We are driving into the night, the expanse of sky to my left growing steadily darker. The sun has dropped and pink clouds streak toward the horizon line, pulled down by the weight of day. There is a strange feeling of being drawn backwards in time when facing the back of a train hurtling in the other direction. Only during daylight hours does this seem intriguing to me, when things rapidly disappear away from you. The sky is shot through with a bright line of white smoke trailing a jet engine and the occasional tree blots out the landscape. It is so flat here, flatter than words can say. The occasional change in scenery comes from cornstalks or a lone silo in the distance. Tracks are laid through fields of soy beans and farmland. Here the beginnings of what might be a barn, there a water tower advertising the town name and its honorable mayor.
I’ve just left Chicago’s bustling Union Station after two days of food, and humanity. The backwards facing train accentuates the feeling of being sucked back into small town reality. On my lap is “Under the Tuscan Sun” and my stomach is practically aching for earthy tomatoes, tangy garlic and piles of pasta. Seems impossible to be hungry after several epic meals this weekend. First and foremost, breakfast at Bongo Room. Introduced to me ages ago, it has become a staple on subsequent visits to the Windy City.
We make a late entrance and wait nearly an hour for a table. We pass the time in nearby Trader Joe’s and sitting in the sun near Grant Park, with the sounds of Occupy Wall Street in our ears. When at last we’re seated, Morgan and I strike a deal to split our food, one savory dish and one sweet. The BLT Benedict is mind blowing and full of fresh ingredients, served next to perfectly seasoned potatoes. Likewise the pancakes make my eyes cross in delight: pumpkin chocolate chunk in a pool of vanilla bean cream. There will be several blocks logged on the Magnificent Mile before I can fully recover.
As a result, lunch is not physically possible and instead becomes an early dinner. We choose Big Star, a poppin Mexican place in Wicker Park that has received a great deal of media attention. Again, an hour wait. We stroll out to take in the last of the sunshine and find ourselves turning into Myopic Books. This store may also become a staple for return visits. Floor to ceiling shelves and two floors of space. Emma Donaghue, Salman Rushdie and E. M. Forster are soon in my bag.
Wicker Park is hipster mania, as evidenced by the vintage sales and the characters out on the street. The locals are out in full force at the bars and restaurants, as we walk past posh homes, and one of the old Real World houses. Finally we get the call from the restaurant and settle into a seat on the patio, as the temperature dips into the 50’s. Heat lamps and lively conversation warm up the place as we ask for margaritas to go with our guacamole. The queso fundido has several cheeses, peppers and housemade chorizo; it steams happily for my Nikon. I can hardly deal with my pork taco although it’s tiny. Grilled pineapple and onions are melting in my mouth and I can’t be bothered to stop and take a breath. I will crave this later in the week.
The rest of my city time is spent walking the avenues and gaping at the consumer’s paradise I’d forgotten about. Remember my
town’s largest store is the Walmart, and that would easily fit into the Macy’s flagship store. There is the statue of Marilyn Monroe, skirts to the wind in front of the Tribune Building, and the Bean is where I last left it, still endlessly fascinating for photo ops and people watching. Open House Chicago is rampant across the city, offering the public a glimpse into buildings otherwise unavailable. I love the model city housed at the Chicago Architecture Foundation in the Santa Fe building on Michigan Ave. All of Chicago laid out in stark white at the birds eye view of 250,000 feet – artful, incredibly detailed and awesome to see.
The gate where my train will board is fit to burst just as one of my student workers predicted. The U of I stop is not far from mine and many of the students have gone home for midterm break. The train home is quiet and I’m plugged into Spanish tunes and wondering how much longer the good weather will last.