Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas Eve Underground

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Treats

“Oh, the weather outside is frightful,
But the fire is so delightful,
And since we’ve no place to go,
Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow.”
—Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, “Let it snow! Let it snow! Let it snow!”

Theia stands behind the counter in the small store on N. Clark St. Outside, snow and a frigid cold have descended upon the city, driving Chicagoans to head for heat where they can find it. (Or perhaps contend with a layer of slush on the street.)

It’s 8:30 p.m., and Theia finds herself alone in the shop. The single room with the baby-blue walls has seen hordes of customers in the past, but at this hour, a gumball machine and stacks of free newspapers and magazines aren’t enough to draw in a single person (beyond a curious reporter).

It could be the hour. It could be that this section of Lincoln Park is residential. It could also be the product that Theia’s selling.

Ice cream.

“I’m a mother,” says Theia, who wears a brown shirt with the store’s logo, a swirl of ice cream on a wafer cone. “It’s like down time.”

Treats Frozen Desserts, a Chicago-area chain, sells only a handful of products. Its main offering is four flavors of 99% fat-free ice cream, which can be mixed with two or more of some 30-plus toppings to create what the company calls a “Mess.” Beyond this, a freezer stocks cakes, pies, and containers of pre-packaged ice cream, while a nearby refrigerator holds bottles of water.

Absent are penguins.

A 30-year-old mother of two, Theia has been working at Treats for six years. When it’s warm out, she says, the store can see three employees behind the counter at a time; in this season, there’s just one per day, from 2 to 10 p.m.

“The area’s good. It’s close to home,” says Theia, a lifelong Chicagoan who grew up around Austin Ave. and Lake St. and now lives on the Northwest Side. “In my other job, I used to have to leave my home two hours just to make it to work on time.” Now, it’s 45 minutes by public transit, less when driving.

She’s thought of moving to another city, though she’d want to stay in Illinois. Why would she leave Chicago?

“Right now, the prices. Right now, it’s just too expensive for me in Chicago. Four kids, and I’m working at an ice cream shop.”

Treats Frozen Desserts, at Clark St. and Grant Pl. in Lincoln Park. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

As for the job itself, she doesn’t complain. To the contrary. “There’s always something to do here,” she insists. “It’s never a boring day.”

Even when the temperature is near, if not in, the single digits.

A young man wearing a green Patagonia jacket and a blue sweatshirt comes in and asks for a couple of free tastes before choosing his ice cream. His says his name is Michael, and he’s a student at Columbia College.

Michael, 22 years old, offers that he shops at Trader Joe’s and just had a salad and sandwich for dinner, but that he tries to come to Treats at least once a month. In this weather, he notes, “I know there’s not going to be a line out the door especially.”

It helps that Michael lives above the store.

“Has it been busy tonight?” he asks Theia.

“I’ve had a good…” She pauses to think. “…Five customers a hour.” Of those five per hour, she remarks, “Those are, like, the faithfulest customers of Treats. They come in, rain, hail, sleet, or snow.”

“Have a nice night,” she says to Michael before he leaves.

“You, too,” he replies. “What is your name?”

“Theia.”

“Theia?”

“Theia.”

“Michael,” he says back.

“Okay,” she replies.

“So, you’re upstairs, right?” she adds.

“Yeah.”

“Soooo, you know Tom?” she asks, her voice ending playfully upward.

“Tom?”

“Tom. He works for the sushi place. He’s a deliverer.”

“Oh, okay,” he replies. “Yeah. Is he normally smoking cigarettes all the time?”

“Yup,” she giggles. “That’s Tom.”

“Thanks again,” says Michael, before walking out. “Stay warm.”



If Theia could be doing anything she wanted anywhere in the world right now, what would it be?

She thinks about it.

She’s offered some suggestions: Spending more time with her family, traveling somewhere, lying on a beach…?

Lying on a beach, she decides. “In the sun. Out of the snow.”

“But what’s crazy,” she goes on, “I may even miss the snow if I leave. I have a brother that lives in Florida, so he probably knows well. So, when he comes to Chicago, he’s like a kid in a candy store. He goes outside, no coat, no nothing. And I’m like, ‘Boyyyy!’”

Around a quarter to 9, two men walk into the store. “Hi, cousin!” Theia greets the first one.

“Wassup?” he replies.

The second of the two men is Cedric, her significant other. You might guess they’re together if you looked closely at Theia’s gold-colored hoop earrings, one of which has her name nestled inside the ring, while the other has his.

The two men have come to keep Theia company until the end of her shift.

As they chat, the sound of an electric snow blower can be heard just outside the shop. “He’s a good guy! Good guy!” says Theia. “You know I can not shovel no snow.”

Theia has been working since she was 17 years old, and it’s always been in food service. In this job, she particularly enjoys interacting with the local high school students who come in (the Francis W. Parker School is just across the street, while Lincoln Park High School isn’t far away). “We play the dare game,” she explains. “Like, make crazy Messes, like Nerds, cotton candy, and gummy bears.” She takes on a mocking voice: “‘I bet you five dollars you will not eat this.’”

The weather outside is frightful, but the frozen pies are still for sale. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Theia calls food service “her life.” “I like the different people. To me, different people. There’s never a dull moment in food service.

“I just like to move around,” she continues. “My days go by much faster.”

Shortly after 9, a young woman comes in and orders a cone of cookie dough ice cream. Not long after that, Theia is cleaning the counter and mopping the floor. She’s decided to call it a night early, something she does maybe once a month.

She won’t get paid for the time she’s not here— but there aren’t exactly many customers paying now. Not with the mercury hovering around ten degrees Fahrenheit outside.

“I tell you,” says Theia, with her cousin and her significant other waiting for her to leave the ice cream behind, to head off to warmth somewhere else. “There’s never a dull moment.”

And when she says it, you believe her.

It just goes to show: Contentment, like warmth, is where you find it— even among the cold.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Mumbai on Devon Avenue

“It’s finished,” says Kanu.

He’s standing behind the counter in Al-Mansoor Video, on Devon Ave. at Rockwell St. A TV suspended from the ceiling plays news from an Indian network, received here by satellite.

“Now that it’s over,” he adds, “now we are relaxed.”

It’s about 9:15 p.m. Kanu, who has closely-cropped hair above a round face, stands with a friend by the counter, surrounded by Indian DVD’s of fanciful Bollywood productions and other segments of escapism. The brightly lit store, which has mostly DVD’s and CD’s and tapes, along with phone cards in the back, has no other customers, leaving Kanu and his friend with their eyes looking upward.

Another man walks into the store, and then a man and a woman. They all have dark skin.

“How’s your family?” the woman asks Kanu. “Everyone’s okay on your side?”

He replies in an Indian language.

Everyone stares at the TV.

The broadcast, an Indian version of a CNN or Fox News, has a shot of the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. Suddenly, the camera shows a man tumbling out of a ground floor window, as if he had been shot out.

Then, the Director General of India’s National Security Guard gives a new conference in Hindi.

“So, how many people were in there?” asks one of the men.

“I think 20,” replies Kanu.

It’s now 9:26 p.m. on November 28. The screen reads 8:56 a.m., 29 Nov 08.

The woman, like the man who accompanies her, has an Indian skin tone but speaks English with a good American accent. Her dark hair is long, and she wears a nose stud to one side.

She says she grew up in America but— and she insists on being paraphrased here, not quoted— India is still her country, wherever she goes. She adds that she just hopes everyone is safe. (Everyone, presumably, means the people that those around her know.)

The screen shows the tag line “Taj Reclaimed.” The words “India’s 9/11” flash intermittently among segments.

The couple joins Kanu in the back of the store, by the phone cards. When they all return to the front, the couple is smiling and laughing. They’re still smiling when they head for the door and say good night.


“T
his is more than 103 years old building,” says Kanu, pictures of the Taj Mahal Hotel flashing on the screen. “It is ancient building.”

Kanu grew up in the city of Ahmedabad, some 300 miles from Mumbai. In Ahmedabad, he worked in a small barbershop. He says he visited Mumbai’s Colaba neighborhood, in which the hotel is located, just once.

He came to Chicago as opposed to another American city, because, like so many immigrants, he had family here. He got a job at the video store, because he knew the man who runs the place from when they lived near each other in India.

We’re also, ahh, seeing images— if you could replay that, as well— of saluting our martyrs. The ATS chief, Hemant Karkare—

Kanu shakes his head slightly.

