I was walking to the metro station one morning this week, when I was gifted with a hilarious sideline show.
A man in a SUV was trying to make a U-turn on a narrow street. I’m pretty sure it is illegal, and so was the driver behind him in her Nissan, and so was the woman who happened to walk by with her little dog.
“You can’t do that,” the woman said loudly to the man, to which he started protesting, “Oh yeah? Where’s the sign? There’s no sign that says I can’t!”
Now the driver behind him was shaking her head, annoyed but patiently waiting, while the woman with the dog was flabbergasted. “Where are you from?” she demanded. “You’re a New Yorker, aren’t you? I know a New Yorker when I see one!”
“So what? Where are you from?” The man responded, somehow making the word “you” sound like an expletive with the way he gestured and twisted his lips.
“Born and raised Chicago, baby,” the woman said, bristling. Meanwhile, a few feet away, her little dog sniffed at a pile of turd on the grass, moistened and chilled by last night’s storm.
I waited until I was a safe distance away to burst out laughing. That scene totally made my day.
Now, as a city nomad, I take no sides. I love Los Angeles, I love New York, and I am loving Chicago. What I love about all these cities is the flash of city pride that most city-dwellers (be it Angelenos, New Yorkers or Chicagoans) wear like badges on their chest. I’ve heard Chicagoans grouse about the rickety transit system, the head-slamming parking fees, the bone-shattering weather…but when you start pricking them, their Chicago pride stirs up bold and strong. I love this level of pride and passion that you just don’t find in the suburbs.
I’ve been roaming Chicago for two weeks now. That means I have ten weeks left in the city and I’m getting a little bit panicky already, counting all the things I want—need—to do before I leave. Chicago is an amazing place to be in the summer. There are so many free activities, so many concerts, so many festivals to attend. You can live decades in the city without having visited all the food, music and ethnic festivals, or picnicked at all the live outdoor concerts, or learned all the free dance lessons that the city has to offer. I seriously LOVE Chicago!!!
The Chicago Tribune tried to help tick some items off my list. On my second day of work, the Chicago Tribune organized an Orientation Day of sorts for us summer interns. Here we are, the 2013 team of ChiTri interns!
Not all of us are reporters. In fact, only three of us are editorial; the rest of the gang worked in photography, tech (apps), marketing and graphic design.
Our guide and organizer was Kevin Pang, our James Beard Award-winning food writer and “Cheap Eater.” We couldn’t have asked for a better tour guide. He was meticulous and thoughtful in his planning, and he really packed in a wonderful, non-touristy day of events for us. I’m lucky enough to have him as my resource. When I asked him for the best South Indian place on Devon Avenue, he personally came over to my desk to hand me a comprehensive newspaper spread he did on Devon’s Little India.
We kicked off the morning by attending two editorial meetings: a brainstorm meeting for ChiTri’s features team, and a front-page discussion meeting between ChiTri’s section editors. Then we trotted down the stairs underneath the Magnificent Mile to the legendary Billy Goat Tavern:
Chicago used to house more than 10,000 neighborhood taverns. These ubiquitous watering holes were where blue-collar immigrant workers rubbed elbows with fellow men after work. Taverns were where they griped about working conditions and their wives, exchanged contact information for cousins, lawyers, barbers, and whatever services one needed. Taverns really knit the community together over a frothy drinks and perhaps some loud drunken tussles. Unfortunately, Chicago’s streets dot with more Dunkin’ Donuts than taverns now.
When I was dining with my editors on my first day, they told me that once upon a decade, journalists would be stirring liquor mid-day. “Times have changed,” my editor told me mournfully. No longer do men in dapper suits order three rounds of Margaritas and slurp up platters of raw oyster at noon.
But during those Mad Men days, many Chicago Tribune reporters could be seen lunching and seeking stories at Billy Goat Tavern. It was only appropriate that we have lunch at the same spot where Chicago newspaper legends such as Mike Royko (Pulitzer-winning columnist and author of “Boss”) and Roger Ebert (recently passed beloved movie critic) sat sharing social commentaries and lampooning politicians.
