Man In A Suitcase

Return with me now to a simpler era, a time when cameras weren't digital, when web brought to mind spiders, when network more often meant televisions and not computers. That was the scene in 1977 as I was ejected from college and forced upon an unprepared world of technology. One of my first assignments was to help the wonderful people at Hertz to port an ancient car inventory system to a newer set of hardware and software, thence to be implanted at Chicago's O'Hare Airport.

Chicago, Illinois

That first assignment started a trend that continued for almost two decades: I've spent considerable time at Chicago's airport and virtually none in the city itself. Thanks to an early pledge of allegiance to American Airlines, or at least to their frequent flyer program, I've had way too many opportunities to reacquaint myself with the American terminals at their twin hubs at O'Hare and Dallas/Fort Worth. Even on the rare occasion when Chicago was my destination, I always ended up staying nearer the airport than the city. All of which left me with a feeling that Chicago was a place where you got stuck until you could make your way to the place you really wanted to go.

My streak finally broke in the summer of 2002, when a seminar for Apple's new Xserve product gave me my first chance to explore Chicago properly. Even better, my hotel was within walking distance of the Lake Shore. Which for some reason reminded me of an execrable song called The Night Chicago Died:
"Daddy was a cop on the east side of Chicago."

Daddy must have been one hell of a swimmer. The east side is at the bottom of Lake Michigan.

Most of the great old amusement parks were situated by the water. That way people could combine the pleasures of nature with the more exciting possibilities provided by roller coasters and ferris wheels and the like. Surprisingly, Navy Pier is a new addition to Chicago's Lake Shore. The pier itself dates back to 1916 and was supposed to be one of two. It changed function several times after shipping faded out in the 30s, first as a naval training center and then as part of the University of Illinois. Its current configuration was completed in 1995, with amusement park rides, museums, a beer garden and other entertainments. Quite a contrast to modern theme parks, with their less than convenient suburban locations and sky high entrance fees. Score one more for the Windy City.

Once upon a time there were two movie critics who argued. A lot. One was thin; one wasn't. One had hair; one didn't. One tended to overintellectualize; the other had more popular tastes. But in their occasionally acrimonious debate one could generally get a sense of whether a particular film was worth the increasingly exorbitant cost of a ticket. I refer of course to Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel, film critics of Chicago's Sun Times and Tribune newspapers, respectively. How fitting that these papers face each other in such dramatic fashion. The Sun Times may have won the critical battle, as the home both of Ebert and of Siskel's shrill and annoying successor, Richard Roeper. But the Tribune has the cooler building. Especially at night, as it basks in the glow of the nearby Wrigley Building. Stirring reminders of a more dramatic time in corporate architecture, a style Silicon Valley has yet to emulate.

Downtown isn't all imposing concrete. In fact, one of the appealing aspects of the city is how varied the architecture is from one block to the next. There are old lowrise neighborhoods within a short walk of the office and apartment towers. Some of the old homes have gone Yupscale, turning into trendy restaurants. But there seem to be a fair number that have retained their original purpose. Granted, you would need a rather fatter wallet to afford them than in the old days. But I suspect that city living here isn't nearly the compromise it is in Manhattan. Heck, I didn't feel my life was in danger every time I crossed an intersection! How much is that worth?

Like most big cities, Chicago has its kitschy side. A fine example at left: the Rock & Roll McDonalds, which is what happens when a cheap and ubitiquous franchise joint tries to steal some of the cachet of the competition across the street: the Hard Rock Cafe. (I confess to having eaten at the Hard Rock. But in my own defense I should point out that I only did it once and that it was at the behest of my brand new manager. After three days on the job I wasn't quite ready to assert my own judgment and good taste. That took another week.)

In my search for sustenance, I decided to reject the R&R McD, the Hard Rock and the Rainforest Cafe next door. Instead I decided to sample Portillo's, a place on the opposite corner from the Hard Rock that just oozes with local color and boasts a good portion of the Chicago police department as customers. And what better recommendation for an inexpensive meal could one want than that? (Notice the neon bar sign advertising beer and Mai-Tais. Bet you didn't know the Mai-Tai is a Chicago invention. Who says the Web isn't educational?)

Home / US Index / Back: Michigan / Next: Minnesota / Last: Texas

Google Web
 Comments to: Hank Shiffman, Mountain View, California