—was one of them, ahh, who’s been killed. Two hundred and fifteen policemen, we know, have been killed, ahh, in this battle against the terrorists.

“They killed chief of the anti-terrorism squad,” he explains to a visitor as the TV announcer goes on.

And that’s the funeral—

“Hmmm,” he exhales, shaking his head.

—of, ahh, Hemant Karkare, a very sincere, straightforward, no-nonsense officer…

How do Kanu’s friends feel about what’s been happening?

“Oh, my God. I mean, already it’s really hard to live in India. Even where I live, it’s all same thing like this. I mean, just I told you, like, uhh, a few months ago that there was, like, uhh, 20 or 30 people in a blast over there. A lot of people were killed.”

“What they are doing,” he adds, “also, we don’t understand.”

A phone in the store rings, and Kanu answers it.

“Well, now it’s time to go,” he says after hanging up.

It’s now almost 10 o’clock, closing time for the store. Kanu turns off the TV, puts the remote control down on the counter, and walks to the back of the store to prepare to get on with his evening.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Next Stop, North Pole. Doors Open on the Left...

Santa Claus is standing on a flatbed train car at 95th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway.

It’s not exactly where you’d expect to find him. But there he is, with his red and white coat, glasses, and white beard.

Flanking him on either side are silver train cars with strips of colored lights, snowflake decals, and an unfolding winter scene beneath the windows. The flatbed car on which he stands, the fifth car of this seven-car train, has a fake layer of snow, along with Christmas trees with ornaments, Nutcracker soldiers, reindeer (the stiff kind), and a sleigh.

Santa Claus greets passengers at the 95th/Dan Ryan Red Line station. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

“I come down from the North Pole,” says the man.

What’s his name?

“Santa Claus.”

(Not exactly the name a reporter is looking for.)

Is it a long trip down from the North Pole?

“It depends on which way I go,” Santa replies. If he goes the regular route, he adds, it takes eight hours. If he flies commercials flights… well, he might have to make stopovers and whatnot.

The train leaves the 95/Dan Ryan station at 2:55 p.m. for the long haul north. In the second-to-last car, a little over a dozen people are aboard for the ride, among them a few children.

They marvel at the extravagant decorations in what, in its alter-ego, is a regular CTA el car: Metals poles covered with red and white swirls; seat padding with patterns of Santa or Christmas trees with bells; red and green ceiling lights; tinsel and wreaths.

Regular advertisements have been replaced with cute ads with winter or Christmas themes (“The Sharp Dressed Gentleman Shops at Snomann Bros. Haberdashery”— Frostye T. Snomann, president; “Need Glasses? Dr. Yul C. Klearly, OD”). Interpsersed among these are seasonal jokes (“Why didn’t the Abominable Snowman get married? He got cold feet”; “What do you call a reindeer who does backflips while flying through the air? A deerdevil”).

A woman named Phyllis rides with two nieces, Trinity, 8, and Trinity, 5, and a nephew, Philip, 3. They’re making a field trip all the way up to the last stop— Linden— and back.

When the younger Trinity is asked what she thinks of the train, she smiles and covers her eyes.

As the train, with destination signs reading “Santa’s Express,” rolls along, a tall elf with a red-and-green shirt and auburn hair dances down the aisle, a plastic bucket of candy canes in hand.

How does she feel, this elf?

“I feel great, happy, rejuvenated…” she replies.

What’s her name?

“Snowflake.”

Snowflake, as it happens, is actually Barbara Hellon, a CTA employee who works most of the year driving trains, working on switching, or helping with customer service. Today, she’s manning this car as part of a two-person— er, two-elf— crew.

"Snowflake" passes out candy canes. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

At the Sox-35th station, passengers on the platform bear inquisitive looks and smiles as the train pulls in. At Roosevelt, when a man and a woman step on board, the woman remarks, “This is beautiful.” As the train snakes under State St. with more passengers, eyes wander, lips smile, and cell phone cameras go off.

“This is North and Clybourn,” announces a man over the PA speakers as the train approaches that station. “Welcome aboard with Santa Clause and his elves.”

The man, heard by many but seen by few, is Steve Hastalis. Hastalis sits in the first car with a microphone, along with an acute knowledge of station names and the ability to tell what kind of track bed the train is riding on by the feel of vibrations.

Which is helpful, since Hastalis is blind.

Possessing a walking cane and a large, handheld device reminiscent of an accordion— but serving as a sort of personal computer with a Braille interface— Hastalis calls out the names of stations all the way up the line, replacing the CTA’s customary automated voice. An ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act) Administrative Analyst for the CTA, Hastalis has worked for the transit agency since 1975 and has had the job with this train every Christmas time for at least three years, he says.

He got the position when, a few years ago, he asked who was announcing the stops— and was asked in return, “You wanna’ do it?”

(The answer to that question might be clear by looking at Hastalis’ souvenir Chicago Rapid Transit hat, which dates to at least the 1940’s, when that private company— a predecessor to the governmental Chicago Transit Authority— managed elevated train service.)

Santa and his train crawl back into sunlight as they approach the Fullerton station. From the platform there, a few young adults look hesitantly at the train before boarding the second-to-last car. Once inside, they look curiously around.

Then, for reasons unknown, they get off before the doors close, simply staring at the train as it pulls away.

As it approaches Addison, Snowflake— that is, Hellon— bops down the aisle to the beat of the dance music now playing over the speakers.

Her partner, Jolly (aka Patrice Gray-Johnson), who wears a green jacket with the words “CTA Santa’s Express” emblazoned on the front, shares the responsibility of giving out candy canes. Making her way down the aisle, Jolly reaches a woman sitting near the door who politely refuses the candy cane bucket.

“At least one now,” Jolly insists, smiling. “Put it on your Christmas list.”

The woman relents and takes one. (She’ll later offer it to a fellow passenger.)

A woman and a young boy who have been riding near Jolly at the north end of the car get ready to get off at the Bryn Mawr stop. When they do, Jolly hugs the woman on the platform before stepping back on board.

“This is so cute. I’m so excited!” squeals a woman somewhere around Loyola. “I’m switching cars. I want to see them all.”

She and a friend take a picture down the length of the car, and then Snowflake takes one of them. At the next station, they jump off.


If there’s one thing that is magic about this train, it’s that passengers on this Sunday afternoon can travel past Howard towards Wilmette without having to change trains.

Har, har. Jokes on the Holiday Train. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

In a nearly empty fourth car in the leafy environs of Evanston, Dave Kowalski, Chief Maintenance Officer for Rail Operations for the CTA, explains that the so-named Holiday Train began running 17 years ago. It started as just two cars among four decorated with lights, and ran only on the Blue Line. Aside from entertaining, it also was used as a way to deliver food to people in need, or to charitable organizations that could get it to them. The food came from donations taken up by the CTA, and the recipients would meet the train on the platform.

Today, the train has seven cars and bears 30,000 lights among its decorations. And it still delivers food. On Saturday, says Kowalski, it dropped off 150 boxes of canned goods.

“It makes you feel so good,” he says.

CTA employees spend six weeks getting the Holiday Train ready for service. It began running on November 22 and will continue through December 23, riding at least once on every el line in the system. For the Yellow Line— shuttle service between Howard and the Skokie station, which can only accommodate two cars— Santa will ride in an abbreviated version of the train.

When the train makes a layover at a terminal today, kids can pose with him for photos.

Just how do CTA employees get to work as elves on the train? By having exemplary work records, says Kowalski.

And what about the music that plays over the speakers? The mix of upbeat, and more-classical, seasonal songs?

“I got so many CD’s,” he says.

At 4:23 p.m., Santa’s Express finally reaches the end of the line— and it’s four minutes early.

When this is pointed out to Kowalski, he simply replies, “Christmas magic, huh?”





Tour the Holiday Train

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

His Kind of Town

Last Tuesday evening, Chicago’s Grant Park found itself awash in a sea of people and publicity. Stories of humanity abound: From Jesse Jackson’s tears on international TV to the guy perched on a ledge at Michigan Ave. and Van Buren St.— where throngs of people flooded towards the park— who yelled out, “Vote for Obama, young man!,” to the man who hawked StreetWise, a newspaper sold by homeless people here.

In one night, Grant Park saw upwards of 225,000 people, according to one news report. They came from other neighborhoods, other states, and other countries. Among them were tall people, short people, black people, white people, people neither black nor white—or perhaps both. As CNN blared from extra-large TV screens staggered in the park, those people cheered, they thanked Jesus, they sat on the grass and ate. Occasionally, they looked up to see themselves on CNN.

