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My Kind of Town, Chicago Is
Chicago was the last city I traveled to with my family before I got married and moved out. For that reason, the trip holds a special place in my heart, despite the inevitable snags that occur when you drive hundreds of miles in a beat-up minivan with two adults, two girls, and a small dog.
It was Labor Day weekend in 2007. This trip was already different because it was the first time we'd gone on vacation without my brother Greg. We had helped him pack up his stuff and shipped him off to LSU to begin college. He was no doubt celebrating his new-found freedom and discovering all the things one can do on a college campus. We got a rare phone call from him just as we were reaching the top of the ferris wheel on Navy Pier for a prime view of the Chicago skyline.
The drive went smoothly. My dad always drives because he gets antsy when he's not behind the wheel. After years of making super long trips across the country, even with small children, my parents have it down to a science. We never fly. Not only is it expensive, but my mom is afraid of flying. We would have driven to France if that were an option.
After driving for about 14 hours nonstop, we arrived in the Windy City. Being a family that enjoys eating, the first order of business was finding that restaurant famous for its deep dish pizza--Gino's East. We sat in a booth, reading the inscriptions scrawled on the wall in various pen colors, and waited at least forty minutes for the pizza to be done. It was worth it. My first deep-dish pizza, and I was in heaven. Pizza's already a trigger food for me. I see it, smell it, or think about it, and I forget everything else. This was like pizza cake, enough to put me in a happy pizza coma, obesity epidemic be damned!
Next was finding our lodgings. My parents had rented a loft over one of the busier streets in downtown Chicago, within walking distance of the theatre. It had a bedroom and a wide, open kitchen/dining room/living room with a pull-out couch for my sister Carly and I to share. Since it was her birthday this weekend, we watched Carly's new DVD Blades of Glory.
The next few days were spent in the predictable routine of walking. We ditched our van at a parking garage and walked to the places you'd expect to visit in Chicago--Millennium Park, Navy Pier, Wrigley Field. We visited a stained glass museum on Navy Pier and saw the panes lit up, their vibrant colors glowing. There was a jazz festival in the park one night. We had our dog with us, even though there were signs prohibiting pets. She was so small though I tucked her on my lap and we sat on the grass. The most enjoyable part of all this was walking through the city, seeing the people, and getting a sense of the different cultures meshed together.
Another gastronomical highlight was eating at the Billy Goat Tavern, immortalized in that SNL skit with John Belushi as a short order cook. Just like in the skit, the cook shouted at each of us in turn, "Cheezburga? Cheezburga? Cheezburga?" We all nodded. Then he got to my mother, a vegetarian, who asked for an egg sandwich. "What's wrong with you?" he cried. "This is how burgers should be done," my dad said at our table. "The bun is fresh, it tastes like real bread."
Of course, there were downsides. Traveling with a pet is fun, but it can present its challenges. Layla, our Shih Tzu, loved walking with us in the evenings, sniffing out all the new exciting smells. The weather was pleasant enough that she didn't tire out. But when we took her out at the hotel to do her business, we had to walk her up and down a smelly, dank alleyway because there were no grassy areas nearby. That was less fun.
Perhaps the event I'll remember the most is when we tried to leave Chicago. Remember how we left our van at a parking garage for the weekend? Somehow the good people at the garage neglected to mention that they would be closed on Labor Day. Our van was locked inside and no one was there to let us in. My dad, who has over the years worked on keeping his cool in tense situations, was in shock. We tried calling the company and only got a recorded message. We all had to be at work the next day. We had to leave the hotel by a certain time. We had used up our travel budget. We couldn't carry all our luggage to another hotel, and what if we had to sneak in the dog? (We have done it before. I zipped her in a suitcase and carefully carried it through the lobby past the clerk.) It seemed like there was no solution. Dad sat in the armchair in the room, just saying "Wow" over and over. I walked with him back to the parking garage hoping that some solution would present itself, that a worker would miraculously appear there. I had a sick feeling in my stomach that there was no way out of this mess.
We happened upon a group of cops a few blocks away drinking their coffees. Dad decided to see if they could help, playing up his helplessness in the situation and hoping they wouldn't just tell him, "Too bad." Two officers, a man and a woman, agreed to see what they could do. They seemed as surprised as we were that a parking garage would close on Labor Day. They made some magic phone calls and stayed with us for the forty odd minutes it took for the surly manager to show up and unlock the garage. Dad and I expressed our deep gratitude. My father asked for their names so he could write to the city and commend them for their help. He also told me later, as we peeled away in triumph in our minivan, that had the cops not been there, that manager would have had more choice words to share with us.
Despite a stressful last day, when we weren't even sure we'd be able to leave, we gained a greater respect and appreciation for the CPD. We laughed about it on the ride home, feeling lucky and blessed and glad to be together.