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Chicago

28/01/2013

In 1994, we received the letter most Irish families receive at some time – long-lost American relations were coming over looking for the family left behind in the Aul Sod. After a couple of days in Dublin, which they spent speaking an almost impenetrable language involving phrases like “French fries” and “garbage disposal unit”, they continued on their tour of Ireland before heading home. 18 years later, having had no contact myself with them since, I had been told to wait outside the police station in Chicago’s Union Station, where I was to be the excuse for a fairly large-scale family re-union.

Meeting at the police station turns out not to be straightforward – Union Station is a big place, and there’s 600 murders a year in Chicago, so it has two police stations, and I’m at the wrong one. By now, however, I have the round-the-world traveller look down pat, and when John, my mum’s cousin, works out what’s likely happened and tries the other police station, I’m spotted fairly quickly and approached with a cautious “You’re clearly who I’m looking for but I’m going to look a right tit if you’re not” manner. I am who he thinks I am, however, and we’re soon headed into downtown Chicago where – as it’s only 3pm – John still has a small bit of work to do before he can head home. He works in a modest office block on West Wacker Drive in the city centre –

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Central Chicago is all like this, a fantastic mix of wonderfully varied buildings which form the basis of one of the city’s top attractions, the Architecture Foundation’s city boat tour, of which more later. After a brief conference call and a bit of work on a computer with two screens (a revelatory technological advance as far as I’m concerned, which makes me feel every bit the Irish country bumpkin!), it’s a most un-American commute home – a double-decker commuter train to a waiting manual Audi – to an estate which is straight out of a film set. Large detached houses are fronted by lawns shaded by large trees, and all seem to back on to a number of communal lakes in the estate. It’s so elite that the google maps van has never been allowed in, while there are swans in the lakes to keep out less salubrious birds such as geese. I always remembered the family as being very stereotypically American – the son an aspiring politician, the daughter a cheerleader, everyone taller than me and with a complete inability to spell Irish names. 18 years on, and the stereotypes keep coming – we sit out in glorious sunshine on the verandah, the barbeque is brought out, Kim, the daughter arrives back from work and apologies are passed on from Brian, now a political lobbyist in Washington DC and who’s in the middle of moving house. It’s left to me to break the sequence of stereotypes –

“So Kevin, can I get you a cup of tea?”

“No, you’re grand, thanks; I’m not a tea drinker.”

This leads to a bit of a double take.

“Oh. I thought everyone Ireland drank tea!”

A half-hour later, when the steaks are done, I’m asked – half-seriously – if I eat potatoes. I’d never have considered tea as quintessentially Irish as spuds before; maybe I need to take in a bit more Father Ted.

John’s brother Bill arrives over as dinner is being taken up; I was never aware of his existence before, but he welcomes me with the news that he’ll be showing me around the city tomorrow, and already has tickets for the architecture boat trip and the Cubs game. He did the same thing a couple of years ago when my sister was over, heading up to the Wisconsin State Fair for an afternoon of, among other things, some pig racing. Americans take family really seriously! I’m told that six of my grandmother’s siblings left Tipp around the 20s, and the descendants have kept in touch ever since, even if they’ve since moved to St Louis or DC or the Carolinas. In Chicago, they meet up twice a year, and seeing as I’m in town, it seems the perfect time for a meeting. So on the third night in town, ten of us meet up at a Greek restaurant for dinner, and soon I’m chatting away with a distant relative about just which other distant relative did win the quarter of a million on spin the wheel on Winning Streak.

The only thing that seems to be asked in return is that the favour be returned if the roles are reversed, which seems only fair. It also helps make the world a much smaller place, but then, thinking back over the past five months and similar experiences in London, Luxembourg, Russia, Malaysia, Singapore, Australia (incorporating Iran) and Japan in particular, maybe this isn’t so unique an American trait!

On the first full day, myself and Bill head into town for the day’s sight-seeing. The boat trip starts right in the centre of the city, overlooked by buildings such as the Wrigley Building –

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– home of the Irish Consulate General in Chicago, and the Trump Tower –

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The trip starts off, though, with a bit of the history. The Chicago River used to flow into Lake Michigan, which was a problem, because Lake Michigan supplied the city’s drinking water and was now being asked to deal with its sewage as well. Typhoid deaths were regular, so Chicago did what any self-respecting city would do – they made the river flow backwards, keeping the lake clean and sending their sewage to another city to deal with. The modern cityscape, meanwhile, arose from the ashes of a nicely convenient fire in 1871, which the newspapers blamed on an Irish farming couple whose cow kicked over a lantern in a hay-barn, although 20 years later, the journalist responsible admitted he made that bit up. Either way, it allowed the city to start afresh at a time when building techniques were developing rapidly; Chicago was at the forefront of skyscraper technology – the Chicago Board of Trade building, completed in 1885, is still taller than any building ever built in Ireland (which is still a church). And they didn’t hold the fire against us – the river is now dyed green every St Patrick’s Day.

