3.31.2011

Chicago, Chicago, a #@%! of a Town...(IMHO)

My traveling buddy, Louise, and I were bundled up in our leather coats on the City of New Orleans train, while we waited, with anticipation, to actually pull into Chicago. It would be the first time for either of us. (This would be the first leg of our trip to Rochester, NY where my daughter, Sookie was going to have surgery.) Initially, when I ordered the tickets online, I had thought that we'd have to be running though the halls of the train depot in Chicago, looking for our connection, because the schedule said we would arrive there at 9 a.m. and leave for Rochester at 9:30. That didn't leave us much time. I remembered when Cappy and I only had a 20 minute plane connection in Atlanta, which we almost didn't make because we had to run way across the terminal, go down an elevator and catch a subway to where our plane was to depart. Well, I knew Louise and I were about to be in trouble with all our luggage in tow. I had dreaded it until, while making sure I had my phone, and reading glasses and ticket all ready , I noticed that the ticket printout actually said we wouldn't leave for Rochester until 9:30 P.M.! What??? A 12 hour layover??? Big difference. Thinking about it, tho', I rationalized that it might not be too bad. If the Chicago train station was anything like the nice big fancy airport terminals, we could have a fun day, snooping though the stores, take in a leisurely breakfast, lunch and supper. And wouldn't it be great if they even had a movie theatre, like a mall? It was Chicago...anything was possible. --------Getting closer to the Big City, the vista out our train window was beautiful. The ground was white and the sun was glistening off it.The morning was bright and sunny, and the sky was a beautiful clear blue. All this decried the reports of bad weather which had been forcasted over the staticky intercom. Who cared? We were ready for it. All we had to do was go from the train right into the station; how bad could that be? We'd hurry, too, to make sure of it. Coming into town now, we began to see the cityscape, but I wondered about the personality of the place. During the trainride, our conversation had wound around many topics. Since we were headed north, Louise asked me if I ever really missed living up there. I answered, "Some places, yes, some places no...but I do NOT like the cold...I don't miss that at all", then, being in a pensive mood, on this slow, relaxing trip, I had elaborated. I told her about the small town named Wellsville, NY where we had lived for a time, which I also did not miss. It seems as though sometimes the whole spririt of a place can seem dismal and miserable most the time. From my first day there, people seemed to be on guard or have a chip on their shoulder. For example, if someone wanted to pull out of a parking lot, it's common practice to let the person drive out ahead of us to get into traffic...it could've been any one of us needing that courtesy. But not in Wellsville...oh noooo. If anyone looks like they want to pull out, instead of letting them in, other drivers, glare at them, clutch their steering wheels as tightly as though it were their most prized possession, and keep within an hairsbreath behind the car in front of them, inching, inching ever closer, to make sure the 'interloper' gets the idea that they are NOT getting in line, no matter what! In Rochester, NY and South Louisiana, it's "come on in, friend" and "thank you, buddy" hand-waves exchanged. In Wellsville, the first time I had ever darkened the doorway to the Sears store, the lady working the only cash register behind the only counter, was talking on the phone. Ok. She continued talking at length about nothing concerning the store, but rather some kind of trashy gossip. Ok. I cleared my throat. She turned her back to me and whispered something then without turning around, reached around and hung up the phone, then walked a couple of paces away from me, picked up a bottle of soda and drank, her back still toward me, set it down and stood there ignoring me. I insisted on being polite, seeing as it was my first time there, so I said, "Excuse me..." She whirled around and growled, "What do you want???" I was dumb-founded. Since it was the only place I had to do business to get the Toughskin jeans for my kids, I went back to the store on several occasions, and every single time she was rude for no apparant reason, no matter how hard I tried being pleasant to her. Louise asked, "How can people be like that???" I said, "I don't know, but I could sit her all day and tell you about other people in that town who behaved just that way constantly. The town if full of 'em". She said, "Well, I just can't imagine seeing anybody act rude like that". (famous last words) I told her about Rochester, NY having been voted as one of the friendliest cities in the USA in years past, and that it seemed true enough to me. Also, Rochester is a pretty city. It's called the "Flower City", and although the seasons only let them 'light it up' for a brief time with gorgeous flowers and shrubbery, they do an outstanding job. It's a nice place to visit and a nice place to live. ....And New Orleans has a look about it; the architecture is so cohesive and welcoming. It's just a fun place to visit...obviously. To quote Meryl Streep in the Devil Wears Prada, "Everybody wants to be us". And New York City has a feeling about it, with it's busyness and business, etc. etc. etc. Seems as though every big city is about something. So, there I sat looking out the window wondering what the personality of Chicago would be like on our short visit.