Gary Coleman RIP

The second Sigman Holiday Greeting death of the year came to pass on Friday, as Gary Coleman died at the age of 42.

By all accounts, it wasn't a very happy 42 years for Mr. Coleman (though he was pleasant enough when I met him). So, one would like to think that he has found happiness on the other side. Or at least that no one is asking him to say or write "that phrase" anymore.

I'm hesitant to write anymore, lest I stumble further into that snarky detachment that generally greets the passing of child actors. So I'll just wish a safe journey for Mr. Coleman. Thanks for the laughs (and for sufficiently freaking me out on those Very Special Episodes).


I've been to St. Louis, too

The trip to St. Louis should have been the centerpiece of the vacation. We were supposed to see Chuck Berry do his monthly show at Blueberry Hill. In fact, that was the whole reason for putting together the trip in the first place. Once the date for the May show was posted in January and we realized that we could see Chuck and take in a few ballgames, the plans for the Trip of a Lifetime were made.

Then, last month, when it was too late/too expensive to change our plans, we noticed the 5/12 show wasn't on the Blueberry Hill schedule. Hmmm. Interesting. I initially wrote it off to just not having room on the webpage to list the show. Then, after a few hours of trying to convince myself that this was indeed the case and that we had nothing to worry about (after all, the date was still listed on the Chuck Berry website), I admitted defeat on that front and decided to give Blueberry Hill a ring.

I was kind of hoping for "Yessir, May 12. Definitely happening." Instead, I got, "Well, it should be. He plays here every month." It reminded me of the time I told my landlord in college, "Hey, the washing machine's broken," and he responded, "Well, that shouldn't be." Hard to argue with that logic. And, so, it was hard to argue with the fact that, yes, Chuck Berry should be playing in May, because he plays there every month.

Unfortunately, it became harder to argue for the May 12 show happening when I found word online that Chuck had shows scheduled in Brazil on the week of May 12. And then found a website selling tickets for a Chuck show in Brazil on May 12. Soon, the Blueberry Hill site got around to listing the Chuck show...for May 19, the following Wednesday.

Well, that shouldn't be.

Kudos to the Chuck Berry organization for keeping Chuck's tour dates a mystery. Very helpful.

But, hey, at least I'd get to go to St. Louis, a city I'd already been to and wasn't really anxious to revisit, to see the Cardinals play at Busch Stadium, which I'd already been to, to see them play the Astros, one of the worst teams in baseball.

Fittingly, the skies looked ominous when we got to St. Louis, which was also about 20 degrees hotter than Chicago. We checked the weather reports and saw that they were calling for bad storms for Thursday, when we'd planned to see a day game at Busch. So, since the forecast for Wednesday night was slightly more optimistic, we decided to hit the Wednesday night game lest we spend 12 hours on a train to sit in a hotel room and possibly go to a diner.

So, after dinner at the nearby Schlafly Tap Room, site of the legendary--for me--Avett Brothers/Yayhoos/Walter Clevenger and the Dairy Kings show at Twangfest, and also the site of one of my fave celeb photos, with Robbie "Cousin Oliver" Rist. Dinner was really good (pretzel appetizer, followed by one of the better turkey burgers I've eaten), and we burned off (some of) the calories by walking to the stadium. All was going well...until the Toothache From Hell returned. Hard.

Once we got to the stadium, I realized I would be needing some sort of painkiller pretty quickly. So, desperately swishing cold water in my mouth to numb the pain, I scurried back downtown to a Schnucks, where I grabbed several varieties of pills, downed two Excedrins, and then sat for a few minutes in front of a Pinocchio statue massaging my face while hoping that I didn't throw up from the bottle of water I'd downed on top of the big meal I ate.

Luckily, there was no vomiting, not much significant crying, and only a dull pain as I headed into Busch, where I quickly got on line to get autographs from former Cardinals John Costello and Ken Reitz. I had only vague recollections of either, but figured what the hey. I was seeing a mustachioed Ken Reitz on a Fleer baseball card in my mind's eye when I saw his name, and when I got on line and saw that he had a mustache, I silently commended my memory. The Internet confirms my memory of this card, which I definitely had at one point in my life.