The original “Billy Goat”—a Greek immigrant called Billy Goat Sinias—died in 1970, but his nephew continues on the Billy Goat tradition of cheezborgers, Coke, and chips. Perhaps you recall the SNL skit that immortalized the ordering process: “Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger! No fries, cheeps! No Pepsi, Coke!” No? Watch it down here:
When you walk into Billy Goat, you pretty much hear the same brash bellows: “Cheezborger, cheezborger! Doublecheezborger is the best! You want doublecheezborger? Want chips? Coke or Diet? Next! Who’s next! Cheezborger, cheezborger, cheezborger! Doublecheezborger is the best!”
And you hear paper rustling, ice crackling, spatulas clanking, burgers sizzling. You smell meat, you smell grease, you smell..history and tradition. You don’t need beer to warm your belly up in this tavern. As cheesy (cheezborgey?) as this sounds, sitting in the tavern itself is heart, belly and soul-warming enough.
I never had this chance while working at the L.A. Times, but we actually got to meet the executive editors of Chicago Tribune! ChiTri’s head
The picture above is Gerry Kern with “Billy Goat.” I don’t know what it is about Chicagoans. They all are born with faces that you instantly want to like.
So. Here’s the famous Doublecheezborger that the Billy Goat staff will insist you get (“Single cheezborger? NO! Doublecheezborger is the best!”):
It’s really just a simple, average cheeseburger. Two beef patties. American cheese. Stuffed between a large crusty, hearty Kaiser roll. You can load in as many self-serve toppings as you want: pickles (yum!), ketchup, raw minced onions that you churn by turning a mincer, thick onion rings, mustard. No plates, just paper. It’s not even close to being the best cheeseburger I’ve ever had, but the Billy Goat Tavern should still be pinned high up on your “must-do” list for Chicago.
We had the honor of Rick Kogan joining us for lunch as well. If you’re a long-time Chicagoan, you simply must know who Rick Kogan is. He’s a legend in ChiTri, not just for his journalistic fame, but for his quintessential Chicago personality as well. This guy has his loafers sunk deep into Chicago soil. He was born a journalist, and not just because his father, Herman Kogan, is another legendary Chicago journalist. I remember the first time I met him and shook his hand, I didn’t realize who he was—and yet he already left a stunned impression in me. I heard his booming, charismatic voice, and instantly knew this man is somebody I want to have a beer with—with a respectful sense of awe, of course.
After our lunch, we climbed the stairs back up into the sun again (It’s midnight-dim at all times at Billy Goat Tavern). We met up with Chicago Elevated’s Margaret Hicks:
Oh man. This lady is HI-LAR-RIOUS. When she revealed that she used to study improv comedy (alumna of iO and Second City), none of us were surprised. The way she squiggles her eyebrows, tangos her mouth, and snaps her fingers would build a portfolio of amazing expressions for Japanese anime artists. I could watch her talk all day.
Margaret Hicks leads several personal tours in Chicago. She’s born-and-raised Chicago (though she did a stint in NYC for a while), a self-confessed half-Trixie, and a passionate explorer of Chicago’s nook and crannies. You want to know which Chicago’s back alley is the dinkiest, she’s your gal.
For us ChiTri interns, she blended together several tours. She led us by the Chicago River, where the waters are green all-year-round and Leprechaun-green on St. Patrick’s Day.
Margaret snapped her fingers as she regaled us with tales of Chicago’s architecture, risen from the dust after the infamous Great Chicago Fire. She gave us the quick-and-dirty history of the Chicago River: how the river’s flow got reversed, who literally got the shit end of the flow, how Chicago has the largest number of moveable bridges in the world.
At the Chicago Cultural Center, she taught us how the city’s grid system works: For east-west streets, Madison Street starts at zero. For north-south, the zero is at State Street. 800 units = one mile. The lake is always east. It’s a nifty tip to know when you get lost among street numbers.
Another cool thing to know are the hidden “Y”s in the city:
Didn’t know Chicago is a scavenger hunt of Y diagrams? Neither do many Chicagoans, but that’s one of the fun facts you learn from Margaret. And of course she demonstrated the “Y” for us in her most awesome animated way:
The “Y” is meant to symbolize the splitting branches of the Chicago River. It’s everywhere: municipal buildings, schools, bridges, piers.
After traversing the streets for a while, Margaret took us down under. Here’s another fun fact: Below Chicago’s downtown are underground passageways for savvy city-walkers who want to roam the Loop without weathering blizzards and storms and humidity.
It’s called the Chicago Pedway, a network of tunnels and underground walkways that passes food courts, Macy’s, benches… even a swimming pool.
