trip to Chicago


Let's start at the beginning of the trip (a very good place to start). We arrived at the airport about an hour and a half early, got through security without much of a problem, checked in at the gate and then missed our flight. I'm sure you're wondering how you can miss a flight when you're at the gate an hour before take-off. Believe me, I was wondering the same thing when we realized what time it was. The explanation is rather simple; we were waiting at the wrong gate. When we checked in at the gate, no one mentioned we were at the wrong one so our guess is that they changed gates and we missed the announcement. It was rather frustrating to be patiently waiting for the boarding call and then find out it already left 10 minutes earlier. Upon realizing what had happened, we got a nearby gate agent to inform us of the correct gate and ran as fast as we could (luggage bouncing wildly) to a distant wing of the airport. It was immediately clear the flight had left, as the gate was completely empty. In fact, I think I saw a tumbleweed blow by as I was struggling to catch my breath from the long-distance run.

We spoke with a gentleman at the information desk and he told us that for the low price of $1,350.00 a piece he would gladly put us on the direct flight to Chicago. Otherwise, there was nothing he could do. We would have to fly to Kansas City on Delta, missing the last American Airlines flight to Chicago and be at the mercy of American Airlines since Delta's contract to get us to Kansas City would be fulfilled. He also pointed out that since it wasn't the fault of American Airlines that we didn't get to Kansas City on time, they might tell us to shove it (using a more polite euphemism of course).

For future trips, I wouldn't recommend getting tickets that mix airlines. They don't play nicely with each other in cases requiring special attention. After spending 10 minutes on the phone with Delta customer service and another 10 with American Airlines, I talked to the gate agent for the Delta flight to Kansas city. After explaining our situation he asked, "Why don't you just take the direct flight to Chicago?" A remarkable idea, don't you think? He said there was plenty of room and booked us on the flight. We got to Chicago 2 minutes earlier than the flight we missed, without having to change planes. As a result, we were better off having missed the flight, except for the stress it caused in the interim.

We were picked up by two coworkers in a shiny beige 2002 Nissan Maxima. Hertz rental cars now sport a device called the NeverLost which is basically a GPS combined with Map Quest. You can give it an address or select a location from a list and a friendly female voice will tell you when to turn, what exits to take and what to do if you get lost (usually she asks you to turn around at the next legal opportunity). You can also track your progress by watching the arrow (representing you) move along the road. It's one of those forehead-smacking technologies that seem so obvious and useful after someone else has already thought of it. The technology isn't that new but the application of it is pure genius.

To give you an idea of where I spent most of my time, Argonne National Labs is its own town, with its own zip code. We checked in at the Argonne guest house which was essentially a normal hotel. The next morning I stuffed myself with an all you can eat breakfast buffet and had to waddle around for a good portion of the morning. We drove over to the appropriate building and after a brief introduction we began our work with the cluster. Thankfully, things went well, so our two weeks of preparation were well spent, but since this is supposed to be about Chicago, I'll refrain from going into the technical details.

One strange observation I made in the rest room the first day we were there was that the soap dispenser was called a "Euro-Bath." Are they implying that European hygiene consists of squirting a bit of soap on your hands? There must be some other explanation for its name, because I'm quite sure Europe doesn't have a corner on the smelly-folks market, but I found it rather odd but at the same time amusing.

Ah yes, before I continue, here's a little disclaimer. The events are not necessarily in sequential order. It's more of a smorgasbord of what we did while we were there, in the order that I remember the activities.

We went to downtown Chicago and I drove the Maxima for the first time. I currently drive a 1997 Maxima SE and Nissan kept a lot of things the same, but the engine certainly wasn't one of them. They beefed it up to 260HP and boy did it make a difference. Highway driving became quite fun because I could blaze past people doing foolish things without a second thought. At red lights, when we discovered we were in the wrong lane, I could shoot out in front and get into the correct lane before anyone else was blocking the way. The sunroof opened with one touch, which is not the case in my car. I have to hold my finger on the button, which is located on the ceiling, the whole time so it looks like I'm flipping off the guy behind me. It's nice to see Nissan improving on a vehicle I'm already very pleased with.

We walked the Magnificent Mile which provided us with a good look at the heart of Chicago. The towering buildings, swanky store fronts and general city smells and sounds all created a very memorable evening. At one point we were approached by a guy requesting money, stating that he had been off drugs and alcohol for "5 months, 3 weeks and 2 days." Call me a cynic, but I'll bet he's used that phrase for a few months without ever bothering to change the numbers. It sounded too smooth and automatic to be true. After we declined to give him anything he berated us with swears and racial slurs and as we walked away he continued to stumble after us, shouting out his sweet nothings until we finally crossed the street to avoid further contact.

We passed a Sony store, which looked more like a boutique, that had a big sign in the window saying you could download Spider-Man pictures for your Sony Clié. I just happened to have mine with me, so I held it in front of the window (where they had a little machine) and the infrared took care of the rest. It's a very slick way of acquiring information. Think of how convenient it would be if you could do that for airline flights, bus schedules or restaurant menus.

The Greek area of town provided us with one of the most memorable items in Chicago: Flaming Cheese. We ate at The Parthenon and not only was the food reasonably priced, we got to enjoy a rousing "Oh-paaaaaa" when they lit the cheese on fire, singeing their hair and eyebrows.

