Thursday, July 31, 2008

Tourist in My Adopted City

Michigan Ave.?


Tribune Tower?


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


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.

1 comment:

Saul said...

Apparently not many other people use the term "Snoopy-o-Blender" --


"Big John"? "Chicago’s Front Porch"?

I'm trying to remember similar things that were said on the few Boston "duck tours" I've gone on, but none come to mind right now. I wonder what's said on the double-decker tours in NY. Some even go to Brooklyn! There's actually a red double-decker tour in Boston that starts right by work.