The drive to Chi-town was carefree, but monotonous. I took Route 80 across both Ohio and Indiana. In both states Rte. 80 is the turnpike, and there's not a whole lot to look at. The OH stretch at least has regular Starbucks joints- so you can get all hyped up on caffeine and watch the cornfields passing by. I played with the radio until it sickened me, and then resorted to the CDs I had brought along. Until I actually hit Chicago, the only "city" I caught a glimpse of was Gary, Indiana. That place looks like a rotten shithole (my apologies to its residents). Other than that it was mostly sky and crumbling farms. At least I moved through it quickly. I didn't hit much traffic until I could see the Chicago skyline, and then I sat for 45 minutes in the throes of rush hour. It was an overcast day, and the pallor of the clouds gave the city an especially industrial look.
My friend L. lives on a pleasantly tree-lined street in the neighborhood of Andersonville. I was surprised to find street parking almost immediately outside his apartment. The place is spacious, with hardwood floors and lots of windows. The rent is quite affordable, considering its proximity to a few vital business districts and the safety of its streets. I got a good impression of the North End of Chicago right away. From what I've seen, it's city living on a very human scale. many of the neighborhoods have retained an authenticity of character. Although it is clear that city planners are pushing for rapid gentrification or the inner city, they seem to be doin a half-assed job of it. Last night L's co-worker gave us the lowdown on Mayor Daley's corrupt approach to governance. With it's old-school Democrat approach to politics, it has a lot in common with Pittsburgh.
After getting settled in last night, L. and I went for grub. We landed at a small bar/eatery in the Bucktown section. "Handlebars" has that hipster-cum-anarchic-bike-culture vibe that would make the clientele of the Quiet Storm (back in the Burgh) quite happy. I was a bit dismayed to open the menu and realize L. had brought me to a vegetarian restaurant. I sat baffled and tried to figure out what I might order. I ended up with black bean tostadas and smoked gouda mac-and-cheese. And you know what? It really wasn't half bad. The rather feeble-looking patrons surrounding us looked happy and natural in their element. If you aren't much of a carnivore, then I can recommend the place without reservation. I do have one disclaimer- You have to dig a bit through the drink menu to find a "real" beer as the place caters to the wheat beer crowd. After we were done there, we went to L.'s workplace and told stories at the bar as the restaurant shut down for the night.
Today L. had to tqake care of some business downtown, so I walked around for a bit among the tall buildings. I was shocked at the relative absence of hustle-and-bustle. And I was saddened to see a Hard Rock Cafe and Disney-fied Rainforest Restaurant in the center of the city. i guess that sort of thing is inevitable now in the big cities- especially in the wake of the castration of Times Square, NYC. If they are going to offer a de-fanged hyper-commercialized version of nightlife for the whole family, then they might as well come up with something particular to the history of Chicago. I don't understand the people who want to travel to a new place merely to experience a homogenized cartoon of somewher altogether different. Why can't they keep crap like that out in the suburbs, and at least make a suitable mockery of whatever authenticity the specific city truly offers? Wait a second... was the first Hard Rock in Chcago? If so, I take it all back.
Before departing for this trip, I had made a list of museums that I was interested in checking out. So we set off for the Museum of Science and Industry. I had read that they had a display of cross-section cuts of actual human beings (predating the recent Body Works traveling sideshow). That sounded compelling. We should have known better as soon as we pulled into the attached parking garage, and were asked to pay $12 just to keep our car there. They rope people in by enticing kids to badger their parents to see the OMNIMAX movie on dinosaurs (or whatever), and each and every disgruntled father has to shell out this exorbitant parking fee before he even gets to pay the $27 adult admission. When we got inside we saw the huge banners for the CSI (the TV show) spectacle, and the mass of sheeple, and we decided to just at the $12 and get the hell out of there. I swear that every science center in every American city offers the exact same slick-modern-day-tourist-trap diversion. We drove to the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum instead.
The NVVAM offers three floors of artwork by veterans. They have both permanent collections and temporary exhibits. I have always been drawn to "outsider art", and considering my long-held fascination with the Vietnam War, this was a natural destination. Today they had a "Works on Paper" show, which contained a variety of autobiographical visual pieces by artists across a range of skill levels. The curators give the creators a chance to write something to accompany each piece, and many of them included anecdotes about the terms they served incountry. As one might expect, the totality of the work contains a lot of emotional confusion, violence, pain and loss. But unlike what I'm used to seeing in canonical modern art exhibits, there is an extraordinarily personal depth of feeling that transcends technique.
I've always believed that the the American involvement in Vietnam taught many people lessons about the moral ambiguities and entrenched complexity of war. For awhile it was almost a cliche that the Vietnam War forever changed our nation's psyche. The recent conflict in the Middle East has made me question whether or not anybody still remembers the 1960's and 70's. I was pleased to see that the curators of NVVAM see very strong parallels between what is happening now in Iraq and what happened in Vietnam. They have included several sections in the museum dedicated to the work of Iraqi War veterans. I think it would be great for our current "leaders" to take a tour of the NVAAM. Perhaps our president and VP could gain a little insight into an essential part of our history- a place and time that they avoided because they had more "pressing concerns".
*Note: I apologize for the lack of links in these posts. I'm writing on a MAC laptop, and Blogger.com has a much more limited interface on this system, and thus a lot of the tools I rely on are unavailable.