Monday, January 15, 2007

Chicago Diaries


We’re safely ensconced in the Embassy Suites Chicago Downtown/Lakefront. It’s quite posh—two rooms, a sink in the bedroom, a little mini sink, fridge, microwave area, a ceiling fan in the living room area, and a fold out bed for the girls. They’re on the bed now, their teeth brushed, their various pills taken, reading their books.

The weather, of course, hasn’t cooperated. It’s been spitting an icy rain on us since the late afternoon. By the time the girls and I arrived in Brillion to pick up Dave at Ariens, it was positively glowering, the last embers of a weak sun dissolving into muddy purple clouds. There was no differentiation between the road and the sky, and the whole bleeding mess was making me drowsy (me and my head cold). So I told Dave that he was driving. Isn’t that what men are for? Husbands, anyway?

No incidents of road rage, no spinning cars or cars flying into the ditch (that’s Michigan), no close shaves. The most alarming car aspect is the fact that we have to pay 35.00 a day for parking here. And that’s the “budget” parking garage next door. We had to wind around and around and around the parking garage, looking for a parking space. The spaces must be narrower than we’re used to in supersizeme Wisconsin, because the space we finally found smelled funny to me—I thought it was really a walkway, or a margin for error. But no. We discovered a number painted underneath the car when we got out and sniffed around.

There must be a convention for girls in leotards—gymnasts, or dancers. As we got off the elevator on the 12th floor to look for our room, we encountered a tense knot of about 15 of them, clustered around an emotional dark-haired woman in an expensive track suit. “You don’t have to get a platinum metal to be best in show,” the woman told them. “I’d be lying to you if I said—“

And then I was down the hall and out of range. Dave brought up the rear. “An emotional moment,” he said.

We wondered what was going on. Dave went back to the car to retrieve our camera (hard to get all our flotsam and jetsam out of the car in one load, even with the two girls acting as pack mules). When he got back, he remarked: “There must be something going on at this hotel because there were tons of rug rats milling all over the place.” Good. Because the glass elevator reminded us of our hotel in Mexico City, the totally unkidfriendly place, and I don’t want a repeat of that experience, especially for Lizzie’s 10th birthday celebration.

When we got into the room, Lizzie exclaimed at all the amenities. “This birthday trip keeps getting better and better,” she announced. The cockles of my heart flared into a crackling blaze. She and Jaimee set to work photographing the construction site across the way.

Tomorrow, we’ll hit the American Girl Place and the Field Museum. We’re set to meet Zolt and Julie and Grant for dinner. I saw a Pizzeria Uno close to the hotel. Yes, a chain! Eventually, Lizzie will grow up and perhaps her tastes will expand to encompass the unique flavor experience, rather than the mundane or predictable, as is her current bent.

To prepare for the trip, I watched a few episodes of The Office, the American version, while doing intervals on the recumbent bike. In one of them, Michael Scott goes to New York City for a corporate meeting. He’s speaking to the camera excitedly about how much he loves the hustle and bustle of the big city. “Oh,” he says, jumping off the curb and dashing between a bus and a cab, into the street. “There’s my favorite New York pizza place. I always get a slice when I come here.”

It’s a Sbarro, of course.


This morning, we woke up around 7:30. I thought it was 6:30 (but should’ve known from the light coming through the window that I was wrong) because the clock in our bedroom is a whole hour wrong.

I’m still reading through Against the Day, so the time warp bedroom seems appropriate, as the novel is turning out to be about world domination and time.

In any case, we roused ourselves and the girls and went down to the Sky Lobby for our complimentary breakfast, which turned out to be a huge smorgasbord buffet line with everything from made to order omelets to donuts to the usual vaguely snotty trays of scrambled eggs. We loaded up with bacon, sausage links, eggs, hash browns, pancakes and fruit, and made our way to the last open table for four. In less than ten minutes, the girls had dispatched with their breakfasts and were staring at Dave and me with hawkish attention.

Up in the room again, we showered and etc., while the girls waited impatiently with their American Girls. Kirsten and Elizabeth were both dressed in their best doll finery when I finished with my shower and dressing.

“When are we going to the American Girl Place?” Lizzie demanded to know.

“I’m ready whenever you guys are.”

Lizzie and Jaimee arranged the girls on the chair and Dave sat by the door, playing with his Mac. No one looked up at me. I was going to give my hair a blow-dry vacation, and my eyes a mascara free weekend, but the sudden lack of interest in my readiness sent me back to the bathroom, where I applied goop to my lashes and blowed my hair into the usual mushroom cap with a flip.

“Now I’m totally ready,” I announced. “We better get going before I find something else to do.”

The girls packed themselves and their perky AGs into the elevator and we were off. We walked the 8 or so blocks to American Girl Nirvana. A cold wind drilled into my ears (I forgot to bring a hat, goddamnit) and my thighs in their Levis grew tree trunkfish with cold. We arrived and the girls giggled shrilly with glee as we swept under the royal awnings, through the golden glass doors, into the site of what can only be described as a commercial sinkhole.

Girls and their parents milled and moiled through three separate floors of commercial chaos, looking at doll dioramas, picking expensive boxes of outfits and dolls, filling their baskets eye-high with AG goodies. Some mothers and fathers arranged their progeny in front of this glass case or that, smiling with rigid intensity as they snapped digital memories.

