Flannery Correspondence

May 30, 2011

Mass Transit in Chicago

Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) passes offer unlimited rides for a certain number of days on buses, elevated train and subway.  Buses to the suburbs require an additional PACE pass (acronym? no).  Trains to the suburbs require an additional Metra pass.

Within the city, CTA pass prices:

1-day for $5.75

3-days for $14

7-days for $23

For a five day trip, Christa did the math in her head way faster than I could:  Five 1-day passes is $28.75; two 3-day passes, $28; one 3-day pass plus two 1-day passes, $25.5.  The 7-day pass beats them all.

Plus, we had two extra days on our pass.  When we arrived at the airport on our fifth day to leave town, we handed our passes off to the first people we saw walk up to the CTA pass vending machine.  Two free days of Chicago transit for some lucky travelers.  We felt pridefully magnanimous.  Then we felt conflicted about how arbitrarily we distributed those free rides — how do we know they will use it for good?

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.)

May 26, 2011

Trip to Chicago, Part 3

Friday, May 20th

We sleep in until 9:30 AM. I guess we needed the rest. Dress, teeth, shower. By 10 AM we miss the free cold cereal breakfast. We visit the grocery store across the street and pick up some fresh bread, fruit and a sandwich. I have a bag of carrots. We take the train into the city and walk to the library to scout it out as a future resource — a pit stop to sit and catch our breath.

From there we take the long way to the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) — weaving through the nearby Grant Park, watch Segway tourists find their balance, tip our hats to Abraham Lincoln, but miss the Buckingham Fountain by oversight.  The entrance to the AIC is flanked with two great, green lions that do not mirror each other.  For one thing, the tail on one curls up; the tail on the other goes down.

Inside we check our heavy bags at the coat check.  (We’re still lugging anything valuable with us, including three books.)  Trouble is, they inspect your bag and forbid anything perishable.  Remember how much food we bought this morning at the grocery store?  We carry it with us in Christa’s purse at the coat check girl’s unofficial suggestion.  The ticket takers do not inspect purses.

We cross over every square foot of this museum and see every painting, sculpture and relief except a few of the blotchy paint-splatter modern art displays.  We’re not art smart but we know what we like:  Medieval paintings especially, except some of the monotonous religious ones.  Brian likes the surrealists (original Salvador Dali‘s and Yves Tanguy‘s here).  Christa likes some of Picasso’s more legible stuff like The Old Guitarist.  We both likes American Gothic even though some of its surrounding modern art was weird.  Many old illuminated books at the Early Renaissance France exhibit.

It is a big museum.  At near collapse, we limp to the next train station according to the map, miss it (the blue line is a subway, not an “L”), take the wrong train, find it at last, and travel to the Red Canary.

Walking into the Red Canary feels like walking into an old movie when women wore dresses and men wore hats.  Everything is black and white and red.  Not like White Stripes but more like a black and white film updated with dark, maroon red hints so you can see where the ghosts of mobsters belong.  The restaurant/bar/lounge is larger than the website indicates.

Everything about its interior is impeccably designed.  A long, curved glass window lets you view into the kitchen as you walk down the hall towards the restrooms.  A matching long, curved mirror paces it on the other side.  There is seating in the main room, at the bar and in an adjoining lounge room.  Upstairs is another lounge and a wide balcony with many more tables and room for parties.  Out back, where we sit, is a beautiful patio crawling with aesthetic ivy and old trees.  The food is wonderful.

If this sounds like a commercial, it is.  We enjoyed the Red Canary as a hidden treasure.  A close friend recommended it.  Her brother runs it and he was generous enough to give us a quick tour.  If I were you, I’d go to Chicago just to eat there.  If you are a student of design, you can find nothing better.

Full and delighted, we leave the Canary and find our room turned over with new sheets (no cigarette burns, stains or bleach holes) and new towels — two! instead of one.  Friday nights are a bad time for this hotel.  We didn’t bring ear plugs with us.  The party lasts until dawn:  Someone has music playing, someone is carrying a broken TV around and strange smells come through our shower grate, through the washcloth.  The wildest voices we hear are from the people who work there.

(Next: A pier, a high-speed police chase, some towers and “home”.)

May 25, 2011

Trip to Chicago, Part 2

Thursday, May 19th

In the morning we shower. The bathroom has no fan or vent except a large grate that looks right into the shower next door at eye-level. We cover it with a washcloth before bathing. The tile is falling off the wall and the shower is built for midgets. Brian has to kneel to get under the flow of water. Christa doesn’t. Fixtures are mounted for a towel rack but the rack is missing. You have to walk around the room dripping to get your towel or else drape it over the bathroom door. (But that door has rusted through so the top and bottom corners fan out into disintegration.)

