Monday, November 15, 2010

An Impulsive Tour of Chicago

I first went to Chicago on one of my favorite family trips ever when I was probably 10 or 11. I went a second time on an eighth grade school trip, the instant pictures of which are not very good and scattered throughout the drawers of the desk this computer I'm typing from sits on. I didn't go again until last year when I went to see The Lawrence Arms 10th Anniversary Show. I went with my friends Old Ben, Old Jay and Jeffy. I was pretty drunk most of the time and after feeling drunk, sick and depressed in the hotel room after the show I wandered outside, rode the subway by myself and wound up at a McDonalds sharing coffee and a Big Mac with some bums. I didn't get many pictures then, but it was one of the best shows I had seen and one of the best times I've ever had with three of my best friends.

Flash forward to nearly a year later - last week, not this past Sunday, the one before it. I had just played lazer tag with my younger cousins and absolutely dominated them and the little kids who were celebrating a birthday there. The birthday kids were jerks, so I'm not ashamed to admit that my knowledge of Star Trek and WW2 movies gave me the tactics and strategies to easily lead my cousins and I to victory. I dropped the kids off at their house and promptly met my friend Sam at the bar. While throwing back the special on draft, we discussed how much fun it would be to take an impulsive trip somewhere. Chicago! He had never been at all and I had never been when I wasn't an adolescent or drunk. We made a hasty plan. I went to all my classes on Tuesday, drove to the apartment, double checked my bank account, hopped in the truck, set the GPS and we were off.

- Sam stands in the doorway of the beautiful Hammond, Indiana Motel 6.

We weren't even a few miles past the Cincinnati city limits before we had to stop for Wendy's (hey, those spicy chicken nuggets are damn good and it was dinner time). The rest of the drive went smoothly aside from some traffic in Indianapolis and the fact that nearly ever road in Indiana seemed to be under construction or blanketed with orange construction barrels. Our GPS was trying to send us through Gary, Indiana (no thanks), we didn't have the kind of cash to stay downtown and frankly we were too tired to go north of the city. We had stopped at a gas station south of Gary, 45 minutes outside the city that seemed like it was in a decent area and had a cheap Motel 6. We back tracked to it (again, the area looked nice once you got off the exit) and turned down a road to the motel. We passed an abandoned Burger King and two strip clubs before we got to the hotel parking lot. We interrupted the manager's cigarette break outside so that he could sell us a room for the night. 50 bucks later and we're checked into the Hammond Motel 6 seen above. A nice woman in a mini skirt and low cut top glared at us as we walked by in the parking lot, then went back to exchanging money with some men in a beaut up Chevy truck. No doubt this was nothing more than a business meeting between two groups of professionals.

- Belock's Discount Liquor.

We stopped at a nearby liquor store to get a case of beer. The employee questioned my Ohio ID since it looked "pink" and he had never seen anything like it before (I have one of those awesome newer ones). He warmed up to me though when I complimented his XFL Chicago Enforcers t-shirt and engaged him in a 20 minute conversation about the defunct football league.

- A $50 Motel 6 room has vast ammenities, but a mini fridge isn't one of them. So when life gives you lemons - throw them out, buy a case of beer and pour ice right in the box.

I noticed we had no shampoo in our shower. I went to the bulletproof glass protected "front desk" to ask for some, maybe they forgot. I was referred to the vending machine where shampoo was available for $2.75. Awesome. We spent the rest of the evening watching Conan and polishing off a 12 pack before calling it a night. Right before we could fall asleep though, some police officers (three to be exact), pulled up in the parking lot. One zoomed around back while the other two stared back at us as we stared out our window. We gave up watching and never found out what they were there for.

- 5-0 at the 6.

Look, I grew up hearing and still continue to hear crap about how "unsafe" and crime ridden downtown Cincy is, particularly OTR. I spend a lot of time there and it's nothing like the folks in West Chester and Mason claim it to be, so when I'm in places like Hammond I try to give them the benefit of the doubt. However, while I'm sure Hammond is a nice town - their Motel 6 on the outskirts of town is sketchy as hell. Regrouping the next morning we got our stuff together, checked out, declined filling out a survey and stopped by the nearby abandoned Burger King.

- Abandoned Burger King?

At least I think it was at one point a Burger King. The architecture looked like the one I went to as a kid in Fairfield before they renovated it. If you know it was something else, let me know. I still can't believe this place failed though. You'd think neighboring strip clubs and sketchy motels would do wonders for its business.

- Chicago has it's fair share of unique Macdonalds.

As we approached the toll booth (despite the fact that the GPS had clearly been told we wanted to avoid tolls), we saw the oasis "Macdonalds" in the middle of the highway. That restaurant is just a small preview of what was to come, because Chicago is littered with Macdonalds everywhere. There's a rock and roll themed one, one on almost every street corner and even one at Navy Pier. Now, I know Cincinnati has its fair share of fast food downtown, but I've always wondered how we escaped having a Macdonalds downtown. I mean, I'd rather see a unique local place, but the McRib is back and my television has taught me that the McRib's triumphant return is something I should love (and yes, I know it's McDonalds and not Macdonalds, but thats what I like to call them).

