It was lunchtime, I’d come from a TV interview on the outskirts of the city; I was without breakfast and my phone company had temporarily abandoned me, I was hungry and unimpressed with Chicago.
I was figuring Chicago must be like Canberra – sucks unless you know the place. The woman in TMobile restored my communications with the world and recommended an Italian bistro across the road for lunch – she convinced me, against my better judgement, that they made their own food; they did not ship it in pre-packaged.
I joined a long queue of lunchtime office workers, figuring all those suits must surely have high standards; ordered a portobello mushroom and goats cheese grilled panini, sat at the cafeteria-like table and bit down on cold mushrooms.
How do you toast a sandwich and serve it with its centre cold? Or, more to the point, why? Or at least why would you not expect me to return it? Or worse, eat it! @#$%^&*(.
I asked for the manager, I told him nicely but (remembering, I’m hungry and worn out from shouldering a big bag around the city streets) somewhat pointedly. He was tall, wearing a lime green striped shirt with an open collar.
I didn’t hear a word he said, my attention hijacked by the accent.
‘Are you Australian?’ I asked.
He grinned. Yes he was. Is. And so it was that when Ian offered to warm my toasted panini in the pizza oven I agreed he could, rather than telling him he could make me a new one. Please.
He brought it over and stood beside me while I bit into it for the second time.
‘It’s still cold,’ I said. ‘Here, stick your finger in it.’
‘I don’t wanna stick my finger in it,’ he said.
I laughed. He offered me pasta. Crap bloody pasta. I told him I was vegetarian. He brought over the menu.
‘How about this?’ he asked, pointing to the leek pasta.
‘Sure,’ I said – here was my historically worth-recording moment of pleasing.
All I really wanted was my money back so I could go find some real food. But Ian was so nice about it – and I had the feeling he was going to keep offering until he found something I would eat.
And then he decided the other pasta would be nicer and so, even though I knew it wouldn’t be, I said it again: ‘Sure.’
Pleasing, twice in one day. Twice in the same five minutes! About food. Of all things.
My little plate of bland spiral pasta, which to me always looks like kids’ food, arrived with its scattered piece of pepper, three or four small bites of tomato and a little shred of kale.
And I ate it.
Just to please Ian – who had lived in this city for 20 years and wasn’t letting me go without an assurance that I’d do at least one thing to make me fall in love with the place. After all, there must’ve been a reason for him staying 20 years when he only intended to visit.
And so he sent me down to the river to catch an architectural cruise . . .maybe . . . depends how much they want for one.
NEWS FLASH: I really don’t enjoy Chicago.
I know, surprising huh.
It’s not that it’s not New York. Nor even that the people look and feel so . . . overwhelmed . . . by life. Not quite that industrial is everywhere, almost as if beauty was saved for the cold, pretty steel of the inner city. I bet those who enjoy Chicago are not those who do so at street level.
The vibration of the city unnerves me. Funnily, I don’t feel safe here. Except, ironically, on a street I walked some way along for a TV interview – that a man in an office insisted on driving me back through for my return journey, because he feared for my safety.
I wonder if Al Capone and his campadre are still in the shadows.
I just can’t seem to orientate my spirit to this city. I knew as the train pulled into the station on Sunday that I didn’t want to be here. That I can’t wait to leave. That I have no desire to return.
I finally found a train station to take me home from the inner city to Oak Park, where I wandered among gentler streets and shops seeking the sustenance of anything beyond spiral pasta and found the Lake Street Bar – and roasted beets with burrata cheese and grenolata (parsley, lemon and olive oil), house marinated olives and flatbread showered with fresh grapes, rosemary and gorgonzola. All of which I washed down with a New Zealand sauvignon blanc.
The food wasn’t great – but it was greeeaaaaaatttttt, if you get what I mean.
Chicago just got a lot kinder, though not kind, not to the spirit. As the trees outside twist in the wind, I am reminded of the elderly couple with whom I laughed out loud today as a sudden gust of wind blew us sideways on the busy city street. With such ready laughter I bet they’re tourists, not locals.
I sit back and sip on the last of my wine, watching the bar fill up with the evening tide. I ponder paging Batman in the black Corvette and decide against it – I am here promoting pilgrimage, after all; the least I can do is walk the four miles (Australians please note: miles) home with my heavy bag . . . metaphor for my Chicago spirits.