What makes the Chicago skyline almost unique is the huge variety of buildings by the river –

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They’ve tried various random experiments with their buildings; the Aon Building was covered entirely in marble – apparently at the whim of the architect’s spoilt trophy wife – which proved a problem when one piece detached and fell off, landing on top of another building; for almost 20 years, they tried to cover up the cracks (literally) before giving up and resurfacing the entire building at a cost of $80m. The Merchandise Mart (first photo above) was for a long time the largest building in the world in terms of total floor space. The city even got an Irish person to build a skyscraper for them – that ended fairly predictably when Garrett Kelleher’s company went bankrupt after Anglo called in their debts; the site of what was to be the tallest building in the US is now just a hole in the ground.

As a break from craning our necks upwards, we’re directed towards a humble bollard in the river –

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It was driven in during some routine bridge maintenance in 1991; however, it was driven into the top of a defunct tunnel that had been long forgotten about, causing the roof to be weakened. The tunnel was an underground rail system used for removing debris from installing telephone lines, and later for transporting freight and post between businesses. The tunnels closed in 1959, but many buildings were still linked to the system – often, the first they found out about this was when the Chicago River began seeping up into the basement floors of the buildings months after the bollard had been initially driven in, the roof having finally cracked under the pressure. Given the Chicago River is fed from Lake Michigan, there was essentially an infinite supply of water to seep into an awful lot of tunnels, and so pumping the water out was useless. A mini whirlpool developed in the river, and all of downtown Chicago was shut down for a number of days while the hole in the tunnel – which by now had reached 20ft in diameter – was plugged with concrete.

And then it’s back to more neck-craning –

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It’s not just the riverside that’s extravagant though; even the museums –

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– and American Football ground –

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– are like something out of ancient Rome or Greece.

But Chicago isn’t all built to awe; some of it is built for fun. In Millennium Park near the centre of town, there’s a giant stainless steel bean –

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– while if you want to cool off as the temperatures edge into the 30s, the city has that covered too –

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Even McDonald’s makes an effort to fit in here –

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It really is a wonderful city to wander around and explore. And if you want some open space, the city long ago banned any high-rise buildings by the lakefront, making it almost entirely public parks and beaches – there’s a game of hurling going on on one. If you’re in the right spot at the right time, you might even catch Barack Obama flying in to catch up with people back home.

In the evening, it’s time to head to the ball game. The Cubs, who beat the Pittsburgh Pirates 14-4 last night, are hosting the Pittsburgh Pirates tonight and won’t be in town again for…ooh, a good 18 hours when they take on the Pirates in an afternoon game tomorrow. There’s 162 games plus play-offs in a baseball season, and yet the games do be sold out night after night. On top of that, the Chicago Cubs are bad – arguably the worst team across all the American sports. It’s 104 years since they last won the World Series (“Why is it the World Series anyway?”, I ask. “Sure it’s all American teams.” “Ah no – Toronto!”, Bill replies.) When the Cubs last won the World Series, there was no such thing as the NFL, the NHL or the NBA. Even the Chicago White Sox have won since then – in 1917 and 2005. In the midst of all that mediocrity, this season will end as the Cubs’ worst since 1966, with over 100 defeats. And yet a steady average of 35,000 attend games throughout the season. In fact, there’s so much demand for seats that local businesses have taken a novel way to cash in –

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Formerly the equivalent of people watching from the roof of the terrace in Dalymount, in the 1980s, seating was installed on the rooves on local businesses, who started charging for tickets. The Cubs took objection to this and ended up erecting a wind screen to block the view. After a bit of legal to-ing and fro-ing, an agreement was made for the businesses to pay a licence fee to the Cubs.

It’s just one little curiosity in one of America’s most famous sporting venues. Wrigley Field was opened in 1914 – it’s not old enough to have hosted a home-team World (sic!) champion, but it is old enough for Babe Ruth to have played here. The scoreboard is the last manually-operated one in the leagues –

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– meaning Wrigley Field is basically a glorified county GAA ground. However, the fact that the GAA doesn’t really go in for the league does mean that the pennants above the scoreboard are unique to Wrigley Field. The pennants are all in team colours, and they indicate the latest league standings – especially handy for someone passing by on the train after the match is over who, if their iPad is broken, can immediately see that the Cubs are nowhere again this year. Ivy, not padding, drapes the outfield wall, and as we sit down, we buy beer and nachos off a passing vendor, and everything kind of feels like it should be. I hate modern identikit sports grounds, and Wrigley Field is about as far from that as you can get.