For one evening, at least, the so-called “second city” was second to none other on the world stage.

Writer’s note: The text and video presented here are meant to tell stories and are not intended as support for any political candidate or party.



Sunday, October 12, 2008

Different Experiences

In the last posting, I wrote about Chowpatti, a vegetarian restaurant in the suburb of Arlington Heights.

On a wall in the dining room, two reviews hang side by side. One, from the Daily Herald newspaper, lauds the restaurant; the other, published in North Shore Magazine, isn’t as kind. That article, by Steve Dale in the magazine’s June 2004 issue, reads as follows:

North Shore readers named Chowpatti their favorite vegetarian restaurant. It’s fortunate that we’re a patient bunch. The wait on busy evenings can exceed an hour before the first food item arrives— in all, the entire affair can be a nearly two-hour melodrama. On a good night when crowds are thinner, you can chow it all down and escape in less than 60 minutes. By the way, the food arrives as it’s prepared, in no apparent order. For example, the freshly baked flatbreads ($1.50-$2.15) may hit the table between entrees, rather than before. That’s not necessarily a criticism; this is the practice at various ethnic restaurants. The menu at Chowpatti, which is named for a beach in Bombay, is primarily Indian. Although there are sections for Mexican and Italian dishes, stick with the Indian ones.

Owner Anil Kapadia meets and greets, boasting that every dish is prepared to order. Yet when a request is made to leave peas out of a pav bhaji (a stew-like dish), the waitress reprimands, “No, we won’t do that. We have a 20-page menu, I’m sure you’ll find something else to your liking.” Admittedly, the menu does indicate in small type, “no substitutions,” but there’s no defense for that attitude.

“Hummus ($4.95) is a good idea as a side dish. Ragda patties ($5.50) are very good: a grilled potato patty with yellow peas and onions, accompanied with a splendid sweet chutney sauce that mixed perfectly with cool coriander. Another clear winner is masala uttapam, a thick pancake made of rice and lentils stuffed with spinach, cashews, raisins and potatoes ($8.25). Like all menu items, you can order it hot and spicy or mild; this one is good with a kick.

Grab a catcher’s mask before you ask for a doggy bag, as the waitress tosses a box in your face, saying, “Wrap it yourself!” Kapadia, who is celebrating the restaurant’s 10th anniversary, pleads convincingly that they weren’t prepared to handle heavy crowds— especially after the North Shore award— and that glitches in service are being improved upon.


The article ends with the restaurant’s hours.

I asked Niyama Kapadia, son of the late Anil and a hostess at Chowpatti, about the review.

“We got, you know, news from North Shore Magazine that we were voted the number one restaurant,” she explained. “And we were so happy about it. We were excited, and it was like, ‘Wow,’ you know? And […] we were very busy after that, you know?

“He must have come in,” she went on, “and just like any customer comes, you know, we treat any customer with a lot of love and respect. […] He wanted this meatless stew without the green peas. So, I explained to him that, you know, the batch is already made; I can’t remove the peas from that. But then I suggested other items that might not have peas.

“But he wasn’t happy from that moment, I think.

“And then […] eventually, you know, he added a bread— like, I had suggested that he orders an Indian bread to accompany his curry dish. He didn’t listen to me. And then, during his meal, he decided to order a bread.

“Then I told him, you know, it will take some time. But he’s like, ‘No, I want to eat it with this food.’ And his ticket went at the end of the line. I mean, you know, when we’re busy, it’s busy, which is my mom and my sister cooking back there, and my dad and myself used to handle the floor.

“So, the bread got to his table a little bit later, and I think he was upset about that.

She continued, “When he wanted his food wrapped up, we provide containers. We’re short-handed; it’s just a small fam— so, we provide containers, and we allow the customers to pack their meals.

“He didn’t like that.

“Most reviewers don’t tell us, but he came on the counter, and— you know, my dad always asks— when he goes to the tables, and he always asks, ‘How was your experience? Did you enjoy your meal? I hope we see you again.’

“And he said, ‘That waitress you have there… you need to fire her.’

“He was like, ‘What are you talking about?— What? What?’ […] And he wanted to make sure if it was, like, my sister or me, who he’s talking about. And so, my dad said, ‘Tell me what happened.’ You know, ‘Let me try to correct it.’

“So, he told that ‘she was so arrogant, she didn’t want to remove the peas from my meal. I told her, “I don’t mind. I want her to make the meatless stew without peas.”’

“He insisted— he wanted my dad to insure him that my dad would fire me.

“And my dad said, you know, ‘You don’t understand. She’s my daughter. […] And somehow it’s hard for me to believe that my daughter was rude to you.’

“And that’s it. So, Mr. Dale said to my dad, ‘So, you’re trying to tell me you don’t believe me?’ And my dad said, ‘No, don’t get me wrong. It’s just hard for me to believe that my daughter was rude to any customer. Not you.’ […] And fortunately, we had a few regulars that were sitting next to him. And so they—

“Then Mr. Dale became loud. […] The other customer that was sitting next to them got up and said that, you know, ‘We were here throughout the dinner and […] no, Anil, your daughter was behaving very nicely with him.’ You know, ‘Just like she behaves with everybody.’

“And he said, ‘You watch… you watch the review I write you.’

“So, my dad’s like, ‘Write whatever you want.’

“So, he wrote a nasty— You know, in the article, he says, ‘Wear catcher’s mask, because the waitress w’— Ugh!

“And then my dad put it on every table. […] Whatever story we get written up, he would make small copies, and then”—

She tapped on a piece of plastic.

—“these would go on every table, you know? And, so what happened is, even with that negative write-up, my dad put it on every table. And I’m like, ‘Dad! Why are— He’s writing mean things about me! How could—’

“And my dad said, ‘No, no. Just because we got something negative, that doesn’t mean we’re going to hide it from people. You have to learn to take criticism.’

“And I said, ‘But dad, he was so wrong.’ […] I was young, and I was mad, and I’m like, ‘How dare he write something like that?’

“My dad said, ‘Don’t worry.’”

“He put it on every table. I could not believe it.

“Well, what happened is, our loyal customers read it, and on their own, they wrote to the magazine. Some customers are like, ‘I’ve been dining here for 12 years.’ Somebody would say, ‘I’ve been dining here since five years.’ ‘We weren’t here that evening, but we know this can’t be true. We know the family so well. It’s not possible.’

“So, the editor of the magazine contacted my father. And he said […] ‘I have a stack full of letters,’ and you know, ‘They’re all saying something negative about my reviewer, Mr. Dale.’

“Yeah. So, the owner of the magazine contacted my dad, apologized to my dad, and said, ‘Maybe he had an off day,’ you know. He’s like, ‘It can’t be possible that so many letters are wrong.’ So, he’s like, ‘I think my reviewer had a […] off moment, and maybe he didn’t like your daughter. I don’t know what happened. But,’ you know, ‘I can’t go back and erase, because that was already printed. But what I will do for you is I will print some of those letters.’

“So my dad said, ‘See? It always pays off to be honest.’ You know, ‘Never hide.’

“We never asked our customers to do that.”

At this point, a man entered the restaurant. It was 4 p.m., and Niyanta, who was standing behind the front counter, greeted him.

“Hi, how are you?” she said.

“Do you serve now?” he asked.

“I’m sorry,” she replied in a sweet voice. “We’ll re-open at 5 o’clock.”

“Okay. That’s what I saw outside.”

“Yes. Sorry about that.”

Niyanta continued: “So, yeah. From that point on, I knew that my dad was right about so many things.

A more-recent review of the restaurant, by Marla Seidell in The Daily Herald last month (a different article than the one hangining on the wall), had this to say about Kipadia: “Niyanta made for a gracious server, host and owner rolled into one. She expertly fielded our finicky eater's many questions, and made suggestions that pleased all.”

Different people; different times. Different experiences.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

World's Largest Vegetarian Menu?

I was flipping through an alternative newspaper one evening when a small ad caught my eye. “World largest vegetarian menu,” boasted the ad, for Chowpatti restaurant in Arlington Heights. (No, “World largest” is not a typo on my part.)

The world’s largest vegetarian menu? I was impressed— and skeptical.

So, I decided to take a trip out to Arlington Heights.

On a Friday afternoon shortly after 2:30, I arrived at a strip mall on S. Arlington Heights Rd. Above a doorway, a large, green banner read “INTERNATIONAL VEGETARIAN CUISINE.” I entered the restaurant, and a woman at the front counter told me to choose my table.