Anyway, I got my ticket stub signed and was safely in my seat for the first pitch.

The guy next to us was having a ridiculously loud and seemingly interminable conversation on his cell phone, so we went roaming around the stadium for awhile. We arrived too late to get a picture with Fredbird, so we continued on to the batting cage, where we considered if it was worth the five bucks and potential embarrassment to take a turn at the 65 MPH pitches in the cage. After watching a 10-year-old take a few hacks, we figured we oughta. It didn't go particularly well for me. I made contact three times out of 11 (while being heckled), but none of the three were very inspiring. My fellow traveler fared better, but I don't think Coach will be putting us in anytime soon.

The game was fine, but not terribly exciting. After going down 9-1, the Cards started to claw back, but the crowd didn't seem particularly enthused, save for this large-bellied gentleman:

The Cards put a run on the board in the bottom of the ninth but could do no more. They lost 9-6, and we headed off in search of a blues bar a few blocks away from the stadium. There are two--BB's and Beale on Broadway--across the street from each other, and since there was music going on in BB's, we went there first and stayed for a decent set from the Rockin' Jake Blues Band. Regrettably, though, it was a blues band without any black guys, which is rarely a good thing. So we went across the street to see Roland Johnson and Soul Endeavor, who were doing all covers, but doing them pretty well (and playing outdoors, which was another point in their favor). "Try A Little Tenderness" and "Ball of Confusion" were particularly strong, and the occasionally risque between-song patter was top-notch.


The next morning, we got on the bus and headed through the bowels of St. Louis to arrive at the Goody Goody Diner, which I'd discovered on one of my many pre-vacation Web searches. There's nothing like a good, old-school diner, even if you've gotta take a 30-minute bus ride through parts of St. Louis that don't look particularly great to get there.

The special at the Goody Goody is their "Legs and Eggs"--frog legs and eggs, that is. But, since (a) I don't like eggs and (b) I've seen "The Muppet Movie" enough to know that I will never eat frog legs, thank you very much, Doc Hopper, I went with a buttermilk biscuit, a waffle, and hash browns (which I'd call home fries--and I'd also call the Goody Goody's some of the best I've ever had).

After finishing off breakfast and buying the requisite diner souvenirs (a hat for me, a shirt for my fellow traveler), we headed back to Union Station to hop on the Metro Link to the Delmar Loop, where we would walk by Blueberry Hill and shake our heads in disgust before going to Vintage Vinyl and buying some records.

The prize find (other than the football-shaped record and another Pete Seeger Folkways record with liner notes) came from the $1 bin. My eye is attracted to odd covers when I'm flipping through records, so when I saw an album with an American flag background, the Statue of Liberty, and a family photo with a guy wearing red pants, I was intrigued and thought, "Ooh, evangelist record." Sure enough, it was. Then, I looked at the names of the family members in the pictures. And that's when I knew I'd be adding the record to the pile.

Yep, the youngest member of the Cox clan is young Gaye Cox.

I know I'm not supposed to find that funny at the age of 33, but, guess what? I do.

And the Vintage Vinyl trip took a little of the sting out of Chuck's rescheduling. But not enough that we couldn't step on his star on the way out.

Adios, St. Louis. I'm not sure I'll ever see you again, but we had some good times.

When we got back a little after 11, we were quite hungry. Since we were too hungry to go exploring Chicago (and, well, because I was determined to eat there), we decided to hit the Billy Goat for the proper Billy Goat Experience. Unfortunately, we arrived during what I assume is the nightly Cleaning o' the Kitchen, so we had to wait until that was done before we could order any food.

But we made it. And as I dug into my overstuffed roast beef sandwich (no, I didn't get a cheezborger, or cheeps, or a Coke for that matter) and my fellow traveler was berated by a Billy Goat employee for putting ketchup on his hot dog (which I personally think is gross but is apparently akin to statutory rape in Chicago), it was time to look forward to the next day's adventures in Chicago: a big breakfast, a proper nine innings at Wrigley, and one, maybe two concerts.


