Friday, July 20, 2012

Bueller, Bueller?

It's a hot Friday in June. We are ready for our second day of Chicago. (First day relived over here.) But I think we'll take it slow this morning. Let's let Joe get up early and head out for a photographic walking tour of downtown Chicago. You and I can stay right here in our pajamas, no pants of course, and wander around the apartment, reading, watching The Today Show (yet again wondering what the hell Ann Curry is wearing,) and staring out the big wide windows into about 1,000 strangers' apartments. I like this city living thing.

Joe will bring us coffee and a bagel and we will love him for that. So let's pretend we went on that sweaty walking tour. Look at all the beautiful photos "we" took. Aren't they fantastic? Wasn't that extra hour of laziness totally worth missing this tour? You feel like you were there anyway, don't you?








By this point, 10am or so, I'd managed to shower and put pants on (shorts actually since it was supposed to be 97 and humid) sucked down coffee and a bagel, and we hailed a cab and headed over to the Art Institute for a morning filled with a staggering amount of pop art and Sands brothers. Aren't they adorable? Matching mirrored aviators and brotherly love right there.



We met Jon at Millennium Park and walked up the back walkway into the new modern wing of the Art Institute. It's a very cool entrance actually. Up on the walkway you have a great view back into downtown, so of course we stopped, took in the skyline, and then into the vast modern art oasis we wandered.



And who should we stumble upon while buying tickets? Why, Conan O'Brien's hilarious sidekick, the fabulous Mr. Andy Richter, and his whole family. Conan's show was filming in Chicago while we were there, so when we glanced up to the front of the line and heard Andy's distinctive voice, all three of us started whispering like giddy children, "Hey, that's Andy Richter." Joe snapped a discreet cell phone shot, and then we proceeded to subtly stalk him throughout the Lichtenstein retrospective. A little pop art with a pop culture darling. (With that visor and man bag, Andy Richter really is darling.)




The Lichtenstein exhibit was staggeringly good. So many rooms upon rooms of his art. I'd been to a much smaller exhibit of his work in New York a few years ago with my dad, but it was nothing compared to this. Pieces from each period of his work, the early more traditional work, the pop comic explosion where he took on Mickey Mouse, damsels in distress, and then mimicked the ultra famous work of the impressionists and post impressionists and then Picasso. It was like gorgeous primary colored candy. Big, bold, funny, over the top, and something so American about it all.



The exhibit was very full when we first got there, so much so that it was hard to see the art around all of the people crowding in staring or posed with their cell phones up in front of their faces taking pictures, but as it thinned out, we could breathe and  spent a couple of hours just taking it all in.





Andy Richter again, see, I told you we were subtly stalking him. He takes cell phone pictures just like the rest of us. I need to see if he's on Instagram. Every time we saw him the three of us looked around to find each other in the room and gave this head nod/smile combo, like "See, we're cool, like we hang out with Conan and Andy all the time."


Some smaller original sketches were fascinating to see since it helped show how the large dotted paintings began. And I had no idea, but Lichtenstein was a bit of a sculptor and designer too, he had several small sculptures and this gorgeous mirrored piece as well, that was a spin on work by artists like Frank Lloyd Wright.



After the Lichtenstein explosion, we moseyed around some other sections of the museum. More modern work, (crap, the African exhibits were all closed,) some architectural stops, some sculpture and a bit of folk art, and we were about ready to head out for lunch. More than about 3 hours worth of art museum and I hit sensory overload. Except for one last stop.




The America Windows by Marc Chagall. I hate to even admit this, but ever since I saw Ferris Beuller's Day Off at age 11, I wanted to stand in front of those stained glass windows. (Blame movies and TV for our cultural downfall, but Ferris Bueller's adventures in the Art Institute helped inspire me to fall in love with art.) I've seen these magical windows several times in my life since then and each time I stand there like a glazed-over giddy child. I stare and smile and the colors and shapes and scenes wash over me. These windows have a tranquility and liveliness and glow to them that makes me feel both at peace and more alive than in front of nearly any other piece of art I can think of. I love the enormous Chagall paintings at Lincoln Center in New York, I love so much of Chagall's work, but there is something about the the glass, the light, the fragmented vignettes of the United States that strikes up a patriotic fervor in me that feels like the 4th of July. So we had to stop. Had to. Photos don't do them justice, stop by next time you're there. Give yourself that treat.