------- Presently, traveling through the suburbs of Chicago I was amazed by all the unusual building styles for miles and miles. Then we came farther into the city where there were the tall, plain urban developements...the projects. Wow! There were a lot of them. The structures almost resembled kennels or crates stacked one on top of another. I felt badly for the people who lived there. People...human beings trapped there. But then, what with the political 'stuff' going on of late, my mind went to thinking about how a 'community organizer' could easily persuade these captives, how to vote, by promising them everything, with fabulous words instilling 'pride' and loyalty, but giving them not enough to move up and out. And thus, they are 'kept' "workers" and voters. It happened in New Orleans, and actually, the Big Easy is not really that big; it's just the fame of the Crescent City that makes it seem larger than life. So, maybe my negative thoughts about the politics of Chicago cast a pall over my initial perception of the place. Instead of enjoying the quirky architectures, I was taken aback by the 'clutter' of the looks of one collection of structures having one very unique style juxtaposed against another cluster of entirely different and strange building style. To me, looking over the city, as far as I could see, I was struck with the thought that I was looking at a 'collide-oh-scope'. A collage of designs...an hodge podge. At the same time, I was ashamed that I was feeling so judgemental. Maybe a little more sleep might have helped my mood; however, for no apparent reason, though, I was getting the same wariness that I had while being in Wellsville, and here we hadn't even set foot off the train.------- Now, in the heart of the city, the train started to slow down. Then we stopped. We sat for quite awhile, gazing at some black striped somber looking apartment buildings, then slowly started backing up. We backed for what seemed like a very, very long time, then we began to back into what we thought was the train station. It was dark in there with thick metal pillars everywhere and railroad tracks alongside ours, with wide sidewalks separating them. We kept backing and backing, and it almost felt as though we were actually backing downhill at a slight angle. Back and back we went, down and down into that huge dimly lit cavern. I know I have a vivid imagination, so while we were waiting for the train to finally stop, I began to amuse myself by imagining, like a little kid, that this was really a cave and that the thick metal beams holding the place up were, in fact, taking on the look of stalagmites and stalactites, and at any minute we should start to see little puffs of smoke and flames coming up out of the floor of the cave. Wait! Just then we did start to see puffs of smoke coming up out of the ground here and there! For real! Then, coming back to reality, I surmised that the extreme cold that had been predicted for Chicago that morning, (29 degrees below zero) was causing some of the steam from random vents in the floor of the station, to condense, creating plumes of vapor. But still...were we ever going to get to that train depot located somewhere in the bowels of the earth? Back and back we went, slowly, slowly. It had to end sometime. But, it became ever darker, more cavelike and more spooky. Everyone on the train was quiet, too. -------Then suddenly we were stopped and everyone spilled into the aisle with luggage and loud chatter. I was thinking about joining the fracas, when Louise suggested we wait for everybody else to get out. Good idea. It had been hard enough to get up the stairs with all our heavy luggage; getting down, thinking about it, didn't seem as though it were going to be much easier. I was wondering how one particular lady was doing. Earlier that morning the train had made several stops along the way. As Louise and I were calmly sitting there looking out the window, we could hear somebody moaning down in the stairwell, "Oh Lawd Jesus...Lawd Jesus, hep me...please...". Then the familiar bumping on the walls and heavy panting and wheezing sounds came wafting up the stairs. Some poor soul was trying to make her way up the stairs in much the same way as Louise and I had when we had boarded. I peered down into the narrow stairway and spied an heavy, older lady sprawled up over several of the small stairs, one arm extended upward with a suitcase clenched in hand, and below her, hanging heavlily from her other arm was another suitcase or baggage of some sort. I took the suitcase nearest me, and positioned myself so she could take ahold of my elbow and, together, we could drag her and her luggage up the stairs. The poor dear. We pulled her stuff to a nearby seat, where she wearily plopped down into it. I kept one eye on her for awhile to make sure she was alright. A few other women, some with small chidren, had problems getting up those darned stairs as well, so it almost became a game; something to do, helping them with their luggage so they could get their footing. It made me feel kind of useful. But now, looking around, everybody seemed to be moving along just great, all lined up in the aisle and making their way down the stairs with no problem at all. Even the lady I was worrying about had enlisted the help of a sturdy-looking man to portage her bags. She looked much refreshed and ready to face the world. Now that made me feel good. That is, until the end of the line appeared and I knew it was time for Louise and me to start unloading and 'get a hustle on', too. We hurridly assembled our 'upstairs suitcases', purses and assorted "accoutrement" and managed to squeeze them down the stairs, where we picked up our other two suitcases. We determined that those two unattended parcels had made the trip unmolested, depite our irrational, (perhaps, though, rational) fears. We could feel the cold air filling the car. Quickly wrapping my scarf around my face, and winding the strap of my food thermos box around the handle of my suitcase again, I guessed I was ready to follow Louise out and on to our next adventure. The train porter was, miraculously, still standing outside the door waiting to help us down out of the train. He took Louise's luggage first, then helped her down. He took my suitcases and set them on the concrete. The instant they touched down, my thermal "wheat