With tolls paid and early morning traffic avoided by sleeping in and getting lost, we found ourselves on gorgeous Lake Shore Drive.

- Entering the city.

Parking was a pain. At a lot of places you can park all day for 12 dollars (if you're there by 5:30 AM and out by 8:00 PM). We finally just bit the bullet and parked in a garage that would later cost us 30 bucks. That was fine though, we weren't going to need the truck anyways. You see, Chicago (and most other major cities) has this awesome way to move large amounts of people safely and efficiently throughout the city and suburbs - it's called rail transit (take notes Hamilton, Warren, Clermont and Butler counties)!

We got some lunch at a small pizza joint off of State St. which provided slices of delicious, greasy pizza that helped settle the beer and uneasy feelings of the night before. I'm usually all about everything Cincinnati, but I can't stand LaRosas. Nothing compares to Chicago style pizza and no matter how many times I eat Little Caesars I will always believe this.

- A CTA train.

For five bucks we got a good deal on a CTA transit ticket that would last us pretty much all day. Navigating the transit system in Chicago is a little intimidating at first due to its immense size (I don't know how we did it last time when we had been drinking), but you quickly get the hang of it and five dollars can last you all day.

Like the title of this post implies, this was an impulsive trip. We didn't have any real set itinerary or plan, basically we just wanted to explore. Sam definitely wanted to see the "Cloud Gate" (better known as "The Bean") in Millenium Park and the only things I really wanted to do were ride the train and get a picture with a police officer who looked like Carl Winslow from "Family Matters." We boarded a train on the Pink Line intending to get as close to Millenium Park as possible. The train rounded the corner and the next stop was the one we needed to get off at. Turns out, I underestimated the distance on the transit map. We probably could've just walked and gotten there quicker than waiting for a train, but hey we come from a place where we don't have this kind of futuristic technology.

- The "Cloud Gate" sculpture in Millenium Park, commonly referred to as "The Bean."

We made our way to Millenium Park and saw The Bean. I'll be honest, I kind of figured this thing to be a tourist trap, something gimmicky and stupid that all the kids are posting on their Facebook pages these days. However, its actually really cool...I mean it...and I did end up posting photos of it on Facebook.

- Beneath the stainless steel structure of the "Cloud Gate." The piece was installed in 2004 and is actually quite an engineering marvel.

- My friend Sam and I being tourists.

We checked out the rest of the lakefront Millenium Park as we scoured the area for a restroom. We couldn't find one, so we decided to walk to Navy Pier. That's when we realized Navy Pier was kind of far and found a friendly park employee who showed us some restrooms. Checking out Lake Michigan was the next stop.

- Lake Michigan.

We sat at the lake for awhile trying to determine what to do next. We decided to go look for the Willis (formerly Sears) Tower. We hopped on the train again and departed where I thought it was. I was wrong. A cop who didn't look like Carl Winslow pointed us in the right direction, we somehow still managed to not find it. You'd think you could just look up and walk towards it, but Chicago has so many tall buildings that once you're downtown, its hard to see anything in the sky except the buildings around you. We gave up after an internet search revealed that the observation deck at the Willis is pretty expensive (at least when you're on a budget and know you're paying $30 to get your truck out of the garage later). We headed out in search of the John Hancock Tower, hoping that observation deck would be a little cheaper and that there might be a gift shop where Sam could get something for his girlfriend.

This time, we managed to navigate the transit map properly. We transferred from the Pink Line onto the Red Line subway and were lucky enough to walk right into a performance by "Mrs. Kanye West."

- "Mrs. Kanye West" performs at a Red Line station.

My friend had a headache, so he really enjoyed listening to Mrs. Kanye provide her rendition of some Katy Perry song (as if Katy Perry wasn't annoying enough on its own). It seems Mrs. Kanye is a regular performer at Chicago subway stops, she even filmed a music video at one, you can see it here...if you really, really want to.

- Where the Red Line meets the Blue Line.

It turned out that it was the beginning of rush hour. We packed into a crowded train and really stuck out like tourists. People don't want to miss their stops (understandable) so they don't hesitate to push you out of their way (also understandable).

- Red Line rush hour.

We got off at Chicago Ave. and set off to find the John Hancock Center. As we discussed our search, a friendly local lady at a crosswalk was kind enough to point us in the right direction. We weren't far off or lost at all this time.

- Escalators from the subway to the surface.

- The John Hancock Center.