So in a Ferris, Sloane and Cameron art fueled glow, we headed out of the museum in hot pursuit of some lunchtime vittles. Caught a train, headed to Jon's neck of the woods, and dove into the underground, dark, and old school bar, Half Shell, for some serious seafood.



Did I mention that there was a Cubs game about to commence? Did I mention that our train was so packed with riders by the time we exited that I spent nearly 30 minutes pressed up against a man wearing a khaki utility kilt and making way too much eye contact? (Oh, sidebar, ladies, don't wear pale yellow while running around the city in the summer. Pale yellow, like white, just begs for people to spill things on you, pale yellow turns into dingy hospital yellow by the end of the day, just some advice.)



Half Shell is not a place you go to for fancy, white table cloth meals, your lap protected by a linen napkin, table covered with twelve tiny forks and black tied waiters filling your wine glass before it's even half empty. Half Shell is a bar, it feels like a bar, and if you are looking for a hefty plate of shrimp or crab legs or just a cool place to hide in the summer with a couple of oysters, go here. (Jane Lynch loved Half Shell when she lived in Chicago, so celebrity endorsement, yeah.)

We feasted on clams, crab legs and oysters and then walked around Jon's neighborhood, enjoyed some very weak Long Island ice teas with his roommate, Chris and a couple of friends, and then we decided to grab a cab and head back to our apartment to relax since we had a late night ahead, but there were no cabs. None. Oh, did I mention the Cubs game just ended? Did I mention Jon lives just blocks from Wrigley? We waited and waited for a cab, walked looking for a cab. Thinking there had to be one just around the corner. But no, trains packed, cabs full, so Jon huffed off to his apartment (dude loses his cool about few things, but having to wait for a cab sends him over the edge) while Joe and I killed some time in the used book store two doors down, Bookman's Corner.


It was hot as hell in there, musty, stuffy and so crowded I feared for my life if there had been an earthquake. But totally worth it. We spent nearly 30 sweaty minutes digging through piles of books, stacks of possibilities, just layering our arms with gems, though I think we only ended up buying two or three. And by then Jon came back, we walked a few blocks over, caught a train (Cubs traffic had cleared out), headed back to change and relax, took a couple of serious power naps and got ready for the evening's adventures.



Our evening plans included a little dinner and a little late night theater. And because you are required to have some Italian while in Chicago, we took a recommendation of one of Jon's friends, and made a reservation at Anteprima, just a couple of blocks over from the theater. We hopped into Joe's convertible and headed over to find some parking close to the Neo-Futurist Theater. (thanks for the recommend, Amy!) It was wonderful to be in the car again, no cab worries here. The temperatures had dropped, we cruised along Lakeshore Drive and headed out to Andersonville.


We walked over to the restaurant on Clark Street, in what is obviously an incredibly cool young neighborhood, lots of hipsters, gay and straight young couples, eclectic shops and restaurants, someplace I want to get back to during the day next time we visit, when everything is still open. Particularly this place, the Wooly Mammoth, taxidermy, enormous papier mache heads? What more do you need in a shop?


We chose a table out on the back patio of Anteprima and settled in for a lovely meal.  The boys each got one of the meaty, savory pasta specials and an appetizer, all scrumptious. I tried the asparagus risotto and the panzanella salad. It was wonderful with bright, fresh ingredients, and you could choose smaller portions which left room for some of the best ice cream I've ever eaten. After our leisurely meal, we still had some time to kill before we had to get in line for our tickets, we walked over to George's Ice Cream and Sweets. I indulged in something I didn't know existed until this day and has changed my world forever more, as s deep fan of the salty/sweet taste sensation, I introduce you to the chocolate dipped pretzel cone. Sweet lord, paired with a scoop of caramel vanilla sugar free ice cream, I was in heaven. I might have moaned a little bit, it was embarrassing.


