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.

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