’ place down the block, the kind of art The Littlest Critic prefers, quite frankly. We watched an eight-minute video featuring birds, skull headed monkeys, and trees which The Littlest Critic made us return to watch a second time. A very, very dark room lead to a movie of a big jungle cat growling, only green tined teeth flashing on the screen. Most of the other pieces were only okay, though we all liked a cantilevered teeter totter piece called leverage in which one seat lifted eight or more.

The Art Institute of Chicago found us at its doorstep far later in the day than would have been good to see the entire collection. That sounds like a complaint, but it really isn’t. Far better to take a museum in over a few days be they ever so far divided. Try to encompass an entire city’s fine art collection in one day and you achieve mental saturation. You can see the pictures and sculpture, but they don’t really register. We hit the highlights. The magnificent Seurat. Those beautifully colored Harlem Renaissance era jazz club paintings. The deliciously funny Man Ray, Dali, and Magritte works.

Most surprising to me was how much I liked this at first glance rather conservative Paris Exhibition piece by Gustave Caillebotte. An artist I’d only barely heard of previously, his masterwork, Paris Street; Rainy Day is one of the most deceptively simple appearing works of beauty I’ve seen since Degas’ La Coiffure at the London National Gallery. That piece is, of all I’ve seen, by far my favorite work of art of which I’m currently aware. Having seen it, I bought a postcard, but it’s small consolation and a slight, barely perceptible, hesitant, flat, unsatisfying taste of the original.

Shedd Aquarium, despite its killer budget, ancient pedigree, and Neo-Classical address had nothing on Cincinnati’s aquarium which boasted a far better walk through, an over your head wrap around aquarium tube, and a better sticker price. Everything may be more expensive in Chicago, but that’s no reason to gank us on the ticket price everywhere. Fish is fish.

A number of ‘must-do’s’ we skipped like the Sears Tower Skydeck and the Field Museum, but partially that was time, partially no compelling interest, and partially so we’d have something to do when we got back. Why bust every cherry the first time around? We rode the buses and the “el” but no cabs. One must leave a city with a little mystery, otherwise, what is there to bring you back outside of the workaday interest of novelty?

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