I saw Attack of the Clones while I was there and managed to take in a bag of food from Taco Bell which the girl I sat next to found quite devious. I was surprised to be able to purchase tickets a few minutes before the movie started, but I didn't complain. The movie was very entertaining and I recommend it. I was just a bit disappointed by the story. I think I was expecting too much after hearing some reviewers say how much they liked it and how it was so much better than Phantom Menace. Maybe a second viewing will change my opinion.

The Hancock Observatory provided us with a bird's eye view of the entire city. It made me wonder what would it be like to live in one of the high-rise apartments. In fact, there are apartments in the Hancock center itself, only a few floors down from the top, so we had to pay $10 to see a view that some people get to see every day when they get home from work. Granted, I'm sure they pay up the wazoo in rent, but it would still be a spectacular view to see every day.

The Art Institute of Chicago wasn't high on my list of things to see, but the other two guys I was with really wanted to see it so I went along and ended up having an artistic awakening of sorts. I used to be fairly indifferent to art and never really saw why people got all worked up about paintings and museums. I was mildly entertained by the suits of armor, weapons, furniture, Egyptian sculptures and lace exhibits but it wasn't particularly memorable. After eating lunch in the cafeteria we began viewing the paintings and I genuinely enjoyed looking at them. I began to wonder what the painter was thinking or trying to convey when they were creating it. I started to notice small details in the paintings that gave them more meaning. I ended up buying a book at the gift shop to learn more about the artists and have a copy of some of their paintings.

After leaving the institute we were greeted by some high school aged kids playing buckets as drums. They were quite good and managed to rake in quite a bit of cash. I was impressed with how well they stayed together, which I'm sure required a lot of practice. While they were playing, a bride and groom clad in tux and wedding dress stopped their limo, danced around a bit in front of the street drummers and dropped some cash into the donation bucket. It just goes to show there's never a dull moment in downtown Chicago.

The Buckingham Fountain was impressive. It shot water higher than 100 feet into the air and had lots of other streams of water spurting out here and there. The park it was in is right next to Lake Michigan, which looks like the ocean since you can't see land on the other side. The weather was starting to get very cold though, especially when the clouds blocked the sun. There's no question that Chicago deserves its title of "The Windy City."

Another fellow and I were both told we should eat at Giordano's and I'm grateful we heeded the suggestion. We had to wait 45 minutes to be seated and another 20 minutes for the pizza to arrive at our table even though we pre-ordered it, but it was well worth the wait. I've been told that you haven't had pizza until you've had Chicago deep-dish pizza and I'm inclined to agree. The crust was flaky and worth eating all alone, while the pizza was loaded with several layers of cheese and pizza sauce. If you ever get a chance to eat there, don't pass it up. We ate there again the next night, but at a different location and it was just as tasty and a lot less crowded.

The Navy Pier has a rather eclectic mix of venues. There was a stained glass museum, a boat ride, a Ferris wheel, a human maze, a virtual reality ride and a wide variety of stores. We chose the stained glass museum which was inside the mall, with the windows and doors displayed along the walkway. At the end we saw a large display of fireworks above the water, accompanied by various patriotic tunes being played on the loudspeakers. It concluded with a chest-thumping grand finale that would rival a 4th of July production. It was so exciting that it caused operatic intonations to bellow forth from my patriotic heart (except they ended up coming out of my mouth instead). Apparently my singing was so inspiring to one of my coworkers that he joined the fray as well. Unfortunately the sound of my efforts at being the next Luciano Pavarotti were not completely drowned out by the fireworks, much to the dismay of those standing around me. Sadly, I received no standing ovation.

A lot of the exhibits at the Museum of Science and Industry were aimed at children, but there were a few good ones for adults. We got to walk inside a genuine German U-505, saw the actual Apollo 8 Command Module and rode in an F-14 flight simulator on a combat mission. (The simulator could have been a lot worse than it was, so we were pleased). There was a periscope that allowed you to look around outside the museum and after leaving and seeing what I saw through the periscope, it was evidently a very powerful one. What looked like it was only a few yards away was actually a few hundred yards.

We got to the O'Hare airport just in time to make the flight (too close for my comfort) and arrived in Kansas City. There was a woman at security who appeared to be angry at the world. She forced a woman to unpack her bags until it would fit into the little "must fit here" box and even when the lady got it to fit (a little snug, but it fit nonetheless) the nasty woman retorted, "Ah, but now try to take it out without keeping your foot on the bottom." With a bit more work the passenger was able to caress the bag in and out of the container without keeping her foot on it and the security woman just gave her a mean stare as if she'd lost the battle.

I don't understand why she couldn't use her foot. I've seen many people jam their bags into the overhead bin so tightly that when they manage to yank it out they nearly fall over. Most of the other passengers had bags that were at least as large, if not larger than the woman's and you could see them trying to hide their bags lest they be humiliated as well. I was right there with them, trying to steer clear of her wrath, inconspicuously sneaking by her with my rather over-sized duffle bag. Luckily she was chewing out some other poor victim as I stealthily placed my bag on the conveyor belt. The security guy forced me to remove my shoes and send them through the X-ray machine which left me feeling rather vulnerable. For some reason I feel naked when I don't have shoes on in a public place. It reminds me of dreams when you discover that you somehow got to school naked and can't figure out how it could have happened.

The flight home was uneventful since I was asleep for most of it. I woke up for a bag containing 5 pretzels and a cup so full of ice that I managed to slurp down about two tablespoons of apple juice. Don't you just love airline food?

The trip was a success as far as our main purpose for being there, but I also enjoyed getting a chance to see one of the largest cities in the United States firsthand. Even though I thoroughly enjoyed the trip, it was nice to come home to my own bed.

Updated Aug 02, 2020