I have, of course, practically no idea about baseball, bar assuming that it’s similar to rounders. American football I know to be pointless. Ice hockey would be good fun if the puck was bright red so you could actually see where it was, and basketball sounds like someone scraping their fingernails off the blackboard for 80 minutes. Baseball just seems – well, pointless. Games typically last three hours, and it is incredibly hard to actually hit the ball, let alone hit it far enough that you can make it to a base. Americans will point out that it’s even harder to score a goal in football, but at least other stuff can happen. In baseball, if you don’t hit the ball, nothing has happened, and you go again. So as the first pitcher takes to the mound –

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– I’m in need of a bit of convincing!

The Cubs’ starting pitcher is different to the previous night. Partly this is because pitching takes such a physical toll that in a squad of 25, clubs have as many as 13 pitchers and give them a game a week tops, but it’s also because straight after last night’s game, the starting pitcher got sold to Texas. Seems a curious win bonus, but this is a curious game.

Still, there’s an explosive start. Pirates pick up a couple of early hits as the new pitcher struggles badly, and they soon have the bases loaded. The next batter to step up to the base sends the ball into the stands for a grand slam home run. 4-0 Pittsburgh.

And then nothing happens for an hour or two. Innings after innings go by without a score; Chicago literally can’t hit the ball, while their pitcher still struggles, eventually getting subbed midway through the fourth, but not before allowing the bases to be loaded again. There’s a sense of resignation as the next batter steps up – he gets a hit on the ball, sends it to the outfield, and runs to first. The batter there runs to second, the guy on second runs to third…while the guy on third stays put, as the ball’s been hit out his way and he’s judged it too risky to try for home. So when the guy on second reaches third, he’s ordered back; the guy on second starts to retreat to first, sees the initial batter there already, makes it back to second before his team-mate now coming back from third, who runs back towards third, sees the guy there still standing fast and finally puts his hands up in defeat as a Cubs outfielder almost apologetically taps the ball against him to tag him out. The whole scene is just missing some clown music from the organist.

Other than that, though, it seems watching the game at the ground is the exact same as watching in the pub – it’s a social gathering, where people chat away to friends over a few beers and keep just half an eye on the game itself. It’s largely a different crowd each night – people will buy a season ticket between two or three of them as there’s little point kidding yourself that you’re going to go to all of the games. There’s no atmosphere of the sort you’d expect at a football game; just a gentle hum of conversation and the occasional “Yeaaahhhhoooooohhohhhhhhaawwwww” as Chicago hit big but straight into the mitt of a casually-waiting outfielder; there’s away fans to speak of. It’s the last day of summer (well, it is to me; in America, summer goes on for another month, to the start of September), it’s a lovely evening (25 degrees and dry), and sure where else would you be than the ball park?

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The Pirates pick up a run in the seventh, to make it 5-0. At the end of the innings, the whole crowd gets to their feet, not in disgust at events in front of them, but rather to have a little stretch and a sing. “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” comes on over the PA, and the entire crowd join in. The song is as old as the Cubs’ World Series drought, and gained in popularity when the then White Sox stadium announcer, Harry Caray, used to sing it to himself in his booth; one night, the mic operator turned on the mic without Caray’s knowledge, the crowd loved it and fairly soon Caray was leading the crowd into the song every night, leaning out of his booth and waving his mic at the crowd. It explains the statue outside the ground on the way in –

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As the song ends, last orders for beer and nachos go in, and everyone takes their seats again. It’s the quota of exercise for the night.

In the meantime, the players are having a break of their own, but the Pirates’ pitcher is being completely ignored. This, again, is tradition – Chicago still haven’t recorded a hit all night, and the pitcher is on the verge of a major achievement – a no-hit game. (He’d be on for a perfect game had he not pitched straight into a Cubs player’s head earlier – the player had to be helped off, but a sub was allowed walk to first). Usually, a pitcher would changed during the game for reasons of tiredness, but there’s no chance of that now. Instead, tradition dictates no-one talks to him for fear they mention the potential no-hit and jinx him, although to me, this just seems to emphasise the fact that he’s on the verge of something big – surely the opposite of what’s needed now. 1965 was the last time the Cubs were hit with a no-hit – a stretch of more than 6,500 games. Only baseball could make such a big deal about literally nothing!