Oh, Chicago

I travel like a prisoner right out of a successful jailbreak, desperate to see as much as he can before he is rounded up and thrown back in prison. This shouldn't come as a surprise to you if you're an avid reader (though it would surprise me to know I have an avid reader). But I feel obligated to mention that before recapping my recent trip to the Midwest. You see, I understand that some people take vacations to relax, to sit on a beach and get a tan. But I am not one of those people. I am one of the people who will fly to Chicago, take a six-hour train to St. Louis the next morning, take the train back to Chicago the day after, then spend a day in a frenzy around Chicago before heading to Milwaukee for a day, wrapping it all up with train rides to downtown Chicago and then to the airport to go back home.

So, let's start with Day One.

After my last run to the gate to catch my flight to San Francisco, I was determined to get a head start on my journey to the airport this time around. So, when I arrived a full hour before my plane was due to depart, I was very pleased with myself. Until I looked at the Departures board and saw one Jet Blue flight that was delayed an hour and 40 minutes.

Guess which one that was?

So, by the time my 9:30 flight got in the air a little after noon, I was already operating at a deficit for the trip. I had planned to get to Chess Studios soon after I arrived, but my late departure shuttled any thoughts of that happening. That also meant that Chess was out for the trip, because my only other full day in Chicago was filled up with plans for a hearty breakfast, a Cubs game, and at least one, probably two concerts. So, Chess would have to wait. I called my fellow traveler from the airport (he was at the end of a 19-hour train ride from NYC to Chicago...see, I'm not the craziest traveler you know) and told him to proceed to Chess without me and that I'd meet him at the hotel.

As a special added bonus, the delay meant that the daily searing toothache--the one I'd thought about having a dentist look at when it flared up three days before the trip but decided that could mean not going on the trip--I'd been having for the last few days was now likely to happen while I was in the air. Awesome! So, about an hour into the flight, the right side of my head felt like it had been hit by a baseball bat, and the flight attendants were taking their sweet time taking drink orders, which I needed them to do immediately because I needed water to take some pills and ice to dull the throbbing. I had a window seat, so I was reluctant to make a scene and get up to find a flight attendant to please, please, please give me some water. And I was also trying to keep things in check because I'm well aware that my current physical appearance screams "That guy's gonna blow up the plane...let's tackle him!" Luckily, the drinks came right around the time I was about to take my chances with being tackled and/or given the Citizens Bank Park treatment, and the pain subsided a little bit before touchdown and had completely gone away as I boarded the train to downtown Chicago.

On my walk from the El stop to the hotel, I happily stumbled upon both the Chicago Tribune building (and the Jack Brickhouse statue right by it) and the Billy Goat Tavern, which, it would stand to reason (since the Billy Goat primarily got its rep for being a hangout for journalists), are pretty close to one another. I didn't realize they were so close to our hotel, though, so that was a pleasant surprise. And after having a glass bottle rip through my finger by surprise in California, I was much more in the mood for surprises of the pleasant variety.

There wasn't much time spent in the hotel, save for a few quick glances at maps and the various Google Maps directions I had brought with me for the trip. It seemed like a good night for pizza, so we headed for the Blue Line to Wicker Park, where we had been told that pizza that was better than Denino's existed. That is, of course, an absurd statement, but it seemed to at least be worth investigating.

And that is how we wound up at Piece Brewery and Pizzeria, where we (OK, mostly me) ate a lot of pizza. I ordered two small pizzas for myself, because I couldn't decide between the red (traditional) and the plain (New Haven style, with red sauce, garlic, and parmesan). The waiter attempted to dissuade me, but I persevered.

And it was indeed quite good. Top 10 definitely. Top 5 maybe. Better than Denino's? No.

There was a lot left over (between the three pies--my fellow traveler ordered a pepperoni red--probably one full small pie), but I figured I'd just give the rest to a homeless person on the street. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), there was nary a homeless person to be found over the next two hours. So, much to my dismay, it went in a trash can outside of Wrigley Field. C'mon, Chicago, get more homeless people, would ya? Or at least spread 'em out more.

Ah, yes, Wrigley Field. We didn't have any real plans after pizza. I had thoughts about going to an AHL playoff game to see Chris Chelios's Chicago Wolves take on the Texas Stars in a Game 7, but that was a long train ride away and didn't seem worth it after the morning of travel and travel delays. So, since Wrigley looked pretty close to Wicker Park on the CTA map, we figured we'd just amble around and eventually find ourselves at Wrigley.