I walked into the dining room, where a white man and woman sat at one table, and two Asian women at another. The room had a calm feeling to it, with about a dozen tables and a mix of cushiony, green-and-brown benches and green-and-brown chairs. Table lights suspended by chains from the ceiling helped give the place the feel of a coffee shop.

“In a few minutes, our kitchen will close, so I will need your order soon,” said the hostess, handing me the menu, with the slightest of Indian accents.

“No problem,” I replied.

“I appreciate it,” she added.

I began to flip through the menu. It was divided into sections of a variety of ethnicities, from Indian to Middle Eastern to Italian to Mexican.

It was only 22 pages long.

And those were just the numbered pages. Two more preceded them, one with a history of the restaurant, and the other with a table of contents for the rest of the menu.

Overwhelmed, I asked the hostess for recommendations. She pointed out the Chowpatti veggie burger, the Bombay Bhel salads, the Sev Batata Puri, and the Pav Bhaji, among other dishes.

I decided on the Pav Bhaji, a stew of steamed vegetables with seasonings served with a side of grilled French bread. I opted for a “medium” spice level from among choices of mild, medium, and hot.

The hostess then suggested a drink. Beyond a range of lhasis, milk drinks, and teas, the menu offered 28 combinations of fruit and/or vegetable juice. My eye fell on the Refreshing Fruit Cocktail, a mix of pineapple, grape, and apple juices.

But— ack! $8.95!

And yet, I’m a sucker for fresh juice.

I ordered it.

(A paragraph at the top of the page with the headline “Benefits of Freshly Squeezed Juices” included this consolation: “When considering the expense, think of our juice as a delicious investment in your health which pays for yourself.” I didn’t quite buy it, but it made me feel a little better.)

While waiting for the food to come, I perused the menu. The first page gave an interwoven history of the restaurant and the family that ran it. It turned out a man from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India, named Anil Kapadia started the business in 1982. He named it after his native city’s Chowpatty Beach, where, back when he was dating his wife, vendors sold a variety of food— what the restaurant’s menu described as “culinary delicacies and tasty tid-bits.”

After the history came the table of contents, arranged as follows:


1) Dining helpful hints
2) The levels of spice [explains the kitchen’s spice system, from mild to hot; written in three paragraphs, plus bullet points]
3) Soups
3) Gourmet soups
4) Sandwiches, gourmet salads
5) American favorites
6) Italian favorites
7) Veggie pizzas
8) Mexican favorites
10) Middle Eastern favorites
11) Bombay favorites
14) South Indian favorites
16) North Indian favorites
17) Indian flat breads
18) Rice selections
18) Dal selections
18) Combination platters
19) Side orders
20) Beverages
20) Hot beverages
21) Freshly squeezed juice
22) Dessert


If it wasn’t the world’s (or at least America’s) most extensive vegetarian menu, it was still doing pretty well for itself.

My fruit juice arrived first. With a frothy texture, it had a sweet taste from the apple and a tartness from the pineapple and grape. The apple juice itself tasted freshly pressed, and the whole mixture was refreshing. I’m not a wine connoisseur, but with this drink, I could sense what they must appreciate with wines.

The Pav Bhaji was next. A stew with hearty chunks of— what was it?— potato?, along with peas, tomato, onion, and sprigs of parsley, it, too, tasted freshly made. The dish wasn’t too oily; the peas, notably, stood up to biting without being hard.

As I chewed the mixed vegetables, I felt the spice from the stew, but the flavor, especially from the tomato, crept up through the spice— as opposed to the spice’s covering for a lack of flavor, as is the case with some Indian food.

While I continued alternately eating and looking at the menu, the hostess brought over a complementary small plate with what looked like a fried sweet-potato puff and a nacho chip topped with sour cream, diced tomatoes, and shredded cucumbers. They were samples of what I didn’t order.

The fried potato had a spice to it (dipping it in the accompanying tamarind sauce helped), while the toppings on the nacho had a nice cooling effect. Towards the end of the meal, I dipped the French bread in the tamarind sauce, which made for a sweet flavor and further cooled my mouth.

The hostess asked if I’d like tea or dessert, and I decided to indulge in Kesar Pista Kulfi, homemade saffron-pistachio Indian ice cream. It arrived in the form of a tiny pie cut into eight wedges with two toothpicks stuck into it. Though it looked small sitting in the middle of the plate, that didn’t matter much when the cold, dense, pistachio-ish creaminess seemed to climb up the roof of my mouth.

Mmmm.

I could have gone for the Carrot Halwa afterwards, but such as it was, my budget was already crying for mercy.

The hostess dropped off the check, along with a take-out menu— only eight pages long— a coupon for my next visit, and a business card.

The hostess, it turned out, was Niyanta Kapadia, one of the two daughters of the restaurant’s founder.

“We do have our journal, by the showcase, if you want to sign in,” she said.

After a few moments, I walked up to the cash register to pay, passing reviews on the wall from the Daily Herald newspaper and North Shore Magazine. By the register, T-shirts with vegetarian slogans sat in a display case; facts about vegetarianism, from Vegetarian Times magazine, were posted on the wall not far from a few Norman Rockwell images; and a column of photos of Anil, the restaurant’s founder, who died in 2000, had been set up.

I asked Niyanta whether it was true that the restaurant had the most extensive vegetarian menu.

“I just reduced my menu three […] weeks ago,” she said. “It was 26 pages and so many varieties. It’s just that my mom’s turning 65 tomorrow, and she’s had a couple falls in the kitchen. She slipped and fell, so her rotary cuffs, you know, aren’t cooperating, and just her age and health.

“So, I figured, slowly, slowly. You know, I don’t want to burden her so much. So, that’s why I’m simplifying. And many of my customers are even telling me, ‘Niyanta, you guys are doing too much. Reduce,’ you know. So, I think it’s… in the long run, it’s just going to help me to manage it for a longer period of time.”

I think I speak for a lot of customers when I say, Niyanta, I think you’ll be just fine with 22 pages.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Road Trip

Under a bright sun, the bus pulled up to 103 St. and Torrence Ave. The driver waited as I unloaded my bike from the rack. I surveyed the scene: An empty lot stood across from a gas station; right near me, a pole had an advertisement for “Round trips to prisons at an affordable price.” The stench of what smelled like rotting fish filled the air.

Fortunately, the scenery would change. I peddled off down the street, heading south and then east, towards the Indiana border.

The journey had begun.

When you’re a freelancer looking for a full-time job, one luxury you’ve got (no, not a big income— hah, hah) is free time. Combine that with warm weather, a free social calendar for a couple of days, and an increasing penchant for biking, and you come up with a two-day trip road trip.

To South Haven, Michigan.

You’ve never biked a hundred miles in two days before, but you take that as a challenge. And… you look forward to the nicer views towards the end of the trip as a reward for your efforts.


The starting point: Torrence Ave. and 103 St., Chicago. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Following the first of 14 Google maps I had printed out, I crossed into Hammond, Indiana, and headed southeast along Indianapolis Blvd. Fear can quickly overtake you when you’re vying for space with two lanes’ worth of cars and trucks whizzing by on what… well… technically is a highway.

Moments later, however, that fear morphed into dismay. My tape recorder, which I was using to make occasional notes for myself, had slipped out of a side pocket of my bicycle bag. I backtracked to the state line, made a U-turn, and continued back to where I stopped, scanning the ground as I went. Nothing.

Oh, well; whoever found it would probably hear me doing an interview for a class, doing another interview for a magazine, and then saying such important things like, “Smells like rotting fish.”

With notebook and pen still with me, I started off again, moving from hardscrabble Hammond into slightly-less-hardscrabble Whiting, where the smokestacks and jagged metal structures of the BP oil refinery came to dominate the landscape. In East Chicago, a flock of birds gently lifted off of the four-lane highway as I rounded the bend. In downtown Gary— a once-vibrant city, thanks to its steel-manufacturing plants— concrete buildings now stood over uneven sidewalks sprouting weeds in their cracks.

Seeing a sign hopefully proclaiming the city “100 years…steel strong,” I felt sad for Gary. I couldn’t help but wonder how the downtown used to be, before the steel industry declined precipitously here.


Gary, IN. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

Around 5 o’clock, U.S. Route 12 took me parallel to the tracks of the South Shore Line, an inter-city commuter train stretching from Chicago all the way to South Bend, Indiana. Spotting the Miller station, I thought of Bill Murray in “Ghostbusters,” announcing dryly, “It’s Miller time!”