Alas, the reverse jinxing didn’t work, and in the eighth, Chicago finally hit the ball and reach first. The crowd give a standing ovation – to both players – and about 10,000 fans immediately up and leave. The game is over soon after, the score remaining at 5-0, and the crowd drift away muttering about how they’re now 16 under 500 (16 wins in a row will bring them up to a 50% score), but sure there’s still a chance if they can only win the next one. Foreign phrases for feelings any sports fan will know!

Of course, the game could be improved a bit. Part of the reason that the season is so long is that the odds are stacked heavily in favour of the pitcher; you need a lot of games for the better players to stand out over the course of the season. So it stands to reason that the pitching mound should be moved ten feet back. This would lead to more hits, which could be countered by removing the last two innings. Presto – same length game, but more action. The Americans would never, ever go with this, of course. Tradition, don’t you know. And yet they’d be the first ones to decry football as dull unless there were penalty shoot-outs to decide league draws, or cheerleaders leading the teams out, or fanfare music every time the home side won a corner. Americans are a strange breed.

I’ve the next two afternoons to explore the city myself; in the morning, I hop on the red line train from near Wrigley Field into town. I do this with a warning ringing in my ears – do not fall asleep and wake up at the terminus at 95th, or I will be shot. I pick up a newspaper on the way in to town, which notes that July’s murder figures were down on the previous year – the first month to show a decrease compared to last year. The city topped 300 murders from January to July and was really showing no sign of slowing down. About the only positive is that the red line runs 24 hours a day, so if you do fall asleep on the way home from the pub and wake up at 95th, you know you’ve only got to survive about five minutes before you’re on your way back out again.

In town, I head for the Willis Tower, still better known by its old name, the Sears Tower. Sears left in 1994, though had naming rights up to 2003, and the name didn’t change until 2009, when the Willis Group moved in. At 1,451 feet tall, it was the highest building in the world for 25 years until surpassed by the Petronas Towers, which I’d visited a couple of months earlier. While the Sears Tower is relatively dull architecturally compared to the Petronas Towers –

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– it does trump its Malaysian counterpart with the Skydeck’s glass balconies, just about visible at the top here –

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– and more visible on full zoom –

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From the 103rd floor, you can step out into a small glass balcony and look straight down at over 1300 foot – a quarter of a mile – of nothing below. Like walking on Lake Baikal, it’s only logical that the floor isn’t going to give way, but your brain protests quite loudly as you step out onto the glass, towering over buildings which had been towering over me only the day before when I was on the river –

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From there, I head out by the lakeshore, where the Lollapalooza festival is being set up, and out to the museum quarter. A fountain in a large, open plaza has a a fairly impressive skyline as its backdrop –

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There’s easily enough in Chicago’s museums to last a couple of days, although as I noted in the California entry, much is a curious re-hash of my trip so far – a little like an end-of-series montage. Chinggis Khan conquering the known world from Mongolia; the nasty things the Chinese are doing in Tibet; Maori dreamtime; 19th-century Japanese artifacts; Wild West cowboys cast in bronze. An exhibit of Roy Lichtenstein serves to confirm that I don’t really get art, even if it is on cartoon form.

There is a bit of local culture the last evening though, when we head out to dine on the local speciality. Pizzeria Uno is the original home of the deep base pizza (I am still in America after all). I meet up with the family outside, where we’re waiting on our table – no bookings are taken; you just turn up and take the next free spot. It’s packed as it almost always is – in 1955, they set up Pizzeria Due just across the road to cater for demand – and a small crowd mills around on the path outside waiting their turn. You can order as soon as you arrive – the wait for a table is offset by the baking time, so the pizza arrives shortly after you sit down. It’s worth the wait though; the pizza looks like a flan of sorts, with two inches of crisp baked bread casing a wealth of calories in tomato, cheese, pepperoni and ham form. But sure I’m on holidays, so it’s ok! It’s deceptively filling – the four of us share a 10″ pizza, washed down for the craic with some Mountain Dew, which I only knew from that Simpsons episode where Homer’s stuck in New York. It’s turns out to be a citrussy/grapefruity fizzy drink with caffeine – see previous comment about it being holidays!

It’s the last night in Chicago, though. The last train of the trip leaves at 9:30. So after fond farewells to and exchanges of presents with people I barely knew three days previously, it’s all aboard the Lake Shore Limited to New York.

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