Orgasmic ice cream vanquished, we headed back toward the Neo-Futurist Theater to get in line for their first come, first serve show. How do I describe the Neo-Futurists? Their show? Their seating process? Their constantly rotating line up? I'll start with saying I loved the whole thing, but if you like to know the price of your ticket in advance, if you like to know exactly what time to arrive and exactly where and when you'll be seated, if you like to have read extensive reviews or the script of the play in advance or memorize the song book, this isn't the show for you. If you prefer to let wild, inspired theater freaks (I use freaks in the kindest, most admired sense of the word) take over your night and send you through a couple of hours of unexpected mayhem, then the Neo-Futurists are right up your alley. First off, you better get there before the 11:30pm show because they often sell out the 150 seat theater. We waited in line a little less than an hour and got great seats. You roll dice for your ticket cost, ranging from $10 up to $16, you wait inside a very hot holding room before they roll your dice, give you a name tag with a fake name and then send you into the small, dark, old little theater. Joe was dubbed Lovey Dovey, I was Helter Skelter and most appropriately Jon was Vinyl.

This is Jon's (Vinyl's) pissy face. This is the face we saw when we couldn't catch a cab, when a cab driver actually asked him to type the address of our destination into the driver's GPS, or when at this point in his theater experience he was hot, bored, unsure of what was about to happen and quite concerned that the back of his shorts had just ripped. (They had.)


But once the show began, full of audience participation, some singing, some shouting and a lot of fresh, interesting plays, he lost the grimace. The Neo-Futurists have been around for more than twenty years practicing their ensemble theater style, performing 30 two minute plays, rotating the group of plays on a weekly basis, constantly adding new plays, and performing them in no standard order, but instead responding to the audience shouting out which number they want to see performed next. The plays vary greatly. Some of them funny, some are strange, some are messy, some are sweet, some are raunchy, but they are all personal and real. Each actor uses his/her own name, and each play is written based on their own personal experiences.

Some plays are even awkward. One play, an actor sitting at a table alone with a bottle of whiskey and two glasses, asked audience members to come up and join him one at a time, and then rejected each one, until after what felt like hours he finally let a girl sit down and shared some shots and conversation, it seemed to go on for an eternity with no clear purpose. But that's the fun of Neo-Futurists, it challenges your expectations of what theater and entertainment should be. It's a collage, a self produced collage from a group of incredibly flexible and gifted writers and performers, and every night, every performance is different. I can see why they've lasted 20 plus years, it was weird and it was amazing. I can't wait to see what happens next time we go, but I'm guessing Jon will probably stay home that night.


We headed back to the car, driving down Clark St at 1:30 am, and the streets were jammed with the young, the drunk, the scantily clad, and the fight happy. In our short drive to drop Jon off at his apartment, I witnessed two bros pushing each other, one bro punching another bro in the stomach with about thirty people crowded around watching, countless girls filled with whiskey sours struggling to cross the street in shiny platform heels, and a girl holding back her own hair as she threw up over a mailbox. So that's where we end day two of Adventure Chicago, watching a girl gather her hair into a ponytail while puking over the side of a shiny blue mailbox. Sweet dreams! See you soon for Day 3, when we manage to cram in more architecture, a big ol' boat, and a serious number of human skulls. 



Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Four Fried Chickens and a Coke

Solid way to start a vacation? Getting carded at an Irish pub by a waiter with a very heavy Eastern European accent. We are in Chicago and I'm old enough to drink a hard cider in a tall fancy glass at 10pm. I'm almost 37, people. And while I'm certain Mr. Chatty Waiter cards every woman and calls every woman under age 80 "Miss" (guaranteed tips,) it still made for an excellent beginning. Well, hi there, Chicago. I've missed you.