and gluten-free lunch box" came loose and hit the pavement with a sickening "thunk". Louise was already "hot-footing" it down the sidewalk, so I put the thought out of my mind that the sound I had just heard may have been the glass quart jar of my smoked hen and andouille gumbo, which I was bringing to my son, Thom. I rewrapped the strap of the troublesome food carrier onto the suitcase handle again, pulled my hat down on my head better, tried re-tying the scarf back over my face because in all the fumbling with the suitcases and everything, it had come undone. I could already feel the searing cold air stinging my nose. It was bad enough that I still hadn't found my gloves, but I was going to try to make the trip to the station before my fingers froze...if I could. Finally, I got underway and set off in the direction Louise was headed. Wow, this dark place seemed deserted now...quiet, eerie,...and it was freezing cold...did we mention that? Bitter...BITTERLY cold.------- Sooo...where was this station? How far did we have to walk this time? Apparently the "Jeep/golf cart" kinda thingy carrying the "snooty" sleeper car people had already whizzed by, ferrying them quickly into the warm terminal. Both of my suitcases were rolling smartly behind me, but my hands were begining to be so cold that they were stinging. Louise had a duffle bag with wheels on it, but her other heavy bag, (and another light one) had to be carried. She acted as though the one wasn't that heavy. She wasn't complaining too much, but she had slowed her pace considerably and her walk became more like a stagger. I caught up with her and together we meandered back and forth between the pillars, trying to make a bee-line to wherever we should be going. Again, the walk seemed unnessarily long and cruel, especially because it was to terribly cold, and there was no-one to help us. Way up ahead, perhaps a couple of hundred feet, we saw some activity and a few more lights. By the time we got there, we were chilled to the bone, our teeth were chattering and, personally, I "didn't know which end was up"; I was numb with cold. There were some glass enclosures with signs that read, "Ticketed passengers". Surely this wasn't the fabulous Chicago train station I had envisioned. The glass enclosure looked as though it held no warmth there. I opted not to enter there; I just wanted to keep going until we actually got into the building where we could find some heat and more activity. Certainly the next opening would lead us into the main lobby. I guess it did. But we were lost. The place was very loud and crowded with people rushing everywere, and there we were, dazed and confused, not really knowing where we should be waiting for our departure that was scheduled for 12 hours from now. If this was the lobby, it wasn't all that big, from what I could see so far. Right away, I spotted the Information Desk and approached the frazzled-looking lady, who was trying to answer several people at the same time. I awaited my turn and asked her, "We are going on the train to Rochester, NY this evening. Where are we supposed to wait?" Answering the desk phone, she motioned with her right hand, behind her and said, "Back there". We started 'back there', but then were met with a wall, and two halls, one leading to the left and one to the right. One sign read, "North (...something)" and the other read, "South (...something)" The ladies room was directly under them. I asked Louise which way she thought the lady meant. We were headed north...? We were coming from the south...? We didn't want to be waiting all day in the wrong place. Louise said she thought we should go to the right. I second-guessed her and said that I wasn't sure...at all. I said, "I think I should go back and ask the lady again". I went back and asked, "Excuse me, but we aren't sure which way we are supposed to go, to the right or to the left to wait for our train to Rochester, NY, this evening." Answering her phone again, she just pointed in back of her with her thumb three hard times, and said to me in an annoyed tone, "...Back THERE!" and continued her business on the phone. I went back to Louise, who asked, "what did she say?" "She just pointed back here again". Spotting a female police officer, I went over and asked if she could help us find where we were supposed to wait. I know I had interrupted her, but still she took the time to help. She said, "Oh...come on with me, we'll find out", and away we headed back to the grouch at the Information Desk. I stopped her and said, "I don't want to bother that lady again, I've already asked her twice, but I'm still confused". So, she took me back to that intersection and we took a right. She 'flagged down' a big, tall, burley no-nonsense looking police officer who was hurridly coming our way. As he came up to us, he fixed his gaze on me, took hold of some kind of intercom on his collar and spoke gruffly into it saying, "Okay...we've got the perpetrator apprehended", then looked way down at me and tersely barked, "Alright, what's the problem? What's the problem??" I stammered, "Uh...Uh...I'm just wondering where we are supposed to wait for our train to Rochester, NY this evening..." He grabbed his collar mic again and said into it, "Cancel that!", then he said to the lady police officer, "Show her where the Information Desk is", and briskly walked away in the general direction of the information desk, with the female police officer in tow. I didn't know whether I was supposed to follow them or not, but I knew I wasn't going back to that Information Desk again, so I just went back to find Louise standing there by the Ladies Room, having watched the whole thing with curiousity. I said in mock seriousness, "Geepers, I almost just got arrested. I don't know why, but I somehow got mistaken for a criminal." We hadn't even been in Chicago for more than half an hour and I was already making trouble.-------- (to, of course, be continued...)
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