Monday, March 29, 2010

Another day in Chi-town

Having pretty much done all of the local exploration we could stand, we decided to get a little more adventurous today and see if we couldn't learn how to do something that is second nature to city dwellers all over the world: ride public transportation. Where we live, it isn't all that unusual to get in the car and drive to the end of the driveway to retrieve the mail and newspaper. Well, I guess it's a little unusual, but not completely out of the question. In big cities, it seems that you don't really need or want a car since the public transit system is so ubiquitous and far more cost efficient.

The weather out the window looked surprisingly inviting, but the view of the woman across the street that seemed oblivious to the fact that she was standing naked in front of her window? Not so much, truth be told. Why is it always the ones you don't want to see naked....

Looks can be deceiving though, and I'm not referring to Ms. Twin Peaks 2010. No, I am alluding to the nice looking weather. It was still far colder than I had planned for when packing. Still, as I remembered it we only had a short, one block walk to the place we had selected for breakfast. Something was wrong, though. Once we got there, the place looked different than we remembered. It took a frigid 15 minutes of walking around looking for the place we thought we were looking for to decide that it didn't really matter - we'd just go back to the first place. Which, once we went in, turned out to be the very place we were looking for after all. It was to be that kind of day, as it eventually became abundantly clear.

The public transportation we chose to cut our teeth on was the subway, although in Chicago the subway has a way of blossoming up from under the ground and floating over the roads, at which point it becomes an "el train." Not in the Spanish sense, as in El Toro or El Diablo, of course, but as an abbreviation for "elevated train." As with flying, it helps to have a goal in mind so we decided we'd head south down to "the loop" to make a stop at Macy's for some required cosmetic supplies for the Travel Director, then press on to Chinatown for lunch.

The Chicago St. station is only a couple of blocks from the hotel, according to the map I had picked up at the airport, so the plan was to board there and ride down to the Washington St. station which, again according to the map, was very close to the Macy's store. We found the subway station easily enough, but soon found ourselves perplexed with the task of buying a day pass. Fortunately, the Travel Director is a female and thus not as predisposed against asking for assistance as her companion is. She went to the information booth and quite plainly described our problem as being from out of town and unfamiliar with the process for getting a day pass from the automated kiosk, honesty being a well recognized policy of the best sort.

"Well, you can't," she said. "You have to go to Walgreens, or CVS, or..." and proceeded to go through a lengthy list of other retail establishments that all had one glaring thing in common, which was a complete and total disaffiliation with anything having to do with public transit. It would be like Walgreens telling you that you had to a subway station to buy aspirin.

"But you can buy a three day pass from the machine. Are you going to ride the buses or the trains?"

Now, I don't know why I found that such a confusing question other than that I had once tried to figure out how to take the train from the Gary, Indiana airport up to Chicago and had for some reason got it stuck in my head that those trains were somehow different than the subway trains.

"Well," I replied, "we're going to ride the subway."

"Those are the trains, sir."

What was truly amazing was there was not one iota of disdain or disbelief in her tone. We have been truly amazed at how polite and helpful the people are here. I don't know why that surprises us other than we probably have some preconceived stereotypical notions about big city folk. They may also have some preconceived notions regarding us small town hicks too, the difference being, of course, that I am going out of my way to prove them correct.

Anyway, it makes perfect sense to be able to buy a three day pass from the machine but not a one day pass, right? No? I didn't think so either. I just hope we can find someplace to go for the next couple of days, because we now have two more days of fully paid up travel to use.

Having determined that we were in fact going to ride the trains (for three days), she showed us how to use the machine to buy the passes and how to put the passes into the automated gates to let us down to the tracks. She showed us which set of stairs to use so that we would be heading south instead of north. She even explained that the station I had been intending to debark at was closed and no longer in service, and provided us with an updated route map to replace the obsolete map that they are still dispensing at Midway Airport.

Finally, we were on the train platform waiting for the next train to pull in.

It didn't take long at all for the next train to arrive:

We popped up on State St. and started to walk back to the north. I stop often on walks like this to snap pictures:

They must have just changed the marquee on the Chicago Theatre because these letters were piled up on the sidewalk. Now, you have to know that I am in inveterate meddler when I run across things like this. I've long since lost count of the times I have left messages on peoples refrigerators when I've found an unattended collection of those magnetic Fisher-Price letters sitting there just waiting for someone like me to rearrange. Can you imagine the temptation??

I think the only thing that stopped me was the total lack of vowels. Except for the 'Y', of course, but that's only a "sometimes" vowel and doesn't really count.

I think the Chicago Theatre must have at one time been the tallest thing around. The huge painting on the side of the building must have been visible from the road, but is now blocked by its much taller neighbors:

And I thought it was hard to figure out the subway - you'd need a map to find your way down those fire escapes!

I found myself wondering what strange combination of obsession pitted against recalcitrant property owners resulted in this very, very narrow building:

Long past the time when we were cold and wanted to get back on the train, I insisted on walking south far enough to see what this pretentious yet ominous looking building was:

It's a Chicago Public Library. We decided, what with it being "public" and all, that we'd go in and take a look. It turns out that the vast majority of the floor space is taken up with unpopular stuff. The popular stuff is relegated to this relatively small area:

The walls were adorned with all kinds of lofty quotes trumpeting the value of reading, and by extension, public libraries. This one kind of stood out:

After taking that picture, I was approached by a library employee who informed me that permission was required to take pictures in the "public" library. I told her that I'd try to contain my unsocial urges, but truthfully I was somewhat taken aback. You can't take pictures in a public library?? Why the hell not?? Are they afraid someone will find out that they have books in there??

Our taste for sampling the library had pretty much been ruined by that so we decided to leave. Which would have been easy to do, had we not been stopped at the door to have the Travel Director's purse searched. And they wonder why people don't read anymore. Unbelievable.

[To be continued]


  1. Too bad you won't be there for the Straight No Chaser concert - they're a neat group.

  2. Gabriel Iglesias is a pretty funny dude, too!