During a long stretch of road by Northwest Indiana’s famous sand dunes, however, I came to feel terrible cramps in my stomach. I wondered when the leafy surroundings would give way to a place— any place— to get food and drink.

A guy passed me on his bike. “How’s it going?” he asked.

“All right,” I replied.

A flat-out lie.

At about 6:30, I stopped at the Dune Park train station. I had gotten off the train here once before, so I knew the stationhouse had a vending machine. Walking by passengers who had just arrived from Chicago, I entered the waiting room to find a single vending machine with only chocolate bars and other sugary snacks— nothing resembling a sports bar. And no drink machine.

I pressed on.

Around 7 o’clock, I spotted a distant sign with red LED lights. A gas station!

And aptly-named: Marathon.

Having subsisted on Cliff Bars and sports “gel” for several hours now, I snatched a tuna-salad sandwich, bottle of water, and sports drink from the store and took a seat on the ground outside. As I ate and drank, weathering the cramps, I fixed my eyes on the dense foliage that lay across the road. The trees gave the station an isolated, calm feel.

At the same time, I felt concern— and disappointment. The ride was taking longer than I expected. (Either that, or someone had stretched out the distances.) I wasn’t sure if I’d make it all the way to New Buffalo, Michigan, where I had planned to spend the night— let alone to South Haven. I could always cut today’s itinerary short and spend the night in Michigan City, the next city up the road, but it wasn’t even in Michigan. (Yes, Michigan City is in the state of Indiana. No, I don’t know why.)

I returned to the store for a chocolate milk.


Portage, IN. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The two-lane road continued along the South Shore Line tracks before snaking its way toward Lake Michigan. Shortly before 8, under a darkening sky, a man with a dog waved at me from the side of the road. At a quarter past 8, I finally found myself in downtown Michigan City.

I had passed through here before on a day trip, so I made only a brief detour to explore, riding by the Rag Tops Auto Museum and a police station.

Then, with perhaps more determination than thought, I continued along Route 12 out of town.

At 9 o’clock, under a thoroughly dark sky, a sign on the side of the road beamed, “Welcome to Michigan.”

Yes!

I looked up as I rode along. The sky was full of stars. FULL of stars! The sound of chirping crickets filled the air.

I took a deep breath. The air smelled FRESH! Later, the beautiful smell of burning wood (or maybe it was charcoal— hey, I grew up in New York City) wafted by. Oh!

At about 10:40 p.m. (one hour later now because of the time-zone change), I finally rolled into downtown New Buffalo. The small commercial district was almost completely dormant, save for a Mexican food stand and a Subway sandwich shop that remained open.

I stopped into the Subway and asked the woman behind the counter for a recommendation for a cheap place to spend the night. A man sitting at a table told me to head up the road to the Buffalo Motel.

There, in a small office with an “OPEN” sign in the window, a woman came out from a back room.

“Do you have any non-smoking rooms?” I asked.

“I’ve got one left,” she said.

“Great. I’ll take it.”

As I got into bed around 12:30 a.m., some 60 miles from 103 St. and Torrence Ave., I noticed a poster on the wall. It made me stop.

“SUCCESS,” it read. “Success is a journey, not a destination.”


U nder a brilliant mid-day sun, I mounted my bicycle and began to peddle.

Ow.

My leg muscles.

In the last year, I had gotten more and more into bicycling. I had done some long-distance rides, but never for two days in a row. I had heard you’re supposed to give your muscles a day’s rest after exercising them; on the other hand, professional bicyclists ride on consecutive days, so obviously, it’s doable.

In any case, today, it had to be doable.


New Buffalo, MI. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

After a breakfast of pancakes and eggs in a café downtown, I made a brief stop at the New Buffalo beach. There, views of sand and Lake Michigan bolstered my spirits.

As I rode along hilly, residential Marquette Dr., with its quiet and greenery, I felt a high. The day was gorgeous, the setting was beautiful, and I was in Michigan!

Somewhere along the four-lane Red Arrow Highway, my cell phone rang. I pulled over.

It was Mom. (She couldn’t talk earlier and said she’d call me back.)

“Do you know an inexpensive place to stay in South Haven?” I asked casually.

She said she and my dad had stayed in the Comfort Suites outside of downtown, in an area with a cluster of chain hotels.

“Give me some context,” she went on. “Who’s this for?”

“Me,” I said.

“Oh.”

She continued softly, “Don’t tell me you’re biking there. I’ll die.”

I may have mentioned something to her a while back about wanting to bike from Chicago to South Haven. And she may have replied something to the effect of, “Oh, no, you’re not!”

I paused.

“Yeah.”

She let out a screech.

“I’m just north of New Buffalo, Michigan,” I said. “I hope to get there by nightfall. Before nightfall.”

The road continued on— and on. Red Arrow Highway became Lakeshore Dr., then became Main St. through the town of St. Joseph, then became State Highway 63, and then became Blue Star Memorial Highway. My legs kept pumping. I drank more water; ate more Cliff Bars; crunched on more trail mix.

Somewhere along the way, with vehicles zipping by me, it dawned on me: Those drivers were paying for fuel, but was I technically traveling for free? Not if you consider the extra water and sports drinks I had to buy as I rode, and the snacks bars and gel and trail mix I purchased before the trip. Then again, those drivers had to eat, too— though not as great a quantity of food.

Then again, I’d be having more meals on the road, since my trip was longer. And yet, I would have bought food even if I weren’t biking.

At one point as I rode along the shoulder of the road, another bicyclist waved to me from the opposite shoulder. I gave him the peace sign.


St Joseph, MI. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

It was close to 5 o’clock when I pulled over to a small park in St. Joseph. There, a plateau of grass with shrubbery and a tall tree offered a beautiful view of Lake Michigan, with a stretch of water glittering under the sun.

A man stopped me to ask if I knew how to get down to the water. “Sorry,” I said.

The man had an accent, and I asked where he was from.

“Holland,” he answered. He and a friend were traveling here in a minivan.

Although the man was, indeed, from the Netherlands, I laughed later when I saw on a map that Holland, the city, was just up the lakefront from here.

At 5:59 p.m., I sent a text message to my brother: “100 miles in 2 days and going.”

And yet it wasn’t over just yet. A series of slight, but long, inclines— probably combined with my not having slept well enough last night— caused me to slow down significantly. Just the same, the sun was high enough that I surely would arrive before dusk.

At ten to 7, I spotted a mailbox on the side of the road with the words “South Haven Tribune.” 15 minutes later, a sign reading “South Haven Charter Township” appeared. Perhaps another 15 minutes after that, I turned from Blue Star Memorial Highway onto the final stretch, 76 St., a straight, residential road. I followed it, passing houses on both sides, until I noticed a clearing between the trees up ahead that revealed an expanse of blue.

Moments later, at shortly after 7:30, I stopped. Before me, a wide beach with tranquil water spread out next to a pier, as a large, late-evening sun prepared to descend over the horizon.

I called Mom.

“Hello?” she answered.

“I feel like I’m going to keel over and die,” I said, “but after 118.7 miles, I’ve arrived in downtown South Haven, Michigan.”

And in some of the most peaceful moments I had experienced in the last two days, my trepidation, my angst, my determination were washed away by a wonderful feeling of tranquility.

Along with nausea.


After 118 miles, South Haven, MI. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

I set out towards the middle of downtown, swinging down by Riverfront Park, where children played on the grass, and up to Phoenix St., a road crammed with charming storefronts in the heart of the business district.

South Haven held sweet memories for me, which was in part why I chose it as a destination: I had spent a summer here with my family when I was maybe ten years old, and had come back on several other occasions. My aunt, uncle, and cousins had spent time here, too, as did my grandparents on my Mom’s side when they were still alive.

That night, in my room at the Comfort Suites (the cheapest accommodations I could find in the end), I soaked my legs in hot water with four pounds’ worth of Epsom salt.


I t was around 11 a.m. when I walked into the bike store.

“Can I help you?” asked an employee, coming over to me.

I asked if he had a bicycle box. He said he did, and offered to sell it for ten dollars— or charge 20 to disassemble and package my bike, box included.

I debated whether to carry the box to the bus station and then put the bike in it, or have him do the packing. If he were to pack it, he said, I should allow 45 minutes.

My bus left in 55 minutes.

“If we’re short on time, I could always run you over there,” he added.

Sold.