We make an early start to catch the train to Wheaton. As we leave, we notice the hotel has some breakfast supplies: bread, cereal, coffee, even bagels, all on one small countertop. We didn’t expect that much. We grab a piece of bread to eat as we walk.  The “L” takes us to the center of Chicago where we walk to the Ogilvie Transportation Center to catch a Metra train to Wheaton.

Waiting for our train, we descend to the level of hobo.  A security guard approaches us: “Oh, I’m sorry.  There’s no sitting on the floor here.”  We go to a coffee shop to avoid panhandling.  Caribou Coffee has amazing music, a fireplace and a quiet corner.  Their cups and napkins have creative content related to their theme, “Life is short.  Stay awake for it.”  When we walk up to order, I’m eating an enormous red apple (genetically modified).

“Your apple smells delicious,” says the barista.

“Thanks.  Your coffee shop smells delicious.”

“Do you want your coffee light or dark roast?”  I don’t know the answer to this question.

“Dark.”  I forget to use my usual line (“black as my heart”) and Christa says black coffee has nothing to do with light or dark roast.  Why does she know more about coffee than me?

I enjoy the coffee but can’t drink very much of it before it makes me dizzy.  The train ride is green with trees.  There’s a lilac garden in Lombard near the tracks.  It’s strange to be away from the kids.  I keep looking around me for little people to take care of.  The teenager on the train says, “Stop looking at me.”

The Wade Center used to be two small rooms:  One with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, full of books from the personal collection of Lewis and Tolkien.  There are two desks in the middle of the room, facing each other:  The actual desks from both authors.  In the corner was a wardrobe, built by Lewis’s grandfather and used as a hiding place by Lewis and his brother when they were children.  The other room was a small reading room where you can examine a collection of first editions from the seven featured authors and even some letters of their correspondences.  When Brian visited in 2001, it shared a building with other campus resources.

The Wade Center has a new building all its own now, lamppost ever-glowing out front.  It still has two main rooms but now it also has a coat closet (the wardrobe is only for fur coats and Narnia); a main lobby with resources for free and purchase; a hallway full of information about Marion E. Wade and the history of the center; a second floor balcony with workstations for staff and a meeting room; an archive room for dissertations, articles, periodicals and the growing collection of letters; and side offices for staff and resources.

The two main rooms are much larger.  Instead of bookshelves surrounding the two desks, there are murals and mini-exhibits.  Each of the seven authors (Owen Barfield, G. K. Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, Dorothy Sayers, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams) has artifacts on display and biographical information.  The reading room is much larger — a great hall lined with books, filled with tables and chairs, and ending in comfortable love seats and ottomans by a fireplace.  Tour it yourself through the magic of the internet:  official virtual tour or flickr.

We spend hours combing through the precious old books.  Christa’s favorite is reading some of the letters between Lewis, his wife Joy and her ex-husband, William.  Joy was pretty sassy.  Brian intentionally avoids the Tolkien section as long as he can.  MacDonald, Lewis, Barfield instead.  Lewis tended to dominate Inkling conversations but the soft-spoken Barfield was the only one who would consistently stand up to him when he disagreed.  They had some lasting disagreement about something way over our heads called anthroposophy.

Running out of time, Brian leaves Sayers and Williams for another time and finally cracks open the Tolkien treasure chest.  Here’s a short poem called Goblin Feet in a rare book called Oxford Poetry 1915.  Here’s another children’s book called Mr. Bliss about a man who collects tall hats, keeps a pet girabbit (giraffe-rabbit), buys a motorcar since his bicycle only works downhill, and has adventures with his neighbors and some bears.  Here’s a book collecting the letters he wrote his children every year as Father Christmas.  Ah, heaven.

Overstimulated at the Mecca of British wonder-literature, we pause only for a short lunch at 2:30.  At one point we shake hands with the center director, Dr. Christopher Mitchell.  The center closes at 4 PM and we leave a large stack of books for the generously accommodating archivist, Laura Schmidt.  (You are not supposed to re-shelve books.)  Deeply fulfilled and blinking with eye strain, we walk slowly through the beautiful Wheaton campus and wait for our return train.

We meet a nice man and talk with him a bit.  Turns out he is homeless and needs $5 to buy a ticket.  For no good reason, I hand over the cash and he disappears.  New rule:  No more handouts.  Also:  No more talking.  The only people who want to talk to you are the ones who want money for free.  He hit us up at just the right time:  Glowing with contentment and benevolence.  Plus he didn’t look like a hobo.  Took me off guard.  The event steels us against future beggars.