Chicago feels like it belongs to me for some reason. Maybe too many viewings of The Blues Brothers. But there are those cities, you've never lived there, you've never thought seriously of moving there, you've visited a few times, but for some reason you feel like it's a part of you. It feels a bit like home. Or if not home, like visiting a close friend you haven't seen in years. I love New York City. There is no place like it in the world, or at least the small portion of the world that I've visited so far. But New York City is like that girl you admired from afar in high school. You were a freshman, she was a senior. She was gorgeous but not mean, cultured, cool, wore the strangest, best clothes and would smile if you smiled at her, but you could never really get to know that girl. She was out of your league. New York City feels a bit out of my league. I feel frumpy and Midwestern and bright and colorful and lame when I'm there for a few days. And I don't feel that way anywhere else, or maybe cheerful and colorful doesn't feel like a bad thing anywhere else. But Chicago, Chicago is different. It's big, it's full of art and shopping and restaurants and people and all that chaotic city whirlwind, but it feels like I'm supposed to be there, Chicago feels like it wants me there.


Joe and I headed to Chicago a couple of weeks ago to spend a few days just bumming around, hitting some architecture, some food, some culture, and hanging out with Jon Sands, Joe's youngest brother, who has lived in Chicago off and on for the last few years. He's a city boy now. Omaha can't hold him anymore. So Jon took a couple of days off work, scored us this fantastic two bedroom apartment at the complex he works at downtown, and guided us around his town for three straight days of activity and merriment.


As I mentioned earlier, we got into town a little late on a Wednesday, after our road trip up in the convertible from Kansas City. We unpacked the car, changed, and then walked across the street to grab a late dinner at a dark Irish pub. I forgot how wonderful it is to just walk across the street to get to places. No car needed. No parking, just shoes. It was great. Late night happy hour, over ordering way too many appetizers and just getting the chance to spend some time with two of the Sands brothers. We ate sweet curry fries and buffalo calamari and vacation started to seep into the air. We ate and drank and talked and then walked around a bit, before heading back to our apartment to take in the 17th story view and collapse.



Thursday morning we had early tickets to head out with the Chicago Architecture Foundation on their Frank Lloyd Wright bus tour to Oak Park. Joe and I had taken a self guided walking tour of Oak Park a couple of years ago, but hadn't had the chance to tour Wright's original home and studio or visit the inside of his austere masterpiece Unity Temple. So we hopped on the bus, Starbucks in hand, and prepared for four hours of Wright. It got off to a bumpy start.

Our very elderly bus guide kept holding the microphone up to speak and then setting off a crazy burst of feedback every time she spoke. It was cringe inducing, over and over again. Stuck in this confined area, and between ear splitting bits of feedback we could hear tiny bits of the tour. Bus morale started to go south quickly. Best part though, when the tour lady asked for some help with feedback, Jon said "You're doing great." Yeah, not that kind of feedback, sir. After figuring out that it was probably her hearing aids causing the problem, we got back on track and settled back for a brief history of Chicago buildings as we headed out to the burbs.


Wright's home and studio are gorgeous. The preservation and restoration is impressive. Seeing the spaces in both places, it's like an incubator for his future work. Under the more ornate and decorative facade, you can see future Wright designs and more organic work that is to come. He has that combination of tight hallways that open up into tall ceilings and bright windows, somehow managing cozy and bright even with dark wood and a lack of electric light at least for the first few years.  Our tour guide, not the bus tour guide by the way, but this high energy woman who talked a mile a minute and walked nearly as fast, was excellent. Even Joe was impressed and he's notorious for asking guides questions they can't answer.



Thankfully the weather was mild and sunny, so after our tour of the grounds, studio and house, we then went on to the walking tour of the major Frank Lloyd Wright houses in the area, and then headed over to Unity Temple for the last tour. The whole neighborhood is full of these gorgeous houses. Mostly 1900's into early 1920's, a mix of traditional Victorian, and then the unique and disturbing Frank Lloyd Wright designs that set the whole neighborhood on edge. They stand out. A lot, particularly among the gingerbread Victorians. But they are spectacular.







I'm partial this this non Frank Lloyd Wright house, I have to say. It was a lovely gray color, with immaculate white, red and yellow trim, perfect landscaping and the kind of front porch you want to curl up with a book and an iced tea all afternoon, waving at tourists.