As we descended to the “Character Floor,” the lowest level, a girl at the end of the line stumbled and then bent down to pick something up. “Get out of the way,” her father growled, kicking the box out of her grasp and bumping her to the side. As we passed them, off the elevator, I could hear him lecturing, “There are tons of people behind you. You can’t bend down like that and block the flow…” She had long brown hair that glistened a bit in the golden lighting from recessed ceiling lamps; she appeared to be in her early teens, a bit too old for her father’s fussiness. This is a family out of balance, I thought, channeling Cesar Millan.

Actually, it felt like a commercial world slightly out of balance, as if I’d been sucked into a living, breathing catalogue, every minute swept into the beating heart of American commerce, where girls are converted into women with the spank of money, the urge of consumerism, the driving impulse to spend. I had to sit down because my back started to hurt. I stretched my hands to my ankles and held on a bit, letting the muscles shriek as they pulled, assuming the position.

Then we were out. We went to the Water Tower shopping mall for lunch on the advice of the AG cashier, and found an international themed food court. Dave and I had burritos the size of my head and the girls had grilled cheese and French fries.

Back to the hotel to dump the AGs and their new finery, then out into the world again. Taxi to the Field Museum. Hurrah! It was discount day, so we all got in for free. Which was a good thing, it turned out, as the girls wilted after only an hour in the museum, and began to whine, or pre-whine, to leave. At first, we couldn’t find our way out of the maze of stuffed animals. Eventually, though, we got out of the labyrinth and onto the cold sidewalk.

As punishment for their short attention spans (turns out that the AGs and their finery were working their siren calls on the girls), we walked back to the hotel, a mile plus through the cold parks along the lake.

And now here we are, waiting for Zolt and Julie and Grant to show up for Pizzeria Uno dinner.

I’ve got a sinus headache thing that two ibus have not kicked (yet). My teeth hurt a little. I’ve dozed on the bed for a few minutes with Against the Day propped on my chest. Lizzie and Jaimee have attired their girls in their new togs and are creating vast oral scenarios in the living room for them. (All day long, we’ve bumped into clots of girls with their AGs in tow, their smiling suburban preppy mothers—usually mothers—leading the rear.)

Our hotel is populated with AGites, the Michigan men’s gymnastics team, some sort of dance conference for pre-teens, and preppy guys dressed in Dave’s uniform: jeans, sweater, collared shirt, comfortable lace up shoes. On the way home from the Museum, as we slogged through the frigid park, the girls pattering through a series of louder and louder playground slap songs, Lizzie commented, “I keep forgetting that we’re in Chicago. When you said we had to go back to the hotel, I thought, what hotel? Oh, yeah, I remembered, we’re not in Wisconsin anymore. But I look around and we could be in Wisconsin.”

Yep. In the other room, Lizzie and Jaimee are doing just what they’d do if we were on Reed Street and they were in her room, or the basement, or the living room.


Dinner was fun. Pizzeria Uno promised a 2-3 hour wait, outside in the cold, so we went down the street to Pizzeria Due, which promised a 1.5 hour wait, again outside, so we went around the corner to the California Pizza Kitchen, which promised a 10 minute wait. After 20 minutes, they showed us to a set of back to back booths.

"Um," I said, "this isn't going to work." The woman looked at me blankly. "We're having a reunion," I said, in Spanish. "We haven't seen each other in a year or two. We need to talk and we can't talk like this."

"It will take longer, then," the woman said.

No problem. At least we were inside. Grant, just turned 2, climbed up on the waiting bench and stood. "Down," Julie said. "Grant, tooshie on the seat." He looked at her, weighed his options, and bent his knees a few inches. When Julie looked away again, he straightened them.

Pizza was good, if not authentic Chicago. Lizzie and Jaimee snapped pictures like maniacs at the other end of the massive booth we finally scored. Grant pointed at them and crowed, in between stacks of his board books.

(I would share some of Lizzie's pictures, but it turns out that the cable enclosed with the camera is wrong. After calling Nikon about it (and one has to search through the website to find a phone number), I discover that I will have to doall kinds of faxing gyrations in order to get a replacement cable swapped out. It's easier, and they know it, to just go to the store and get one that fits. Bastards. This will get me onto another rant, about the Nintendo DS and Game Cube scam, but I digress...)

It was great to see Zolt and Julie and Grant, who has Julie's fair coloring and Zolt's face--flashbacks to Zolt in the classroom, Arizona, sitting in the row next to the door, grinning ear to ear with the sheer pleasure of learning, one of the only people in the room to express it, that same energy in Grant's glee as he stacks the last book and I squeal with pleasure for him, clap my hands, yayyyyyy Grant and Zolt!--even in the hustle and bustle and wait wait wait in the cold of Michigan and Wabash Avenues. It felt as if there was nothing much to say to Zolt, since he's been reading all these entries.

Yesterday morning we got up, ate our complimentary breakfast, loaded up the car, checked out, and took a taxi to the Shedd Aquarium. Lots of cool fish, and a Soldiers Field next door packed to the top with Bears fans celebrating the play off game. Made it through that experience in 2 hours, then back to the hotel in another cab, pay parking, drive out. We breathed a sigh of relief when we found 94 and were headed in the right direction.

Ten miles past the exit, Dave remembered that he had to go to Brillion to pick up his truck from work, so we wended through a lot of back country roads around Denmark, bleak farms all brown and gray, waiting for this snow.

It was dark by the time we got to Ariens. Dave got his truck, I drove Jaimee home to De Pere, and then we made it back to Reed Street around 5:54. Phew. Home again.

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