When we come back to our hotel room we are surprised to find all of our possessions intact. We had taken everything valuable along with us. (If the robbers want some old clothes, papers and travel gear, they can have them.) We expected the room to be ransacked. It isn’t. What a relief. Our respect for our lodging grows.

We research the next day’s events, have one of those grumpy, exhausted, married-people fights and go to bed. Asleep by 9 PM.

(Tomorrow: Surreal Segways, Lincoln, coat check and a canary.)

May 24, 2011

Trip to Chicago, Part 1

In May of 2011, Brian and Christa Flannery escaped the home for five magical, fun-filled days in Chicago. No kids, no rules, no money. With a few gift cards from some generous friends and arrangements with a team of babysitters, we attacked the Windy City.

Why Chicago? We had airplane ticket vouchers from a delayed flight during the 2010 summer of weddings. The airlines don’t make those easy to redeem but Christa found a way. With a long list of cities where friends and relatives abide, we picked one place where no one would find us.

Midway International Airport lost us for a few minutes until I made Christa ask for directions. We found the train station, bought our ticket and hopped on the CTA orange line (on the famous Chicago elevated “L”). We stand out in the crowd as newcomers. When we get off the train at the first stop, the closest train stop to the airport, everyone stares in shock and concern.

We walk out of the train station. Our hotel is right on the main road but we don’t know how far. So we walk. Other things on the main road: A few restaurants, a strip mall, all the signs are in Spanish, the only newspaper is La Raza, west side gang graffiti, gold pawn shops, cambio de cheques, a dress shop full of brightly colored wedding/quinceañera dresses and many of the street-facing windows are broken.  A beat up old building called “Crossroads Hotel” looks dangerous.  We don’t stay there.

We walk past a mattress store that’s never open.  Next is a bar with the Mexican flag around its always-glowing neon sign.  It has dark tinted windows and all its doors are padlocked shut from the outside.  Past this is a parking lot with an old wooden wagon cart holding a broken sign with no letters.  Beneath the wagon are many broken liquor bottles and one sock.  This is our hotel.  (Not the wagon, the hotel behind it.)

We walk into the lobby and introduce ourselves at the front desk.  The guy looks intrigued.

“Did you book your room online?” he asks.  We did.

“You’re only staying two nights?”  We’re staying five.

“Oh.  I don’t know.  Maybe you want to get a room at our partner hotel.  We’ll help you.”  We like this location.  It’s close to the train station.

“The other hotel has a shuttle.  This one is better for short stays.  The rooms are small and don’t have bath tubs.”  We don’t need bath tubs.

“Well, I’ll show you the room and then you can decide.”  The first room looks good — a bed, a toiled and a shower.  No floor — the bed takes up 98% of the room.  Christa conspicuously checks for bed bugs and hot water.  It passes.

We say we’ll take it.  He takes us to another room.

This room is bigger, more floor.  For example, you can walk around three sides of the bed.  He says this has a better window — it faces the street, not the alley.  (What goes on in the alley?)  We take it.  He shakes his head.

We spend the evening with maps, listing what we want to do and planning the next day.  Our plans will extend no more than one day in advance on this trip.  We intend to satisfy some of our top interests:  Literature, architecture, art, inventions and density of experience.  For literature, we venture into the suburb surrounding Wheaton College to see the C. S. Lewis Museum (actually devoted to seven authors including Lewis, Tolkien and George MacDonald).  For architecture, we visited Chicago where a terrible fire happily destroyed most of its original buildings and inspired more than a century of cutting edge architectural experimentation.  For art we visit the Art Institute.  For inventions, the Museum of Science and Industry.  For density of experience, the Navy Pier, a long, artificial peninsula full of every experience possible:  A ferris wheel, eateries, trinket shops, a stain glass museum, a beer garden, live music, an over-sized anchor, a view of a lighthouse, cruise ships, profane orange-costumed clowns, classy restaurants, an IMAX, a puppet show, multicultural ethnic dancing groups, every branch of the military.

Thus planned, we resign to bed.

About the bed:  The sheets don’t fit the mattress; every time you roll over the un-tuck-able bottom sheet comes with you, exposing the bare mattress.  The mattress doesn’t match the box springs (two twin box springs for one king mattress).  The bed frame is missing a leg so an inverted ice bucket holds it up.  The sheets have cigarette burns and other stains.  Brian and Christa argue about whether or not hotels have to wash the sheets between guests, no matter how cheap they are.  Christa sleeps soundly.  A beat up old place with barely enough room to set our stuff down reminds her of our house.  She doesn’t wake up or notice but Brian does:  In the middle of the night some idiot is yelling up and down the hall.  Just like at home.

(Stay tuned for Part 2:  One Hobo Plus Five Dollars)

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