With the box shoved into the back of his station wagon, we climbed into the front seats. Seeing a cassette with a protruding audio cable in the tape deck, I asked if I could connect my iPod.

Soon, Rihanna’s “Umbrella” was playing over the speakers.


The writer's approximate route from Chicago to South Haven, MI. (Click here for a larger map.)

As we drove along, the man said he had been to Chicago and hated it. He had seen people hail taxis in the movies but didn’t know you were actually supposed to do that; he once stood for an hour waiting for a taxi to pick him up as a number of them whizzed past. He only leaned into the window of a couple that were parked on the side of the road. “I felt like I was soliciting a prostitute,” he said.

I told him I was from New York City, had lived in Chicago for five years, and never owned my own car.

In a few minutes, we had arrived at the bus station, where he unloaded my bike.

“Have a good trip,” he called out before riding off.

As the bus drove up an incline for the first time, I felt a tinge of fear. But the motor kept on, while my legs remained still.

Relief.

Two-and-a-half hours (and one transfer in Benton Harbor) later, I looked down from Interstate 90 to see the McDonald’s that sat at the Illinois-Indiana border.

It may have been around there that I lost my tape recorder.

Soon after, with Natasha Bedingfield’s “Pocketful of Sunshine” playing softly from the front of the bus, a light Chicago skyline materialized in the distance.


Back in Chicago, the downtown skyline in the distance. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

2 o’clock. The Greyhound station in downtown Chicago. It took just a moment to claim my bicycle box from the beside the bus, and another 22 minutes to sift through the cardboard, metal, masking tape, plastic, and rubber bands to reassemble the bike.

And then, once again, I rode off— across the street.

There, a bus sat waiting. I loaded my bike onto its front rack and took a seat inside.

I was off in search of a massage. And I didn’t feel like biking there.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Georgia on Dempster St.

O n Wednesday afternoon, as the cease-fire between Russia and Georgia unravels, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice prepares to travel to Tbilisi, things are much quieter in a small storefront restaurant in Skokie.

There, in a dimly-lit room, three men perhaps in their 60s sit around a table watching a Russian-language soap opera on TV. On the table sit a packet of cigarettes and a jar of Tylenol. All ten tables in the room have red tablecloths, and most have fake flowers; paintings of landscapes, flowers, and boats adorn the walls. Perhaps the only indication of the cuisine here is a red-and-white flag with crosses hung at the far end of the room.

It’s the flag of Georgia. Sh. Rustavely, the only open business in this drab strip mall on Dempster St., is (according to my research) the lone Georgian restaurant in the Chicago area.

The soap opera turns to news, and the men get up from the table. One leaves the restaurant, and the other two busy themselves in the back.


Sh. Rustavely, on Dempster St. in Skokie, likely the only Georgian restaurant in the Chicago area. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

The news broadcast shows a shot of people in street clothes walking quickly along with a soldier. In another scene, a man in a green jacket decorated with military symbols sits at a table before a group of reporters.

As I stand before the TV, one of the three men comes out of the kitchen with a plate of beef cutlets and French fries, placing it on my table. Then he joins me in front of the TV.

We both watch.

The anchor speaks rapid-fire Russian, as do the correspondents, and I hardly understand any of it. (I learned only a bit of Russian in junior high school.) In the corner of the screen, I can make out Москва— moskva, or Moscow— and сегодня— sevodnya.

“Sevodnya?” I ask the man. “’Today’?”

“Today,” he replies softly, wearing a somber expression.

I return to my table, and the second man comes out from the back. He carries a glass of a clear liquid— it could be water; it could be vodka— and slowly takes a seat at the table with the cigarettes and Tylenol.

A scene of Russian-language newspapers, laid out as if at a news kiosk, comes up. Later, a man in military fatigues lets out a sigh as a reporter interviews him in front of a military truck.

The two men at the table are glued to the images.


Jorni and Edward, co-chefs at Sh. Rustavely. (Click on photo to enlarge.)

I walk over to where they’re sitting and ask one of them how he feels about the conflict.

“We have different information,” he says. His English is broken, halting.

“Do you have friends here from Russia?” I ask.

“I have friends,” he replies, shrugging.

I ask the men if there’s a large community of Georgians here. “Two hundred” says the first man.

I ask the other one, whose English is better, if he likes Putin. “Nah,” he responds, shrugging his head. “He live before, 15 years old, he live in Georgia. His mother live in Georgia.”

“About President Medvedev?” he goes on. “What can I say?”

I ask if he still has family in Georgia.

“I leave. Some others stay. Many people go to other countries. My brother go to Germany. Others, to Italia.”

We watch the TV some more.

“My name is David,” I say in Russian, recalling one of the few phrases I know from junior high school.

The men smile. They introduce themselves as Jorni and Edward, both cooks (and, I’m assuming, proprietors) at the restaurant.

“Sunday, there were many people here from Tbilisi,” Edward, the second man, tells me. “Many have brothers, sisters…”

They came from different suburbs— Palatine, Buffalo Grove, Wheaton— Jorni tells me.

I’m at a loss for what to ask next, perhaps because I’m at a loss for Russian. I return to my table, to my beef cutlets and French fries, and the men continue talking to each other in a low voice.

I pick up my Chicago Tribune. “Russia-Georgia clash leaves lasting damage” reads a headline on the front page. I dip my cutlets in a tomato sauce.

No other customers have entered the restaurant by the time I get up to pay for the food.

“Come again,” says Jorni when I get ready to leave.

“You have to eat our shish kebab,” he adds, smiling. “You have not eat… all of Chicago… our shish kebab.”

It’s the most enthusiastic thing I’ve heard him say this afternoon.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tourist in My Adopted City

Michigan Ave.?

Check.

Tribune Tower?

Check.

Red, double-decker bus— the kind I’ve seen so many times but generally don’t pay attention to?

Check.

On board we go.

We start out from the semi-circular driveway at the river and cruise up Michigan Ave. towards the Water Tower. The “we” this afternoon consists of my mom and a family friend, who both are visiting from out of my town, and myself, who’s visiting from the North Side. My mom and her friend wanted to take a tour of the city.

And I thought: Why not? It could be fun.

“We are on the Maaaaag Mile!” announces Judy, our guide for the two-hour circuit through downtown. “This is Chicago’s magnificent mile.”

Judy has a forceful, slightly nasal voice that sounds like Hillary Clinton’s. Graying hair pokes out from beneath her gray baseball cap, and several colorful little stuffed animals are tied up near where she stands. She’ll tell us later that she was born in 1945, but being 62 or 63 years old doesn’t seem to dampen her enthusiasm.

The air is warm this afternoon, with a blanket of fog cutting off the tops of skyscrapers from about the 70th floor up. At 4:30 p.m., some 30 of us sit on the top deck; we span a range of ages and skin colors— except no one is black. The blue, cushiony seats under the open sky offer a different experience than I’ve ever had riding, oh, say, the 151 bus up Michigan Ave.

As we turn from Mies van der Rohe Way onto Chestnut St. in Streeterville, Judy tells us, “Look all the way to the top there, folks. That’s the John Hancock Center. Big John, as we like to call it.”

In my nearly five years living in Chicago, I’ve never heard that.

Passengers crane their necks to look at the black tower rising up against a light blue sky. A man holds a video camera; a woman points.

“Up at the 94th floor, we have an open-air skydeck,” says Judy. “We call that ‘Chicago’s Front Porch.’”

I’ve never heard that, either.

As we cruise east along Delaware Pl., passing facades of blue or red brick, we come upon a pretty view of light-blue Lake Michigan with a smattering of small crafts dotting the water. On Oak St., tree branches sweep by overhead before we pass the upscale shops between State and Rush Streets. State St.— where an LED display reads 81 degrees— turns into Ontario St., where Judy informs us that Redhead Piano Bar is “one of the great bars of the city.” The collective tourist trap that is Rock ’n Roll McDonalds/Rainforest Cafe/Hard Rock Cafe leads to the Clark St. Bridge, where pedestrians cross back and forth without paying us any mind.

At close to 5 o’clock, we stop at a red light at Wacker Dr. and Madison St. There, a mass of people migrates west towards Ogilvie and Union Stations, funneling out from the Madison St. bridge onto the river’s west bank, bathed in sunlight.

We come upon the Sears Tower. (Of course.)

A guy smiles; a woman points her digital camera upwards.

“Now, of course, 16,000 windows in that building,” announces Judy. “Can you imagine washing those? I don’t like to wash the seven windows in my little apartment.”

