Saturday, February 23, 2013

Chicago

Last visited: November 1992

Memories of Chicago

I visited Chicago in 1992 when I was marketing manager for a small manufacturing company and was sent to investigate whether an annual convention and exhibition held there was conducive for growing our business.

I flew into Chicago O'Hare Airport about 11pm at night, collected a rental car and a map, then proceeded to drive through the rain into the heart of this vast, dark city. The company had a policy of only spending a maximum of $80 for a hotel per night, and after much difficulty the secretary had managed to find and book me a room. I located the street, I believe it was on Wabash Avenue in an area called the Loop, and felt that I was in a scene from a movie, the street lined with old brown brick high rise buildings with the pylons of an elevated train line running down the middle of the road. One of these brown brick buildings bore the name of my designated hotel.

It was now after midnight, but I went inside and was pleased to find there was still a night clerk on duty. I was dubious about the quality of my accommodation and asked to see the room before I checked in. "Certainly," he replied, "I'll show you our best room," and took me to a rackety elevator which shook as it ascended to the fourth floor. He opened the door and flicked on the lights and to my mind's eye I saw cockroaches scurrying away with the shadows across the linoleum floor. Linoleum. Just then the elevated train rumbled past the window and the building shuddered, and I told the tired clerk I would look elsewhere.

Back in my rental car I looked up the hotel where the conference was being held and found my way to the Fairmont. The hotel was a vast, glowing edifice, and I went in and showed the registration desk my conference attendance confirmation and asked if they had a room for the night. Fortunately they had vacancies but wanted $160 per night, a price which I knew would get me in trouble, so I insisted on the conference rate of $120 per night. They demurred, saying I hadn't booked. I told them I was aware of that, but I am attending the conference at their hotel and they offered delegates the price of $120 per night, and I would expect them to honour the offer. Eventually they complied and gave me a room which was slightly worn, but certainly much better than the roach hotel.

The next morning I awoke and opened the curtains to find a dazzling view across the park to Lake Michigan, and was more than pleased with my decision to seek a change of hotels. I called my boss to tell him where I was staying and how they could reach me, my experience at the roach hotel and that I had negotiated an excellent price for a decent room. Mr Spjute was indignant. "I've stayed at the hotel we booked for you - its not that bad!" I told him I didn't feel safe there.

After a light breakfast, I decided to venture out and explore before going to the conference. Having heard of the high crime and dangers of Chicago streets, I removed all valuables - my watch, wallet, everything except my room key - and ventured out. There was a lot of traffic, but it seemed the streets were devoid of people. There were no crowds on the sidewalks as I expected, no packs of office workers waiting to cross intersections - in fact, there were virtually no pedestrians at all, except me. There were high rises and skyscrapers and traffic, but none of the hustle and bustle that I had anticipated.

Disappointed, I walked through the November cold back to the hotel and went to the conference and exhibition to see what I could see. After registering as an attendee I wandered the trade show floor, looked at items of interest and curiosity, picked up the odd piece of candy or trinket given away by exhibitors to take home as presents for my kids, then began to feel unusually claustrophobic. The air was hot and stuffy, the crowds were huge, and with a sense of growing unease I elbowed my way out and went back to my room.

After a bit of rest and recuperation, I mulled over my options for the evening. A friend in the music business had suggested that while in Chicago I should visit the Kingston Mines blues club, so about 7pm I went downstairs and asked the doorman to hail me a cab. 

The taxi drove me through a run-down, dilapidated area and dropped me off in front of an old warehouse with a plywood door secured by a chain and lock. It was closed, and it was dark, and I was on my own. I saw a convenience store down the street - the only building visible with lights on, and walked down and bought a pack of Camel unfiltered cigarettes. Not that I was a smoker, but wanted to look street-savvy. I asked him what time the Kingston Mines opened and he told me 8pm - still more than half an hour away. So I stood in the light in front of the store and smoked my cigarettes until I saw someone removing the lock and chain from the door of the club, and wandered down.

It was indeed a warehouse inside, with picnic tables running all the way back, a long bar down the middle, and on the other side of the bar another arrangement of more picnic tables. I sat down and smoked, had a beer, and watched as the musicians set up their equipment at the front of the room and warmed up. Slowly more people came in and the music started playing. A group of three lovely ladies joined me at my table and we smoked and chatted and kept beat with the music with our heads and our bodies swaying. After an hour, the band took a break and the audience got up en masse and walked to the other side of the bar. I was rather puzzled, but dutifully followed the three lovelies to find that another blues band was set up on another stage on the other side and began playing the most wonderful music.

After changing sides a couple more times, the three lovelies said they had to go. I walked outside with them and asked if I could join them in their car. "Not tonight," said the woman with wavy red hair I was eyeing (a Rebecca Brookes lookalike before Rebecca Brookes was anybody), "but meet me at such and such restaurant on Michigan Avenue for lunch tomorrow." I flagged down a taxi and went back to my hotel, looking forward to my lunch date.

The next day I had another look at the trade show and conference and concluded it was not appropriate for our little specialised machine company, then looked up the address of the restaurant in the phone book and set out on foot for my lunch date. Again there were virtually no pedestrians. I walked across a drawbridge over the Chicago River, past the Wrigley Building, and found the restaurant. I went inside, had a look around, and couldn't see my date. It was just going on noon. So I stood in the small outdoor courtyard and smoked my Camels and waited. And waited. I walked back through the restaurant. Perhaps she was there and I didn't recognise her because of the darkness and the smoke and the drinks the night before. Perhaps she forgot. Perhaps she had only said to meet her for lunch as a polite way of getting rid of me. Regardless, I was now feeling like a loser and the only solution was to walk away.

Crossing the city once again, I ventured into a shopping centre, and there I discovered where all the pedestrians were - underground! There was a maze of underground corridors, shops and arcades which people used to get around the city during the winter months, and I was the only fool to walk the streets of the Windy City.

I went back to the hotel, and concluded it was time to go home. It was a five-day conference, but after only a couple of days I was ready to leave. I paid my bill, collected my rental car, drove up Lower Wacker Drive (which looks and sounds exactly as it is depicted in the movie "The Blues Brothers") and caught an early flight home.