Flexing Chicago


Under Union Station, emerging with Amtrak and Metra passengers


With Amtrak’s recent service expansion in Illinois, I decided to try the previously unimaginable: a day trip to Chicago on $20.

My train was to depart from Bloomington/Normal at 7:30am Tuesday, dropping me off in the Loop at 10am. Thirty minutes late, I’m breathing the exhaust and taking in the squealing brakes that Chicago offers. First stop, Goodwin’s for lunch. It’s a subterranean sandwich place on Franklin St. in the northwest end of the Loop, unassuming and invisible to anyone but business regulars from the nearby financial district.

Time to walk. I usually buy a day pass for CTA bus and train rides, but never got around to it this day. I end up on the other side of the Loop, in the really lovely, but touristy, Millennium Park. I know that professional photographers love to bemoan and loathe the camera-happy amateurs that crowd around Anish Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate” for the exact same shot, but why, exactly, is that a problem? Landmarks are often beautiful pieces of art, with only so many ways to be shot with a camera. The Bean, at least, has the bonus of a reflective surface.

I love how the park changes with the seasons; winter finds the place desolate, a spot for contemplation. But with warming temperatures, the populous converge to sun bathe, eat, read, kiss and frolic. It is without a doubt the most comfortable people-watching spot in the entire city.

I had intentions of seeing Peter Bjorn and John at the Apple Store on Michigan Ave., so I head northward. A line has formed, stretching around the building; I receive a bracelet and take my place behind a 30-something woman reading the Tribune. I’m 40 minutes early, sitting silently on the sidewalk with shitty hipsters wearing tapered dark jeans, their eye-lined peepers hidden by long bangs. Several times a driver or cabbie yells “what’s free?” in a horribly, stereotypically-thick Chicago accent. These hipsters yell back “your mom” or some other nonsense. Much honking ensues, no one receives a satisfying answer.

Finally we are ushered into the store, climbing a flight of stairs to the performance area. A limited number of seats quickly fill with those in front of me. The several hundred others and I are forced to stand in the back or crunch into the sides. Fine, I think, this is still closer than most concerts. But then an Apple employee touches my arm and asks me if I’d like to sit in the front. Ooooookay, yes please.

The trio takes the stage, playing a mostly acoustic set for about 30-40 minutes. It’s not perfect but the singing is fantastic. “Young Folks” and “Objects Of My Affection” are easily their most popular songs, bringing a slight reaction out of an otherwise docile crowd. The entire event is relaxed, calm and most importantly, free.

The show ends and leaves me with an awkward amount of time until my train back home. Since I’m already close to the lake, I end up on the sand at Lake Michigan. Girls, topless and stretched on their stomaches, dot the beach and read their paperback books. I slip off my shoes and venture toward the water. The sand is warm, but the water is shockingly cold. I stand halfway in it for a good ten minutes, feet assailed by the waves and I listen. Aside from the news helicopters hovering overhead, the dull roar of traffic is eclipsed by the gentle surf sounds at my feet.

I walk along the beach, stopping to look at the shells embedded in the wet sand. Broken glass is avoided, along with the bird poop. I make it to a concrete wall and start trying to clean the sand off me. It’s then that a muscular man drops around 10 bags in a circle around himself, positions a tiny mirror below himself, and starts to flex his shirtless body. This continues for a good 10 minutes, accompanied by quite a few stares from Chicago citizens that normally never stare.

Soon he’s positioned next to two water-filled soda bottles, picking up one and pouring it slowly over his body. He repeats (and rinses?) with the second one and just stands there, dripping. He flexes again, and again, and again. Now it’s time to dry off and put the shirt back on. And to pull out a comb.

Already sporting a reverse mohawk, this seems like a silly thing to do. But he carefully lifts the mirror up and proceeds to do hair maintenance for the next 10 minutes. That’s when I finally decide that a picture is necessary.

After descending below the street into the pedway and hearing a shifty guy in the shadows angrily say “why don’t you just come here?” to me, I decide that it’s time to head back toward Union Station. I think about looking for some clothes, but don’t stop.

I do, however, stop for food. Although tempted by a Middle Eastern place, I end up at Go Roma. The goat cheese and spinach pizza is quick and tasty, sending me on my way earlier than I want. I still have an hour and a half before my train departs. I stop in Chicago’s cathedral, where Mass is being held, then walk toward the Loop.

It’s then that I realize that I should have listened to parental yore and used the bathroom before I left. This is no trivial matter in a big city; bathrooms are for customers only, a privilege for the paying. Time is running out; if I don’t start walking fast, I’m going to have another awkward run down the train platform as the train lurches to move.

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