Flannery Correspondence

May 27, 2011

Trip to Chicago, Part 4

Saturday, May 21st

We awake to the sound of bells, early.  We try to fall back to sleep while listening to someone ring the bell at the front desk two hundred times in a row for 30 minutes before giving up.  By the time we leave there is a pile of room cards at the front desk from those who could not wait and checked themselves out.  No one is at the front desk.  For the first time, Christa is craving some cold cereal and milk but she is out of luck.

We buy a small, warm breakfast at Dunkin’ Donuts (there’s a Dunkin’ Donuts on every single corner).  We skip the doughnuts and go for their breakfast tortillas and hash browns.  Still leg sore from yesterday’s marathon, we walk slowly around Millennium Park where the School of the Art Institute is holding its commencement ceremony.  From there we walk to Lakeshore Drive and along the coast to the Navy Pier.  (Photos:  Stained glass museum.)

We meet Clifton and Lanetta at Capi’s Italian Kitchen.  Lanetta lived with Christa’s family for six months when Christa was still in school.  Now she lives in Chicago with her husband Clifton.  We are glad they made time to see us.  We have a great lunch at Capi’s and talk until they have a parking ticket.  Clifton is a police officer and tells about a recent high-speed chase in which he followed someone all around, well, our hotel’s neighborhood.  The suspect escaped but lost $15,000 worth of cocaine.

After lunch, Brian and Christa walk peacefully up and down the pier, contemplating all we have to live for.  The rain threatens but never arrives.  The weather in Chicago has been delicious: Partly cloudy but it never rained on us, providing cover from the sun but not too cold or even too windy. Just when the heavy bags and long hiking would start our sweat, a cool breeze would relieve us and keep us at a perfect wandering temperature.

We hop a bus to the old Chicago water tower.  On our way from the bus stop, something distracts us.  We catch an elevator to the 96th floor of the John Hancock Center.  They have an extremely expensive restaurant up there so we turn around to take the elevator back down.  There is a long line so we enjoy the view from different angles before plunging down.  Your ears pop in the elevator.  It takes about ten seconds to go 96 floors.  Tickets to the proper observatory are expensive (not as expensive as the restaurant).  Tickets are also prohibitive at the rival Sky Deck atop the distant but taller Willis/Sears Tower.  We find this out after smuggling up and down for free and feel dishonest.

Giddy with vertigo, we burst into the beautiful Fourth Presbyterian Church in the middle of a wedding and tip-toed back out.  We finally arrive at our original destination, the Chicago Water Tower, one of the few structures to survive the great fire.  It looks like a castle and smells wet — not mildewy, just damp and fresh.  It houses a gallery of then-and-now photos showing other historic Chicago buildings that survived.

A delightful pit stop near the water tower is the pump station, across the street.  This also looks like a castle but inside is a visitor center, local performance ticket vendor, a branch of the CPL, free Wi-Fi, a socially conscious café, and clean restrooms.  The bouncer at the front door keeps hobos out but lets us in for some reason.  I pretend to read the local event newspaper (Irish festival in July!) while Christa napped, sitting.

Refreshed after a half hour of loitering, we walked the Magnificent Mile, past the expensive luxury shops, ogling architecture, and stopping only for the Lego Store.

Christa is delighted to see wedding photographers snapping bridal parties on bridges, nooks and overlooks (and even on medians in the middle of traffic).  Footsore to the point of amputation, we stump back to the train station — but wait!  Christa is hungry.  Not just any hungry, she’s Panda Express hungry.  We walk city blocks in circles for another few miles to find the demanded eatery.  We eat like zombies.  The restrooms are locked and the workers couldn’t find the men’s room key.  Time to go home.

“Home” was our hotel room.  Christa finally notices the midnight noise and mentions it in the morning.  There are two Indian guys who work the front desk with duty and courtesy in the evening.  Two women work it in the mornings if they remember to wake up.  For them, working the front desk is more of a lay-across-the-lobby-couch-watching-TV kind of duty.  We’re pretty sure they also live in the hotel — across the hall from us — in the creepy room with no number, no carpet, no windows and no rules.  Their door is always open and a TV sits on a chair, always on.  There are crazy sounds that don’t come from the TV.

When we walk past on Saturday night, someone is standing on a chair (not the TV’s chair), singing along to the radio and dancing clumsy.  We heard the Indian guy hassle them in the middle of the night.  “Be quiet.  You’re making too much noise.”  He’s the one who told us to go to the other hotel.

(Late the next morning one of the women asks us when we are checking out already.)

There are other mystery rooms whose doors are always open.  Some have numbers; some don’t.  One has exercise equipment, loose scattered wires and an unpainted wooden frame near the entrance.  This gym is not yet open to guests.  Another door is a closet full of dirty old mops but it’s always open and it lives right next to the drinking fountain and ice machine.  Now they all taste like dirty mops.

There is a casino game machine, converted to accept quarters like a video game.  There is also one of those coin-operated claw games where you control the claw for a few seconds then it drops and if it grabs anything, you get to keep it.

There are a few regulars who are always in the lobby but not working there.  The only lodging more affordable than the rooms in this place is the lobby.

We requested two room keys. They are magnetic cards but they keep failing. You never know when someone will be available at the front desk so we’re glad to have two keys. So far we have replaced three and another one just went out.

In our room, only two electrical outlets work out of 12. One of these is dangling out of the wall. Two dim lamps use both working outlets so the cellphone and netbook can recharge only at the expense of light. One lamp blinks with crackling zaps when you touch it or its end table.  We accidentally fail to electrocute ourselves.

The ice bucket smells like cigarettes. It is a nonsmoking room. The smoke detector is visibly destroyed irreparably behind its tamper-proof cage.

The hotel’s ad offers free cable but the only TV channels seem like local broadcast, HBO and a porn station. We leave it off.

Later, on our last evening, we will discover that the air conditioning works. We will enjoy it very much.

I love this place and can’t decide whether to anonymize it or endorse it.

(Last part: The greatest museum ever — plus clues towards affordable vacations.)

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