And that was when I learned that the CTA map isn't very good. It skips a lot of blocks. Most of them, in fact. So, we got back on the Blue Line, took it to Addison, and quickly realized that, despite being on the same block as Wrigley, we were still miles away. The CTA map fails again. But we caught a bus soon after we realized the futility of our journey and ended up outside of Wrigley in the bottom of the sixth.

There was a scalper just looking to get any money for his tickets. So we gave him $20 for two bleacher seats, I dejectedly deposited the pizza in the trash, and we headed into Wrigley just as the seventh-inning stretch began. Pretty good timing. And not a bad little stadium either. You should go.

We didn't do too much exploring, since we knew we'd back for a day game on Friday, but the three innings served as a good appetizer to Friday's main course. And, as it turned out, for me, the best part of the night was still to come.

After Wrigley (and another Cubs loss), I suggested we head to a bowling alley near Wrigleyville that was reported to have pinmonkeys operating the lanes (that is, actual human beings, not automatic pinsetters, set the pins after each ball). When I stepped into Southport Lanes and Billiards, I was not prepared for the glory I was about to experience.

Oh happy day.

It was definitely the slowest-paced two games of bowling I've ever experienced. There were two pinmonkeys for the four lanes, with each in charge of two lanes. So you had to wait until the person next to you finished before you could go. But the downtime enabled us to watch the Blackhawks-Canucks game and for me to experience watching a hockey game in a bar where the team you are rooting for is winning an important game. That was a pretty entertaining experience. I look forward to doing it again sometime before I die.

But the star of the night was still the bowling. It was the best-sounding bowling alley ever (mainly due to all the wood, and the acoustics that creates in such a small space), and there's something pure and right about bowling without any automation at all. I filmed myself once, but it was a bad frame. So enjoy this rough first ball and subsequent ace spare pick-up from my fellow traveler instead.

After a pair of 145s (not bad, all things considered), I rolled a $20 bill inside one of the finger holes for the pinmonkey and sent it down the gutter. We headed out the door and to the Southport station on the Brown Line, bound for the hotel after a pretty successful start to the trip.

Really good pizza, a little bit of Wrigley, a Blackhawks win, and a superior bowling experience all made for a good first day, but there was little time to dwell on it, because we had a 9:25 AM Amtrak to St. Louis to catch on Wednesday.


My Vacation, By the Numbers

Number of days: 6
Number of flights: 2
Number of Amtrak rides: 4
Number of flight delays: 2
Number of Amtrak delays: 0
Number of baseball games seen: 3 1/3
Number of home-team victories: 0
Number of times visiting team took lead in the top of the first: 2
Number of trips to the Billy Goat Tavern: 2
Number of slices of pizza eaten: approximately 10
Number of bakeries visited: 2
Number of record stores visited: 3
Number of records bought: 10
Number of bands seen: 6
Number of games bowled: 2
Number of "Blues Brothers" sites photographed: 1
Number of "Uncle Buck" sites photographed: 0 (I thought it was 1, but the website gave me the wrong address)
Number of bingo casinos visited: 1
Number of hotels I stayed at where there was a murder across the street the night before I arrived: 1

More numbers, more photos, and more stories to come over the next week or so.


What I Liked About April

*The Livermore Donut Wheel, Livermore, CA
*Avett Brothers/Truth & Salvage Co., Fox Theatre, Oakland, CA
*The pancake soufflé, Bette's Oceanview Diner, Berkeley, CA
*Drive By Truckers/Lucero/Langhorne Slim, Electric Factory, Philadelphia, PA

*Dave Bielanko and Christine Smith, Glen Ridge Train Station, Glen Ridge, NJ
*My first trip to Star Tavern, Orange, NJ
*Record Store Day
*Meeting Billy Smith

*Hudson Falcons, Sinclair's Pub, West Babylon, NY
*Hanging with the Finches, Oakland, CA
*My second 200 game of the year (208), Bayonne, NJ
*The willingness of people with cars to drive me places