If you work downtown and ride the metro, this is something you want to know in preparation for Chicago’s seasonal tantrums. Which WILL happen winter, spring, summer and fall.
The tour ended at Millennium Park, Chicago’s ultimate tourist destination and public meeting space. You know those touristy spots that you visit and get freaking mad and disappointed because it’s not all it’s cracked up to be? Millennium Park is not one of those crappy spots. It is all it’s cracked up to be.
First of all, the “Bean.” Yeah, yeah, it’s really called the Cloud Gate, but nobody here really calls it that. To everyone, it’s affectionately known as the “Bean” for its cute jellybean shape. When you walk up next to it though, it’s really not that cute anymore. It is a 33 by 66 by 42 feet beast, a 168-plate steel monster, a 110-ton Hercules. You stare into its face and see a warped skyline of Chicago’s glorious skyscrapers. It’s stunning.
There are so many things to do at the Millennium Park that I would spend all day typing things that you can easily Google up. So I’ll skip the words and numbers, and jump right into the pictures. Here’s a bad shot of the famous Jay Prizker Pavilion:
I’m planning a picnic dinner there soon once the outdoor concerts begin. And then there’s the Crown Fountain:
Apparently the faces change. We didn’t get to see it.
I loved this penny-sprinkled section the most for its ideal tranquility and communion space:
After that we rested for a while at Panera, and then headed for the next activity: an improv comedy class at iO Comedy Theater. iO, home of the long-form improv comedy, spawned some of the greatest comedic stars in Hollywood: Mike Myers, Tina Fey, Chris Farley, Amy Poehler—but don’t you forget that Chicago was where they were bred.
The building of iO is located (until it moves later) next to the iconic Wrigley Field, “Home of the Cubs.” Apparently going to a Cubs game is another “must-do” thing in Chicago. I’ve been squished into armpits and elbows on the “L” (Chicago’s metro) during Cub game nights. For such a respected establishment, iO’s building is pretty inconspicuous and old. It’s neither dazzling nor glamorous—but hey, that’s exactly what improv isn’t, either.
To be honest, I was a little nervous going into this. Improv? I don’t know man…a lot of crazy, humiliating things spew out of my mouth already without the help of anything! I was afraid unbridled freedom to speak whatever is on my mind would create a monster. But it turned out to be so much fun.
It was the perfect ice-breaker for us interns who met for the first time that day. I mean, after talking about penis balloons on stage, I think anybody would loosen up any sort of inhibitions. Our instructor, an iO alumnus and performer, was perfectly easy-going, funny and warm.
This guy taught us to say “yes, and!” to everything. No statement or remark is stupid or ridiculous enough to reject. Just say yes, and then play off it. If there’s any rule in improv, it’s to have an open mind and flow along with whatever’s thrown at you with humor and grace. And yes, as several girls in our group commented already, our instructor is pretty nice to look at.
After an afternoon of snappy comments, uncontrolled laughter and lascivious jokes, we headed for a much-needed evening snack: the Chicago-style hot dog.
Ooh. Controversial territory here. Apparently, you never. Ever. EVER squirt ketchup on a Chicago dog. Mustard? Yes. Pickles? Go crazy. But never ketchup. I’m so used to piling a mountain of ketchup over my hot dogs that I couldn’t really imagine a ketchup-less hot dog. Well, we went to Wrigleyville Dogs to test it out.
As it turns out, you really don’t need a drop of ketchup on a Chicago dog because it’s flavorful enough what with all the sweetness and pungency of tomatoes, onions, pickles and pepper. So what is a true Chicago dog?
It’s really just an ordinary beef Frankfurter on a poppy seed bun, trampled under a load of toppings. There’s yellow mustard, minced onions, relish with mint, whole sport peppers, a Kosher dill pickle spear, sliced tomatoes, maybe a sprinkled of celery salt.
It’s obese. And delicious. But it won’t blow your mind. This is a $2 street grub, after all. But after a long day of shouting at the Cubs who just never seems to win? Hits the freaking spot.
And there you have it! A brief of list of things to do in Chicago, whether you’re a native or a tourist or a new transplant. For a long-form of this list and more ideas, check out my Chicago Tribune article from this weekend. Five more ideas to come next weekend. It’s supposed to be a teaser. Just play along.