I'm no architect or architectural critic. I'm just some guy, but I gotta say that the Hancock tower is by far my favorite building I've ever seen. Not just because it was in the beginning credits of "Family Matters," one of my favorite shows, but because in my opinion it's unique, iconic and just awesome. It's symmetrical, it's different and it doesn't look at all like the Brutalist crap that dominated architecture in the era it was built.

The price ended up being about the same as the Willis Tower, but we had come this far and had never been up there. Besides, I had been in the Willis Tower with my 8th grade class in 2003. Turns out the after tax sixteen-dollar-and-some-change price would be totally worth it, but makes you appreciate the Carew's $2 admission in Cincinnati.

We got off the "World's Fastest Elevator" and stepped into the observation lounge. The lounge was already decorated for Christmas and subtly playing Christmas music. This was the only thing I didn't like. I personally find Christmas music depressing, but it didn't really matter, the view from up there is incredible no matter how many times the radio repeats "Feliz Navidad."

- Looking North from the top of the tower.

- A lonely Wednesday evening at the observation deck bar.

- The sun setting on Western Chicago.

- "Watching the sun set on Chicago."

- The observation lounge.

I've been to the beach before, but I've never actually seen the sun set on the horizon, it was a pretty cool experience as it lowered out of view beneath a Midwestern skyline. It might've been a more appropriate setting to take bring a girl, but it works as a good way to end an impulsive and great trip with one of your best friends too.

We wanted to get dinner at some place inexpensive and unique. Cheesecake Factory is expensive and also at Kenwood back home. However, we had been walking all day, so we just settled on Jimmy Johns. Yeah I know, also not unique to Chicago, but we were tired and the bootlegger is a damn good (and relatively inexpensive) sandwich.

We boarded the Red Line ironically at the same station I had hungoverishly been at nearly a year ago when I wandered the streets alone and depressed only to arrive at a Macdonalds and have coffee with some bums at 5 AM before shooting photographs and feeling better. I love this subway stop, I love this city.

Alright, I hate the Chicago Cubs. Seriously, the Cubs suck. However, Chicago is a wonderful city. Its great. I consider it the "Capital of the Midwest." I don't know how else to describe it, so I hope the photographs do the experience of being there justice.

Sometimes you need to take a vacation five hours away from your regular life.


  1. I remember sitting in the Signature room drinking and watching the sun set. When it set completely everyone clapped.
    I don't know why but that still gives me goosebumps just thinking about it again.

  2. Great post. I wanted to let ya know about a typo in paragraph 3, should probably say beat up Chevy. Also, a little tip for the Hancock Tower: you can skip paying the fee to go to up if you go to the bar and enjoy some overpriced alcohol. It's cheaper and if you are with a lady, she can enjoy a view from the bathroom window too. Sadly, the men's room lacks such a window.

  3. 5chw4r7z, haha, idk why they'd clap either. Maybe Appolo the Greek sun god was listening? What is the signature room? Thanks for reading!

    Anon, thanks for checking out the post! Ill fix the typo as soon as I get back to a computer (on cell phone). Thanks for the tip on the bar, ill have to keep that in mind in the future, no view from up there except the womens bathroom though?

  4. I love Chicago (except for the Cubs, of course) and go there quite a bit. I know your trip was impulsive/spontaneous, but if you decide to go again you should give Megabus a try. My husband and I always use Megabus (if you book well enough in advance you can get seats for a buck).

    We buy unlimited-ride CTA passes (a single day pass is under $6, a 3-day pass is $14) and use public transit exclusively. The passes can be bought at Jewel/Kroger, CVS and Walgreens stores and are activated on the first use.

    Staying in downtown can get pricey - we usually stay at Hotel Cass on Wabash near Gold Coast. It's now affiliated w/ Holiday Inn Express, so your breakfast is included in the price. (rooms $150 per night) It's also across the street from a Trader Joe's and Starbucks.

    If you opt to drive again, probably the best/cheapest place to stay in the city is Best Western/River North. It's close to MagMile, the Rock & Roll McD etc and offers FREE parking. (rooms $130 per night)

    Hotel Cass and Best Western are only a couple blocks from each other. They are both very close to the Red Line.

  5. The bar one level up from observation deck. Instead of paying money on the observation deck, drink in the Signature Room instead.

  6. Veggie,

    Thanks for checking out the post. Good call on the Megabus, since we went at the last minute I completely forgot to even check on it. It definitely seems like the way to go in the future. I haven't heard anyone with anything bad to say about it yet. Usually when staying downtown we stayed at the Ohio House or the HOJO, both are pretty good. I appreciate the recommendations though, I'll have to keep them in mind next time we go, I have a feeling next time won't be so impulsive.

    5chw4r7z, thanks for the tip. I'll have to check it out next time.

  7. Thanks Thadd! I really appreciate it.

  8. FYI, at the Hancock you can go to the Signature Lounge on the 96th floor for free. Two floors above the observation floor you paid to see. Something locals know about, they have their own special elevators located away from the main ones.