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Windy and Wonderful

Chicago has everything going for it: the fun of a city, the casualness of a town.

by Paul Gerald

If New York City were to relax, spread out a little, and get over itself, it just might be as cool as Chicago. Chicago has all the advantages of a monstrous city – entertainment, culture, history, attractions, and civic pride – but it feels like a town in Iowa that just happened to get huge.

Not long ago I went up there with a friend on Amtrak’s City of New Orleans, which is the best way to go, and my weekend there is still a blur.

Downtown Chicago along the Chicago River.

Friends picked us up at Union Station, which is a train station in the classic, columned, four-story-ceiling style. Even if you don’t take the train, don’t miss the Great Hall there. It’s one of several places around town that was featured in The Untouchables. Between that movie and The Blues Brothers, you can hardly move around town without having somebody say, “This was in the scene where … .”

We went to the Printer’s Row Book Fair, a half-dozen blocks of book booths down the street and food vendors down both sidewalks. A couple blocks over was the State Street Fair, which was bigger and had music instead of books.

Chicago is deeply into such things as music festivals, food festivals, and outdoor gatherings. It’s like Memphis in May all summer. While we were there, the radio station WXRT put on a massive fireworks display over Lake Michigan, set to music broadcast on the radio. Everybody drank beer in the park and cranked their radios up. It wasn’t a holiday, you understand. People just felt like having a fireworks show.

We ducked into Marshall Field on State Street for a look at the Tiffany Dome. The store is several floors, and at the top of the central atrium Mr. Tiffany placed a masterwork of tiles that you ought to go see. We liked it so much that our hosts took us over to the Chicago Cultural Center, where several other high, vaulted ceilings were covered with tile masterpieces.

We gawked at the Magnificent Mile of Michigan Avenue, home of all the fancy stores and hotels in the world, and we dropped down to the Billygoat Tavern on Lower Wacker Avenue – “lower” because it’s literally below Wacker Avenue. The Billygoat was the constant hangout of Mike Royko and also the inspiration for the old Saturday Night Live skit with the guys yelling, “cheeburger, cheeburger, no Coke, Pepsi.”

We didn’t eat there, because we were saving up for the best Cajun food outside of Louisiana, at a place called Heaven on Seven. It’s called that because it’s on the seventh floor of an office building, and the food is heavenly indeed. I concur with their motto: “Everybody who goes to heaven says the same thing: Try the gumbo.”

All talk of food in Chicago turns, naturally, to pizza. For tradition’s sake, and for a deep-dish pizza that I defy anyone to eat more than two slices of, go to Geno’s East downtown and order “the legend.” Geno’s is the Rendezvous of Chicago pizza: Locals might argue bitterly whether it’s the best in town, but it’s clearly better than anything outside of town. I did have a better (in my opinion) thin-crust pizza, when a friend took me to a place called Vito and Nick’s, in a mostly Polish neighborhood on the South Side. If you eat only two meals in Chicago and want to see the full range of cultural possibilities, make one of them a Vito and Nick’s pizza with a pitcher of Old Style.

One afternoon we played tourist: We took a boat tour of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. It’s a great way to see the city, especially if you can get on the architecture tour, which books up days in advance. Chicago’s been a big-time city for more than a hundred years, and in every age builders have left their mark. The Chicago Mercantile Building employs 30,000 people and has its own ZIP code. Another building is covered with enough glass, they say, to make a pair of sunglasses for everybody in the country.

Out on the lake, we cruised along Navy Pier, a massive wharf lined with shops and booths, a Ferris wheel, and an IMAX theatre. There aren’t many better people-watching spots than Navy Pier on a weekend. You can take a water taxi from there to the Field Museum, art museum, and the world-class Shedd Aquarium, where dolphins put on a show and beluga whales swim in a pool designed to look, from inside the aquarium, like it’s part of Lake Michigan.

You should go to the Board of Trade around 9:15 on a weekday morning and stand in the visitor’s gallery. As the 9:30 a.m. opening bell approaches, men in colored coats mill about and take their positions in various pits – one for each crop that’s being traded – and then at 9:30 they erupt into such a scene of shouting and jumping and arm-waving that piles of people develop and almost come crashing down in the middle of the pits. It’s the insane heart of capitalism, right before your eyes.

You should also go to a baseball game, which in Chicago is synonymous with going to a Cubs game. You could go to a White Sox game, but you might as well go to a Houston Astros game for all the atmosphere you’ll get at the new Comiskey Park. White Sox fans hate the Cubs for the same reason everybody else loves them: Even though they have stunk for years, they always draw well, because Wrigley Field is the best stadium in baseball.

The neighborhood around it, “Wrigleyville,” is chock full of bars, restaurants, and young people from elsewhere.

Listing cool things to do in Chicago could go on and on, but you should go find out for yourself. Take the train up there – it runs overnight each way and fares are much cheaper than flying – and you won’t even need a car once you get there. Walk or ride the public transportation, and you’ll get a real feel for a real great city.