I think one of my favorite stories from the tour was the very unsurprising story about the house above. Oak Park is overrun with tourists all the time. Generally kind, interested and friendly tourists, but tourists all the same. And the owners of the house above, knowing this, went ahead and bought a Frank Lloyd Wright house in a busy, foot traffic filled neighborhood. And then sued the Chicago Architecture Foundation to get them to stop bringing walking tours in front of their house. Why buy a house in this type of neighborhood if you don't want a lot of photographs and people walking around outside your home? They stopped using their front door. They put a lot of signs up, and were generally sticks in the mud for a few years. It sounds like they've come around and even opened their house up for an annual tour recently, but still, the idea of buying one of these very prominent and very popular houses and then being surprised by the number of people milling around to look at it? Just silly. And of course we are across the street, far enough away from their front door to avoid being jailed.




Then on to Unity Temple. It looks like a big, imposing box. Don't get me wrong, it's lovely and bold and incredibly new, all cubist and concrete, and if you think about the fact that it was built in the early 1900's, it's an amazing piece of architecture. But it does nothing for me. The interior is stunning, but the boxy, gray, chilly exterior, leaves me exactly that, cold.




The inside is all squares of light and mellow organic colors, and it looks very little like a traditional church, other than it has pews and an altar. It was very stuffy inside, but very peaceful sitting on the pews and taking in the space. You can't hear the sounds of traffic. You can't see any of the busy city outside. That brilliant box design insulates and isolates you inside with your fellow church goers and God, I suppose. And our tour ends here. Our bus tour guide was back for the Unity Temple tour, and she did the most boring and uninformative tour I've ever sat through. I learned more talking with Joe on the bus ride home. But the day was wonderful. And there's a reason Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the only architects most people can name. He deserves that fame. As womanizing and free thinking and narcissistic and eccentric and ego-maniacal as he seems to have been, he's also a total friggin' genius.




So we hopped back on the feedback express, go dropped off downtown, and starving, since it was well past noon, we hoofed it over to Oprah's favorite burger joint, Poag Mahone's. A better burger, I don't think I've ever eaten. It was beefy and juicy and perfection. We ate and sat, and it was hot by now, so we needed a break. We'd been walking all morning, the sun was baking the sidewalks, so once we finished our leisurely lunch, we grabbed a cab and headed to the movies.



Why would we go see a movie on vacation in a action packed city like Chicago? Because few people like Wes Anderson movies as much as Joe and I do, and Jon Sands is one of them. So an afternoon showing of Moonrise Kingdom was the perfect antidote to the city sweats, along with the perfect viewing company. This is one of my new favorite movies. I think I might have to go see it again before it leaves the theater.

And who happened to be in the theater at the same time? Jon's friends Kevin and Sarah. Jon has talked about how great Kevin and Sarah are for years, so it was so strange that we all ended up at the same theater, same movie, same time on a random Thursday afternoon. We hung out and chatted a bit after the movie, and they are exactly as cool as Jon always said. Plus it's always exciting to meet a guy with a hybrid helicopter/hamburger tattoo.


After the movie, we headed back to our apartment to change and hang out a bit. Jon took us on a tour of the building, we saw a couple of sweet apartments with spectacular views. We might have wandered up to the roof, maybe, nope, I take that back, no roof, roof access is forbidden. But somehow we have some photos of the view from the roof. Then we went back to our apartment to collapse, Jon got us hooked on The League on Netflix, and after too many episodes in a row in the air conditioning, we braved the humidity and headed up the street for dinner. Asian noodles and homemade ginger soda, and our night was complete.





So that's our first day in Chicago. Other than the old lady and her mic feedback, the fact that I dropped a mini bottle of lotion down the toilet at 7am and then spent the next ten minutes with my hand in the toilet trying to fish it out, and the heat, it was what I would deem a nearly perfect day. Just the right mix of running around and absorbing Chicago, and then hiding in the air conditioning laughing. I'll be back with Friday's adventures and more photos later this week. I know you're excited!

Most photos courtesy of Joe Sands, with a few of mine mixed in.