On Jackson St., we find ourselves boxed in by two CTA buses before crawling eastward again, going against another exodus to the train stations: Women in sunglasses and men in collared shirts, some with bag straps over their shoulders, serious-faced, gazes pointed downwards as they walk.

In Daley Plaza, the Picasso structure looks brighter than normal in the afternoon sun— though not much less hideous. “Look at that huge sculpture in the plaza over there,” says Judy, referring to the Thompson Center, across the way. “That is called Monument with Standing Beast. Now, of course, I look at it, and I say, ummm, ‘What part’s the monument, which part’s the beast?’ Can’t quite tell.

“So, we call that Snoopy-o-Blender. We say that looks like they took Snoopy, put him in a blender, spun him around, and dumped him right out there on the plaza.”

In my nearly five years in Chicago, I’ve never heard that, either.

Up to Randolph, onto Columbus and then Wacker, down State and through the Theater District, and then over to Michigan again. By now, I’m tired of the traffic and the noise and the sun’s beating down on me.

But we’ve still got more than half an hour to go.

On Roosevelt Rd. by the entrance to Lake Shore Dr., a man in the front passenger’s seat of a car shakes his fist out the window and with a smile yells, “Chicago!”

We roll onto Lake Shore Dr. to loop down by the museum campus. “Looking out straight ahead of us,” says Judy, “over to the left over here— look at that huge, silver structure there.”

It’s Soldier Field.

She goes on: “I say the mother ship has landed.”

As we roll up Lake Shore Dr. next to Grant Park— where Buckingham Fountain spouts a blast of water high into the air just as we pass by— a man in the middle of the bus extends his arms in front of him and leans into the strong breeze. We move over to Navy Pier, with its throngs of people in casual clothes walking, playing next to a fountain, taking a picture of a flower sculpture, or waiting in a crowd for a trolley to go back west.

When we finally arrive back at the Tribune Tower, it’s almost exactly two hours since we departed. Only, we’re not getting off here; we’ll wait until the next stop, the Water Tower, because it’s closer to the entrance to Lake Shore Dr. (cheaper with a taxi that way)… and because, umm, our bus tickets come with a coupon for a free chocolate bar from the Hershey’s Store.

At the Pearson St. stop, nearly everyone walks down from the top deck, passing two signs near Judy that read, “IF YOU LIKED YOUR RIDE, YOU MIGHT TIP YOUR GUIDE.” (My mom and her friend do.)

As I prepare to descend the stairs, Judy wishes us a good stay in Chicago.

I don’t say anything.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Never Working a Day in his Life

It’s been nearly two weeks now since business came to a halt. But Kevin takes it in stride.

“Could be worse,” he says. “Look at all the other areas up north that are severely affected.”

Kevin (he gives only his first name) owns Jet Funn, a boat rental business on Fox Lake, about 40 miles northwest of Chicago. Part of a patchwork of lakes just south of the Wisconsin border known as the Chain O’ Lakes, Fox Lake has found itself inundated with water running
down from Wisconsin, the result of severe rain there earlier this month. The Daily Herald newspaper reported that the water level on the Chain O’ Lakes the other day reached two-and-a-half feet above “flood stage,” defined by the National Weather Service as the level at which water begins to impact people or property.

Now, Fox Lake is closed to boat traffic.

“It’s finally goin’ down,” remarks Kevin, standing some 75 feet away from where water surrounds his docks and nips away at his shoreline.

“So, it’s just goin’ down very slowly.”

Kevin, who’s 44, has worked at Jet Funn for 23 years now. He grew up in the area and has family down in St. Charles, a western suburb of Chicago. He generally doesn’t have time to go into the city this time of year, since he and his staff are so busy, but it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. “It’s nice here,” he says. “I like it up here.”

On this sunny Saturday afternoon, Kevin— who wears gray shorts, a light green T-shirt, and sandals, and sports a boyish face beneath short, straight hair that has started to gray— walks around with pliers and a metal coil in his hand, as country music plays somewhere nearby. His coworker Mandy works on a pontoon boat sitting on the ground in front of the rental office. Although there are no customers, they keep busy with other work, including cleaning boats, as they wait for the water level on the lake to drop.


Inside the office, three WaveRunners sit on the floor near a fiery-red-and-black fish named Spike— the office’s lone occupant for now. Seventeen clipboards hang from the wall behind the counter, all of them empty. “And then we got extra ones, too,” offers Kevin, “for when we really get rolling.”

Located several minutes’ walk from Fox Lake’s commuter train station, Jet Funn sees a lot of people come up from Chicago by train. On an average summer weekend, Kevin estimates the place will have maybe 30 or 40 rental contracts a day. A friend of his once counted a couple hundred people.

Nearby establishments include, down the road, boat-sales and sporting-goods places, and across the lake, the local chapter of the American Legion. Also on the Chain O’ Lakes sit restaurants, marinas, and bars. Otherwise, most of the area around here is residential. “There’s no such thing as, really, competition,” muses Kevin. “Plenty of water out here for everybody. Which is good.”

In all his years working here, he’s seen flooding like this five other times, including this past April. When asked whether being out of commission during this time adversely affects business, or whether sales later on will balance things out, he’s quick to answer: “It’ll never balance out.”

“You just make it work,” he says. “You have no control over the weather. That’s one thing we’ve learned, so we just try and keep ourselves busy. It’s hard.”

It’s one of the rare times this afternoon Kevin betrays frustration.

If you love the job you’re doing, he goes on, “you never work a day in your life.”

“I know so many people who get so frustrated, and they’re like, ‘Oh, God, I got to go to work,’ or ‘I hate my F-ing job.’ I’m like, ‘Well, then, don’t go.’ You know? You don’t have to go. You don’t have to do anything. All you do is, you have to like your job, and plus, you have to make money and pay your bills.”

“I love working here. It’s a lot of fun,” he adds. “Would I trade it for the world? No, I wouldn’t trade it. It just would be nice to have a day off every once in a while, but… that’s about it. That’s it.

“If you like the job you’re doing, you never work a day in your life.”

As he goes back to not working, with pliers and coil in hand, he looks forward to the day he can do so with customers again.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

No Smoking, Please, on This Side of the Street

In December, 2005, the Chicago City Council did something either amazing or infuriating, depending on your point of view. By a vote of 46 to 1, it passed a law banning smoking in many public places in Chicago, including restaurants, workplaces, and bars. As of the following January 16, most places would have to comply with the ordinance; bars and taverns would have until July, 2008, after which point they could allow smoking only if they had an air-filtration system that made the air inside the place as clean as the air outside.

Among the critics of the law, bar owners at the periphery of the city had a legitimate business concern: Customers who wanted to smoke would simply cross the city limits into a suburb that allowed it.

That fear was mostly allayed last July when the Illinois General Assembly passed a similar, statewide smoking ban. Gov. Rod Blagojevich was all too happy to sign into law the Smoke Free Illinois Act, which took effect January 1. With the new law, no more loophole with air-filtration systems— and no more concern that smokers in Chicago would cross into so-called “collar” suburbs to drink and smoke.

At least not into collar suburbs in Illinois.

Thursday evening, I took a trip with my bicycle down to Calumet City, a collar suburb of Chicago that borders Indiana, a state that does not have a smoking ban. Just 200 feet west of the Illinois-Indiana state line, I came upon Lauer’s Pub, a single-story, stand-alone shack of a building with Cubs and White Sox calendars posted out front. Inside, the long, dim room was crowded with sports paraphernalia, a pool table, and electronic gambling machines. “Wheel of Fortune” played on a TV above the bar.

Absent from the room was the smell of smoke.

I took a seat at the bar and ordered a drink and a glass of water, having biked through humidity-laden heat. I asked the bartender, Erica, if she had seen a drop-off in the number of people coming in since the statewide smoking ban took effect in January. She said she had.

The guy sitting to my right had a different view: “It depends on who you talk to,” he offered.

I wanted to follow up with Erica, but she soon announced to the handful of customers, “Does anyone need a beer or a drink or something? I’m going outside to smoke a cigarette.” She invited me to come outside with her to continue talking. I did.

As she and two customers lit up cigarettes under a lazily setting sun, Erica told me that on an average night, she used to see 25 to 50 people come in. Now, it was more like 10 to 15.

“But then again,” she added, “I associate it with it being warm out.”

Erica told me she moved back to the Midwest some four-and-a-half months ago after living in Southern Florida. Down there, she said, she worked professionally in the hospitality industry.

“When I go out to dinner, I don’t want smoking around me,” she explained. But she did want to be able to smoke in other places.

Back in the bar, I got to talking with Larry, a guy with a very-loose-fitting tank top and an acerbic sense of humor.

I asked Larry what he did.

“I’m a professional alcoholic,” he replied.

I asked if he’d been coming to Lauer’s Pub for a long time.

“I’ve been coming to every bar for a long time,” he said.

I asked whether the smoking ban, or— as someone told me— a move to make bars in Calumet City close earlier, have contributed to a decline in customers at bars around here.

“All of the above,” he responded. “Everybody’s losing money.”

All right; it was an unscientific survey, at best.

As I prepared to head off, I noticed out of the corner of my eye a small flame sparkle up. When I looked over, I couldn’t see anyone smoking. But when I walked down to that end of the room and checked out an electronic gambling machine, I smelled cigarette smoke.

The smell wafted by me as a man walked out the back door.

----

The first town into Indiana from Calumet City is Hammond, a craggy city of about 80,000 that’s perhaps most famous to Chicagoans for its Horseshoe Casino. While the Chicago Skyway, an elevated highway, passes high above the city, crossing over from Illinois is as simple as crossing the street.

Biking over that street, State Line Rd., and past the large, 24-hour cigarette store that toes the border with Illinois (Indiana has lower taxes on cigarettes), I found Bucket’s Place, another standalone bar.

Shortly before 8 p.m., I took a seat at the bar. About a dozen people sat at the bar or around a table, or shot pool, as country music blared from the jukebox.

Cigarette smoke lingered in the air.

I ordered a cheeseburger and asked the bartender if she had seen an increase in customers here since the Illinois smoking ban took effect.

“No, not really,” she replied. Most of the customers were regulars, she explained.

The man next to me, who looked to be in his mid-50’s and wore a short-sleeved, button-down shirt and jeans, introduced himself as Chopper. He said he worked as bar manager at the American Legion of Hammond.

I asked Chopper if he had seen more people come over here because of the smoking ban.

“F--- Illinois,” he said. “Illinois, they ain’t got nothing! They screwed themselves.”

I could only presume he was referring to the smoking ban.

When I pressed him on whether he had seen more people at bars here, he informed me, as he lit up a cigarette, that bingo had picked up at the American Legion, where smoking was allowed.

What about the seagulls flying over the beaches?, he went on. “I think it’s a $500 fine if you’re caught smoking on the beach over in Chicago.” (It is.) “Think about that! Not the f---ing seagulls.”

He coughed a wheezing cough.

As Chopper took a call on his cell phone, I slipped out and prepared to unlock my bike for the trip back to Chicago. As I did, another man biked up.

I asked him the same question I had been asking, in one form or another, all evening.

“Oh, I couldn’t say,” the man replied politely.

As I got ready to ride off, he added, “I’ll say one or two people I’ve noticed coming over.”

I thanked him.

Once across the street, I bent my head down and breathed in.

My shirt reeked of cigarette smoke.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Senegalese on the South Side

It might start out as “A Christian, a Jew, and a Muslim walk into a bar…” But for this story, we’ll have to give it a little twist: A black, Christian, Senegalese man and two white, Jewish Americans walk into a restaurant. Add to that that the restaurant is Senegalese. And located on the South Side of Chicago.

Jacques (the Senegalese man) leads the way down the mostly-empty dining room, followed by Liza and myself (the Americans). We turn the corner into the adjacent dining room, and there sit two Senegalese men. They get up and shake Jacques’s hand. Words are exchanged in Oualof, a Senegalese language.

The two men turn to shake Liza’s and my hands. “Vous parlez français?” asks one of the men, who wears blue jeans, a white vest, and a flat, brown hat.

Oh, yeah. In this story, in a Senegalese restaurant on the South Side of Chicago, all the characters speak French.

“You’re gonna’ guide us, Jacques, on what to order,” I tell him, snapping the menu shut, once we’re seated.

Ça, je connais,” he replies with a smile. “That, I know.” There’s laughter all around.

The man in the white vest and jeans approaches Jacques and takes out a business card from his pocket. It’s Jacques’s own card. The two men had met once before.

“His card’s been in my pocket for a long time,” says the man.

The walls of the room hold paintings, tapestries, and wooden sculptures, including a sword. Fake plants are scattered about. Our table, one of only ten, has a tablecloth with images of zebras and trees beneath a plastic covering; a small, painted vase with fake flowers serves as the table’s centerpiece.

“I love fish,” says Jacques. His father lived on an island in Senegal, where people would get fresh fish every day. Those in his ethnic group are fishermen, he adds.

Liza gets grilled fish. Jacques and I order chicken.

Our waiter, who’s from Guinea, and therefore speaks French (as I said), brings us three plastic cups: Two filled with a dark-crimson liquid, roselle juice, and the third— Jacques’— containing yellow-orange ginger juice. Next comes a plate of three small spring rolls, along with a few lettuce leaves and some carrot shreds. Soon after, the main dishes appear: Fish with vegetables for Liza, chicken and plantains for me, and chicken with rice for Jacques.

“I think that’s a lot,” comments Jacques.

“Well, you’re in America here,” I reply. “It’s big. Everything’s big.”

“In Senegal, they serve half that, I think, in restaurants.”

My “Yassa” chicken has been cooked with spices and bits of onion in an oily, salty, slightly sweet sauce. It’s a dish I remember from my time living in France. The sauce tonight is delicious.

“I found, last week, a Senegalese man— an older man,” recounts Jacques, as he digs into his chicken and rice. “You see, I never knew him. I never saw him. I only saw him once, last week.

“He came to see me. He’s a Senegalese man; he came to see me at the college, and he told me, ‘You can come to my place, to the house, whenever you can. As you like. You don’t need to call.’”

“Mmmm,” I hum. Liza lets out an “Awww.”

“‘You can come
whenever you want to the house,’” he continues. “In Senegal, what he says— that’s how it is. […] ‘Whenever you want, come over. My wife has a beauty salon, a beauty salon with employees.’ And he has his business. And he has two children.

“So, he told me, ‘come over,’” Jacques goes on. “And I went over there on Sunday. He came to get me; we stayed. He told me, ‘Here’s the bedroom. Whenever you want, come over.’ And I never met him.”

I laugh giddily.

“No, it’s true. And the first time! The first time! He even told me, ‘Stay a week.’ […] He’s done it already for several other people. When young people come here, Senegalese people, he hosts them at his house.”

“Wow,” remarks Liza.

“Most Senegalese people are like that among us,” Jacques adds. “Most among us, there’s an attraction, a bond, that’s very strong.”

We continue eating.

“Are things going all right with your English?” asks Liza.

“I’m doing better,” says Jacques.

“You want to speak?” says Liza. “It’s probably better for him,” she adds, talking to me.

“When I speak English, you’re going to see,” says Jacques. “There are many things— I can’t pronounce them. Many, many things. Like…
coat-EHJ-grohv. Coat-EHJ-grohv. The pronunciation— how do you pronounce it?”

“What’s that?” I ask.

“You see?” he says, turning to Liza.

“Cottage Grove,” Liza says to me in English.

“Oh, Cottage Grove,” I reply.

“When I pronounce it, you don’t even know…,” Jacques says to me, laughing.

“I thought you were saying something in French,” I explain.

By the end of the main course, I’m stuffed. But I want to try dessert, so I ask our waiter for a menu. It lists only two options, thiakry (milk curds and grains of millet) and fruit salad.

“We’re out of fruit salad,” says the waiter.

The thiakry arrives in a plastic container. I take off the lid and spill some of it onto my plate.

“Why are you putting it on your chicken?” Liza asks.

I look down. “Becauuuse it’s the plate I’ve got,” I say with a weak laugh. “I didn’t think about it…” The thiakry has formed something of a small lake among the remains of my chicken.

“Do I put it on like that, on the plate?” asks Liza.

“No. No, no. It’s better to eat it that way,” says Jacques, indicating the use of a spoon. “Directly.”

With the meal behind us, we get up from the table and walk by a television blaring CNN, by a rack of African DVD’s with English titles, here in this Senegalese restaurant on the South Side of Chicago. (I look closely at one DVD case. It says “Nigeria” in small letters.)

The three of us walk back through the first room, towards the front door, where a smiling Senegalese man shakes our hands one by one, hands us postcards with the restaurant’s menu, and wishes us a good night.